Our Great Joy

            I have a feeling that someone is going to make a fortune on these T-shirts that say, “I survived 2020”.  Because it’s been that kind of a year.  Twelve months ago, we never could have imagined what was about to happen.  It’s been a tough year for all of us.  And it’s not over yet.

            But before we wrap up 2020 and move on to what we hope are better times, we come to a time in the year known as Advent.  Advent is that season that starts around Thanksgiving and leads us to Christmas.  Traditionally, it’s a time for us to turn the focus away from ourselves and think about Jesus.  And oh, how we need Jesus.  We’ve always needed Jesus, but this year it just feels like we’ve needed him more than ever before.

            The Christmas story begins with the angelic announcement of the birth of Christ.  In Luke 2:10, the angel of the Lord said to the shepherds, “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people” (Luke 2:10 NLT).  Good news. That will bring great joy.  To all people.  I think it’s safe to say that we could use all the good news and great joy that we can possibly find at the end of the most difficult year that most of us can remember.

And if there’s anyone who ought to be filled with great joy and spreading joy throughout the world, it’s those of us who are Christians.  Because we have more reason to be joyful than anybody else on the face of this earth.  That’s why Paul was able to say in Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I say, rejoice.”

But, let’s be honest.  It’s tough to find much joy right now.  In June of this year, a study by the National Opinion Research Center found that people in the United States are more unhappy today than they have been in 50 years.  According to this study, only 14% of American adults say they’re very happy, which is down from 31% just two years ago.  It would appear that these days, most people are enduring life rather than enjoying it.

            And it’s easy to see why.  Because happiness is always connected with circumstances.  If circumstances are good, then it’s easy to happy.  But if circumstances are bad, then we’re unhappy.  And so, we spend our lives thinking that if we could just change some aspect of our lives — more money and fewer bills, a better job, the perfect spouse, children that always behave, enjoying good health, surrounded by people who are always kind and loving, then we could be happy.

            If we could somehow just get rid of all our problems, then life would be great.  But of course, we all recognize that that’s never going to happen.  And yet Paul said, “Rejoice in the Lord, always.”

            “Always” means to rejoice when things aren’t going so well.  When the car breaks down.   When the money in the bank runs out three days before you get paid again.  When the whole family is making trips to the doctor one after the other.  When you’re isolated from everyone else in the world.  Those are times that it’s not so easy to rejoice.  And yet, here’s Paul saying, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice.” 

            Paul had learned the secret to joy no matter what his situation was.  So, how did Paul do it? How could Paul stay joyful even though times were tough and events hadn’t turned out the way he wanted them to?  How was he able to keep this positive attitude even when people around him weren’t treating him very nicely?  How was Paul able to have joy when he was so uncertain about what was going to happen in the future?

            This morning I want us to try to learn how to develop that same kind of joyful attitude.  You know, we may like to think that this year has been the worst possible year, but if we take a look at Paul’s life, I don’t think that any of us would want to trade what we have experienced this year with what Paul was experiencing when he wrote his letter to the Philippians.

In chapter 1, Paul mentions a lot of negative things that were going on in his life.  But Paul was able to see how God was using those negative things to accomplish some positive things.  And because of that, his life was filled with joy.

But before we take a look at what Paul said to the Philippians, I want us to watch this brief video from the Bible Project on what biblical joy is all about.

Show VIDEO (Joy)

So, let’s take a look at Paul’s situation to see what Paul was experiencing while he had such great joy.

I.          Paul Had Joy Despite Unpleasant Circumstances

            For years, it was Paul’s desire to preach the gospel in Rome.  Since Rome was the center of the great Roman Empire, it was the key city of its day.  And Paul knew that if he could conquer that city for Christ, it would mean reaching millions of people with the message of salvation.

            And so Paul went to Rome, but it wasn’t exactly what you would consider ideal circumstances.  He wanted to go to Rome as a preacher, but he ended up going as a prisoner.  Now if I had been in that situation, I probably would have complained about how nothing ever seems to work out right.  Everything is going wrong.  But I want you to notice that Paul didn’t react that way at all.

