Tough times - Philippians 1:12-26

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 15th May 2011.

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Once, when Winston Churchill was on holiday with friends in the south of France, he came into the house on a chilly evening, sat down by the fireplace, and stared silently into the flames. Resin-filled pine logs were crackling, hissing and spitting as they burned. Suddenly his familiar voice growled, ‘I know why logs spit. I know what it is to be consumed.’

The fact is human beings consume and are consumed by a whole variety of things- food, drink, possessions, ambitions, love, ideologies, to name but a few. Some of those things debase us, others enrich us. But you know, with any person who has a great cause, that consuming force can become just the obsession needed to change the world.

Let’s think a bit more of Churchill. There is no doubt that he was consumed by an extraordinary sense of providence and personal destiny- leading a nation and championing the cause of freedom against overwhelming odds. On the night of May 10th 1940, Churchill was invited by King George VI to form a government against the forces of Nazi tyranny. Later on Churchill re-countered: ‘I felt as if I were walking with destiny and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial.’ That seemed to be true and it enabled him to keep on keeping on when everything was going against him.

Well, let me tell you about another man who was consumed with a passion. He too felt as if the whole of his life had been one long preparation, not by destiny but by God in order to lead a counter resistance movement to set men and women free from an oppression for worse than National Socialism- the oppressive forces of sin, death and the devil. He too was a man of one thing. It was his food, his drink, his life. It filled his dreams at night and occupied every waking moment during the day. For this one thing he was willing to be beaten, ridiculed and even die. That man was, of course, the apostle Paul. And the one thing which consumed him was the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Put simply he was a man possessed. Just look at the frequency with which he refers to the Gospel or preaching Christ, or the word of God, which amount to the same thing: So we read of the advance of the gospel- v12, speaking the word of God, v14; the defence of the gospel- v16; preaching Christ -v17and-18; the exaltation of Christ-v20; to live is Christ-v21; the gospel of Christ-v27; the faith of the gospel-v27; suffering for Christ-v29 Do you not notice a pattern here? In the best possible sense, there is a Christ fixation.

And so we should not be surprised that the world was turned upside down by Paul and others like him. And you will find that throughout Christian history, the times when the cause of the Gospel has been promoted most vigorously and societies have been changed most drastically have been when men and women have become men and women of this one thing- the Gospel.

So this morning let us take a look at the difference it makes when you put the Gospel at the centre of everything.

First of all we have circumstances and the Gospel-vv 12-14. Look at verse 12, ‘Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.’ Do you see what matters to Paul? Not his personal comfort, but the proclamation of Christ. If we are honest, we tend to blame circumstances and use them as an excuse for not sharing Christ. ‘My colleagues are just not interested, if only I had another job it would be so much easier being a Christian.’ And so we descend into self pity. But Paul doesn’t do that. Remember he is in prison, probably in Rome. And these prisons were not nice places, they didn’t have Sky TV- they tended to be rat infested. But while Paul may be have been in chains-the gospel wasn’t. You see, Paul believes in the sovereignty of God, that God has him exactly at the right place at the right time as he has you at the right place at the right time. But in Paul’s case it was a prison. And so what some would see as a problem, being locked away, Paul sees as an opportunity- to share the faith. It is all a matter of having the right perspective isn’t it? Think of David and Goliath. David could have taken one look at this giant and said, ‘Cor, he’s big, I’m off.’ or ‘Cor, he’s big, I can’t miss!’ Now Paul gives his concerned Christian readers two reasons why the circumstances in which he finds himself are, whatever some might think to the contrary, serving the cause of the Gospel.

