"Strength and Contentment Regardless of Circumstances"
Nov.4, 2007 Philippians 4:10-20
Surfing the Waves of Life's Variables: How to Stay on Top?
[video clip of surfer on 50' wave] That was some wave, wasn't it? Do you have days like that - the challenges just seem to keep on mounting up and up? Days when you're not sure you're going to be able to keep 'on top' and keep on going? The Lord wants us to understand that we can turn to Him and find strength and contentment no matter how challenging the circumstances.
You've got to admit, life does throw its curve balls. There can be economic hardships; other times we get breaks or windfalls. This week the government announced the GST would be soon be cut from 6% to 5% - that will help; unless you're one of the thousands of Chrysler employees being laid off, or in related industries. The Canadian dollar hits the highest level in decades, over USD 1.07; but not all that long ago it was down at a mere 63 cents. Life has its fluctuations.
Perhaps you're conscious of your physical frailty for medical reasons. Most people I meet in hospital as part of my chaplain duties didn't exactly plan to be there. This week we seemed to have a 'run' on broken hips. It can happen so fast. One individual in a retirement home had plastic over the carpet because there was work being done on the windows; they got up to answer the phone, and down they went. We have our ups and downs - literally!
Another individual moved to a larger centre; it seemed risky because he'd had employment before he moved, but there was no guarantee at the new place. One week later there was a fire at his former place of employment; he would have been laid off, but at the new location he was able to find just as good a job. For him, the circumstances worked in his favour.
How can we find security, an anchor and strength to persevere, when life can be so choppy?
The apostle Paul writing to the church at Philippi encouraged them out of his own experience of life's ups and downs. He'd been through some hard times and, with the Lord's help, always come out the other side. Look at the contrasting conditions he'd seen, chapter 4 v12: "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty." He goes on to describe the variety of situations he'd been through: end of v12, "whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want."
Not many of us would say we know what it is to live most of the time exactly "in plenty" - although if you have to break a hip, better for it to happen in Huron than, say, Haiti! To many inhabitants of earth, it would seem strange to think Canadians have any excuse for not being content. Yet if you ask the ordinary person on the street, they'd say they're closer to being "in need" than having 'plenty'. We have to budget carefully in order to pay the bills. NBA Coach Bill Fitch put it this way: "I'm independently wealthy.I have enough money to last me the rest of my life - provided I die tomorrow."
Paul's Secret Source of Inner Strength
Paul wanted to pass on to the church at Philippi something special he'd learned that helped him cope with varying circumstances. He should know - from shipwrecks to beatings and stonings, Paul had seen a truckload of hassles. V11 he says, "I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances." The verb "learned" is related to the same root as "disciple", mathetes, from which we also get 'mathematics'. Contentment isn't something that comes automatically, it's learned, developed, it requires training - as the disciples were trained by hanging out with the Master for 3 years. V12, "I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation..." It's not obvious: it's a secret, there's a trick to it, a knack, something for those on the inside to know. The word for secret is akin to ours for 'mystery': Paul's using some jargon of the initiates of the mystery religions of the day. He's preparing us: this isn't just for everybody, but the select few. It may even be rejected by ordinary folk, those not 'in the know'.
Okay, Paul, you've whetted our interest. So, what's the secret? The answer's in v13: "I can do everything through Him who gives me strength." Literally, Him who 'en-dynamoes' me: dynamis in Greek means 'power'; a 'dynamo' is in the case up at the top of those huge wind turbines - the dynamo converts the mechanical wind energy into electrical power we can use. The Lord en-dynamoes me, gives me power.
This is not a new concept in Scripture. Isaiah wrote, "He gives strength to the weary...do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand." (Is 40:29; 41:10) Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me." (2Co 12:9) Hebrews 13(6) adds, "So we say with confidence, "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?"" And Jesus Himself likened the believer's relationship to him to branches receiving nurture and energy from a grapevine; "If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing." (Jn 15:5) Paul's secret was simply this: when we come to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ and yield to His strengthening Lordship, we can face any circumstances that may come, knowing He's in control and cares for us. His Spirit becomes the wind giving power to our inner 'dynamo'.
Strength to Overcome - and Make a Comeback
In 1988 Dave Dravecky had a wonderful family and was reaching his all-star peak playing the game of his childhood dreams. His 5-1 opening day victory over the Dodgers was overshadowed later that fall by the discovery of cancer and the removal of half of the deltoid muscle in his pitching arm. For baseball fans worldwide Dave Dravecky etched his name into history on August 10, 1989. Defying all odds, after battling cancer in his pitching arm, Dave came back to pitch once again in the Major Leagues. People were on their feet cheering and anticipating the game while he stretched and warmed up. He became an inspiration not only to cancer fighters, but to all who needed hope that day.
As Dave took the mound, no one could deny the miracle that was taking place. After being told by his doctors, "Short of a miracle, you'll never pitch again," Dave pitched a 4-3 win for the San Francisco Giants. Sadly, Dave's comeback was short-lived. Five days later, in Montreal, Dave threw "…the pitch that could be heard round the world." Dave's arm had split in two. The dream he'd had since he was a little boy was about to become a platform to share hope with the suffering around the world.
Dave tells of his healing from the cancer and his return to the game of baseball in his book, Comeback. After Dave's fall from the mound, with the weakened bone, the cancer returned yet again. The arm was not going to get better at this point so Dave retired from baseball in November of 1989.
