by Chris Ritter
Our Governor announced on Thursday that the Stay at Home Order is extended through the month of May. There is a very slight easing that allows a few more thing to happen, but we are still under House Arrest for the foreseeable future.
It is okay to feel whatever we are feeling about that. God gives us permission to be very honest with our feelings. The Old Testament has a strong theme of complaint. God’s covenant people felt free to vent their frustrations, even toward God. Did you know that every human emotion is found in the Psalms? (Frustration, grief, longing). No matter what you are feeling. It is in there.
I ran across Psalm 88:8 that says, “You have removed my acquaintances far from me. I am shut up and cannot go out.” Does that sound familiar?
If it was not okay to lament, there would not be a book of the Bible called Lamentations! Jeremiah is called “The Weeping Prophet.” Jonah cries out to God from the belly of a fish. We find the might Prophet Elijah in a fetal position feeling completely isolated and alone. David writes raw candid Psalms at the various low points in his life.
We feel guilty when we are sad because we know that so many others have it worse than we do. So maybe you don’t find yourself weeping and crying. Maybe you just feeling blah. The Bible has you covered there, too.
There was once a very unique man that began attending a church I once pastored. He was a lawyer and once was wealthy and operated a successful firm. But he ended up losing everything, including his wealth, his health, and even his family. When I met him he was living in a hovel that most of us would not feel comfortable letting our dog sleep in.
As a result of all he had been through, he was a spookily negative guy. He was convinced that nothing could help him and that he was beyond redemption. He told me once, “I have broken all ten commandments.”
I naively asked, “What about ‘Thou Shalt not kill?’”
He looked at me with dead eyes and said, “1968 was a very bad year.”
I started meeting with this guy. He was impervious to hope. There was nothing that I could say to get him to see life in a new light. Anything I suggested was immediately dismissed. We helped him with his living situation, but his soul was as dark as ever. I was at the end of my rope trying to help him.
I seldom ever do this, but I decided to use reverse psychology on him. I told him, “I can see that you are dangerously depressed. I really think it is important that you stay away from the Book of Ecclesiastes. It is too dark, too dismal. He sort of looked at me, confused.
What do you think he did? He went and read Ecclesiastes… which is a Book by someone who has seen it all, done it all, got the T-shirt, and found life pretty meaningless, even as he continues to be in conversation with God.
Whenever we met after this, he would quote Ecclesiastes. He wrote letters to people in the church quoting Ecclesiastes. It gave him language to express what he was feeling.
That worked so slick that I thought I would try it again. I told him that I wanted him to stay away from Philippians. By this time he was onto me.
Philippians is such a powerful book in trying times because it is written during Paul’s House Arrest in Rome as he awaited trial before Caesar. Paul should have been singing the Jailhouse Blues. But he isn’t. The recurring and powerful theme through the Letter to the Philippians in one of joy.
Last week we studied Philippians Chapter Four: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: “Rejoice!” When Paul wants to really make a point sometimes he says it twice… says it twice.
The kind of joy he is talking about is not the result of positive external stimuli. Joy is a choice and it is fueled by God’s presence in our lives. It is exhibited in how we treat others. It empowers us to choose gratitude over complaining. It trains our brain to focus on what is good, and true, and beautiful, and right.
What this is not is just pasting a Happy Face sticker over a frown. This is not stuffing down negative feelings… that only increases the internal pressure. I notice there is a lot of volcanic activity happening now around the globe. That happens because pressure has been slowly building inside over time.
Have you ever gone full Krakatoa on someone? It is not usually because of what they did. That was only the trigger. It was something dark that had been growing on the inside of us.
Paul is not just telling us to “turn our frown upside down.” He is aiming at the deep issues. In our reading today from Philippians three, he is goes to the very core of our identity.
3 Further, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. 2 Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. 3 For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— 4 though I myself have reasons for such confidence.
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.Philippians 3:1-11 (New International Version)
We started last week by saying this: “Things will get better.” Hard times comes and then they go. This lock-down will not last forever. That is a certainty.
But the open question is this: Will we get better? That is not automatic. But I believe we can come out of this lock-down more focused, more joyful, more centered, and more connected to God and others. And I also think it is entirely possible that we miss that opportunity. We might just come out of this with longer hair and the “Quarantine Fifteen” many of us have been gaining around our waistline.
But Romans 8:28 is still in effect. God can use all for our good. Let our cry be this: “God, use this time to make me something more. Deepen me. Expand me. Break me open to you and others. Change me.”
And we just happen to be reading a letter from a guy that had the most famous transformation story of all time.
