Summary: At the time of writing this letter to the Philippians, we know full well that Paul was in prison, awaiting a trial that would determine whether he was to be executed. You...
I’ve chosen as my text this morning the Philippians passage - ‘Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say ‘rejoice’!’
I do this partly to spare you from having to hear my John the Baptist sermon again. I only have the one. More significantly though, I’ve chosen this passage because I’m conscious of the fact that ‘rejoicing’ is not something I’ve been very good at of late.
Danielle, who was working with me on Friday, was telling me that she’d seen some statistics about how often children laughed in a day, compared to adults. She said this as we listened to my children laughing hysterically at something extraordinarily banal that was playing on the TV.
I can’t remember the figures now but they were quite extraordinary - something like 400 laughs per day per kid, whereas adults laugh on average about 4 times … per week! Danielle took these figures as evidence of the fact that she hadn’t grown up. The flip side of that, of course, is that I obviously have grown up, as I confess that I have become a rather miserable old sod of late.
Well … I’ve had a hard year - probably the hardest year of my life, and most people here have been very understanding of that. But then Paul walks in, saying, “Hey, why don’t you turn that frown upside-down?” and I feel like saying, “Oh … go away!”
You know the deal; ‘misery loves company’, but only if it’s miserable company, and the last thing I feel I need, when I’m busy feeling sorry for myself, is Paul waltzing in, singing, “If life seems jolly rotten, there’s one thing you’ve forgotten, and that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing!”
I find Paul a little hard to identify with at this point. I feel like saying, “what would you know?” But in truth I know full well that Paul did know what it was like to suffer. He knew very well. He might not have struggled with exactly the same things that have plagued me. I don’t think he ever had any teenage children to worry about, but in just about every other respect, I think he knew even my particular struggles very well.
Certainly he knew what it was like to struggle in your role as pastor of a church. Certainly he knew the difficulty of making ends meet financially, and certainly he knew what it was like to have people who hated you and wanted to destroy you. And yet he seems to retain a cheerful countenance even at the worst of times.
Indeed, at the time of writing this letter, we know full well that Paul was in prison, awaiting a trial that would determine whether he was to be executed. You wouldn’t think he had a lot to be joyful about! Even so, he says, ‘rejoice’!
What was his secret?
One possibility, of course, is that Paul was something of a masochist - that he somehow revelled in the pain?
The question has to be asked, for his writings do suggest that he was at times somewhat obsessed with his own suffering. He talks about it all the time. He lists his persecutions like a series of proud credentials:
“Five times I received the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure…” (2 Corinthians 11:24-29)
Paul does get preoccupied with his struggles and devotes a lot of thought to the subject of human suffering - this is true - and yet I believe that this is equally true of the New Testament as a whole.
I remember when Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ”, first came out, the most prevalent criticism I heard was that it was obsessed with suffering. My response was that this reflected the focus of the New Testament, and the Gospels in particular.
The Gospel of Mark, people often say, reads like a crucifixion narrative with an extended introduction. The mystery of the suffering of Christ is a focal point of the New Testament and of the Christian faith, and part of Paul’s preoccupation with his own struggles, I think you‘ll find, is that he can only ever see his own pain in the light of the sufferings of Christ.
There’s a lot more that could be said on this, but it will take us away from our text. Let it suffice today to say that Paul did indeed see significance in his own sufferings in the light of the sufferings of Christ, but this did not mean that he ever enjoyed any of it. On the contrary, just as we see Jesus praying for relief in the Garden of Gethsemane, so Paul tells us how he would often pray to God for relief.