Suffering and Joy (a sermon on Philippians 1:12-26)

In John Ortberg’s book The Life You’ve Always Wanted, I found a story written by a pastor named Tom Schmidt. Tom was visiting regularly in a convalescent hospital where he got to know a remarkable woman. Here’s how he tells the story:

‘As I neared the end of this hallway, I saw an old woman strapped up in a wheelchair. Her face was an absolute horror. The empty stare and the white pupils of her eyes told me that she was blind. The large hearing aid over one ear told me that she was nearly deaf. One side of her face was being eaten by cancer. There was a discoloured and running sore covering part of one cheek, and it had pushed her nose to one side, dropped one eye, and distorted her jaw so that what should have been the corner of her mouth was the bottom of her mouth. As a consequence, she drooled constantly… I learned later that this woman was eighty-nine years old and that she had been here, bedridden, blind, nearly deaf, and alone, for twenty-five years. This was Mabel.

‘I don’t know why I spoke to her – she looked less likely to respond than most of the people I saw in that hallway. But I put a flower in her hand and said, “Here is a flower for you. Happy Mother’s Day”. She held the flower up to her face and tried to smell it, and then she spoke. And much to my surprise, her words, though somewhat garbled because of her deformity, were obviously produced by a clear mind. She said, “Thank you. It’s lovely. But can I give it to someone else? I can’t see it, you know; I’m blind”.

‘I said, “Of course”, and I pushed her in her chair back down the hallway to a place where I thought I could find some alert patients. I found one, and I stopped the chair. Mabel held out the flower and said, “Here, this is from Jesus”.

‘That was when it began to dawn on me that this was not an ordinary human being. Later I wheeled her back to her room and learned more about her history. She had grown up on a small farm that she managed with only her mother until her mother died. Then she ran the farm alone until 1950 when her blindness and sickness sent her to the convalescent hospital. For twenty-five years she got weaker and sicker, with constant headaches, backaches and stomach aches, and then the cancer came too. Her three room-mates…screamed occasionally but never talked. They often soiled their bedclothes, and because the hospital was understaffed… the stench was often overpowering.

‘Mabel and I became friends over the next few weeks, and I went to see her once or twice a week for the next three years. Her first words to me were usually an offer of hard candy from a tissue box near her bed. Some days I would read to her from the Bible, and often when I would pause she would continue reciting the passage from memory word for word. On other days I would take a book of hymns and sing with her, and she would know all the words of the old songs. For Mabel, these were not merely exercises in memory. She would often stop in mid-hymn and make a brief comment about lyrics she considered particularly relevant to her own situation. I never heard her speak of loneliness or pain except in the stress she placed on certain lines in certain hymns…

‘During one hectic week of final exams I was frustrated because my mind seemed to be pulled in ten directions at once with all the things I had to think about. The question occurred to me, “What does Mabel have to think about – hour after hour, day after day, week after week, not even able to know if it’s day or night?” So I went to her and asked, “Mabel, what do you think about when you lie here?” And she said, “I think about my Jesus”.

‘I sat there, and thought for a moment about the difficulty, for me, of thinking about Jesus for even five minutes, and I asked, “What do you think about Jesus?” She replied slowly and deliberately… “I think about how good he’s been to me. He’s been awfully good to me in my life, you know… I’m one of those kind who’s mostly satisfied… Lots of folks wouldn’t care much for what I think. Lots of folks would think I’m kind of old fashioned. But I don’t care. I’d rather have Jesus. He’s all the world to me”…

‘How could she do it? Seconds ticked and minutes crawled, and so did days and weeks and months and years of pain without human company and without an explanation of why it was all happening – and she lay there and sang hymns. How could she do it? The answer, I think, is that Mabel had something that you and I don’t have much of. She had power’.

This story is an extreme case, but the experience behind it is not uncommon. Many pastors could tell stories of visiting dying people and coming away with their own faith strengthened; the dying ministered to their pastors, rather than the other way around! Apparently Christ can take hold of a person in the midst of suffering and somehow transform them, giving them joy where we would have expected only pain and despair – not by taking the suffering away, but by somehow lifting them above the suffering into his presence.

This was the case with the Apostle Paul toward the end of his life. His letter to the Philippians was probably written from Rome, where he was in prison for preaching the Gospel. His Christian friends in Philippi heard about this; they were concerned, and so they sent a messenger, Epaphroditus, with a gift of money to help Paul provide for his own needs. But Epaphroditus had gotten sick and stayed in Rome a lot longer than expected. Now he was recovered and Paul was sending him back to Philippi with a letter to thank and encourage his friends there – and also, being Paul, to teach them a bit!

Paul can hear the questions in their minds: “If God is in charge, why has he let Paul by arrested? What happens if Paul is executed? Is his message about Jesus really true?” He wants to reassure them that God is in control, and all will be well – not in a sense of ‘whistling in the dark’, but rather of looking into the darkness without fear and finding Christ there.

He starts our reading today in a strange way. He’s basically saying to them, ‘All the bad things you heard about my situation are true – but don’t worry, because they can’t take away my joy!’ There are three kinds of suffering he’s experiencing.

First, in verses 12-14 he says, ‘Yes, it’s true, I’m in prison’. Remember, this is a travelling missionary speaking here – someone who loves nothing better than moving around from place to place telling the story of Jesus to new people. But now he’s in prison so he can’t travel any more. Can you imagine the frustration? How can the Gospel spread when he can’t travel to spread it?

But Paul isn’t frustrated, because God has the last laugh here. First, Paul says, all the guards here know that I’m in prison for Christ, so the Gospel has gotten a much higher profile in the army because of my imprisonment. And if you ask, “How do all the guards know that?” the answer’s obvious, isn’t it? They know because Paul told them! Every time the shift changed a new captive audience arrived to hear the Gospel! Paul must have loved it! He wasn’t going to the world; the world was coming to him!