            “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.” (Philippians 1:12-13).

            It would have been so easy for Paul to sit and complain, “Why me?  I can’t believe all these terrible things are happening to me.  I wanted to preach the gospel in Rome and here I am stuck in prison.  Lord, how could you let this happen?”  But instead, Paul rejoiced that he was finally in Rome.  It wasn’t ideal circumstances.  But what made the difference is that Paul didn’t just see hardship and setbacks; he also saw an opportunity for evangelism

            It’s true that Paul was a prisoner, but he soon learned that his imprison­ment, instead of shutting the door, had actually opened some new doors.  Sometimes we say that when God closes one door, he opens another. 

            But, for Paul, it was more than just a cute little motto. He truly believed it.  And so, even when he’s thrown into prison, he sees it not as a door being closed, but as door which opened into whole new areas.

            To begin with, his chains gave him access to a new group of unsaved people.  Night and day, there was a soldier to guard Paul.  In fact, there would have been a rotation of guardsmen assigned to his duty.  Every eight hours or so, the shift would change.  And, one by one, during the two years that Paul was there, every single one of the sol­diers of the palace guard would be on duty with Paul.  Now think about what an opportunity that was.

            Because what do you suppose Paul was doing while he was a Roman prisoner?  He was constantly praying to God.  He was talking to visiting Christians about their spiritual welfare.  He was dictating letters, like this one to the Philippians, dealing with spiritual matters.  And I’m sure he spent time talking about Christ with the soldiers he was chained to.

            Now imagine the impact that that must have had.  I find it ironic that while the Roman soldiers thought that Paul was their prisoner, the truth is that they were his pris­oners!  Those Roman soldiers had no choice but to listen to him.  They had to stay right there next to him.  For two years, this went on.  And some of those soldiers were eventually led to a faith in Christ.  And so Paul was able to teach the gospel to people he never could have reached as a free man.

            So, Paul said that his imprisonment had actually served to advance the gospel.  Instead of feeling frustrated about what he couldn’t do, Paul was excited about the opportunity to do some other things.

            And I think Paul’s attitude shows us that there are two approaches we can take to life.  As I said last week, there are two questions that we can ask ourselves.  Either we can ask the negative:  “Why did this have to happen to me?”  Or we can choose to ask the positive:  “How can these things that have happened to me result in some benefit that God has in mind?”

            Like Joseph said to his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” (Genesis 50:20).  Looking at everything from God’s perspective, Paul realized that what might have seemed to be a tragedy was, in fact, a tremendous opportunity for him to bring glory to God.  And, as a result, Paul was able to rejoice even in prison.

You see, God can take the most negative things that happen to us in life, and turn them into something positive.  And so, let me ask you, What kind of attitude do you have when things get tough?  Do you have an attitude that says, “Why did this have to happen to me?” or the kind that says, “How can God use this to advance his cause?”  The answer you give to that question will determine to a large extent the amount of joy you’ll be able to experience in life.

II.        Paul Had Joy Despite Difficult People

          “And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.  Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will.  The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment.”  (Philippians 1:14-17)

            Paul’s imprisonment had two very different effects on Christians around him.  First of all, Paul said that most of the brethren were encouraged by his chains.  They saw Paul continue to preach the gospel while he was in prison.  And because of Paul’s boldness, they were encouraged to be bold themselves in proclaiming Christ. 

            These were Christians who loved Paul.  And when they saw him confined to his house, they increased their efforts to preach and to spread the gospel, so that the gospel would lose nothing because of Paul’s imprisonment. 

            But there were a few Christians who didn’t share those feelings of admiration for Paul.  Now, it’s hard to believe anyone would oppose Paul, but there were some Christians in Rome doing just that.  We don’t know exactly who they were or why they felt the way that they did except that they were motivated by envy and strife. 

Most likely, they were jealous of the influence that Paul had over a large part of the brotherhood.  Paul was well-known and well-loved by Christians everywhere.  Maybe these preachers felt they hadn’t received the attention they thought they deserved.

