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)

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