Sermon: Paul’s Secret

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice… The Lord is near.” –Phil 4:6

This guy must be nuts! Look at him sitting there on a hard dirt floor, the smell of human waste thick in the air, hands raised to the sky with big smile beaming ear to ear, praying to his god! While his body appears to be wasting away—thin and frail from months in a prison cell—he seems to wake up each new morning with his spirit fully recharged and filled with inexplicable joy! I can’t make any sense of it.

Is he singing again? How can someone in such miserable circumstances sing songs of praise and thanksgiving? This man is nuts! Of course, I’m not the first one to suggest that. He wrote in his letter to the Christians at Corinth that, “If we seem out of our minds, it is between God and us. But if we are in our right minds, it is for your good” (2 Cor. 5:13). I’m not quite sure what he means, but if such divinely inspired madness can bring joy to such a miserable situation, then who wants to remain sane?

Having a sober-minded assessment of the bleak circumstances of a Roman prison would drive most people mad; yet this man’s crazy faith in a crucified savior has kept him sober and content for months in this hellish underground pit!

There he goes again! Listen to him…is he singing from one of the Jewish Psalms? 

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice!”

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice!”

But, where, I must ask, is this Lord he rejoices in over and over? Why has his Lord abandoned him here in this dark, rat-infested holding cell where he’ll likely face execution in the end?

Still he sings. Still he raises his hands upwards toward his god, and were it not for the iron shackles around his ankles and a guard posted at the door, you would think he was the freest man on earth! He continues on—sometimes waking in the middle of the night for an encore! 

Oh, me? Who am I? My name is Marcus, and I am the soldier who has been standing guard over Paul or Saul or whatever you call him for a few months now. We Romans have been trained to despise these Jewish fanatics—especially those of the little sect called ‘Christians’ who refuse to pay homage to Caesar as lord and bringer of peace to the empire. Yet, try as I may, I cannot help but have some sympathy for this apparently deranged Jew. 

You see, he is filled with a kind of gentle forbearance I have never witnessed before. The word he uses for it is “magnanimity.” I have overheard him explaining this word in his letters, urging fellow Christians to exude this quality of “sweet reasonableness” toward everyone—even those who treat them harshly. No matter how unjust the circumstances or how cruelly he’s treated, this guy somehow responds with a firm yet peaceable resolve. 

We’ve heard rumors about the manner in which his crucified leader died—he was calm, confident and the last words on his lips were not spiteful or desperate. He looked out upon his Roman executioners and the mob of his own countrymen who put him there and said, “Forgive them, for they don’t understand what they’re doing.” Paul seems to have the same spirit about him as he sits in this prison cell.  Oh, there he goes again:

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice!”

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice!”

How can someone rejoice when every good thing seems so far away from them? Here he sits far removed from the warmth of a glowing fire. Far from a warm meal. Far from fresh clothes and a hot bath. He’s far away from his friends and family and these little Christian fellowships he so loves. Still he sings.  Still he smiles. Still he rejoices!

For several weeks I have been trying to make sense of his unsinkable joy and buoyant spirit. Bored myself, from long hours standing guard by this apparently harmless jailbird, I decided to pass the time by assuming the role of a detective trying to uncover the mysterious source of Paul’s contentment. Fortunately, the explanation was not far away. For when he was not singing and rejoicing, or receiving occasional visitors from among the local Christian sect, he was busy with his letters. 

Those letters are his pride and joy, his sole passion and preoccupation. His letters written and sent to these Christian groups are a substitute for his physical presence. Oh, how he worries and frets at times about how those little communities—or churches, as they were called—are getting on without him there to guide them. So he writes and he writes and he writes. 

I once joked to him saying, “You seem to value the scraps of papyrus and ink your associates provide you more than the food we bring you to keep you alive.” He was quick with his reply, “As my lord Jesus once said, ‘I have food to eat that you know nothing about. My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to finish His work” (John 4:32-34). From what I can see, sending and receiving these letters is indeed the thing that sustains him—far more than the stale bread and watery broth delivered to his cell once a day.

So, playing the detective one day, I decided to sneak a peak at one of the letters he had been writing while he was away from his cell for a rare bath. The answer I was seeking stared me right in the face in the first section I read:

“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Phil 4:11-12 NIV).

Boy, was that an accurate statement! Paul’s secret is stated simply and clearly in the next sentence: 

“I can do everything through the Messiah Jesus, who gives me strength” (v. 13). 

Wow! He claims to be getting his strength from that Jewish prophet who was crucified and buried 20 some odd years ago! Madness! You see? This guy is, as your people say, “Cray-cray.” But I had to keep reading:

“Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand” (Phil 4:6-7 NLT). 