            So this was the perfect opportunity to win a name for themselves.  Paul was in prison.  There wasn’t much that he could do.  So they worked hard to preach and to win converts thinking they were hurting Paul.

            Now, it’s important for us to notice that these were not heretics.  These weren’t men who were preaching false doctrine or Paul would never have approved of them.  They were preaching Christ.  They were simply gospel preachers who felt they needed some prestige at the expense of someone else. 

Verse 18 is one of the most incredible verses in the Bible.  Paul’s response to his critics was to say, “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.”  (Philippians 1:18). 

Come on, Paul, can’t you see these guys have it in for you?  Don’t you care about your reputation?

Well, no, actually he doesn’t.  Christians are telling people about Jesus.  And it doesn’t matter to Paul what people think about him.  The only thing that matters is the gospel.  People are being brought to Christ, and that makes Paul happy.  There was no envy in his heart.  There was no re­sentment.

            As long as Christ was preached, Paul didn’t care who got the credit and the honor and the prestige.  He didn’t care what other preachers said about him, or how much they disliked him.  All that mattered to him was that the gospel of Christ was proclaimed.

Pat Riley used to be the basketball coach for the LA Lakers. He tells the story of Magic Johnson. Now I don’t think that Magic Johnson is a good role model in most areas of his life.  But he was a great basketball player.

When Johnson was in junior high school, his basketball talent was already obvious. He was so much better than all the other players on the team that he would score 50 points while the rest of the team would score 5 points. And they won every game.

But the other players were unhappy because they didn’t get a chance to shoot very often. And their parents were unhappy, too. So Magic Johnson decided to change his role on the team. He would become an enabler, passing the ball to others, making them look good.

He played only two years in college before becoming going professional. He went to the Lakers, a team made up of a lot of superstars. They were all great players, but the team wasn’t winning because they were all playing for themselves.

Magic Johnson decided that he would make the other players look good.  So, he went to Byron Scott and he said, “I’m going to make you the #1 scorer on this team. I’m going to pass the ball to you, and you’re going to score.” And Byron Scott did.

He went to James Worthy and asked, “Why have you never made the All-Star team? I’m going to make you an All-Star.” He started passing the ball to James Worthy, and before long. James Worthy was on the All-Star team.

Kareem Abdul Jabbar is one of the highest scorers in the history of the NBA. And before he broke the record, Magic Johnson said to him, “I want to be the guy who passes you the ball when you make that record-breaking basket.”  And he did. 

Pat Riley said of Magic Johnson, “He’s the most unselfish basketball player I’ve ever seen.”

Now my question is, “If that works in basketball, then won’t it also work in the church?  If we can become that unselfish, and our desire is to make other people look good, to encourage each other, to build each other up, isn’t that exactly what we’re supposed to be doing as Christians?”

Paul said, “I can rejoice because the only thing that matters to me – the only thing — is that the gospel is preached, and I don’t care who gets the credit.”  That’s how you have joy despite being surrounded by difficult people.

III.       Paul Had Joy Despite an Uncertain Future

Paul was facing a trial in Rome.  If he was found innocent, he would be free to preach some more.  But if he was found guilty, he would be executed.  Paul knew that he would either live or die, depending on the results of the trial.

So, he wrote in verses 19-20: “I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.”

Paul says, “My concern is, when I stand before a pagan judge in a pagan court, I don’t want to do or say anything to embarrass Jesus Christ, my Lord.  I’m not worried about the verdict in my trial.  My only concern is that I’ll have enough courage to stand up in their midst and by what I say and do that I exalt Jesus Christ. Whether I die or whether I live doesn’t matter. All I want to do is exalt Jesus.

            The reason that Paul was abel to have such great joy in the midst of such an uncertain future is that he had an attitude that’s described in verse 21, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21).  In other words, Paul said, “There’s only one thing in life that really matters to me.  I want to share Christ and his gospel, and as long as I can do that, I’m happy, whatever happens.” 

