I had the honor and blessing of being able to preach a seven-week sermon series at our Obule church over the summer. I had just read Matt Chandler's book To Live Is Christ. My pastor and I spent time discussing the book and what I was learning. What started out as a causal conversation and me sharing with him about what I was learning, somehow turned into me preaching a sermon series on the book of Philippians. I might have mentioned I was interested in teaching through the book, but he took that to mean I was ready to preach. Now I am not a preacher. I am not being humble here, I just know that is not my gifting. I am more of a teacher than an in-the-front-of-the-church-preacher type. As they introduced me as the speaker one week the pastor asked the church to "endure" the sermon. Knowing the church is enduring my sermon is not a real confidence booster, but I preached anyway.
Like Chandler's book, we started the study in Acts 16 looking at Paul's missionary journey to Philippi. We looked at the history surrounding the beginning of the church plant in Philippi. Prior to reading Chandler's book I had not made the connection between Acts 16 and Paul's letter to the Philippian church. It was pretty eye-opening to see Paul in Philippi meeting the first members of the church there - Lydia and family, the slave girl, and the jailer and his household. I had read Acts, but had not read Acts and then studied Paul's letters written back to those churches in chronological order. I never had "faces" to go with the letters.
Joy is the major theme of Philippians and Paul more than anyone could say that it is indeed possible to have joy even in the midst of great suffering. Paul had found the secret to contentment in all things - Christ. It was through Christ that Paul was able to endure great suffering, persecution, hatred, scorn, rejection, the loss of comfort - and in the midst of it all still rejoice. It was in the jail in Philippi where he and Silas are praising God for His goodness at midnight and God miraculously opens the doors of the jail. Paul's witness during his imprisonment helped him to lead the harsh, rough jailer to the Lord. I found as I taught about rejoicing always that suffering for me is still sort of theoretical. I know suffering as an abstract thing that others go through but I myself have not suffered. And here I was standing in front of a church full of people who have suffered in ways I will never know and I was telling them to rejoice, be joyful, that God was all-sufficient and He would be enough even when you've lost everything else. All of those are truths, but I felt as if I was speaking as someone who had not passed through suffering preaching to a bunch of folks who are suffering. I almost felt guilty for not suffering, for having an easy way of life. The truth is that in Jesus Christ we find joy, and our present circumstances do not change that. Our joy comes from The Lord.
As our sermon series wrapped up I felt that we had really gone deep and studied a book in a new way. I felt the truths found in Philippians did resonate with the folks in Obule. I know some went away knowing that by focusing on their circumstances they had been robbed of their joy. I know I grew through my preparation each week and the church grew as they saw Jesus as much bigger than their current struggles - that the joy we find in Christ goes much deeper than our present difficulties. Now I get to try and live out what I preached all summer. I pray that when I do face struggles that I will rejoice in my suffering - even if that means singing praises to God from lonely dark jail cell.