4th Sunday of Pentecost
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, how do you feel about maggots? You know, those little squirmy, slimy, slithery, insects? Those things that you see crawling all over a dead animal carcass. How do you feel about maggots? They’re disgusting, right? Well, a while ago Jim Gildersleeve told me a story about when he was working a night shift at the hospital. A man had been brought in who was having a lot of seepage from the bandages around a wound on his knee that had been worked on, so Jim was going to change the dressing on the knee, but as he was taking the bandage off, all of a sudden he saw these maggots coming out! He thought, “Uh oh, I better call the doctor,” so he called the doctor and said, “I think you better come in here, there are worms in this man’s knee.” But the doctor wasn’t very happy and responded, “Well, there better be, I put them in there.” He did it on purpose, but is wasn’t a sick joke. In fact, about 10 years ago those little maggots were actually approved by the FDA as its only live medical device! Yes, those little larvae actually eat away at dead tissue and bacteria stimulating healing and helping to prevent infection! Who would have guessed it?! You see, there are certain things in life that we tend to associate as being bad that can actually serve a very beneficial purpose. And that’s exactly the point the Apostle Paul was sharing with the Philippian Christians and also us today.
Remember that Paul had started the church in Philippi on his 2nd missionary journey and that the congregation was very dear to his heart, very generous, and very supportive of Paul in his missionary efforts. Well, less than 10 years after Paul started the church he had gone to Jerusalem down in Israel to worship in the temple, but then some of his enemies tried to essentially lynch him, then he was rescued by Roman soldiers, put on trial, survived an assassination plot, sat in prison for 2 years with no progress in his trial, the only charge against him was that he was preaching the gospel about Jesus, finally, he appealed his case to the Roman emperor, was set off on a ship to Rome, caught in a nasty storm, his boat shipwrecked, eventually he made it to Rome, but there he sat on trial again for some 2 years under house arrest, guarded by Roman Praetorian guards.
It was with this history and in this setting that Paul wrote to the Philippian Christians. Last week we heard how Paul was joyful for his partnership in the gospel with them and offered a prayer on their behalf. Now, he gets into the body of his letter. And what’s usually included in most letters we write or recieve? At some point, usually fairly early in the letter you write about how you are doing, what things are going on in your life, etc. No doubt the Philippians were anxious to hear about Paul- was he being taken care of, was he well or sick, is he alone, is he cold at night, etc. But Paul skips right over himself and lets the Philippians know rather how the gospel is doing. “Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.”
Just when you might have thought Paul would explain how his situation and the difficulties he’s been facing have blocked or at least impeded the spread of the gospel…he says…the opposite! Everything that has happened to him has actually furthered the progress of the gospel! You see, that’s the way God often works, isn’t it? He often does things in ways not just beyond human understanding, but actually contrary to it! In the midst of these trials, challenges, and problems that Paul was going through is precisely where God was getting His work done- the gospel was spreading! And Paul recognizes that. Paul is sitting in house arrest, guarded by a soldier, and in chains and yet, where’s his focus? On how God is using this for His good, for His blessings, and Paul wants the Philippians to see that.
Isn’t it so often that when we are going through challenges and going through difficulties that it gives our faith a chance to shine brightly in the world? An unbeliever can’t help but to shake his fist at the world and at “God” when life turns on him. The most he can take comfort in is the fact that bad luck happens to him just as much as it happens to everyone else. But the Christian takes comfort in the fact that God is both able and does use all things for the advancement of the gospel- even when he allows his missionaries to be thrown in prison!
What about us? Can we say that about the instances of our lives? Of course, there are times when we bring trouble on ourselves through our own sinfulness, our own poor choices, and our own bad ideas. True. But there are times when things out of our control happen to us; they come at us from the outside. But can you say with all the tough times you’ve been through: these things that happened that seemed to be against me actually happened for the progress of the gospel? That time when I spent 3 days in the hospital helped me further realize how frail and flighty my life is and how much I depend on God. That time I got sick it drove me to my knees to find my strength in God. That time when it seemed that everything was going against me gave me the opportunity to let my faith shine, let my trust in God show forth brightly. That time when I went through financial difficulties gave me a chance to show others that real riches are the riches that are mine in Christ my Savior.
