The Apostle Paul doesn’t quite fit the profile of what most would assume to be a contented man. After all, he wrote many of his letters from a prison, knowing his death could be imminent. Yet again and again he says, “I rejoice in the Lord!” At the conclusion of his letter to the Philippians, Paul thanks his friends for the gift they sent him…but reminds them that while he's grateful, he doesn't depend upon that gift for his security. This is a curious statement considering the fact that Roman prisoners survived on the food and financial support given them by friends and family. Paul obviously benefited from their support, so what was he talking about (?) and in the uncertain times in which we live (in the wake of wars, economic turmoil, political divisiveness, and personal challenges) how can we make it through with the contentment that Paul experienced?
Under Paul's advisement, we must begin with this premise: The power to make it through is not based on what I have or don’t have. For "I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need." Thus far, nothing Paul has said would sound any different from the popular thought of his day. The Greek stoic philosophers in particular prided themselves for being content...literally, self-sufficient in any situation (the meaning of the Greek word, autarkes). Plato once wrote in this vein when he said, “Man should be sufficient unto himself for all things, and able, by the power of his own will, to resist the force of circumstances." Centuries later Ralph W. Emerson wrote a famous paper entitled “Self-Reliance” which is required reading in high school American lit. classes. It’s the ideology of the rugged individualist -- the myth of the American cowboy, the underdog who can make it no matter the situation: "Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string." We love this idea...and we have embraced it as a core conviction of our culture. But is Paul saying nothing more than what Plato said...or what American Culture would later embrace as dogma?
Before Paul answers that question for us...let's pause and reflect on how we seek sufficiency and contentment in what we have…a boy friend, a job, our health, our children, a pastor or priest, or some great cause. These are all well and good…but eventually they will fall short of our ideals. A boy friend drops us, our job situation becomes unbearable, our health deteriorates, a pastor or church member disappoints, our children forget us, the cause we devoted our lives to doesn’t thrill us like it used to. A great disillusionment comes over us, and friends…the sooner the better! In fact, Bonhoeffer says it’s a blessing, “when we become disillusioned with others and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.” Why? Because, as Paul learned, the power to make it through is not based on what I have or don’t have….
The power to make it through anything is based on who has me. Here is one of the most memorable verses of scripture: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4: 13). It's not self-sufficiency that Paul seeks, but the all-sufficient One in whom he trusts. But a word of caution: this is also one of those verses that can be easily misunderstood. Paul is not making a statement about his own superhuman abilities…that he can do anything he desires because of the spiritual power he now possesses. Remember, Paul has been talking about the ability to be content “in any and all circumstances” -- with a lot or with a little, with a full stomach or an empty stomach…he’s writing from a prison cell, possibly facing execution. Thus, what Paul is saying is that he can deal with all circumstances… ride the ups and downs of life, and make it through anything with the help of “him who strengthens me.” Paul literally says, “All things I can do in the One who is continually infusing me with power (dunamis, from which we get the word "dynamite").” The "continuous" nature of this infusion of power is important. It’s not a one time impartation - it's not something Paul received once because that was all he needed. It was a daily infusion for a daily, constant need.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Nick Vujisic - a 27-year-old Australian, who was born without limbs. Vujicic's parents, devout Christians who planted a church in Australia 11 months before Nick was born, found it hard to understand how God could use their son's loss for good. Reading in Sunday school about being made in the image of God seemed like a cruel joke to Nick. He seesawed between despair and begging God to grow arms and legs for him. He contemplated suicide at the age of 8. When he was 15, though, one story in the Bible answered one of his toughest questions. "When I read the story of the blind man … Jesus said he was born so that the work of God could be revealed through him," Vujicic said. "That gave me peace. I said, 'Lord, here I am. Use me. Mold me. Make me the man you want me to be.'" Vujicic learned to write using the two toes on a partial foot that protrudes from his body; how to throw tennis balls, answer the phone, walk, and swim. He invented new ways to shave and brush his own teeth. He even earned double degrees in accounting and financial planning by age 21. He’s since spoken to congregations in over 12 countries, and has ministered to over two million people face to face, and oversees an organization for the physically disabled. The title of his book? No Arms, No Legs, No Worries. This exactly mirrors Paul's sentiment when he says that he can make it through anything in the one who constantly infuses him with his power -- the Living God made visible in Jesus the Messiah. How does he do this? Paul answers that question in two ways.
First, Jesus is the One who inspires his people to give and care for others. Remember that Paul wrote to thank the Philippians for their gift of compassion, the gift of a friend and help mate in his imprisonment along with a gift of money to aid him. “I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me…I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God...." (Phil. 4: 10,14-19). We need to understand this word "revived" because the translation doesn't quite capture Paul's intention. The word (anathallo) means "to sprout up or blossom again" like a seedling that breaks through the soil and begins to flower. Last Saturday I was hiking through Malibu Creek State Park with several men from our church...it was a narrow foothill pass that was covered with yellow, purple, and rose colored wild flowers. Now I’ve walked through that park many times…in other seasons when there were no flowers in sight; but these flowers were announcing that Spring has arrived. That’s the image Paul uses in v. 10 when (borrowing a translation from N.T. Wright) he says, "I've been having a great celebration in the Lord because your concern for me has once again burst into flower." For Paul, the arrival of Epaphroditus was like the spring thaw…the signal that winter was over and Easter was coming. It was the resurrection of his hope and another reminder of the concrete presence of the Risen Christ whom he first met on the Damascus Road. It's a reminder that the power to make it through will often be communicated to us by one of Jesus’ own followers, through prayer and compassion and caring.
