Through God’s Strength!

“Through God’s Strength!” – September 19, 2020

Philippians 4:12-20 (4:12-14)

When people have food, shelter, employment, and money, it’s easy to be content and happy. Isn’t it? Or, is it easy to be poor, hungry, unemployed and homeless? What would the apostle Paul’s answer to that question be?

This is our last sermon from Philippians. We are looking again at the apostle Paul, in prison, in a really awful situation. Shackled to a Roman soldier, 24 hours a day, with no privacy, in a cold, dank, drafty stone cell.

For the past eight weeks, we have considered Paul and his words to his friends from Philippi. He wrote this thank-you letter to the Philippians congregation, and it was one of the most joy-filled letters we have, included in the New Testament.

Do you know how much it means for a friend to send a message, an email, a card or letter, especially when you are downhearted and close to giving up hope? That is what Paul’s former congregation in Philippi did. They showed “a love and concern that led them to help Paul. The most significant gifts often cost us very little—sometimes nothing, except a few moments to say a friendly word or the make a telephone call or send an email, the stamp to post a letter or a card. What matters is that someone has been remembered with affection and concern.” [1]

Paul says he knows what it’s like to be poor, and he knows what it’s like to have abundance, in verse 12. I know there are many in the United States who may consider themselves to be poor, but I wonder whether you realize quite what Paul was talking about here.

We could drill down to find out more about economic, educational and societal poverty worldwide. For example, according to the United Nations latest report on poverty in 2019, 23 percent of the world population – that’s 1.3 billion people – lived in abject poverty worldwide. Just to give you an idea of how little money we are talking about, that is living on approximately $1 a day, or less.

Paul did not mean just economic poverty. He also was talking about poverty of spirit, poverty of emotional wherewithal, poverty of humility and ability to persevere.

We all know something about that. Who has not felt the pinch of poverty of spirit in the past six months? In the past six months, who has not had their emotions shredded raw, like raw vegetables on a kitchen grater? Never mind about humility, who has felt their ability to persevere stretched very, very thin? I know I have. And, I suspect I am not the only one, by far.

 Paul could have been in despair, being in prison, charged with a capital crime. He was facing possible death. Yet, he wrote one of the most joy-filled letters in the New Testament. What was his secret? How did Paul keep his chin up?

He tells us, right here. In today’s Scripture reading, Paul says, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

Yeah, right, Paul! Easy for you to say!

As one of my favorite commentators J. Vernon McGee says, “Many of us think that if things are going right and if we are in the right place, then we will be contented. That means that we depend on the circumstances of life for our contentment….But Paul had learned to be content regardless of his state. There were times when he had nothing, and he was content. There were times when God had given him an abundance, and he had learned how to abound.” [2]

Paul “is able to meet the circumstances of life head-on in the strength of Christ. Paul does not depend on his own strength or ability, rather he relies on the sustaining help of Jesus.” [3] Our Lord Jesus will sustain us with his strength. Alleluia!

Paul does not share his dire circumstances in order to twist the arms of his friends to send him more money. No! He thanks his Philippian friends for both their financial gift as well as their messenger, Epaphroditus, and this letter is so, so much more than just a simple thank-you card. Paul also communicates the fact that – over his years of serving the Lord – he has learned to be content, no matter what. Either contentment with hunger, as Jesus did in the wilderness, or “contentment with abundance, without being caught up with the desire for more. He has learned to rejoice in the lean times and does not feel compelled to change his circumstances. He leaves that to God.” [4]

This sounds like it flies in the face of everything we might hear from those television evangelists who preach the health, wealth and prosperity Gospel. But, isn’t it consistent with what many people in the Bible – both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament – experience on a daily basis? Paul tells us right here that it is not the outer trappings of wealth and plenty, or the circumstances of life that count to God. No, it is the internal attitude, the Godly mindset, the inside job that truly counts.

Praise God that our internal attitude is what God finds truly valuable. May we all, like Paul, be filled to overflowing, well-supplied with the strength of Christ Jesus our Lord.   


[1] Hooker, Morna D., “The Letter to the Philippians,” The New Interpreters Bible Commentary, Vol. XI (Abingdon, Nashville, TN: 2000), 548.

[2] McGee, J. Vernon, Thru the Bible, Vol. V (Thomas Nelson Publishers: Nashville, 1983), 326.

[3]  “The Power that Christ Gives,” Rev. Bryan Findlayson, Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources   http://www.lectionarystudies.com/sunday28aee.html

[4] From the series: To Live Is Christ: A Study of the Book of Philippians

https://bible.org/seriespage/13-give-and-take-phil-410-20

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Not Grow Tired or Weary

“Not Grow Tired or Weary”

Isa 40-28 the Lord, mountain

Isaiah 40:21-31 (40:28) – February 4, 2018

Today, February 4, 2018, marks a great extravaganza of sport, of enjoyment, of food and drink and parties and advertising and lots of other things that encompass entertainment. Today is the evening of the Super Bowl, that year-end blow-out, where American football celebrates the best it has to offer. And then some.  This game has become a worldwide phenomenon, and millions of people will tune in and watch the festivities, worldwide.

The elite athletes who play in this game are among the small percentage of people in the United States who are in really peak physical condition. It does not matter about when or where such professional athletes are playing professional sports, vast audiences worldwide watch in admiration as these strong athletes compete. Huge crowds watch to see who will be victorious, which team will be the most mighty and powerful.

