Philippians 1:19-26 • “Choosing Jesus' Joy”
Epiphany Series: “Finding Your Joy”
February 10, 2019
If there’s anything that we Americans like, it’s the ability to have a plethora of choices at our disposal in any given situation. None of us wants to be in a position where we find ourselves limited in terms of options. When it comes time for us to make a decision about anything in life, our mantra is: “The more choices we have, the merrier we will be.”
So, why is it that in some situations, particularly challenging ones, we find ourselves paralyzed in the face of the choices that are before us? Why is it that even though we live in a time of seemingly countless options, we don’t always feel so merry; we don’t always sense any joy? Part of our paralysis may well stem from the fact that there are times in life when the choices before us don’t seem to offer any worthwhile result.
Jeffrey Bullock is a canon theologian for the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona, which means that he helps parishes of the diocese think theologically about how to relate their theological beliefs to their everyday life. Many of you will remember Dr. Bill Hull serving our church in that very capacity.
A while back, Canon Bullock wrote an article in the Christian Century magazine, titled, How We Make Choices. In that article he spoke of the importance of “loss aversion” in our decision-making. In other words, whereas the prevailing wisdom has been that people always make choices on the basis of what they believe they will stand to gain, the truth of the matter is that our fear of making a bad choice will in most cases keep us from making a good one. It’s why when it comes to decisions, we tend to play things close to the vest and usually end up choosing the most conservative option. Sure, we could possibly choose an option that will result in great gain, but we could also just as easily go down a path that will be to our detriment. So, we tend to make the safe choice, the choice that involves the best chance of avoiding a major loss.
It’s an interesting theory and one that Bullock, based on research he has done in how the brain functions, insists is hard-wired into us. But what I would like to know is if there’s a way for us to work around this neurological hard-wiring? Is there a way for us to begin experiencing more joy in our choices and greater fulfillment in our everyday life? And If I hear the Apostle Paul correctly in this passage that is before us this morning, there is a way for us to do just that, a way that involves our trusting our choices to God’s providence, which frees us to live in the confidence that whichever path we take in life, if God is directing, it cannot lead to anything but the very best.
Consider how Paul gives witness to that confident faith in this passage that’s before us this morning from his letter to the Philippians. In this section of the letter Paul is letting us see into his soul how he is wrestling with a decision that could take him in one of two directions, either life or death. Paul is, of course, writing from prison, and even though his imprisonment is actually more of a house arrest than the “hard time” he served when he came to Philippi the first time. Now, Paul is under Roman house arrest and he is not certain when he will ever be released, if ever! It’s almost as if he knows deep down in his heart that he may die under such arrest; or if released, he may die as a martyr for the cause of Christ because of the enemies he has made in the course of proclaiming Jesus. So, he finds himself facing a tough decision. Does he go on living, or does he welcome death? Whereas most of us could make that decision pretty easily because of the “loss aversion” death involves, Paul is conflicted. In fact, he claims that he is “torn between the two choices.” Literally, the Greek reads that he is “wedged between the two choices.” So, on one hand, he says that he wants “to depart and be with Christ,” which he claims “is better by far.” But on the other hand, he feels compelled to “remain in the body” and continue as he can for what he calls the “progress and joy in the faith” for the Philippians.
How then was it that Paul made his choice so that, as he claims, it might be one that would be based entirely on what he might gain as opposed to what he might lose? As I read the text, it was because of how the entirety of Paul’s life was taken up by his commitment to Christ. Look at it for yourself. He mentions “the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ” (v.19). He harbors the expectation that in will have sufficient courage “to exalt Christ in my body” (v.20). He acknowledges that “to live is Christ” (v.21) and yet his heart’s desire is “to depart and be with Christ” (v.23). Do you sense a pattern here? All that seems to matter to Paul is that he order his life’s choices around his desire to magnify and exalt and make much of Jesus Christ.
And therein lies the key to how we also might make our life’s choices around what we too might stand to gain in terms of impact instead of making them on the basis of what we might end up losing: “How do my choices make much of Jesus?”
As I look out at the congregation this morning, I don’t see anyone who finds himself or herself under the same constraints as the Apostle Paul. In other words, none of you is under any form of house arrest, or, for that matter, any imprisonment of any kind, unless we consider the “prisons” in which we incarcerate ourselves. There is, after all, a type of cell into which we are capable of locking our souls, in large measure because of our reluctance to order our lives around how we might seize opportunities that come our way on a regular basis to magnify and make much of Jesus.
I remember a story of one woman who at one point was in just such a prison. Bea Salazar is a woman in Carrollton, Texas, a town in North Dallas. Some years ago, she underwent back surgery and found herself under a form of imposed house arrest her physicians called “disability leave.” After she was able to get up and get around a bit, while she was putting out a small trash bag one afternoon, she discovered a young boy digging through other neighbors’ trash for food. So, she took him inside, made him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and sent him home. Fifteen minutes later, six more kids were at her doors, asking if she was giving away peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. What would you have said? What choice would you have made?
It was summer, school was out, and the kids told Bea that their parents were at work. So, Bea made them sandwiches. The next day, still more kids showed up, and even more arrived the day after that! Even when school started, the kids kept coming, and soon they were asking for help with their homework along with the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Bea made a choice; what I would call a Christ-magnifying choice. She contacted her church and other churches and began recruiting volunteers and supplies. Her landlord donated an apartment, and before long a hundred kids were coming to visit each day. Bea ended up quitting her job, she established a non-profit, and since that time her program has provided after-school meal and mentoring for more than 500 needy children.
She made a choice, a Christ-magnifying choice. And it makes you wonder if one person could have such an impact, especially in the face of what she could have deemed a limitation, what might one church that chose to exalt Jesus might be able to do?
Might we be such a church? Indeed, we might, if like Paul we ordered the entirety of our life together around Jesus and refused to be hemmed in by a fear of what we might stand to lose instead of what we might stand to gain by making an impact for Christ. Indeed, we might, if we would simply make ourselves available to be used of God so that God might give us the courage that we need to exalt Christ in this spiritual body. Only then will we ever understand that whether we live or die, with Christ, it is all joyful gain.