4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
When I was in my early high school years an unusual crime spree broke out in our rural community in Southern Illinois. Soda Vending Machines went missing. The local television news stations picked upon the story and brought reports every time a new vending machine vanished. This continued for weeks with heightened interest.
Some thought organized crime was to blame. Some thought it might be an out-of-state chop-shop operation breaking the machines down to their component parts for sale on the black market.
It turns out when soda machines go missing the police start watching soda machines very closely. By and by the perpetrators were caught.
It turns out it wasn’t a syndicate of sophisticated criminals. It was a group of local boys with a little too much time on their hands.
It turns out they were not selling the machines for their component parts. They were breaking them open with a sledge hammer for a few handfuls of quarters and drinking the soda themselves.
It turns out the law doesn’t much care how little you gain from a crime. The judicial system is more interested in how much loss you caused someone else. Those machines are expensive and these were multiple felony thefts.
It also turned out I knew all the upperclassmen involved as they went to my high school. We only had 150 or so in the entire student body so everyone knew everyone. Suffice it to say that the criminals involved received a lot of attention when they returned from that other government-funded institution in which they were enrolled. Our high school was really just one long hallway. I remember the running joke. Someone on one end of the hall would yell, “What kind of bird doesn’t sing?”
The response would come back: “Jailbirds!”
That was our idea of a “sick burn” in those day. But is that true? Don’t jailbirds sing?
All the way back in 1969 Maya Angelou wrote her first autobiography about living in the prison of racism. She called her story, “I Know Why Caged Birds Sing.” We can go back further to 1957 when Elvis had his first big hit that reminded us that sometimes everybody on the old cell block dances to the Jailhouse Rock.
The original Joyful Jailbird, however, was the Apostle Paul. Most of the books of the New Testament were written by a man very acquainted with the Roman Penal System.
At one point in his life Paul was the Arrester, not the Arrestee. It was his job to round up followers of The Way, the early Christians, in an effort to snuff out the nascent movement. He helped oversee the execution of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. And it was while he was travelling to Damascus with arrest papers in his hands that he experienced an encounter that would forever change his life. He was blinded by a great light and heard a voice say, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
Paul went on to Damascus where he was ministered to by a brave believer named Ananias. He received his sight. He was baptized. No one inside or outside the church could believe it. This one who was famous for arresting Christians is now one of them.
His old friends immediately shunned him or wanted him dead. Even certain government officials began to take a dim view of him. Saul had to be lowered over the wall in a basket to get out of Damascus alive.
Saul became the strangest of apostles. He was not one of the twelve but became the second most influential person in Christianity after Jesus himself. He was as Jewish as one could possibly be but is known for taking the Gospel to the Gentiles. His life was defined by three great missionary journeys throughout the Roman world to extend the Gospel of Jesus, plant churches, and raise up leaders around him. And wherever he went riots seemed to break out. Gentiles rioted in Ephesus when people under his influence turned away from the worship of the goddess Diana. Jewish leaders also rioted against him in Jerusalem.
At the end of his Third Missionary Journey he came to Jerusalem to deliver a financial gift to the economically disadvantaged church there. While in the temple worshipping, someone accused him of bringing Gentiles into the sacred courts. They dragged him out of the temple and started beating him before he could offer any defense. The Roman tribune dispatched soldiers to break up the commotion and slapped Paul into chains. The Romans initially mistook him for an Egyptian assassin they had been looking for until he started speaking to them in Greek.
So many people wanted Paul dead that they brought him into the Roman barracks for questioning. They were going to flog him until Paul informed them of his Roman citizenship. That meant that he was entitled to due process. They held him only later to discover that no less than forty men had put themselves under a vow that they would not eat or drink anything until Paul was dead.
By this time the reign of Pontius Pilate was long gone. The current governor was Felix and he was enjoying his residence down on the coast at Caesarea Maritime. The Roman Tribune called two centurions with their hundred men each, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen to take Paul the fifty miles to the coast for trial.
Roman justice, sometimes swift, could also be painfully slow. Paul was kept at Caesarea for two years under guard. Friends were allowed to come and go. Occasionally he was brought in for some sort of hearing. Felix, expecting a bribe, kept dragging the process out. Festus, his successor, was inclined to send Paul back to Jerusalem from where the charges originated. To avoid this Paul exercised his right to appeal to Caesar himself and was shipped off to Rome.
On arduous journey with other prisoners Paul is famously shipwrecked and all 276 lives aboard were almost lost. By God’s grace they made it onto the island of Malta. Gathering firewood, Paul is bitten by a deadly snake. The superstitious inhabitants of the island thought he must surely be guilty to survive shipwreck only to be bitten by a viper. When he showed no ill effects they surmised that he must be a god.
When Paul is finally delivered to Rome he is placed under house arrest while the cogs of the Roman judicial system slowly turned. He had a chain around his leg. He is under guard. All his meetings were held via Zoom. He couldn’t get a haircut. Toilet paper was scarce. He wasn’t really sure what day of the week it was.
This went on for two years.
It was while Paul was under House Arrest in Rome that he wrote his letter to the Philippians. If I had been beaten by a mob, had forty men vow to kill me, rotted for two years under the care of crooked politicians, been shipwrecked, snake bit, and put under house arrest…. I think I would be singing the Jailhouse Blues.
But the Epistle to the Philippians is the most positive, joyful, triumphant book in the Bible. We are going to be studying this letter over the next few weeks. I encourage you to read it.