When we first meet Saul of Tarsus it is in Acts 8 where is overseeing the execution of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. As Chapter Nine opens, Paul is breathing out murderous threats against all the early Christians and overseeing a wave of persecution that sends most of them fleeing out of Jerusalem. That would have sufficed for most people, but not for Saul. He secured papers from the temple officials that gave him authority to travel to Damascus in Syria to round up those who had fled there.
We studies Paul’s early life on Wednesday night during Bible Study. I said you might as well cue the Darth Vader music when you first read about Saul.
But by the time Saul gets to Damascus his life is very different. He has been struck blind by a great light. He heard a voice from heaven say, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” He lay blind in Damascus for three days praying and finally heard the Lord say to him that someone would be coming to restore his sight and show him the way.
A brave disciple named Ananias walked into Saul’s room, prayed for him, baptized him, filled him with the Holy Spirit, and the scaled fell from his eyes. He becomes Christianity’s greatest missionary. Talk about a one-eighty!
Your identity is what defines you on the deepest level. And that is very topic that Paul writes about to the Church at Philippi during his House Arrest.
He starts, again, with this theme of Joy. “Rejoice in the Lord.” He says repeating them is not wearisome to him. It is reminder that we all need. We might all do well to set reminders on our phone that simply say, “Rejoice!” When you see those multi-colored hearts in people’s windows, remind yourself to rejoice.
He reminds them and then he warns them: Watch out for the “Mutilators of the Flesh.” There were some coming to Philippi and teaching that you could not have a Christian identity unless you first had a Jewish identity. And circumcision was the mark in the Old Testament that said who was part of the covenant and who was not. In the New Testament, was have a circumcision of the heart. It is not what has happened on the outside that matters. It is what has happened on the inside.
So Paul finds this an ideal time to talk with the believers in Philippi about his source of confidence. What it is, what it is no longer, and the transformation that has happened in his own life.
Paul had a lot of reasons to put confidence in the flesh, in external things. If you organized your life into a Plus Column and a Minus Column, as far as religion goes, Paul checked a lot of boxes on the plus side.
“…circumcised on the eighth day…”
In the Law of Moses, it says that a baby boy should be circumcised when he was eight days old. Jewish families still observe this to this day. Perhaps you can been invited to a Bris, the family celebration that happens on the day of a baby boy’s circumcision.
This tells us that Paul’s family was religiously observant. They did for him what the Law expected. He was raised right.
“…of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin…”
His family were not Proselytes, Gentiles who later became Jewish. He was descended from Abraham. There were twelve tribes of Israel. Not every Jewish family in the First Century retained their tribal ancestry. But his did. Paul could probably recite his family tree going all the way back to Abraham.
Benjamin was the smallest tribe. His family named him after the most famous Benjamite, King Saul, the first King of Israel.
For us that might be like saying our family came over on the Mayflower and we are descended from George Washington: “In fact, the Cherry Tree in our back yard is grown from the seeds of the one he cut down when he was a boy.” This was a point of pride.
“…a Hebrew of the Hebrews…”
Paul’s family did not actually live in the Holy Land. They lived up in Cilicia in a fertile plain we would call part of Modern-Day Turkey. He was from a city called Tarsus. The Jewish community there was part of the Diaspora, the large number of Jews that were scattered around cities throughout the Roman World. There were just as many Jews living in Rome at this time as there were in Jerusalem.
Most of these Jews were “Hellenized Jews.” That means they had adopted Greek Language and varying aspects of Greek Culture. That would have been very natural.
Paul’s family, however, likely attended a synagogue that spoke Aramaic… the language of Jerusalem. That is sort of like some of our Roman Catholic friends want to attend mass that is spoken in Latin… the traditional language of the Roman Catholic Church. You know they are very serious and traditional. Or perhaps like a Muslim that will only read the Koran in Arabic.
“…in regard to the Law, a Pharisee…”
There were three religious parties that emerges from the Inter-Testamental Period (The 400 years between the Old Testament and the New Testament). You had the Saducees that only viewed the five books of Moses as Scripture. They held the High Priesthood in Jerusalem and cooperated with Rome to retain their power.
The Essenes did not believe the Temple was legitimate because the High Priest was not descended from Zadok. So they pulled out into the desert to await the apocalypse.
The Pharisees, however, wanted to live, study, and apply God’s word. They built synagogues where people could study the Word. The interpreted the Word of God, through layers of Rabbinic Teaching, so that people would know how to live clean in a dirty world.
