Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Gift of Unshakeable Joy

The news this week has been sad...unhappy by any measure of the word, especially when our thoughts turn to Haiti. In America, the constitution guarantees us the right to pursue happiness, and we usually do by whatever means are available and legal; but I can't help but wonder what it means to pursue happiness in Haiti….in a country that's been flattened by a 7.0 earthquake and nearly 100,000 people have been killed? What does it mean to pursue happiness in a nation that’s had 32 coups in 200 years and where HIV and infant mortality are among the highest in the world? For me, the answer came in the words of Paul from a prison cell...his letter to the Philippians (1: 12-18). There we discover that the Apostle Paul says nothing about the pursuit of happiness, but he does say a lot about the gift of joy...

The joy of the Lord, can’t be shaken by our changing situation. From the confines of a prison cell, Paul says that he wants the Philippians to know that “what has happened to [him] has actually helped to spread the gospel…and in that I rejoice" (vv. 16, 18). What had happened to Paul? The trouble began in Jerusalem when he came to preach about Jesus and was falsely accused (Acts 21). After testifying before his own people he was taken to Caesarea Maritima where he stood before Gov. Felix and King Herod Agrippa and shared his testimony yet again. At this point Paul said four memorable words: “I appeal to Caesar.” (This was Paul’s right as a Roman citizen), and it meant that he must be immediately placed under the guard of a centurion and sent to Rome by ship (Acts 27). In the process, Paul’s ship is wrecked by a brutal storm off the coast of Malta. After swimming to shore, he is transferred to another vessel and taken to Rome where he remained under house arrest for two years waiting to appear before the Emperor. That’s what happened, and his assessment? “What has happened…has actually helped to spread the gospel….and in that I rejoice.”

Now this was not the first time Paul had been imprisoned. The Philippians were well aware of that. How could they forget that night after Paul and Silas were severely beaten and put in prison for preaching the gospel in their city? We read in Acts 16: 25 that “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.” The other prisoners were stunned. These men were choosing to be joyful. I say “choosing” because joy is a gift that we must choose to receive. Paul chose to pray and sing to the Lord though he could have crawled into the corner of that prison cell and chosen resentment or anger or despair.

As a chaplain at Trenton State Prison, I passed through 9 electronically locked doors, walked the tiers of 2 left where you could not tell day from night and ate their terrible food; listened to their stories for hours on end; and I can tell you that the last thing you would expect to hear there was singing…and yet I never heard singing, like the singing of these inmates on Sunday morning. Every Sunday they taught me about the freedom that Jesus brings. Every Sunday they taught me to choose joy. You see, there is a difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is based on what happens. If I pay off my car loan, I’m happy. If I have a good check up, I’m happy. If I buy myself some new clothes, I’m happy. If my friends say nice things about me, I’m happy. Tim Hansel remarks, “There is nothing wrong with happiness….But the problem is that it’s based on our circumstances and circumstances tend to change….happiness is a momentary feeling, joy is an abiding attitude.” Joy is that deep settled confidence that God is in control regardless of my situation.

The joy of the Lord shatters selfishness and unleashes compassion. “I want you to know, beloved that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ….” (12). Paul’s situation was an excellent excuse for a little grumbling & complaining. No one would have faulted him. There’s nothing like a good dose of resentment to take away the pain of a frustrating situation, am I right? Yet Paul would not allow bitterness to cloud his compassion or his joy. The fact that he was chained by the wrists to a soldier 24 hours a day was not a curse but a divine opportunity (1:13). In fact the entire Praetorian Guard -- Caesar’s elite soldiers, had heard about Paul and the Jesus he proclaimed. How is this possible? Quite simply it’s because he was chained to a different guard every few hours -- thus he was able to say that the whole rotating Praetorian Guard had heard about Christ! But it gets better! At the end of Paul’s letter he says that “All the saints greet you, especially those of the emperor’s household” (Phil. 4:21). In other words, not only did the gospel penetrate the elite ranks of the imperial guard but reached and claimed some of those who worked and lived in the very Palace of the Caesars!

