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

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