You may or may not know, but we meet as an eldership team every Friday morning at 7am (much to the joy of my friend Soroush!). For me that means leaving my house at about 06:20 each Friday ready to cycle into Middlesbrough in time to meet the others. This, of course, has a lot of health and cost benefits but isn’t at all fun during cold, dark mornings. That is exactly what happened to me a few weeks back, I got myself ready to cycle, got my bike out, opened the back door and then my heart sank. It was pitch black, absolutely freezing and, worst of all, the rain was bouncing off the ground. I knew that I would have to face at least 30 minutes of torture as I cycled to work!
My journey started in the worst way possible - not only was I getting soaked by the rain itself, but every puddle I went through, and every car that I drove past, just added to the soaking! I spent the first part of my journey literally in the worst mood ever - I was so, so angry. I was angry with Hayley for convincing me to sell our second car, I was angry with the elders for making us meet at 7am, I was angry with Jubilee Church for having our offices so far away from my house, I was angry with God for making it rain on me, I was certainly angry with the car drivers for daring to drive past and splash me! Anger, Anger, Anger!
Then, about a third of the way into my journey, still soaking wet, I felt God start to speak to me. He was telling me to look up, take my eyes off the horrible journey and look to him. To get my head away from being angry at the situation and focus on time to be spent with God. I really didn’t feel like it, but I got a sudden sense to worship him, to sing praises to him. So I did. There I was at 6:30 in the morning, cycling along the road to Middlesbrough singing to God out loud. ‘Oh Praise Him, Oh Praise Him, He is Worthy, He is Worthy’ (Oh Praise Him ‘All this for a King’ – David Crowder Band, 2003)
Thankfully, you don’t see a lot of pedestrians at 6:30 in the morning so I was maybe saved a little embarrassment, not that I cared!! What followed for the remaining 25 minutes of my journey was one of the most powerful times of worship and closeness to God I have ever experienced - it was incredible!
The rain didn’t stop, the cars kept on splashing, I didn’t end up any warmer or drier, but my perspective changed. I was able to focus on Jesus and who he is, the joy it is to be in his presence and that changed everything!
Sometimes in life we can feel like we are in the midst of a storm, and that can lead us to feeling angry, just like I did. The reality, though, is that God is still present with us in the midst of our hardships. We need to choose to look for him, to focus our attention on him and away from our situations.
Last week we started our new Sermon Series on the book of Philippians. We will be studying this book together as a church over the coming months. One of the things which strikes me about the book of Philippians is its positivity, its focus on Christ and its overarching sense of joy. This is even more striking when you consider that this letter was written by Paul from his prison cell!
There are different ideas about where this letter was written from, but it is likely to have been written in around 55AD when Paul was placed in prison in Ephesus after the great riot (Acts 19). Prisons in Rome were not necessarily used as a place of punishment but, more often than not, as a remand centre for people preparing for a trial, although that could have taken some time. No effort, however, was made to look after the prisoners. If they wanted food they needed to rely on friends to bring it to them. It would have been a dark, dark time for Paul - he would have been cold, perhaps ill, probably receiving regular beatings from the guards1.
With all that in mind, it is so reassuring to see that at the heart of this short letter to the Philippian church is Jesus Christ. This letter is focussed on the person of Jesus and rejoicing in a relationship with him. Paul is encouraging the readers to let their behaviour match up to the Gospel, which means sharing in Jesus’ suffering, as he was doing. When they become like Christ, when their lives and their minds reflect him, they will be able to face, and even rejoice in great hardship.
At the centre of this letter (Phil 2: 6-11) is an acknowledgment that Jesus has the ultimate victory and ‘at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth’. This is such an important point and is as important for us today as it was for the original readers in the Philippian church. To suffer hardship and face great difficulties on our walk is not a sign of defeat, but actually something to celebrate because Jesus goes through these difficulties with us and by going through hard times we are looking forward to a future glory – the final victory is his!
Similar to the realisation I had during my horrible cycle journey, as Christians we need to be aware of Jesus in every situation. We have a choice to make - do we choose to look at our situation or do we choose to look at Jesus? Where is our perspective? That may not mean our situation changes (Paul will probably have been in that prison cell for 2 years) but it means that we can rejoice in the difficulties - what a comfort!
As we go through the book of Philippians together over the next few months, I want to encourage you to find inspiration and courage in it. Find reasons to rejoice, find reasons for hope and find more reasons to increase your passion for Jesus!
Let’s be a rejoicing people! – We Rejoice, because God is our strength and our song!
- If you want to read more about Paul’s time in prison in Ephesus there is a really helpful couple of Chapters in Tom Wright’s book ‘Paul – An Autobiography’ which gives a good insight into Paul’s thinking during this time.
Watching my children sing and dance along to their favourite worship song taught me a couple of lessons about joy and faith. Jesus also had a lot of say about having childlike fath when teaching his disciples in Luke 18.
This will be the first Easter in three years that we’re able in Jubilee to gather together to celebrate, and the Easter message is still as powerful as it was 2,000 years ago!
Starting on Tuesday 15th March we are committing a whole month to prayer. Prayer has always been the bedrock of a Christian life with God. Prayer is what unites us to God in the here and now. Through prayer we experience the friendship and lordship of God through His Word and Spirit. In prayer we come to all three persons of our One Majestic God.