Slowly the treatment and the cancer ate away Dave's arm. Finally, the arm along with Dave's shoulder blade and left side of his collar bone had to be amputated lest the cancer spread and take Dave's life.
But even through these ups and downs, Dave's faith in Jesus gave him strength. He says in his testimony, "Jesus bore the spiritual penalty of our sin on the cross. That's taken care of the moment we come to him in faith. Yet our physical bodies are still subject to decay. He has promised that one day he will take care of that, too, when he clothes us in indestructible bodies that will never wear out and never feel pain or see decay (see 1 Cor. 15:35-57). But for now, we will still see the results of the Fall in our own fragile bodies. We still feel pain. We still suffer....Even in this in-between time, however--after our spirit has been renewed but before it's our body's turn -- we can look to Jesus Christ and begin to understand how God can provide the comfort, the strength, the encouragement and the healing that is necessary on the journey of life when we come face-to-face with suffering." [source: http://www.outreachspeakers.com/speakers/DaveDravecky.htm]
Sacrificial Sharing sparks Rich Reward
It becomes apparent in this passage that one of the ways the Lord strengthened Paul was through the sacrificial sharing of a loving congregation. V15, "...in the early days...when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only..." Not even Antioch, the church that had originally sent out Paul and Barnabas, contributed more than good wishes and prayers. Later two other Macedonian churches, Thessalonica and Berea, joined Philippi in supporting Paul's work at Corinth. But it was the Philippians who stood by him financially over the years, repeatedly. V16, "even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need." Now that Paul's in prison in Rome, for a while they had a hard time catching up with him or sending assistance, but finally they've sent Epaphroditus who has managed to track him down and deliver the aid. In v10 Paul acknowledges they were wanting to help but couldn't before: "I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it." V18, "I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent."
Now, although Philippi was a major city in the region of Macedonia, don't get the idea that this congregation was 'well off'. Paul alludes to their limited resources at the beginning of 2Cor 8: "And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability..." (2Co 8:1-3) So they were by no means 'flush': otherwise Paul wouldn't have used words like "most severe trial" and "extreme poverty".
This lack of resources made their generosity to Paul all the more striking. So in 4:18 he calls their gift "a sweet-smelling sacrifice that is acceptable and pleasing to God". Sort of reflects Jesus' gift of love for us on the cross: Ephesians 5:2 talks about it this way, "Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." By their extraordinary generosity despite their own poverty, the church was mirroring the same sacrificial self-giving love Jesus showed in paying for our sin-debt.
A pastor was talking to his farmer friend, and asked him, "Sam, if you had 100 horses, would you give me 50?" The farmer said, "Certainly." The pastor asked, "If you had 1000 cows, would you give me 500?" Again the farmer said, "Yes." Then the pastor looked him square in the eye and asked, "One last time, Sam: If you had 2 pigs, would you give me one?" The farmer squirmed and said, "Now, cut that out, pastor; you know I have 2 pigs!" Sharing with others in need is a sacrifice when we ourselves are in need.
In praising the Philippians for their generosity, Paul made it clear he wasn't angling for further donations, in a subtle kind of way. V17, "Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account." The 'what' here is literally 'fruit', "I am looking for fruit [or, in an accounting sense, profit] that may be credited to your account." Paul's using financial terminology here. It's as if there's an invisible heavenly ledger which is tracking the church's gifts. It's a Biblical principle that the Lord keeps account of how we treat those who are less well-off, with a view to future payback. Proverbs 19(17), "He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done." In Matthew 10(42) Jesus said, "And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward." There's that reward talk again. And Luke 14:14, when people host a banquet and invite not those who can repay them but instead the poor/crippled / lame/ blind, Jesus says, "you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."
Jesus gives us strength; He is also our underwriter, our Supplier. V19 is another good one to memorize (alongside 13): "And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus." Talk about a 'blank cheque' verse! God will supply all your needs. Note they're 'needs' not 'wants'. What's His source? It's "according to His glorious riches in Christ Jesus." Our Saviour is much wealthier, more glorious, than the Bank of Canad and the Canadian Mint, than Fort Knox and the Federal Reserve. This isn't the only instance of Paul talking this way; Eph 3:16 says, "I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being..." And in Romans 9(23) he writes that God chooses "to make the riches of His glory known to the objects of His mercy..." Our heavenly Father isn't stingy, but eager to share His beautiful riches in Christ with those who believe in Him. That prompts us to share with others in turn.
Giving the Best
Years ago, the Sunday School Times carried the account of a Christian school for the children of "untouchables" in India prior to World War II. Each year the children received Christmas presents from children in England. The girls got a doll, and the boys a toy. On one occasion the doctor from a nearby mission hospital was asked to distribute the gifts. In the course of his visit, he told the youngsters about a village where the boys and girls had never even heard of Jesus. He suggested that maybe they would like to give them some of their old toys as presents. They liked the idea and readily agreed. A week later the doctor returned to collect the gifts. The sight was unforgettable. One by one the children filed by and handed the doctor a doll or toy. To his great surprise, they all gave the new presents they had just received several days earlier. When he asked why, a girl spoke up, "Think what God did by giving us his only Son. Could we give him less than our best?" Let's pray.