And that’s not all, he says; the other Christians here have seen that the Lord has strengthened me in my suffering, and they’ve gotten more confident in what he can do for them, too. So they’ve been speaking out more boldly, spreading the Gospel to their friends and neighbours. The Romans may have jailed the missionary, but the Gospel isn’t in jail!

So he’s in prison, but he’s enjoying himself. Another thing that’s happening is that other missionaries are getting a higher profile than he is; he talks about this in verses 15-18. He knows that there’s no such thing in this sinful world as completely pure motivation; even his own motivation isn’t completely pure. It seems that there were other Christian preachers who were jealous of Paul’s success and were competing with him. Now he’s in prison they’re delighted, and they even send word to him about their successes, just to rub it in. “Messenger from Aristarchus, Paul – ‘I preached at the forum today and five hundred were converted’”. Aristarchus expects Paul to be jealous, but instead Paul thanks God. The Gospel is being passed on, even if the motivation leaves a lot to be desired.

But then there’s a third thing, the most sinister of all: there’s a real possibility that he might be executed. He talks about this in verses 18-26. There’s a good chance the Romans will decide that he might be better off dead. And Paul agrees with them: he would be better off dead! To depart, he says, would be ‘to be with Christ’ – not that he isn’t ‘with Christ’ now, but dying would usher him into a more immediate experience of Christ’s presence – and no more whippings, no more imprisonments, no more long and lonely journeys. “Wow!” he thinks; “Bring it on! Living is Christ and dying is gain!”

Paul knows this isn’t an exhaustive list of the kinds of suffering people can face; he doesn’t mention bereavement, for instance, or physical illness. He knew about physical illness, of course; in his letter to the Galatians he mentions how an illness had first brought him to Galatia to preach the Gospel, and God had brought good out of that, too! He isn’t claiming to have suffered everything there is to suffer. Rather, what he’s saying is “This is what I’ve suffered, and the good news is that I’ve found it can’t quench the joy of the Lord”.

So – ‘All the bad things are true, my friends, but I’m still rejoicing in Christ. And more than that, here’s what I want you to know: the only thing that really matters is knowing, serving, and exalting the Lord Jesus Christ’.

The verse that sums it all up is verse 21: ‘For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain’. This is the kind of language lovers use about each other, isn’t it? ‘As long as we have each other nothing else matters; we can be happy even if we’re dirt poor’. And it’s true; they can!

That’s how Paul felt about Christ. He says in chapter three, ‘Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord… I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings’. He doesn’t say “I want to know about Christ” but “I want to know Christ”.

Another of his characteristic phrases is the idea that we’re ‘in’ Christ and Christ is ‘in’ us. This is mystical language, describing the closest possible connection between the risen Lord and his people. How is it possible? It’s possible because God has given us the Holy Spirit to connect us to the Risen Jesus.

This is the way for us to discover joy in the midst of our sufferings: to cultivate this union with Christ. It’s not just about a feeling somewhere in our gut. When Paul decided that living is Christ, that also meant taking on Christ’s priorities. Those priorities didn’t involve him becoming rich, or living a life of ease. They meant living a penniless life as a missionary, travelling around the world, and going through suffering for Christ’s sake.

For me to experience the truth that ‘living is Christ and dying is gain’ is incredible comfort but also incredible challenge. In his first letter, the old apostle John says, ‘By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him”, ought to walk just as he walked’ (1 John 2:6). Seeking first the Kingdom of God, living a simple and generous life, forgiving and loving our enemies, keeping our hearts pure – this is the road we’re learning to walk on. As we walk it together, that’s when we discover that living is Christ and dying is gain. We won’t discover that if we live in greed, materialism, and pride.

That was the source of Mabel’s strength. All she had was Jesus, and Jesus was enough. She was like a cancer-stricken woman Archbishop George Carey visited when he was a young priest. The woman greeted him with a smile and said, “Don’t look so worried; I’m only dying!”

Let me finish by noting how Paul’s view was different from two views that were popular in his day, and are still around today.

In Paul’s day the Stoics said, ‘Life is tough, but it’s short. Suffering comes, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s the will of the gods, and all you can do is resign yourself to it, square your shoulders and look forward to extinction. All we are is dust in the wind’.

On the other hand, the Epicureans said, ‘There’s no time to think about suffering – there are too many parties to go to! Have a good time, eat, drink, sleep with the girls, and rock on as if life will never end. Who knows – maybe it won’t!’

One approach pretends there’s no suffering, and when it comes these folks are outraged and see it as an insult and a denial of their right to happiness. The other approach is absorbed in suffering, faces it squarely, but sees no hope, only resignation.

Paul’s view is dramatically different. Suffering is real: people get unjustly imprisoned, their life’s work is taken from them, they lose their loved ones, and they could even lose their own lives. But Paul looks right into the heart of all that darkness, and what does he find there? The light of Christ who went through the suffering of the Cross and came to the glory of the resurrection.

So the conclusion of the matter is not, ‘Know Christ and you’ll be preserved from all suffering’. It’s ‘Know Christ, focus on Christ, serve Christ, see Christ as your greatest treasure – and you’ll be able to have joy in him in the midst of suffering’. This is what Paul experienced. This is what Mabel experienced. And when my time comes, I want to experience it too.

‘For me, living is Christ and dying is gain’ (v.21). The challenge of this verse for me is this: how absorbed am I in Jesus, and the God who he revealed to us? Is knowing and loving Jesus the great story of my life? Is following him the thing I love most? If it is, then, like Mabel, I may be surprised one day to discover that when it’s my turn to go through the valley of the shadow of death, I will ‘fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me’ (Psalm 23:4).

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