First, he tells us, that the full Praetorian Guard has come to hear that he has been arrested for the sake of Christ, which means he must have been sharing with them the Christian message - v13, ‘...it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.’ Now do you realise how extraordinary that statement is? Let me ask: what would we consider to be a successful mission here in St John’s? To have, say, 300, 500 people hear the Gospel? That would be pretty good going wouldn’t it? Well, when up to full strength the palace guard numbered 9,000 soldiers. You see, Paul proved to be such an extraordinary prisoner, such a compelling witness, that news about him spread like wildfire throughout the ranks, they had never come across anyone like him. He didn't curse the soldiers as many would. His whole demeanour and attitude was just –well, different. And you can imagine the scene can’t you, as two guards come on duty and are chained to Paul one on either side of him or are placed just outside his cell. Paul would think- ‘Fantastic, these two aren’t going anywhere. And he would ask them, ‘Do you know why I am here?’ ‘No’ they say. ‘Well, can I tell you, have you got some time?’  Of course they have, it’s probably an 8 hour shift; in fact it would be more because they didn’t belong to the European Union. And so he would tell them. He spoke to them of a Galilean carpenter who died on a cross so that people could become rightly related to the one true and living God. He told them that this man Jesus was now alive, raised from the dead and he had met him and had been changed by him and one day this Jesus was going to come back and judge the world so we had better be ready. He would have shared with them the mind boggling truth that it was Jesus and not Caesar who sat on the only throne that mattered- God’s throne in heaven. For Jesus was none other than God become man. I tell you that would have been news to them. There was nothing in their Roman pantheon with their umpteen gods which even began to match this life transforming message that Paul was telling them about And at the end of the shift when two more guards came, off he would go again, and again and again. Paul doesn’t whinge saying ‘woe is me’, he witnesses- saying, ‘how great is God’.

But Paul gives a second reason why his incarceration is a blessing in disguise which we see in v14, ‘Because of these chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.’ What does he mean by that? Well, let’s approach that question by asking another question: what sort of things tend to hold us back from letting people know that we are Christian? Isn’t the main reason that we are afraid that we might be thought of as odd, that we will be excluded, treated not so nicely and become the butt of the joke, the snigger, the sneer? Let me ask a second question: what will enable us to overcome those kinds of fears and be more bold? Won’t it be when we see or hear of another Christian who inspite of the jibes, despite the taunts, witnesses anyway and does it cheerfully, and God blesses them. That is what was happening here. People were encouraged by Paul’s example. And all it takes is one or two of us to step out of our comfort zones for the rest to follow. If being in prison isn’t stopping Paul witnessing for Jesus what is stopping us? If God can bless him by seeing the Christian message being got out while he is locked away, then surely God can bless us since we are out in the open?  Do you see?

But Paul is realistic enough to know that this doesn’t mean that it will always be pain sailing for him, hence the second point- that of competitiveness and the Gospel- vv 15-18a. ‘Some’ he says, ‘preach Christ out of envy and rivalry…..out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.’ What’s that all about? Well, these Gospel workers Paul is referring to who are wanting to stir up trouble for Paul while he is in prison are true Gospel workers. They are not heretics-they do preach Christ; that is the Christ of the Bible. Their message is not the issue for Paul; it is their motive which is pretty cruel. This probably lie behind the defence Paul has to make in v12 that his imprisonment has actually proved to serve the Gospel. Why does he have to say that? Well, presumably because some people were saying the opposite, that Paul had somehow let the side down. If only he had taken a more softly, softly approach to evangelism, then he wouldn't have wound up in prison and his ministry might have been a bit more successful, like theirs! So they are trying to make Paul out to be a bit of a failure, rubbing salt into an already painful wound.

Sadly, it can be the case that as Christians we do get caught up in this kind of rivalry with fellow believers which is fuelled by jealousy and envy. Maybe we see someone who occupies the position in the church we once did or who seem to be getting more attention and praise than us, whose ministry is flourishing That is when the temptation comes to find some way of putting them down. It might be that snide comment, starting a rumour, or secretly rejoicing when things don’t seem to be working out too well for them. We have to admit it is plain ugly isn’t it?

But supposing we are the ones on the receiving end of the ‘put down’ from fellow Christians. How are we to respond to that? Let us learn from the example of Paul.

Notice how Paul does not allow self-pity and bitterness to get in the way of getting the Gospel out. Let’s not make the mistake of thinking of Paul as a plaster saint, he had feelings like the rest of us and nothing hurts more than being wounded by fellow Christians. But for the apostle our personal feelings are not what matter the most. What matters most? You've guessed it-the gospel- v 18 ‘What does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached.’ And he adds, ‘Because of this I rejoice.’ He doesn’t look at someone else's ministry which is going well and say, ‘Oh well, one day they will come a cropper, especially after they way they have treated me’. Not at all, he is actually pleased. How they treat him is an irrelevance, provided that the Lord Jesus Christ is being proclaimed-what the heck.

