Yesterday’s message …
- Was delivered to a “studio audience” of 10 but a digital one of many more than that;
- Had a title inspired by something Ron Dozier mentioned during a quick video devotion last week;
- Was propelled by a lingering question: “what if you don’t get better when things do?”
- Had a bottom line borrowed liberally from Luke Mitchell … a case of student becoming sensei!;
- Concluded with digital congregants declaring the Apostles’ Creed;
- Had this bottom line: My circumstances can’t destroy me when my Savior defines me.
So as I have been thinking about this emergency we’re in and then this livestream gathering we are having and this message I’m giving, there’s one question that has really been haunting me.
But you’ll have to wait for it for just a minute or two.
Because before I ask that question I get the overwhelming sense that so many of us feel like we’re under house arrest. “Sheltering in place,” they call it, don’t they? Quarantined. And if you’re like me, you just want things to GET BETTER. Quickly. You know what I realize I miss this week? BAD STEELE CREEK TRAFFIC! Because that means that at least people are going to work and our part of the world is thriving. It’s strangely comforting compared to the ghost town we’re driving around in now. The circumstances around us are just so heavy. They’re heavy, I want them to get better, it doesn’t look like they will by tomorrow, and that heaviness leads to so much … fear.
Some of you are fearful for your own health. You REALLY don’t want to get this virus. You’ve probably heard different stats regarding different populations at risk, but you really don’t want something that’s brutal even if it isn’t always lethal. And then others of you, it’s not your health you’re worried about but you sure don’t want your loved ones to get it. Mom, dad, grandmom, granddad. You KNOW those morbidity rates. You’re OK not seeing mom or dad at the extended care facility as long as they stay healthy. And then maybe more of you are fearful of a deeper economic slide – econ collapse – and how directly that might impact you. Or your retirement. I remember the helpless feeling as a pastor back in 2008 and I have no desire to go through that again.
We are in for us what are unprecedented times, uncharted waters, and we just want things to get better. And fast. And you know what? They will. They always do.
Which brings me to my question: what if you don’t get better when things do?
Yeah, what if, when circumstances improve, you’re still a mess? You’re still filled with anxiety or fear or even regret? What if, when your situation is better, your life really isn’t? What if you still look for significance in insignificant things? What if you don’t get better when things do? What if it turns out that how you are doing doesn’t really depend on how things are going?
Which brings us to Pastor Paul and his letter to the Philippian church, a letter which GUESS WHAT? He writes UNDER HOUSE ARREST! His house arrest wasn’t to quarantine him from a virus but because he carried the Holy Spirit virus and the Roman Empire wanted to keep him contained! That’s right – he was under house arrest for being a Christian. He says it this way in Philippians 1:13: READ. But a bit later in the letter, look at 3:4-6 where he talks a bit about his pedigree, his resume, his accomplishments:
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.
If he was in our town he’d be saying, “My family founded Charlotte, I went to Charlotte Latin, from there to Duke, and just for kicks I got a Masters at Harvard.” I had it going on.
But remember: he writes all this UNDER HOUSE ARREST. He’s been up here in terms of family name and personal accomplishments and now he is down here in terms of his circumstances. What a contrast! What WHIPLASH! What an opportunity to have his circumstances crush him. But all that brings us to what he says in 3:7:
7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.
Now look at 3:8 where he repeats and MAGNIFIES the same thought:
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
Now: can I give a little vocabulary lesson? What is rather tastefully translated as “rubbish” in you NIV is more accurately rendered as “excrement” in the original language. All that stuff, my corked fury of fond nostalgia and painful second guessing, all those things I was born into and all that I have accomplished, is really a dog pile compared to knowing Christ. And it made it past the bible’s editors and into the life of the early church, where they spoke the language he wrote in and knew exactly what he was saying! Can you imagine all the 8 year old boys in church listening to that being read and trying to stifle a laugh? And dad tries to stop them but then he can’t help himself? Because we’re all 13 on the inside?! But I digress
Because look where Paul goes next in 3:9-11:
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[a] 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.