There’s that phrase again—“the peace of God.” Every time he uses it I can’t help but wonder if he’s subtly trying to mock and upstage Caesar whose imperial slogan is all about “the peace of Rome” and is celebrated throughout the empire on plaques, statues, monuments, coins and other imperial propaganda. Caesar boasts of pacifying an unruly empire by way of strict, unbending Roman justice that stamps out any threats to his kingdom.

And while Caesar sits in his comfortable palace, here sits a frail and harmless Jewish teacher in jail for following another peaceable Jew who was crucified as an apparent threat to this powerful empire. The Nazarene’s followers hailed him “The Prince of Peace” and now his most vocal supporter, twenty years later, writes about a certain kind of peace stemming from this Jesus that exceeds and surpasses all understanding. Paul writes about the peace of God that flows like a stream from the headwaters of trusting prayer! He sings and tells others a peace capable of washing away worries and flooding out agonizing anxieties. And if the stories circulating about that Crucified One are true, this is the kind of peace that can calm a raging sea in order to bring his disciples safely to shore. 

Is that a perfect metaphor for what I’m witnessing everyday in this dark and dingy cell? Am I watching that same powerful peace that calmed the fears of those fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, now calming the heart of this loyal disciple day after day in this prison cell?

I scrolled my eyes further up the papyrus roll and continued. The next line jumped off the page—as it seemed to be a direct jab at me as the one ordered to stand guard over Paul 24/7. Listen to this sly dog’s imagery as he explains what believing prayer and holy surrender can bring to one’s soul:

“Then his peace will stand guard over your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:7).

Did you catch that? Every single hour of every single day for the past several months, I thought I was standing guard over Paul to keep him inside this miserable place and to prevent him from experiencing the joyful possibilities the lie outside these walls. 

Paul, on the other hand, sees things quite differently. Paul sees the Peace of God standing guard over his heart and mind—always on duty fighting back worry, anxiety, discouragement and doubt that threaten to break in and steal Paul’s peace. He speaks about this peace of God that surrounds him as if it were a Person! As I pondered this thought, I began to have an eery feeling that there was more than just the two of us inside this little cell day after day after day. 

I was still holding Paul’s letter and about to continue reading, when Paul appeared with the other guard through the dark corridor. 

“What do you think? Is it ready to be sent?” he said with a wry smile. 

I decided it was finally time to shoot straight and just ask him to explain himself—the secret to his contentment, the source of his gentle forbearance. How can he find joy in the midst of suffering, and explain this peace that surpasses understanding and the power of prayer to ward off worry and anxiety.  So I asked him:

“Paul, how can you rejoice when every good thing seems so far away from you? In this dark dungeon, shut off from from family and friends. You’re far away from a soft bed and pillow. You’re far removed from a good shave and sanitary latrine. Far from the laughter of the crowds outside these walls going merrily on their way to the games. Sitting in this filthy pig sty that smells of rotting flesh and human waste, you are so far from music and the theater and books and the sights and smells of the markets. You are so doggone far away from from every material comfort and earthly joy, and yet you – you rejoice! How? Why?”

He smiled compassionately and reached up toward the papyrus in my hand, and pointed to the words I was just about to read when he returned. My eyes fell upon four simple words:

“The Lord is Near!”

“The Lord is near, Marcus!” Paul said with a countenance glowing like the sun. “Sure, I could focus on everything good thing that lies beyond my reach in here, or I can embrace the precious gift that can never be taken from me. Why should I worry about all the earthly comforts I lack, when all I need stands so near to me. The Lord is near, Marcus. The Lord is near. In fact, the Lord is here—by the Spirit—always with me.”

I stood there pondering his heartfelt testimony. He believed every word, and would live every minute of every day drawing strength and comfort from the Presence of the One he felt near so to him.  

He then asked me, “Do you know what the Jewish prophet Isaiah prophesied concerning Jesus many centuries before his birth?”

“Of course I do not,” I replied. He went to recite by memory the ancient prophecy:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14; cf. Matt 1:22-23).

“Marcus, the greatest gift ever given to this world is found in the meaning and reality of that wonderful name— ‘Immanuel.’ The secret to my contentment, the source of my gentle forbearance toward those who mistreat me, the reason for my joy in the midst of suffering, the bringer of the peace that surpasses all understanding, and the power of prayer to keep worry and anxiety at bay—its all in that matchless name, Immanuel.” 

What’s in a name? For this crazy and courageous Christian jailbird, apparently everything! So, you ask, what does it mean? 

The sun set outside the small hole-like window of the dungeon, and darkness once again devoured the apostle’s frail frame. After lighting the oil lamp on the wall outside the door, I watched as Paul’s shadowy figure assumed once again that oh-so-familiar posture. He turned his head and eyes upward, opened his palms as to receive a gift from above, and his face shone with some inexplicably as he began to sing that familiar refrain:

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice!”

“The Lord is near!”

“Sweet Immanuel—God is with us!”

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