Sunday, February 20, 2011

Joy and Connections

The Apostle Paul lived the last part of his life under circumstances such as most of us will never experience.  His prison cell was dark, definitely cold in the winter and, in summer, hotter than a dog day summer afternoon in Savannah.  Disease and rats were close companions.  Food was scarce, and there were no bathrooms.  Survival was the everyday issue.  Given the same conditions, the modern-day prisoner would file a lawsuit for violation of his rights.
However, it isn't Paul's conditions that make us marvel, it is his state of mind UNDER the conditions.  How could Paul maintain such a joyful attitude in the midst of such horrid living arrangements?  Can we talk?  Nobody wants to live like Paul had to live.  We all prefer to be pampered.  Remember what the preacher said when you married?  Do you take her for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, for better, for worse...?  You said, I do; but what you were thinking was, I’ll take richer, health and better!
The question before the house this morning is how can we have genuine and lasting joy; not just when things are going well – but in all circumstances?  Doesn't that take a special kind of power?
Here’s a “nutshell version” of what Paul said to the church at Philippi:
Whoa, Paul; unpack that!  Let's hear that in bite-sized chunks.  Let’s let the Apostle show us the marks of genuine Christian lifestyle which produce real joy.
1. Christian Joy Means Love for God's People
8For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.  Philippians 1:8 (NRSV)
Paul's close relationship with Jesus gave birth to a close relationship with the ones Jesus loves.  In fact, Paul said that the feelings he had for the folks at Philippi were directly from Jesus.  The English word "compassion" is translated from a word that is the route-source of our word "spleen".  Your spleen is located (if you have one) in the viscera…mid-section of your body, the place that can get upset or do flips when you’re overly excited.  Paul was saying that the way he loved that church was like a wild ride on the roller coaster!
Christian joy is connected to genuine love.  William Barclay calls it "the love that likes too!"  You can tell when there's a sense of belonging to each other in a group.  There’s a saying about God’s family:  Everybody that belongs to Jesus belongs to everybody that belongs to Jesus. [1]  The bottom line is that kind of love is only available in the family of Christ.
But something else sweetened the equation – Paul and the church at Philippi were also involved together in the work of spreading the gospel.  There's something special about working with people you love.
In another church where I served as Pastor, for few years we put together a Tour of Bethlehem.  We set up a village on the church's front lawn and the people dressed in costume; we had a manger with a live baby, and a cross-maker, hammering on his latest consignment.
On the final day of preparation help was scarce; only Leroy Brown showed up.  Leroy was 86.  We worked together in the cold, drizzling rain, climbing stairs, hammering together a manger, stapling palm fronds to the "houses".  At an age when most men are rocking, Leroy was still working on getting the good news out.  What a gift to the body of Christ.  What a privilege for me to work with him!
In many ways the church of Jesus is so imperfect – we can be stale and unappetizing at times.  However, when there is genuine love for Jesus, there will be genuine love between brothers; because everyone that truly loves Jesus loves everyone that truly loves Jesus.  Partiality, love for the people of God will produce genuine joy!
2. Christian Joy Means Constant Praying for God's people to grow in love
9And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight  10to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless,  11having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ  Philippians 1:9-11a