We can’t make the gospel any more attractive than what it already is, there isn’t one thing you or I can do in order to make the gospel more powerful. But, what we can do is get in its way. How do we do that? Instead of seeing hardships, difficulties, constraints placed on us as opportunities for us to let the gospel shine through us, we focus on ourselves, we focus on the circumstances, we fill ourselves with self-pity.
Certainly Paul could have gone on a tirade here of all the things that had gone against him. Knowing all of the stuff that he went through- the beatings, the deceptions, the injustices, none of us would have faulted him for saying something like, “I can’t believe this! This is unbelievable! This is terrible! What is God doing! I’m out to do God’s work and THIS is how I am rewarded! This is what I get for trying to do good in this life?? To live my life the way God wants me to? Why bother! What’s the use?” Or he could have complained: “I was looking forward to the years of service to God- now look at me!” Or even thinking that the devil has had his way this time and is winning. It wouldn’t take us much imagination to picture his situation: the constant tug of the chain- even to reach for a glass of water, the stress of being under constant supervision.
But the sad fact is, you and I can and have gotten in the way of the gospel, missed opportunities to share our faith when constraints have been placed on us. How? Two ways. First, by having the wrong goal in life. It’s all too easy for our world’s materialistic goals to rub off on us, to think our goal in life is to be the one to die with the most toys. It’s not, our goal in life is to know Christ and make Him known. Secondly, through self-pity. Often when our misplaced goals aren’t achieved we fall into self-pity. Instead of enduring hardship with patience, we complain about our situation. We focus on the negative aspects and forget the positives. And the worst part is that we miss out on opportunities to share our faith.
Paul’s circumstances looked bleak, but God used it for the advance of the gospel. It’s absolutely remarkable when you think of it that the whole guard of soldiers all understood that Paul was in chains for proclaiming that God had turned the crucifixion of the Jesus into good news. God had transformed Paul’s dismal circumstances into a means for the powerful advancement of the gospel. In spite of constraints Paul told about the God whose love knows no bounds and who sent His Son to die on a cross to pay for all sins in full- yours and mine included. Can you picture Paul- even in this dismal circumstance- when a guard came to relieve another guard, Paul smiling to himself and saying to himself, “He doesn’t know it, but he’s here for me, and I am here to guard him, to guard him for Christ? I might be constrained by these chains, but the gospel isn’t and I’ll take every opportunity to share it.
When our joy in life is connected to the advancement of the gospel, with finding ways to communicate the gospel, rather than complaining about our physical conditions, then our joy remains firm, even when these circumstances stand against us. God uses suffering as his tool to advance the gospel. It was true for Paul and it’s true for you.
The second aspect of this text is that Paul’s imprisonment actually encouraged others: “Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.” Normally you would think that Paul being imprisoned would have dampened their spirit and maybe caused them to go underground, but just the opposite happened. Paul’s imprisonment and continual focus on the gospel led others to be emboldened to preaching the gospel more. By seeing Paul’s willingness to make the advancement of the gospel the most important aspect of his life, others have been challenged to preach the gospel with daring and fearlessness
It is one of the most powerful witnesses you as a Christian can give to others of your faith in God and of the power of the gospel when you are in the midst of difficulty, hardship or constraints. And God uses your witness in such circumstances to encourage others in their faith.
And it’s precisely this encouragement that father’s get to give their children. To tell your children at the end of the day: I’ve made a lot of mistakes in life, my heart has chased wealth, chased popularity, chased after honor and prestige, chased after leaving my mark on this world, but I want you to know children that what matters most to me is my faith in God as my Savior and using my life to honor him for all that He has done for me. And by word and example, through tough times and pleasant times, to trust in the gospel and look for its blessings and opportunities to share it in every circumstance that gives true joy.
Whatever your situation may be- good or bad- see God’s blessings, never again will you have the chance in this moment, in this situation, in this ordeal to live for Him, to trust Him, to please Him. May God bless you as you leave self-pity behind, as you talk less of your complaints and more of Christ – his love and forgiveness - and as you see every circumstance you are in as an opportunity in which God has placed you to spread His Gospel!