Have you noticed that we not only live in the age of ‘rights’ but in the age of ‘hurts’ even amongst Christians? Far too often good Gospel initiatives or changes in the church which will be of benefit the congregation and the spread of the Gospel are held back because of the fear of someone being ‘hurt’- they might feel left out, undervalued or threatened or whatever. Now of course Christians need to be sensitive to fellow Christians and we are not to go trampling over other people’s feelings; we should be thoughtful and considerate. But on the other hand, let us not be over sensitive either. We shouldn’t be asking ‘Will this hurt me?’ But ‘will this promote the Gospel?’ and if I happen to feel a bit grieved by it because someone else is in the limelight perhaps, then I need to be mature enough by God’s grace to handle that-the main thing is for people to hear about the love of the Lord Jesus Christ. Are you with me?

Which brings us to our third point- concern and the Gospel- vv 18b-26. Paul is rejoicing, like Augustine he is a ‘hallelujah from head to toe.’ The Gospel does that to you. And  notice that he continues to rejoice because of the prayers of his brothers and sisters which he is sure will result in his ‘deliverance’- v19. In the context this is probably referring not to his release from prison, but his ultimate vindication, whether in life or death. He wants to remain faithful- v20-so that he will ‘in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life of death.’ Do you see what matters to Paul? Not personal comfort by Christ’s personal commendation. He wants to hear those words, ‘Blessed, well done my good and faithful servant’.

Paul knows that as such he is in a ‘win win’ situation. If he lives, the ministry goes on and Christ is exalted in that. But if he dies, he goes to be with Christ in glory, and Christ is exalted in that too, as he says,  ‘For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.’ And he feels the tension of this as we see in vv23-24. Do you realise what tremendous freedom such an outlook gives to a Christian? We are so concerned aren't we with what other people think about us, what they might do to us? But the man or woman who lives for Christ is free from such concerns.

Let me give you an example, that of the great 19th century Christian, General Gordon of Khartoum. This is what he once wrote of himself: ‘The more one sees of life, the more one feels, in order to keep it from shipwreck, the necessity of steering by the Polar star- in a word leave to God alone, and never pay attention to the favours or smiles of man; if He smiles on you, neither the smile or frown of man can affect you.’ Eventually of course, he was left to die in the siege of Khartoum, but what enabled him to do so with calm and dignity was the Gospel centredness he had cultivated throughout his life. So in an earlier incident the cruel King John of Abyssinia brought Gordon before him and said: ‘Do you know that I could kill you on the spot if I liked?’ ‘I am perfectly well aware of it your majesty’ Gordon replied. ‘Do so at once if it is your royal pleasure. I am ready.’ ‘What, ready to be killed?’ said the King. ‘Certainly, I am always ready to die.’ countered Gordon. ‘Then my power has no terrors for you?’ the King gasped. ‘None whatever!’ Gordon answered, and the king left him, amazed. After Gordon’s death John Bonner a Scottish friend wrote to Gordon’s brother and said this: ‘What at once and always struck me was the way in which his oneness with God ruled all his actions, and his mode of seeing things. I never knew one who seemed to live with God and for God.’ Friends would that not be the greatest compliment that could ever be paid of us?

Now you may say, ‘Well, Paul is being a little too preoccupied with himself at this point isn’t he? all “this I am torn in two, to be with Christ is better by far.”’ But look at what he goes on to say in v24-25: ‘But it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ will overflow on account of me.’ Who is Paul concerned about? Himself? Hardly. It is the spiritual welfare of other Christians. You see, when you have be gripped by the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, you become less self-centred and more other people –centred. You are always asking, ‘What will benefit my brothers and sisters, what will be for their good leading them to greater joy in Christ?’  That doesn’t necessarily mean giving people what they want-but it is a matter of giving people what they need so that they become more and more mature in Christ.

So let me ask: are you a person of one thing? Are you consumed by the Gospel?  Do you ant to be? The Gospel we have been given saves us, it is meant to change us, it is meant to be at the heart of everything that we stand for as a church and as individual Christian believers. And that is what the Lord Jesus wants for us, because he loves us. And when we have that, as Paul had, then we will know what true rejoicing is, what true worship is, for then we will be able to say, ‘For me to live is Christ, and to die- well that’s gain.’

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