Paul is not only writing during a time of personal trial, but he is also writing to people who themselves are going through extreme hardships for their allegiance to Jesus. He lets them in on his secrets. Letters like Philippians are not written to us, but they are written for us. There is much wisdom for us here, too. We are starting near the end because Paul’s letters are back-loaded with practical wisdom to be applied to our lives.
Claim Your Source
“Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say it: Rejoice!” (v. 4)
How do you navigate when you find yourself in the midst of limitations? Rejoice in what is not limited. If you chief joy is golf right now, you joy is limited. If your chief joy is the stock market, you are in trouble. If your chief joy is baseball, you are reduced to ESPN reruns. Paul’s joy came from rejoicing in something that was unlimited in spite of his circumstances. More specifically, he rejoiced in someone (the only one) who has no limitations.
No matter what my circumstances: God is Good. Jesus has died for me and rose again in eternal victory. His lavish love has made me his child. Through him, I am marching upward to Zion.
God is worthy to be praised even when I am having my lowest moment.
And when we praise… it is uncanny… the very atmosphere around us changes. Psalm 22:3 says that God inhabits the praises of his people. It is electric when we get our eyes off our circumstances and onto him. It is almost as if God shares his infinite joy with me. And this is the secret. Our joy is finite. His joy is infinite. Our joy is transient. God’s joy is unstoppable.
You can move a little sailing boat along a bit, maybe, by blowing into the sails. But it is so much better to position those sails to be filled with wind. God’s joy outdoes our joy every time. Nehemiah spoke to a people weary from work and grief. They heard God’s law, but that only make them depressed at their own unfaithfulness. Nehemiah told them to stop it. Celebrate. He said, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10)
Soften Your Touch
“Let your gentleness be evident to all.” (v. 5)
Living in joy is not just some sort of personal emotional high. In fact, the joy of the Lord exhibits itself in very practical ways. It keeps our feet on the ground. It helps us to relate to others with grace. Christians are “build up” people in a “tear down” culture. We are gentler than we need to be knowing that everyone is in some sort of battle.
Families are locked together during COVID-19. Let’s face it: We start to jump up and down on each other’s nerves. Paul reminds us that living in God’s joy means being patient with others instead of short with them. We can choose to be cool and collected instead of stretched and stressed.
Lift Your Gaze
“The Lord is at hand.” (v. 5)
Paul reminds the Philippians that the return of Jesus is near. Some of you might be thinking, “He said that 2,000 years ago. Boy was he wrong!” But from the standpoint of eternity, a thousand years is but a day. God’s time is not our time. When going through trials, sometimes it is good to remember that this moment is only a blip on the screen of eternity.
Around 500 times in the Bible it says, “It came to pass.” As one old preacher put it: “Thank God it didn’t come to stay! It came to pass.”
When Paul suffered, he put his eyes on eternity. In Romans 8 he says, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
Peter offers his “amen” to Paul in 1 Peter 5:10: “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” Tough times don’t last. Faith, hope, and love remain.
Police Your Soul
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (vs. 6,7)
Our souls are gardens. If we want them to be beautiful and bountiful we must pull the weeds. One of those weeds that Paul says to uproot is anxiety.
If worry is a weed, gratitude is the hoe. As an alternative to anxiety Paul offers us grateful prayer. Whereas worry produces only more worry, gratitude yields peace… the very peace of God… that forms a sort of protective hedge around our hearts and minds.
When hardships (like the COVID-19 Lockdown) arise, the most natural thing to do is complain. Instead of complain and worry, we can choose to do what is unnatural. We can give thanks for what we have and, more specifically, who we have.
Focus Your Mind
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” (vs. 8, 9)
It wasn’t Qui-Gon Gin on Star Wars who came up with this. It was Paul: “Your Focus determines your reality.”
Paul tells the Philippians to do like he had done. Train their brain… focus their minds on what is beautiful and good. God’s beauty is all around us… even in a late April snow. We have a privilege of deciding what we are going to think about. We can turn off Tiger King and contemplate the Risen King. We can write Thank You notes. We can send cards. We can let the people around us know how much we love them.
And It’s Free
Did you notice that none of Paul’s instructions require our circumstances to change before we can use them? There is nothing to buy. No one else needs to act. The ball is in our court. Joy is waiting for us right where we live… lock-down or no lock-down.
The saint in Philippi knew that Paul had great integrity in telling them that Jailbirds Can Sing. At least one family in this church is known to us from history. When Paul and Silas came to Philippi to preach the Gospel, they ended up severely beaten and chained in jail. Acts 16 records that midnight found them praising God… rejoicing in the Lord in spite of their bruises and shackles.
The original Jailhouse Rock took place. As the other prisoners listened to their songs of praise, the chains fell off. An earthquake caused the prison doors to swing open. The Jailer rushed in, assumed his prisoners had escaped, and prepared to kill himself to save his boss the work of doing it himself. Paul stopped the suicide by speaking up in the darkness. All the prisoners were still in place. The warden took Paul and Silas home and dressed their wounds. He and his family were introduced to Jesus and baptized into the First Church of Philippi.
As a preacher, I don’t always practice what I preach. But the Philippians knew that Paul knew some things about looking joyfully to the Lord in the midst of lockdown.
Here is a challenge: Write out Philippians 4:4-9 on a card and put it somewhere you can see it every day. Use it to train youself to look up when you feel locked down. Next week we are going to look at Paul’s secret for finding contentment.