When Paul was an adolescent, he was sent by his family to live in Jerusalem and study under the great and respected Rabbi name Gamaliel.
Paul later said that he was so knowledgeable and gifted that he excelled beyond all his classmates. He was an “up and comer” if there ever was one. Gamaliel is mentioned in Acts 5 as a very moderate and influential voice in the Sanhedrin, the 70-member Ruling Council of the Jews. He likely had the best religious education money could buy in the First Century.
“…as for zeal, persecuting the church…”
Paul was selected by the temple officials to round up the Christians and snuff out this new movement. He was committed to protecting the true faith from what he then saw as a threat. Jesus told his disciples that people would think they were doing God a favor by killing them. Paul was one of these people. He saw Christianity as the spiritual equivalent of COVID-19 and he was going to eliminate it.
“…as for the righteousness based on the Law, faultless…”
I have heard well-meaning Christians say that God did not really expect people to follow all those Old Testament laws. Yes, he did. And Paul did it. Does that mean that Paul was without sin? No. But the law had prescriptions for what to do when a sin was committed. There were prescribed sacrifices that you were to make to get back into right standing.
Paul kept all these laws. But his heart was far from the Truth. It was a religion of externals. Later Paul would look back on this and call himself the Chief of Sinners.
Paul has just taken us on a grand tour of his religious trophy case. He had pedigree, respect, skills, and zeal.
That is his list. What is yours? From where does your identity and feelings of self-worth come?
Or maybe you have a sports trophy case. Or it could be the degrees on your wall. It might be your looks. It might be your professional accomplishments. I was a salesman for a while in my early twenties. When we last moved I found a box with four or five “salesman of the month” trophies. I laughed. Why do we hang onto these things? But you know what? I still do that. Whenever I have an article published in a magazine the publisher send me a copy. I slip it into a special drawer. Why do we drag these things around with us? They tell us a story of who we are that we like to hear. They tell us that we are somebody.
But Paul trashes his trophies: “My gains I now consider losses because of the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord.”
He says he gladly abandons these sources of identity and how considers them garbage. That word “garbage” is a very polite translation. If you went to the King James Version it would say “dung.” In the original Greek, Paul uses a word that would have been very familiar to everyone. When they read this letter out loud to the Church in Philippi, I guarantee you that all the eight-year-old boys giggled. And their dads told them to be quiet, but then they started laughing, too.
Here in Henry County we would probably use the word “Manure.” I spent three years on the morning shift of the family dairy farm. After you milked the cows you got out a great big scoop shovel and cleaned out the barn. I had to hurry to get to school. By the time I got out the shower, by girlfriend, Becky, was there waiting to go to class with me.
When you work around the stuff all the time, your nose loses its sensitivity. (That is part of God’s merciful design.). So when I got out of the shower and dressed, I would have Becky give me to sniff test.
“Did I get the smell of the Dairy off me?”
Sometimes she would say, “No. You still smell like ‘Dairy Air’” (derriere). I would go back and scrub a little longer.
Paul called his religious pedigree, prominence, and pride the same name as the stuff I shoveled for three years… that stuff I put in those little baggies when I walk the dog.
Here is the truth about those things we put in our trophy cases: They all point back to us. They tell us a story about ourselves that we want to hear.
Paul says he found something much better to make his life all about: “I want to be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the Law, but that which comes by faith in Christ.”
He did not want his foundation to be himself. His foundation was none other than Christ. And here we find the secret of Paul’s strength. This is what allowed him to remain joyful even under House Arrest:
My circumstances cannot defeat me when my Savior defines me.
Here is the thing about our Savior: He has been through fire. He has been locked up and nailed down. He was been through death and hell itself.
When you live in Christ, you are not fighting for a victory. You are fighting from a Victory. Paul’s circumstances could not defeat him because his Savior defined him.
You can’t arrest Paul. He has already been arrested by Christ. His life is hid in Him. He would say in Philippians 1:21, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
Let me ask you: What is your foundation? Is it in you?: Your pedigree, accomplishments, looks, work, or family? Or is it in something more than you?
That is an important question. One answer leads to victimhood when any of those things are taken from you. The other leads to victory.
One leads to frustrating limitation when they take you as far as they can go. The other leads to liberty.
Here is a prayer to help us check our foundation, to confirm that our identity is in nothing less that Jesus’ blood and righteousness:
Dear Jesus, I trash my trophies. I want a status not given by my accomplishments but by your grace and righteousness. Make me rich by giving me those things that the world doesn’t give and the world cannot take away. For me, to live is Christ. Amen.