Growth in love does not mean, Oh, I love you more today than yesterday. Rather it is a maturing process in the life of a believer that progresses toward fruit-bearing.  In an article written for Christianity Today titled A Tale of Two Kittens,  Margaret Clarkson draws a spiritual lesson from two cats she had as pets.  The first, Mehitable, was a plain calico cat born in a shed down by the river behind the home place.  This cat never forgot her early upbringing.  She hunted, fished, and survived on her own.  When thirsty, she drank from the river.
The other, younger cat, Figaro, was different.  He too loved life by the river.  But he didn't hunt except for occasional sport.  And he refused to drink from the river.  If his owner forgot to fill his water bowl, especially in the summer, he'd soon become listless.  The author commented, To live at the edge of a great flowing river and to suffer thirst – how sad! [2]
Paul's joy (and ours) is demonstrated in his prayer that the people of God remember how great the river of living water is, and to drink deeply.
Just as you nurture a young plant or tree through the tender years, until it is able to bear fruit, so Paul prayed for the young Philippian church to mature in the things of God so they would bear spiritual fruit.
There are two very important considerations Paul mentions -- "knowledge" and "depth of insight".  Knowledge is simply knowing stuff;  depth, or full insight is knowing what to do about knowing.  That’s the issue about which Paul prayed; he wanted this group of believers to take their newly found faith in Christ and educate it with Biblical truth…gain knowledge of Christ.  The ultimate goal is to be the blameless body of Christ in word and deed.  He wanted them to know Christ, and he wanted them to know what to do with what they knew about Christ.
Paul says to discern what is best.  This means not so much picking-out bad stuff to avoid, but seeking out that which is good and allowing it to be the hub of your life's wheel.  This is what intelligently communicates the gospel to our society.  Our society craves people with moral values.  Moral wisdom (the ability to discern good and bad in the actions of men, coupled with the knowledge of what to do with that knowledge) doesn't happen overnight.  But it CAN happen!
Question:  How can I do this?  How can I apply the bible truth I've learned?
The answer lies in "being" more than doing.  The one thing for which this world waits and watches is believers who will practice what is preached.  There comes a time in every school when the theoretical is put away, and the practical is lived-out.  Watch the logic:
OUR PREACHING:  Christ is crucified, and we're following Him!
OUR PRACTICE (SHOULD BE): Today I picked-up my cross, and died for the world, that they might be reconciled to God.
Somewhere along the line, 21st century believers have got to start acting like first century believers.  If we will practice the preaching it will manifest itself in an epidemic of kindness – toward pagans!  Now, I know that is a radical thought, but that's what Jesus did!  Jesus loved people, and demonstrated that love.
At some point in every conversation recorded in Scripture between Jesus and a lost person, He found some point of connection to apply his ministry.
The woman at the well had her personal life in a shambles, she was isolated.  Jesus showed her how living water could heal her inner hurt.
Nicodemus knew that a lifetime of his keeping all the rules and knowing the right people hadn't drawn him one jot or tittle closer to God.  Jesus brought to him the "new birth," a chance to start clean with God.
In our day, we have people in shambles in and out of the church.  They are both pagans and Christians who live like pagans.  Our prayer ought to be for us to take this knowledge and experience of how the love of Jesus has saved us and given us purpose in life, and put it to practical use…to bring Christ to Bethany’s neighborhood!
But, for some reason, more often than not, we lack the initiative.  I love the story of the agricultural products salesman.  Traveling through New England, he happened on a farmhouse where the farmer was just sitting on the porch, rocking.  Stopping the car, he began his pitch as he made his way through the gate, Sir, you need to purchase this book from me.  It will tell you how to increase your knowledge of modern farming techniques by more than 500%.  Without missing a stroke of the rocking chair, the Yankee farmer replied, Son, I really don't need that book -- I'm already doing 500% less than I know about farming.
Most believers know how to bring someone to Christ; after all, we were all pagans once!  Believers also know it's the right thing to lead others to Him.  The problem is that 99% of us never put what knowledge we have to work in bringing others to Christ.  And that is the joy problem with connections; Jesus' ministry (and that which He passed on to us) was one of reconciliation – making the connection between man and God.  For each of us that ought to be like Jesus, the JOY set before [us]..."[3]  And it can be ours; we simply need to be a witness to Christ…that’s like one beggar telling another beggar where the bread is kept.
3. Christian Joy Means a Lifestyle of Praise
for the glory and praise of God.  Philippians 1:11b

