Monday, February 20, 2006

Contentment: A Sermon preached in the Cathedral (Hall) on 19th February 2006. Philippians 4:10-20

Are you happy tonight? Are you satisfied with what you have, and the situation in which you find yourself? For so many people in our country and world, life is all about money, or the lack of it; about working for the money to get the next big gadget, whether its the Satellite Navigation in the car, or the I-Pod, or whatever.

Tonight we're going to look at how Paul could say 'I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.' This is even more remarkable, as we will see, from the circumstances Paul found himself in. We'll also discover the open secret of contentment, and how we too can know contentment.

Paul was writing as a prisoner from Rome. Being a prisoner was a costly business in Roman times. We find at the end of Acts, he lived at his own expense in Rome, or as other translations phrase it, 'in his own hired dwelling.' There were soldiers guarding him, yet he had to pay for his own expenses – at least, during the time he was on remand. So they didn't have the grand state-financed prisons where the taxpayer pays for the prisoners to be held. He had to look after himself. Which obviously meant that he needed some form of financial assistance.

The background to the letter to the Philippians lies in a series of letters and travel between Philippi and Rome. Paul had established the church in Philippi (Acts 16), and it seems that they had been generous in supporting him financially throughout his missionary work. And what prompted this letter to be written was the arrival of Epaphroditus from Philippi with some assistance for Paul. And now Paul was sending Epaphroditus back to them, along with the letter.

So the letter to the Philippians is in many ways a 'thank you' letter to them. While the opening words of our passage might seem like a rebuke – 'I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me'; as if to say, what were you doing all this time when I was in need and you weren't doing anything? This is far from the case.

Rather, the Philippians were concerned for Paul, but had no way of showing it. With Rome being at least a month's journey from Philippi, it may not have been the easiest to get support to him, or perhaps Epaphroditus had been unable to travel earlier. But Paul doesn't rebuke them – rather, he is joyful that they have been able to support him at all.

Paul is indeed saying a sincere thank you, both to God, and to the Philippians. Yet you know the way some thank you letters seem to have a secret agenda (or maybe not so secret or subtle?), where the charity or the ministry or the group thank you for their donation while subtly suggesting that you can make the next contribution any time...

Paul's letter is not at all like this. He was in need, but certainly wasn't begging. That much is clear by his description of 'my trouble'. He goes on to say 'not that I seek the gift.' So while he was in need, he knew that he would only have to beg, and the Philippians would send money and support to him at the drop of a hat.

But rather, as he says in verse 11: 'Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.' So in his prison cell, or hired dwelling, Paul was content. Whatever he had (or didn't have), he was content, and able to live with. But this current thinking wasn't just a passing trend, or a vague notion he had that particular day.

It was an attitude he had been developing for a while. He had 'learned in whatever situation' – he had found contentment through all the various boom and bust periods, the triumphs and trials he had experienced and endured. He suggests these in verse 12: 'I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.'

There's no doubt that Paul had seen many ups and downs. From the highs of having plenty and abundance, to the desperate lows of hunger and need. In other passages, we find Paul describing his lows in greater detail: 'Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.' (2 Cor 11:24-27).

And yet, through them all, he was content. So his contentment didn't rely on his circumstances. You see, for many around us, and perhaps even you too, the thinking goes that, 'if I could have ... I would be happy and content.' Or you don't have very much, so for you, contentment lies far off, when you'll have more money. But who is to say that you would then be content? Would the wealth corrupt you, or the guilt that you now had plenty ruin the contentment you supposed you would have?

Or perhaps, at the other end of the scale, if you are already wealthy, then maybe you're thinking that you are content. After all, you have all you need or want, and more to spare, but your security then lies in what you have. Who is to say that if you lost all your money and wealth tomorrow, that you would still be content?

The secret of Paul's contentment, however, doesn't lie in his external circumstances. We've already seen that he was content throughout both the seemingly good times and the hard times. So was his contentment then based on a sort of fatalistic approach? Did he just think que se ra se ra, whatever will be will be? Again, no!

Rather, Paul's approach is one that we would do well to hear, to learn from, and to adopt. As I've said, it wasn't either depending on his outward circumstances, nor on a negative sort of fatalism, but rather: 'I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.' (4:13).

Paul's secret of contentment was based on doing all things through him who strengthened him. From the start, let's remember that this verse is not saying that Paul was a spiritual superman, who could do 'anything' at all. On many times this verse can be taken out of context, to try to convince Christians to do things out of their competence or gifting, because, after all, if Christ is strengthening you, then you can do all things?

Rather, Paul is saying here that no matter what situation he finds himself in, whether poverty or riches, hunger or abundance, whether preaching to substantial crowds, or lying in a filthy prison, he has learned to cast himself on God, to depend on God, and be content. His contentment doesn't depend on his situation, but rather, depends entirely on his standing with God, and on what God supplies him with.

Or to put it the other way round, it is God who strengthens him to do the work God has called him to, and so no matter how well off, or how poorly off he is, God will accomplish his work, and give him whatever is needed.

And I can testify that this is still the case. Paul wasn't an isolated incident, a rare one-off. Because God does indeed provide strength and contentment for his people, not only in the physical realm, but also in the spiritual.

After all, isn't one of the names for God in the Old Testament 'Jehovah Jirah' – 'The LORD will provide' (Genesis 22:14). This was the name Abraham realised as he raised the knife to slaughter his son Isaac on the altar. God provided the substitute ram, who died in place of Isaac. I'm very sure both Abraham and Isaac were strengthened and contented by the supply of the ram!

We find the same contentment in the story of Job, despite great pain. There is no doubt that Job was a wealthy man. The opening verses of his book tell us that he owned 7000 sheep, 3000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 donkeys and very many servants, as well as seven sons and three daughters. Yet in one day, he went from having all that, to having nothing but his life, and his wife (who frankly, wasn't of much help to him). And what was Job's response? 'Then Job ... fell on the ground and worshipped. 'The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.' (Job 1:20-21).

One again, we find that contentment, being satisfied with the circumstances, didn't depend on what Job had – the important thing for him was his relationship with God, as we find him asserting when his wife urges him to curse God and die: 'Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?' (Job 2:10).

Contentment is found in several places in the New Testament. The first time we find it is on the lips of John the Baptist. In Luke's account of his ministry, John gave ethical teaching to the various groups of people who came to hear him and be baptised. To the soldiers, he said this: 'Do not extort money from anyone by threats of by false accusation, and be content with your wages.' (Luke 3:14).

Later in Paul's ministry, he advises Timothy that 'there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.' (1 Tim 6:6-8).

However, perhaps the other verse from the New Testament which best speaks on our theme, and illustrates the link between contentment and our relationship with God can be found in the book of Hebrews. The writer says these words: 'Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”' (Hebrews 13:5-6).

The path to being content doesn't lie in the latest money-making schemes, or in working all the overtime you can get, or by getting the big win on the lottery. True contentment doesn't lie in what we have or aspire to. Rather, the way we can be truly content is by realising that it depends on our relationship with God, and on what he has done for us.

This was the promise that Paul revealed to the Philippians in verse 19. 'And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.' As my former boss said to me many times – I don't have to worry about money or anything like that, because my daddy owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Psalm 50:10).

Just this week, we had a mission event in Trinity College, and the speaker was looking at part of Matthew 6. The students were urged to consider where we were investing for treasure – either on earth, or in heaven – because 'where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.' (Matthew 6:21); and also, not to worry about clothes and wealth and food, because God cares so much more for us than for the birds and flowers, which he looks after. The final point of the talk on Monday is relevant for us tonight – because our contentment hangs on it also. For if we are worrying about wealth, and looking for contentment by having more money or possessions or whatever, then we can't be doing what God wants us to do. Food and clothing, and money is important to live by, but God calls us to 'seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.' (Matthew 6:33).

If we have the centre right, if our heart is set on Jesus, and we know the blessings that come from him, then we will indeed be able to say with Paul: 'I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content... I can do all things through him who strengthens me.'

May we indeed know the strength of Christ, to face whatever situation we return to as we leave this building tonight.

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