Paul is in prison. That doesn’t particularly bother him – he’s been in prison before. Traveling around the Mediterranean, bringing the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ has caused problems for Paul. People in power have often not liked what he preached, or have felt threatened by his message. So prison is nothing new for Paul. In fact, Paul does some of his best preaching to the prison guards and those around him.
But this time, Paul realizes that this may be the last time he is imprisoned. This time, the powers that be may just decide to execute him. If that happens, it happens. Paul has no regrets. He’s been passionate about preaching Christ crucified. He’s seen God’s love and grace transform people’s lives. God has used him to start churches, and to teach congregations about Christ death and resurrection, and about how to live as children of the King and citizens of the kingdom of heaven.
No regrets. In fact, death just means that he will now live in the presence of Christ – which is a whole lot better than being in prison!
But then he thinks about his dear friends at the church in Philippi. He misses them and loves them. He’s so proud of them and their faith in Christ and the love they have for each other. He would dearly love to see them again.
His death would cause them so much pain. And there is so much he has to teach them yet. As they continue to grow in their faith, they still need him to guide them. They have trials of their own to face and need the encouragement Paul can give them.
Paul begins to write to his friends.We don’t know what the particular trials the Philippians were suffering Maybe they had upset the status quo and angered some city leaders. Maybe some of their neighbors thought that they were no longer good citizens because they would not participate in the public worship of the traditional gods and the Emperor.
We don’t know what the Philippians were facing. But we do know that kind of trials and suffering we face.
Sickness – Tami was a five year cancer survivor the day she found out her cancer returned. She fought it for another 2 years before she lost her battle. She spent her last few months bedridden, in pain and very weak. She often wondered, “Why doesn’t God just take me?”
Job loss and economic uncertainty - Mark was downsized out of his job when the economy hit the rocks in 2008. He hasn’t been able to find another job in the 3 years since. Oh, there’s been temporary work and some occasional short term contracts. Fortunately, Cindy’s job was not affected. Things have been tight, but now, Cindy just found out that her job is scheduled to be eliminated in a month.
Loss of loved ones - Ruth is in her nineties. She lost her daughter about 20 years ago. Over the years, one by one her brothers and sisters have died. When the youngest, the baby of the family, died a couple of years ago, Ruth took it really hard. She was the only one left. Now she’s grieving the loss of her son. She’s outlived her siblings, her husband and her children. She feels so old and useless; she wonders why God keeps her around.
Natural disasters – Tom is back at him home in Pierre, what’s left of it at least. All his belongings, clothes, furniture, pictures everything were damaged in the rising waters. He looks around at the house. The carpet has to be ripped up, the drywall torn out, the floors removed. It almost looks as if it would be better to tear it down and build new from the foundation up.
Crop or livestock loss – In a farming community, we all understand this particular trial. Howard told me about how 5 years ago it was so bad they didn’t even get the combine out – there was nothing to harvest.
Care giving during a loved one’s illness - Laura’s teen age son suffers from severe mental illness. He bounces from joy to despair it seems at the drop of a hat. He rages at her and then later apologizes for his outburst. She feels like she’s walking on eggshells, trying not to set him off. And the doctor appointments, the hospitalizations, the meetings with the school – it seems she’s always dealing with a crisis of some sort. She loves her son and would do anything for him. Still, she feels like life and joy is being drained out of her very being. And then she feels guilty.
We all face times of troubles, suffering and trials – sickness, job loss, trying to make ends meet, the loss of a loved one, caring for an aging parent or critically sick child.
During those times we long for a break. We long for better days. We long for comfort and rest.
The last thing we want to be told is to ‘stand firm.’
But that’s exactly what Paul tells the Philippians. He uses his own thinking: about how he’d rather be with Jesus, especially if he’s going to die anyway. But Paul knows that it is better for him to remain. Being with Jesus would be good for Paul, but staying would be far better for the Philippians.
Not that Paul’s choice is whether to live or die – that’s in God’s hands. Paul’s choice is to moan about his circumstance or to allow God to equip him with endurance.
Paul’s example provides encouragement to the Philippians to stand firm and endure the trials and suffering that they are experiencing. Paul tells them (and us) that God will empower the community to stand in the face of suffering.
Jesus too wrestled with a choice – between the road to the cross and some other way. And yet, Jesus chose love for others over his own comfort. He chose to endure the cross because of his love.
In Jesus suffering and death, God entered into the human experience of suffering. It doesn’t make it easier to bear, but it we can endure because God is present in those moments of our deepest pain.
We are reading the first chapters of Genesis in confirmation class right now. Adam and Eve need to leave the Garden and God talks about how they will suffer outside of the Garden. Only three chapters into the Bible and already everything seems lost. But it’s important to remember that God doesn’t stay behind in the Garden and leave Adam and Eve on their own. God provides them what they need for the outside world. And God goes with them. The rest of the biblical story is all about God walking with us, redeeming our suffering and bringing salvation – ultimately through Jesus.
Paul encourages the Philippians to stand firm in their faith, through whatever trials they may have. By standing firm together they comfort one another. Together they see possibilities for redemption. Together they find hope in God’s promise.
Well dressed Christians wear love and compassion. They are also girded with endurance – a gift from God that brings them hope in the midst of their trials and points other’s to Jesus.