When the final chapter closes on earth, what opens in heaven will be praise and glory to God…forever.  One of the purposes for which we were created is to praise God.  Once I had the experience of driving along in my automobile, listening to the radio.  There was a wonderful song of praise playing, and, without any warning, the lump came up in my throat, accompanied by that strange, sinking feeling of being awed in the presence of God.  The tears started flowing.  I wasn't unhappy -- just absolutely filled with joy and praise for God.  I was so happy in Jesus I almost ran into a tree!
My near-accident aside, the Bible tells us that is what heaven will be like; Praising God will be an unending joy!
Paul had a peculiar partiality for believers.  He prayed that they might grow in love and learn to praise God.  Just how that growth was to happen was largely left in the conscience of each person.  That is the reality about joy – it comes in all sizes, shapes and colors.  Joy is universally adaptable to whom and what Christ wants you to be.
What are you good at; can you use it to praise God?  In his younger days as a composer, Franz Joseph Haydn was criticized for the light- hearted nature of his church music.  It was a somber time in most churches of the 1750's.  Haydn explained,
I cannot help it.  I give forth what is in me.  When I think of the Divine Being, my heart is so full of joy that the notes fly off as from a spindle.  And as I have a cheerful heart, He will pardon me if I serve Him cheerfully.
When Haydn came to the end of his days, he was weakened and confined to a wheelchair.  Shortly before he died he attended the Vienna Music Hall, where they were to perform his oratorio, The Creation.  When the orchestra reached the passage, Let there be light, the chorus and instruments burst forth in such power that the crowd couldn't restrain its enthusiasm.  The huge assembly rose as one in spontaneous applause.  Haydn struggled to his feet and motioned for silence.  He said, Not me, pointing his hand towards Heaven, and fell back in his wheelchair, exhausted.  With his life, his gifts, and all he was – in the way God gave him, Franz Joseph Haydn gave praise to Almighty God.  
And what joy it gave him! [4]
And there we would find our harvest of righteousness as well,
when we have a partiality for God’s people…real love in our lives for our brothers and sisters in Christ, and…
when we find ourselves praying constantly for God’s joy to be the joy of God’s people, constantly choosing to do what is best for fellow believers and our neighbors, and…
when, with partiality and prayer we make our lives one continuous act of praise for the glory of God.
And what a harvest it is!  Joy, genuine joy!
Father, our need is joy; we have plenty of what we need and so much of what we want.  Teach us to covet the best gift – the joy of the LORD…that which will sustain us in difficult times, and light up others’ lives when they see You in us.  We pray in the Name of the Father, Because of the Son, Cooperating with the Spirit…Amen!
1] Brown, Stephen, KEY LIFE TAPES, (Key Biscayne, Fl,) 1Peter series
2] Clarkson, Margaret, THE BIBLE ILLUSTRATOR, (Hiawatha, Iowa, Parson's Technology, 1990),   Idx 995
3]  Hebrews 12:2b
4] THE BIBLE ILLUSTRATOR,  (Hiawatha, Iowa, Parson's Technology, 1990), Idx 1423-1425

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Mudville in the 21st Century

 1Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:  2Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  3I thank my God every time I remember you, 4constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.  6I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.  7It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.    Philippians 1:1 - 7 (NRSV)

If you ask 100 people what it means to have “joy” you will get a lot of different viewpoints.  Most will give you some variation of the dictionary definition.  One dictionary I consulted listed joy as the emotion evoked by well-being….[1]   That is not far from what Paul said to the Philippian church in verse 4, when he wrote to say he’s praying with joy.  The word he uses is χαρά (kharah')….which means calm delight [2]  

Calmly-delighted in the inner man; content – having a sense of well-being!  No matter what storms may blow around me, I am at peace inside!  That is so different from what we see in contemporary culture, where circumstances – your health, friends, position, toys and affluence –seem to dictate whether you can experience joy or be happy at all.
The classic poem Casey At the Bat[3] tells the story of Mudville, a little town where baseball is everything.  The Mudville team is losing by two runs and everyone is dejected.  It’s the last inning, and, with two outs, people start leaving the stands.
There is little hope because two of the worst players are scheduled to bat next; certainly one of them will make the last out.  But, against all odds, both get a hit, and are safely on base.  They represent runs that will tie the score, and now it is the turn at bat for the local baseball hero and legend, The Mighty Casey!
With every confidence in their man, the people anxiously await Casey’s heroics.  But he lets the first two pitches go by without so much as a wave of his bat.  The next pitch will tell all.  An out would be unthinkable with Casey; certainly it will be a home run and a win for Mudville.  The scene is set…two outs, two on, two runs behind…One pitch will create happiness, joy unrestrained….or…
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn't let that ball go by again.
The sneer is gone from Casey's lip,
his teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey's blow.
Oh, somewhere in this
favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere,
and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing,
and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville –
mighty Casey has struck out.
We can all probably agree on the definition of joy; the main question is what produces joy?  How can we have joy in our everyday life?
Joy and Our Contemporary Culture
I want to show you two realities about joy – first, the characteristics of our contemporary culture’s stab at joy; then the Apostle Paul’s thinking.
Culture Characteristic #1 – We are ALONE
Philosopher Thomas Wolfe said, Loneliness is and always has been the central and inevitable experience of every man.[4]   In the contemporary scene we are isolated behind our air-conditioned walls, transfixed moth-to-light-like, to our blaring computer games and DVD players; we are protected from interruption by our phone-answering machines.  Isolated from, and insulated against human touch, we find out about ourselves from the nightly news.  And the news is lonely!  There's little joy in that Mudville.