That’s what God’s people do for each other…they remind each other what season it is. They are charged with declaring the arrival of Spring...that we are living in the Season of the Risen Son; and despite the fact that many people live as though it was winter (in prison cells of fear and doubt and despair), we have new life to share, and the compassion of Christ to offer. As we do share the love of our Lord with caring and compassion, we receive this promise: “And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19). In other words, as we meet the needs of others and share his love, he will fill us up and satisfy our deepest needs as well. Question: When firefighters turn on the water to put out a blaze what is the first thing that gets wet? Answer: The first thing to get wet is not the house or the forest that is bursting into flames…the first thing to get wet is the fire hose. It's important to know that as we give, we’re kind of like that fire hose…when God is using us as a channel of his grace…we’re going to get wet with his grace too. As we give to others, He fills us up…as we baptize we get wet too, baptized again in his Spirit…encouraged, blessed, healed and empowered. Paul could make it through anything because of the gift of compassion which Jesus continued to inspire in his people...but now hear the deepest truth in this passage, and the most important reason for Paul's contentment...
Paul could make it through anything because Jesus went through everything – even death on a cross for him (and for us). Hear again, Paul’s words regarding the Messiah… “Who though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Phil. 2: 5-11). Paul reminds us that Jesus did not submit to death, he submitted to death on a cross. Roman crucifixion was terribly brutal. It was reserved only for criminals and malcontents. As Roman citizens, no one in Philippi could even be crucified. Eventually, it was abolished throughout the empire for its barbarity. But, friends, what is most unique about the passion of Jesus is not simply what he went through; but who it was that went through it. The fact that a man endured terrible suffering and pain on such and such a day two thousand years ago is not unique in and of itself, but the fact that it was Him makes all the difference. Because it was Him, the Prince of Peace who was born in Bethlehem’s manger; it was Him, the unschooled rabbi who astounded the multitudes with his teaching; it was Him, the Master of the wind and waves; it was Him, the Great Physician who opened the eyes of the blind; it was Him, he Bread of Life who fed the multitudes and spoke the words of eternal life. It was His body nailed to that cross; the Word made flesh who suffered the terrible judgment which we alone deserved. It was not just any suffering; it was the suffering of God himself…and he did it all for us. He took upon himself our judgment; he suffered our death and our separation from God. He went through everything to show us that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This past week, we realized we had a rat problem in our house. The smell was the tell tale sign…and we did everything we could think of to get rid of it. First we cleaned out the water heater box where they were nesting. Then my wife called someone out to replace the water heater and hopefully clean out the smell. They set traps for the rats…but the odor persisted…like something had died under our house. I thought to myself, I've got to go under down there and find out what’s causing that smell. I’m going to save the day! So I put on my coveralls, my dust mask and my gloves. I got my plastic trash bag and my flashlight…and I squeezed under the house, which has about a 2 foot sub floor…pretty tight for a guy my size. I even managed to squeeze under one of the large 2 by 6 beams and into another part of the house. But then I saw the hole...the hole through the concrete foundation that would get me to the area I needed to reach. Perhaps you've heard of Jesus' famous line: "It would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven." Folks, I wasn't feeling like a camel at that moment....I was feeling like a blue whale! There was no way I was going to fit through that hole...or try. "This is crazy," I thought to myself. "I’m not going any further down here. I have no idea what I’m doing. Maybe I’ll get stuck in this dirty mess of decaying earth and rat poop. I’m going to have to call a professional. I need some help." I confess that I reached my limit!
My point is this (and yes, there is a point) - we all reach our limit. We reach the limit of our patience…the limit of our endurance…the limit of our compassion… the limit of our courage… the limit of our discipline…the limit of our love. And the sooner we reach that limit the better…because that’s when we’re ready to receive the unlimited love of Christ. That’s when we’re ready to say, “Lord, I need your help. Clean up the mess that I can’t clean up. Help me to make it through…because I can’t do it by myself." C. S. Lewis once put it this way.
"In the Christian story God descends to reascend. He comes down....But he goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him.....think of a diver, first reducing himself to nakedness, then glancing in mid-air, then gone with a splash, vanished, rushing down through green and warm water into black and cold water, down through increasing pressure into the death-like region of ooze and slime and old decay; then up again, back to colour and light, his lungs almost bursting, till suddenly he breaks surface again, holding in his hand the dripping, precious thing that he went down to recover" (Miracles, chap. 14, para. 5, p. 111).
Jesus came from the highest place to go to the lowest place...the place where none of us could possibly have gone (and lived to tell about it)...through suffering and death itself, that he might bring us and this whole ruined world back up with him. If you've reached your limit...if you've come to the end of yourself today...then you're ready to receive the unlimited power of the Living God made visible in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus our Lord. Because the power to make it through anything comes from the One who made it through everything - even death on a cross - for us.
Jesus our Messiah and Lord, we bow our heads in humble confession. For you are the Savior who endured everything – even death on a cross – to bear the consequences of our sin, assuring us that we too can make it through anything in your strength. You shattered the chains of evil and delivered us from the powers of hell; and you proved to us your victory over death, when you were raised up on the third day. “Surely, you have borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. You were wounded for our transgressions, and upon you was the chastisement that made us whole" (Isaiah 53:5). Worthy are you to receive honor and glory and blessing! In response to your sacrifice for us, we now turn from everything we know is wrong. We thank you for bearing our sins upon the cross and ask you now to fill us with the power of your Holy Spirit. Come now as Savior and cleanse us. Come now as Lord, and take control of our lives, that we might serve you with your other disciples, forever. Amen!