This was a similar occurrence in the days of the first century, too. The Apostle Paul talks about elite athletes involved in professional sports in his time–except, more blood-thirsty, where people received public accolades and their equivalent of Super Bowl and other championship rings.

This was definitely not the situation in the time of our Scripture passage from Isaiah 40, I am sorry to say. The nation of Israel is in exile. The last thing they are thinking of is competing in sports. In fact, the conquering nation of Babylon has demonstrated its might and its power over the defeated nation of Israel, since they transported a large portion of the people of Israel into exile, into towns of Babylon and into labor camps, too.

If we were to look at this war between Israel and Babylon as one huge competition, Team Israel would be really smacked down. Sure, it was a bloody competition, but the Babylon team ended up on top. They were the winners, and they took lots and lots of treasure and precious things from Israel for their “championship” prizes. Along with lots and lots of the best and brightest people in Israel as their captives.

The direct analogy breaks down at this point, but let’s take a closer look at the predicament of Team Israel. In exile. Discouraged, dismayed, away from “home” for decades. Away so long that the next generation of Israelites have grown up in Babylon and only have long-distance memories to fall back on. In the cosmic order of things, defeated Team Israel must really feel like grasshoppers, like verse 22 tells us.

Today, with this fierce American culture of competition, one-up-man-ship, dog-eat-dog and better-than, many people feel like grasshoppers, too. Few of us can claim to be professional athletes or elite soldiers, either. So many are made to feel less-than or inferior. Not good enough, not fast enough, not skilled enough, not popular enough.

As one of the commentators, Doug Bratt, says of our modern-day predicament, “Maybe it’s the other students at school who mock them.  Or perhaps loneliness or even advancing age makes people feel like grasshoppers.  We may feel like grasshoppers when we trudge into our workplace or try to raise a difficult child.  Or perhaps reports from their investment or pension funds make people feel like grasshoppers.” [1]

 We can feel defeated even before we begin to try, before we make the attempt to put ourselves forward and compete. Lord, what gives? How come? Why me? What’s the use? I may as well pull the covers over my head and stay in bed.

However, most everyone would agree with the statements from Isaiah chapter 40 about the Lord, the everlasting God, the creator of the heavens and the earth. The Lord is greater than all of us, here on the earth. The Lord is even greater than the kingdom of Babylon or the Roman Empire. The Lord is greater and more powerful than all the armies of all the empires of all time, put together.

Just as a comparison, a few verses earlier in this chapter, in verse 12, the prophet says “Who has measured the waters in the hollow of God’s hand, or with the breadth of God’s hand marked off the heavens? Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance?” Just to let you all know, according to Isaiah 40, the universe can be measured in the span of God’s hand.

It’s figurative and poetic language, but this language gives us some idea of how huge and mighty and powerful our God really is.

Even the most elite Olympic athlete and the most powerful professional soldier has their down times. Even the best of the best grows weary and gets tired. It happens to the best of us, as well as to the rest of us.

Eric Liddell, the 1924 Olympic medal winning runner who was made famous again by the movie Chariots of Fire, was one of these elite Olympic athletes. Yes, athletes from all over the world, through the ages, have been at the top of their game and the best of the best.

I suspect Eric Liddell and the other men on the British running team grew tired and weary, from time to time. And, those who hear and proclaim Isaiah 40 today also know what it means to be weak.  Even children and young adults, as the prophet reminds us, sometimes “grow tired and weary.”  Even Olympic athletes and elite soldiers pccasionally stumble and fall.  So, at no matter what point of life in which we find ourselves, whether or not we always realize it, all of us very much need God’s help. [2] No matter what, no matter who, we all need God’s helping hand. Maybe more often than sometimes.

In Isaiah 40, we find that Israel is told that they can exchange their weakness for God’s strength. Commentator Ralph West tells us in Hebrew, it actually says they can “exchange their strength.”  “God can give strength without His strength being diminished at all. God can give power without His power being lessened, if you wait on God.  If you wait on the Lord, God will give replace your weakness with God’s strength, your emptiness with His wholeness, your burnout with His new beginning, all because of God’s mercy.” [3]

Do you hear? Do you understand? God’s provision is not just for the best and the brightest. God’s power and strength is not just for the one percent at the top of the heap. God’s mercy is for everyone, young and old. We all can exchange our weakness and weariness for God’s strength, for God’s mighty power.

“God doesn’t always take away our problems.  Yet God gives us the strength to deal with them.  God helps vulnerable people like us so that we can run and not tire out.” [4] Having a mighty, powerful God like this on our side is worth a whole lot more than any Super Bowl ring, any day of the week. Amen, and amen!

 

[1] http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/epiphany-5b-2/?type=old_testament_lectionary

Commentary and illustration idea, Isaiah 40:21-31, Doug Bratt, Center for Excellence in Preaching, 2015.

[2] http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/epiphany-5b-2/?type=old_testament_lectionary

Commentary and illustration idea, Isaiah 40:21-31, Doug Bratt, Center for Excellence in Preaching, 2015.

[3] http://www.theafricanamericanlectionary.org/PopupLectionaryReading.asp?LRID=100

Commentary, Isaiah 40:27-31, Ralph D. West, The African American Lectionary, 2009.

[4] http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/epiphany-5b-2/?type=old_testament_lectionary

Commentary and illustration idea, Isaiah 40:21-31, Doug Bratt, Center for Excellence in Preaching, 2015

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)