See that? Resurrection, sufferings, “found in him.” All traced to the ways his (Paul’s) life finds its meaning in Jesus’. How his identity comes from his identification with all that Jesus did and does. How his serenity comes from his understanding of history. And when you realize that this man who HAD IT ALL and then LOST IT ALL, while under house arrest is able to write a letter characterized by joy, it’s suddenly clear. His situation hasn’t changed but he has. This is Paul’s cry and I want it to be yours: My circumstances can’t destroy me when my Savior defines me. Hallelujah! Not house arrest, not false imprisonment, not martial law, not mystery virus. Every one of those things is temporary (and by the way, this is hardly the first, or the worst, pandemic! God’s not surprised and he’s not inept). The Savior who defines you is eternal.
My circumstances can’t destroy me when my Savior defines me.
Gosh, last week I got the best message from a young mom in the church. She told me that her seven year old daughter asked her, “Momma, why aren’t you and Daddy going crazy like everyone else?” What an opportunity to give daughter an explanation for the hope that she has! What an enduring testimony to a living relationship with a risen Savior! Mom and Dad aren’t spacing out when their surroundings are because
My circumstances can’t destroy me when my Savior defines me
Or even another message I received from a young man who said, “if I hadn’t learned to start the day in the Word and not the world there’s no way I could get through all this.” Yep! If you begin the day on MSNBC (BLUE) or Fox News (RED) then that will define you. You will be in reactive mode, whiplashing from one crisis to the next. That’s what they want! They have you where they want you! Don’t fall for that particular seduction. Start the day in the Word – we’ll even provide the daily reading prompts – and you will be allowing your Savior to define you so these circumstances don’t destroy you. My circumstances can’t destroy me when my Savior defines me.
I believe in this so much because it is the only protection I know against that question that I started out with: what if you don’t get better when things do? See, for some of you, the virus will pass but your anxiety won’t. The crisis will fade but you despair won’t. The world won’t be in a mess but you still will. Why? Because you’ve been looking for your security in all the wrong places and you’ve been finding your serenity in all the wrong things. In that next purchase, in that new relationship, in that trendy diet, or even in that strangely comforting self-destructive behavior. You know. The circumstances may get better but you’re still stuck with you. Oh, please, in that case there’s so much history I want you to recite and relearn. It really is Jesus’ INCARNATION, his INSTRUCTION, his CRUCIFIXION, his RESURRECTION, his ASCENSION, and his COMPLETION that completes. No thing and no one else. My circumstances can’t destroy me when my Savior defines me.
But here’s the other deal. For some of you the circumstances that threaten to destroy you are good. They are blessings. When this emergency passes and traffic and employment return, so will your prosperity. Your travel. Your attention. All those things are good, they’re all blessings. And I know you well enough that for some of you those blessings are killers indeed. Like even attention and flattery. There is this preacher I know in another state who is just model good looking. So. Handsom. And I’ve asked, “Lord, why can’t I look like that? You KNOW how much better GS would be if I was eye candy like he is!” And the answer I heard back? As if you could handle that attention and that flattery. Gulp. There are guys hearing me who when you start traveling for work again and when you start getting the attention again, you’re in trouble and so are those ppl who love you. The circumstances that destroy are not necessarily the ones that seem so painful. Whether high or low, whether on top of the world or in house arrest, it’s all about
My circumstances can’t destroy me when my Savior defines me.
Listen. I say this a lot. I don’t want to tell you anything new. I just want to remind you of some things you may have forgotten. Like that your identity is rooted in his history. That the most important thing in your life is not in your life. And that anchoring your life to this old story, to define yourself by this Savior is the way your circumstances will never kill you but you will control them. You’ll have confidence in what is next.
Speaking of “next,” one time about 18 months ago, when my mom was “only” 103, she asked me what she should do “next” in life. Of course, I said, “Mom YOU NEED A TEN YEAR PLAN! Set some goals! Get with it! Where do you want to be financially and personally in ten years?”
Of course that’s not what I said. Instead, I answered, “what you need to do next is to say the Apostles’ Creed. It’s part of your childhood, it’s in your memory, it anchors you to something older and bigger than even you. That’s what’s next.”
And it’s what next for us too.
So the message concluded with a digital declaration of the Creed, joining together with believers for all time and all around the globe.
Here’s what our entire gathering looked and sounded like: