Nine times in the book of Philippians Paul tells his readers to “rejoice.”
Easy for him to write.
He wasn’t dealing with Covid. He wasn’t being told to cancel Thanksgiving. He wasn’t forced to wear a mask. He wasn’t reading about a potential cabinet member (Ezekiel Emanuel) addressing the life of senior citizens: “There are not that many people who continue to be active and engaged and actually creative past 75. It’s a very small number. … These people who live a vigorous life to 70, 80, 90 years of age — when I look at what those people ‘do,’ almost all of it is what I classify as play. It’s not meaningful work. They’re riding motorcycles; they’re hiking. Which can all have value — don’t get me wrong. But if it’s the main thing in your life? Ummm, that’s not probably a meaningful life.” (MIT Technology Review, 2019)
Paul did not have to deal with such foolishness. He had no idea what “troubling times” were all about.
No, wait! Most historians say that Paul and his pal Silas are writing from prison with a sadistic jailkeeper overseeing their cell. Paul’s done it this time! He just can’t stop himself. He continues to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s the same Paul who persecuted Christians not that long ago, deriving great pleasure out of capturing, beating and even killing them…until that is, he had a life-changing encounter with the One who questioned his disbelief.
He met the One who loved him more than anyone. And Paul never again was the same.
So passionate is he that he can’t help but rejoice. No matter what his circumstances are—including finding himself in a first-century, Roman Empire stock. Matt Chandler, author of To Live is Christ, To Die is Gain (clever title since these are Paul’s own words) explains Paul and Silas’s dungeon experience: “These devious contraptions would contort a prisoner’s body into all sorts of excruciating postures, locking limbs and joints in place to the point of making the entire body cramp. The prisoner’s body would sear up with excruciating pain, and then the Romans would just leave the person there for days.”
So, okay, Paul probably did know what being inconvenienced was all about. Things were not working out as he hoped. Still, his response is what blows me away. Instead of complaining, instead of having a “Why me, Lord?” attitude, instead of bribing the jailer to release them from their shackles, he and Silas hold their own little worship service and begin singing and praising God. They have a time of thanksgiving. They rejoice.
What is there to be thankful for?
Oh, I dunno. Perhaps that God has not forsaken them. Perhaps that God is in control. Perhaps that they simply love Jesus and will not be deterred, no matter how ugly their situation.
What happens next is no surprise. An earthquake cracks open the cell doors, the missionaries share the gospel with the jailer, and he and his household become followers of Christ. Well, well, well, what do you know? Paul’s purpose was to share Jesus Christ. No matter his age, no matter his predicament. (I think that if Paul lived today, he might have a few words for Mr. Emanuel.)
So, what are we to take from this? Perhaps a little gratitude. I take that back. Perhaps a LOT of gratitude. After all, we have an ample supply of toilet paper. We have funny memes about home-schooling. We have Walmart grocery-pickup. We have clean closets and utensil drawers. (Surely!) Some of us have survived the virus. We have life.
But most of all, should we choose, we have Jesus Christ.