Now consider this: as the Philippians read this amazing letter, a certain jailer who had guarded Paul and Silas the night they were arrested in their own city was probably among them. Luke records that while Paul and Silas are singing in the night, there was a violent earthquake that shook the prison to its foundations…opened the prison doors and unfastened everyone’s chains (Acts 16: 26). The jailer, awakened by the earthquake, runs to the cell doors and seeing them open, assumes the worst has happened. The penalty for allowing prisoners to escape was severe, and so he draws his sword to kill himself. It is pitch black. He can not see into the prison cells, but they can see him as he stands in the light of the doorway. One might expect that the prisoners would have wanted to see the jailer kill himself, and he would have, but then....Paul shouts, seeing what he is about to do, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” The jailer calls for lights and rushing in he falls down before Paul and Silas, trembling. He trembles not because of the earthquake but the shockwave of compassion! “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” he asked (Acts 16: 30). “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household” they answered. After feeding them in his own home, “he and his entire household were baptized without delay…and “his entire household rejoiced….” (Acts 16:33). The jailer had heard their joy-filled faith, now he had seen it, and wanted it for himself!

Have you ever considered that God has chained you to someone or something for the sake of his Son; that our personal comfort is not always his chief concern, but rather his mission to a lost and lonely world? The joy of the Lord releases us from self-centeredness, and empowers us to forgive and to love those whom he came to save.

The joy of the Lord is not the denial of reality; but confidence in what really matters. One of the objections to any suggetion that we "choose" joy is that it is unrealistically optimistic, a Pollyanna view of disaster & tragedy. Was Paul out of touch with reality? Apparently not…since his joy was not based on a denial of his situation, but on what God was actually doing in the midst of it through him. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul is very honest about the fact that some were trying to make his imprisonment more difficult. Why? We can’t be sure…but his honesty is remarkable. “Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill….What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way…and in that I rejoice” (Phil. 1: 15-18).

Back in Acts 16, where we read about Paul’s imprisonment in Philippi, he has the same attitude. He was both joy-filled and wise as to the ways of the world. As they were praying and singing their hearts out in prison, they did not forget that they had been severely beaten, and imprisoned without a trial -- outrageously & illegally treated considering they were Roman citizens. Paul was a man of joy, but he was also a man who cared about justice. He knew the law -- and that his Roman citizenship afforded him certain protections. As a result, the magistrates came and personally led them out of prison, and begged them to leave! Paul was not na├»ve, he wanted the authorities to know that the believers he left behind had friends with influence (Acts 16: 40).

I don’t think many are pursuing happiness right now in Haiti…but thank God many are choosing joy. I’ve already seen it on the faces of those who have been called to help the suffering…but there is more. On the night following the earthquake in Haiti on Jan. 13th, I read that “several hundred people had gathered to sing, clap, and pray ….a little more than four hours after an earthquake had devastated much of the Haitian capital…. "Alleluia" was the refrain for some of the hymns the group at the crossroads sang…. The congregants replied with bursts of song. There were frequent aftershocks. With each tremor, the singing stopped and the singers wailed; after several minutes the hymns would resume” (David Wilson, Singing & Praying at Night in Port au Prince, Monthly Review 1/2010) A priest said that one phrase in Creole could be heard repeatedly both inside and outside the hospital walls… “Beni Swa Leternel,” they sang. “Blessed be the Lord.”

What will it mean for you and me to join our song with theirs as brothers and sisters in Christ? What will it mean for us to choose joy in the midst of our own trials and challenges…trials that may seem minor by comparison? To choose joy is to worship rather than despair; knowing God can use you in whatever situation you are chained to (illness, office, room or classmate)! To choose joy is to shatter selfishness and unleash compassion; seeing life, trials & temptations, even enemies, as opportunities to engage in Christ’s work. To choose joy is not to deny reality, but to be confident that you know what really matters in this life: faith in the unshakeable God, hope in the Crucified and Risen Christ, and love for the world he came to save. Friends…may God bless you with more than mere happiness this year; may he bless you with the gift of joy.

Unshakeable God, your word calls us to “Rejoice in the Lord always!” and so we choose joy today. We choose to worship rather than despair in the face of adversity. We choose to see present circumstances as opportunities to engage in your work. We choose to remember what really matters not deny the reality of suffering or hurt. Risen Lord, we choose joy for you have called us from the dark prison cells of sin, evil, and death, into the light of your goodness and grace. You have turned our mourning into dancing, and our sorrow into laughter. No longer are we controlled by a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and a sound mind…anchored in that which is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise! Through Jesus Christ, the wellspring of true joy and peace, let it be done. Amen!

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