            So, how do we learn to be content no matter what our circumstances are?  We do it by having our mind focused on one thing and one thing only — serving Jesus.  And when you have a mind that’s focused on Christ, you begin to see things different­ly.

            The reason that Paul was able to rejoice in the midst of his imprisonment and all his critics who were trying to put him down and the uncertainty of his own future is because he was able to say, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

            There was absolutely nothing that could happen that would take away Paul’s joy.  And there’s nothing that can take away our joy if we can have that same attitude.

            Someone once said, “Life is what we are alive to.”  Each and every one of us have things that make us “come alive.”  Each of us have certain things that we are interested in more than anything else.  For some people it’s golf, or football, or computers.  You mention those things, and they just come alive. 

            For others, you just ask someone about their grandchildren and their eyes just light up.  They can talk for hours about their grandkids and take such great joy in that.  And there’s nothing wrong with that – I enjoy it myself.  But wouldn’t it be great if we do the same thing with Jesus Christ?

            Paul’s whole life was Christ.  That’s what made his eyes light up.  He could talk about Christ and his gospel for hours.  And because of that, Paul was filled with joy.  His chains couldn’t make him unhappy.  His critics couldn’t make him bitter.  The crisis he was facing couldn’t discourage him.

Because “for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”  Let me ask you this morn­ing, what are you living for?  How would you fill in the blanks, “For me to live is ________ and to die is _________.”  Because I want you to know that if you fill in the first blank with anything other than Christ, you can’t put the word “gain” in the second blank.  For me to live is money and to die is to leave it all behind.  For me to live is pleasure, and to die is to miss all the fun. For me to live is fame and to die is to be forgotten.  For me to live is power and influence and to die is to be insignificant

            You see, only Christ can bring joy, whether we have or don’t have, whether we’re known or unknown, whether we live or die.  And the good news is this:  Death only makes things better

            Kenneth Dodge tells about an 8-year-old boy named Frank. Frank had a date with his father to go fishing one Saturday. They were going to fish the whole day. On Friday night he had everything laid out. He was ready to go.

But on Saturday morning he awoke to discover that it was raining cats and dogs, and they couldn’t go fishing. So 8-year-old Frank grumbled and griped and complained all morning long. He kicked the furniture, the dog, the cat. Nothing was right. “Why does it have to rain today?”  His father tried to explain to him that the farmers needed the rain. But that didn’t satisfy Frank. “Why does it have to rain today?” he said.

About noon, the clouds broke and the sun came out. His dad said, “Well, we can’t go fishing all day, but at least we can fish this afternoon. Let’s go.” So they jumped into the truck, went to the lake and fished all afternoon, and caught more fish than they had ever caught before. The baskets were full, and they had the time of their lives.

They came home, and mom cooked some of the fish for supper. As they were sitting down to eat, Frank’s dad looked at him and asked, “Would you ask the blessing?” Eight-year-old Frank prayed this prayer: “God, if I sounded a little grumpy earlier today, it was because I couldn’t see far enough ahead.”

And that’s the problem, isn’t it?  We’re so caught up in the difficult circumstances we’re going through right now, and the difficult people we’re dealing with right now, and all the things that surround us, that we just can’t see far enough ahead.  But when we take time to look, we’ll begin to focus more and more on the positive, because in Christ we have a wonderful future.

            I can assure you that our circumstances are not the things that will make us joyful.  They can make us happy for a while as long as circumstances are good, but they’re not going to always be good.  And if we’re waiting for things to get just right so that we can be happy, then we’ll never experience joy.  But when Christ becomes our central focus — our very reason for existence — then and only then can we begin to understand the meaning of true joy.

            I think ones of the reasons that there is so much unhappiness in our world today is because our society is consumed with ourselves. What’s best for me?  What will make me happy?  What can I get out of it?  It’s the ME culture.

May each of us strive to say with Paul, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.”  And we can give thanks for what the angel of the Lord said some 2000 years ago, “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people” (Luke 2:10 NLT).                        

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