Culture Characteristic #2. We are ASSERTIVE
From the first stamping of two-year-old little feet that don't want to go where mother said, to the mashing of the horn buttons on the freeways, assertiveness is the America we've come to know and despise.  Sacrifice and service have become foreign words in America; corporate raids and takeovers make billions, and no longer does it matter what happens to the person on the assembly line, or the family having to stand in line for a handout.
Culture Characteristic #3. We are AMBIVALENT 
Ambivalence is a strange development for a land of such passionate beginnings.  America was born in the hearts of people with fire in their bellies.  There was a sense of right and wrong; of good and evil.  Today’s culture is as dependent upon the direction of the prevailing winds, as on any code of morals or values.  A newspaper columnist pointed out how this slide towards ambivalence has made us a nation of orphans where child-guidance is concerned:
We are infinitely more comfortable dealing with each other in the gray vastness of 'how does it feel for you?' than in terms of right and wrong.  One look at the status of our children and we know that what we are doing isn't working.  Children need right and wrong.[5]
One of the reasons our children take drugs, take other students’ lives and take little interest in life, is that they see no firmness of commitment to an ethic, or to ideals, or to each other.  Options dominate our thinking.  If I don't like this circumstance I'll change it.  If I can't change it I'll go elsewhere, where it feels better to me.  I like you alright, but if you do something that displeases me I just might 'option you out' with a .357 magnum – or a divorce -- or an abortion – or some cocaine – or even just a glance.  Hey!  I can take you or leave you, dude!
In all this Mudville stuff where is the joy?  
By contrast with all this, the Apostle Paul’s perspective on genuine joy has been lived out by believers for two thousand years.  Remember the definition…calm delight…inner calm.  This letter to the Philippian church is theology in street clothes.
Who are the most joyful people?
It stands to reason that believers who practice their faith would be the most joyful.  As participating partners in the faith we share together the mystery and splendor of the gospel ... and that produces some things:
Paul called himself (and Timothy) servant.  The word literally means “slave”.  That doesn’t sound too joyful, but in ancient times a servant could come and go as he pleased, within certain limits.  A slave, however, was a lifetime "property" of his master.  Paul humbly addressed himself as a slave of Jesus Christ.
It takes a great deal of humility to enslave yourself to another.  What could make a man do something like that?  Paul sensed that being In Christ was greater than anything else life offered.  Indeed, Paul had a wide range of experience and education.  He was a "mainstream mover and shaker" of the highest order!  Then he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, and he discovered all that self stuff was empty – empty – empty!  Paul had been involved, accomplishing, and climbing social, political and personal ladders.  But, compared to the loveliness of Christ, all that personal fulfillment stuff paled, lost its attractiveness and faded into oblivion.
Paul used the phrase In Christ or In the Lord some 150 times in his epistles.  Much like a fish lives in water, Paul could feel the close, comforting, compelling presence of Jesus in every waking moment.  Paul had given himself over to the cause of Christ – it had become his purpose.
There is something unique and joyful about people who are driven from within, in a noble cause that is from above.   In the novel, The Man Who Lost Himself  a detective is trailing a man in Paris.  He wants to know if the man he was after stopped at a certain hotel.  He went to the clerk at the desk and gave his own name, asking if he was there.  He knew he wasn't registered; he wanted to have the clerk search the register so he could peek!  But, to his surprise, the clerk looked up and said, Yes, he has been looking for you.  He's in room #40; I'll have you shown right up.  What could the detective do?  He followed the clerk to the room, whereupon opening the door, the man came face to face with another man who looked remarkably like himself, just 20 years older.[6]
The story within that story is that there is a person out there whom you must face someday.  It is the person you're becoming.  How is that happening?  The purpose to which you give yourself will define the person you will become.  Paul gave himself to Christ as Lord and Master – slave for life!  The spiritual principle is that the slave will do the Master's will, and in the doing, become like the Master.  In Christ, Paul's life was purpose-filled, purposeful; he called it the joy set before him.  A partnership in the gospel gives joy of purpose.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  I thank my God every time I remember you. Philippians 1:2-3 (NIV)
Here is a marriage Paul performed - the words grace and peace.  Grace is the Greek word, peace is the Hebrew.  The order is theological; grace comes first (from God), and then peace follows.
If we read our times correctly, many people are looking for peace (both public and private), but are looking in all the wrong places.
Politicians negotiate treaties, supposing that peace is the result.
Policemen are called "peace officers", supposing that legal order passes for inner peace (joy).
The popularity of drugs shows us the craving for peace, as people attempt to gain escape velocity from the war (within and without) by getting high for a few hours.  The high that is really needed is grace.  You cannot experience peace until you've known God’s grace; both are a gift from God.
There can never be a friendship with God – the peace that passes understanding – until there is a settlement of the wages of sin.  The joy of peace comes after the gift of grace through the cross.  The order is important.  Peace comes after the grace.
In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, Philippians 1.4, 5  (NIV)
The Philippian church had been faithful.  Their gifts, prayers and encouragement had followed and undergirded Paul throughout his ministry.  It is wonderful to have the faithful beloved you can count on in the lean times.
For Paul it was like watching his children grow up and outdo him.  My father came to all my high school football games.  Both Mom and Dad have been there at all the important times in my life.  In a way only a person who knows he's loved can understand, I do understand that they have rooted for me to be everything God wants me to be.
That’s the partnership in the gospel – the joy of casting your prayers with those you work with and love.  Paul's partnership with the Philippian church was joyfully connected at the prayer-joint.  Theirs was a partnership of prayer.
being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.  Philippians 1.6 (NIV)
Being assured of some things in life is a necessity.  Without a certain amount of confidence you cannot function like God intended.  What are you absolutely certain about?  Death and taxes?  Government corruption?  Long Sunday sermons?  What really important things (i.e.: that which will still matter a hundred years from now) are you certain about?  Paul was convinced about salvation.
"For I am CONVINCED that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."     Romans 8:38, 39 (NIV)
Are you that certain of heaven?  If you are, let me remind you that heaven is a place better than any other – and it's yours!  Listen, if that doesn't produce genuine joy in your soul, your joy bone is broken!
It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God's grace with me.     Philippians 1.7 (NIV)
There's a certain joy about participating together in kingdom work.  There is a camaraderie that develops when people work together.  Now, there’s no doubt that you can certainly experience cooperative spirit and a family atmosphere in your job, civic work, or helping a neighbor.  But, there is nothing better than kingdom work, sharing in God's vineyard.  The reason is that we not only participate together, we participate together in the grace of God.
This letter to the Philippians:
is a call back to the community of faith (away from our isolation);
it is a call back to self-denying serving (away from our selfish ways);
it is a call back to standing for Christ-likeness and Godly living (despite today's pluralistic trends)…
and it is a call to respect and cooperation between men and women of God – a partnership in the gospel.
it’s also a call to servant hood – that which Jesus was, and what He wants us to be.
It is a call out of Mudville – the place of "no joy", and into the kingdom of God.
And there we would find our purpose, our peace, our prayers in partnership, our persuasion, our participation in the gospel, and our joy ...real joy!
Father, often we are so flat and joyless.  That’s so different than what Jesus told his first disciples…that he had come and shared with them so that his joy would be in them, and their joy would be complete.  Jesus, talk to us like that; place your joy in us – fill us so that it’s bubbling-up from within, and running all over anybody we meet.  We pray in the Name of the Father, Because of the Son, Cooperating with the Spirit…Amen!
2]  Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries© 2003, QuickVerse
3]  Ernest Lawrence Thayer
5] Edwards, Drew, Article, VIEWPOINT, (Jacksonville, Fl, The Florida Times-Union, Oct 3,1992)
6] Sitwell, Osbert, THE MAN WHO LOST HIMSELF, (St Clair Shores, Mich, Scholarly Press, 1971)