Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What Grace Does

14In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.  15You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone.  16For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once.  17Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account.  18I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.  19And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.  20To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.  21Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The friends who are with me greet you.  22All the saints greet you, especially those of the emperor’s household.  23The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.        Philippians 4:14-23 (NRSV)
Joy, that really-centered, solid sense of well-being is one of Paul’s major themes.  All throughout this letter to the Philippian church, Paul, who was sitting in a dark, stinking hole of a jail in Rome, writes to his beloved friends about how much God’s joy was in his life.  Indeed, rejoicing was his life, and it was as real as the fingers on your hand.  Had I been in Paul’s shoes I wonder if I would have been quite so positive!
There are times when “joy” hardly seems real, or even a remote possibility.  About twenty years ago I stood with a mother and father as we looked at the body of their 22 year-old son lying in a casket; it was really hard to imagine joy.  They shared with me their son's great plans for the future – getting a Master's degree, advancement, family, and his love for the Lord – it was hard to imagine joy. 
They told me how that young man worked hard every day, never late; how he went to school nights and studied hard.  It was hard to conjure-up joy amidst all the nervous stock phrases people babble-on at such times; words won't do! 
There was lots of hugging and remembering at the funeral home.  But I knew that would pass; in the morning there would be a funeral service, and soon we would be at the cemetery, ready to lower a young man into a grave, when he hadn't even begun to live.  It was not only hard to imagine joy - joy was definitely AWOL! 
And so I asked the Lord to speak to my heart so I could speak to this broken-hearted family.  Very often I'm a poor listener, so the Lord waited until I walked out on the platform for the service.  It was the faces of the young people that stopped me in my tracks.  I'd never seen most of them before.  The faces were streaming with tears, disbelief and stunned silence.  Their faces were grieving as those with no hope[1].  In that instant the Lord spoke to my heart, and the one-sided conversation went something like this:
Russell, among these young people are those who have left me out of their lives; a few have never even heard the gospel.  Tell them I love them.
What a sustaining message to my heart!  I not only rediscovered joy for that hard moment, I was downright happy!  This would give meaning to Ricky's death.  His friends were sitting there, trying to make any kind of sense in the madness and chaos of losing their friend. 
They were facing the reality that, if it could happen to Ricky, 22 years old, strong, bright and alive; well it could happen to anyone!  Ricky had plans for living; now he was in a casket.  And Ricky’s friends’ attention was focused toward the pulpit, God's sacred desk.  What an awesome responsibility and incredible joy…to share the Gospel of God’s grace!
In retrospect I can imagine more easily the joy Paul felt, sitting in that Roman jail.  He and Ricky had similarities; they were both educated, energetic and ambitious; in their respective fields they were tops! 
But Paul had lived a full life accomplishing much for the cause of Christ, and now he was in prison, awaiting a criminal’s execution all because of his faithfulness!  And in the middle of it all, Paul would say joy! 
I want you to know, beloved, there is only one thing in this universe that can make a person joyful in the midst of that kind of circumstance – it is the grace of Almighty God.  Note what grace does in a believer’s life:
Grace makes you joyfully grateful.
Paul was grateful for the gift brought by Epaphroditus.  None of the other churches had shared in the financial needs of his ministry.  Paul was joyfully-grateful because the Philippian church had a proper sense of why they were giving.  It was not just for Paul's sake – they knew they were ministering in God’s name, to God’s world, with their gifts.
I felt a sense of that this week.  I got to play Epaphroditus, delivering your backpacks and school supplies.  Each time I met with a guidance counselor and saw the smile, heard genuine, heartfelt thanks – I knew some kids were going to have their lives touched with the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Maxie Dunham wrote:  we act on behalf of each other, knowing that we are acting for the sake of God.[2] 
Paul was working to see the gospel spread -- that was his call from God.  The circumstances were not wonderful, but he could see the purpose of God being worked-out, even in his misery.  What has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.[3]  Paul had vision; he was able to look past the circumstances, and see God's hand at work. 
Even more important Paul knew that those circumstances are by God’s design to accomplish His purpose.  God’s purpose of grace makes you joyfully grateful!
Grace makes you a joyful giver
Giving is a touchy subject – but only for those who have not yet gotten the idea that it is a joy to give.  A farmer listened to the preacher’s sermon on why the lottery was such a devilish evil, and how it was crippling the poor.  Afterwards he approached the pastor and registered his objection:  Preacher – the lottery ain’t all that bad.  Why, if I won ten million dollars I’d give half to the church.  The pastor asked, How about if you won just a million?  He replied, I’d still give half.  Then the pastor asked, How ‘bout if you had two pigs?  The farmer held up a hand, Now hold on preacher, that ain’t fair; you KNOW I got two pigs!  Giving is never a touchy subject when the right conditions exist; there are at least two conditions:

People give when their hearts are touched

I have a friend who is a vibrant professional man; he is also a serious Christian.  He tithes 10% to his church, and also manages to put a few dollars away each month for the purpose of finding God's needy spot.  He prays about this money – that God will direct him to a Godly need.  This is a heart that is touched with compassion and enthusiasm for the gospel.  I can tell it gives him a lot of joy to be able to give. 
One church member confided in me that giving just a dollar or two above her tithe to help a needy child gave her more joy than anything else she does.  When your heart is touched with compassion for the needs of people, you give joyfully.  But then,

People give sacrificially when their hearts are transferred (to God)

There is a difference between the joy of giving, and sacrificial giving.  Paul's pride and joy, the Philippian group were examples of sacrificial giving.  One author has it, Their giving was exemplary because they gave out of 'rock-bottom poverty.[4] 
What is sacrificial giving?  Sacrifice only comes under the influence of love.  I have a coupon booklet that I treasure.  It is from my three kids.  It was given to me one Father's Day when our kids had no money because they were "U.I.S." (Under the Influence of Seminary).  So they gave me 21 different slips of paper as handwritten credit vouchers.  One voucher was good for a car wash.  Another was good for a "no-gripe lawnmower usage" And still another was for a whole day of kids being good without Dad having to remind anybody.  I want to tell you, I've never cashed a single coupon – they are too precious to me.  Those kids loved me, and gave sacrificially.  When you transfer your heart to God you will give sacrificially, and love it!  God’s grace makes you joyfully grateful, a joyful giver, and…
Grace makes you joyfully glorify God
To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.  Philippians 4:20
It seems Paul often sang the doxology, praise God from whom all blessings flow.  Considering the fact that God deserves our praise, and we are created for Him, and not ourselves, it ought to be without question that we give praise joyfully, instead of griping profusely.  It seems we ought to be a little more like Paul, and recount the blessings till we just have to stop and sing the Doxology!  God’s grace makes your attitude of gratitude grow!
Paul was a prisoner.  While most people would view that as the screeching, grinding halt to his ministry, but his imprisonment was the very thing that defined the ministry of Paul.  While others were mourning his circumstances – even the believers at Philippi – Paul saw an opportunity.  What else would a Christian do with a soldier chained to him 24 hours a day?  He began winning Roman soldiers to Christ. 
Our dog, Gracie Cotton loves to wander if she gets loose.  Since we don’t have a fenced yard, the only option is walking her on a leash...when she lets us!  She may be small, but if that dog sees a squirrel, she will get highly motivated; the human holding the leash just holds-on for dear life!  In the same way, the Roman emperor imagined he had squashed Paul’s preaching, but, as William Barclay put it, The crucified Galilaean carpenter had already begun to rule those who ruled the greatest empire in the world.[5]
What are your circumstances? 
Are you joyful over the impact Christ is making on your part of the world because of what is happening in your life?  Or are you groaning and griping every day because of the circumstances? 
Multiplied thousands of so-called unfulfilled, unhappy people would see their world and circumstances differently if they would transfer their hearts to Jesus.
The songwriter has it:
When we have exhausted our store of endurance;
 When our strength has failed 'ere the day is half done;
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources;
Our Father's forgiveness is only begun.
His love has no limit; His grace has no measure,
His power has no boundary known unto man;
For out of His infinite riches in Jesus,
He giveth and giveth and giveth again.[6]
   Circumstances are not a choice.  Sometimes it is the Devil, sometimes the Lord's design; sometimes it is just "stuff" happening.  But joy IS a matter of choice.  You can choose to surrender your heart and life to God’s will - to know Him and His power and His salvation.  It is available by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, and the sacrificial gift of his death on the cross[7].  
It was grace, God dying for you – and when you accept his offer to know Him, there’s no limit or measure to God’s power, love and grace to bring joy unspeakable into your life!
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen!

[1] Job 7:6, 1 Thessalonians 4:13
[2]Dunham, Maxie D., THE COMMUNICATOR'S COMMENTARY VOL. 8, (Waco, Word Inc., 1982), 320
[3] Philippians 1:12
[4]Melick, Richard R., Jr., THE NEW AMERICAN COMMENTARY, 158
[5]Barclay, William, THE DAILY STUDY BIBLE, 87
[6]HE GIVETH MORE GRACE,  Composer: H. Mitchell, Arr T. Fetke (Lillenas Publishers), 1983
[7] Ephesians 2:8,9

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