When I was last in a prison I was sorry to leave, but was also very glad that I didn’t have to stay. I’d been there as part of my work experience placement from college when I was training to be a vicar. I’d spent two weeks with the chaplains, getting a bit of a glimpse of what life is like in a modern prison in the UK. I was sorry to leave because I saw what good work the chaplains were doing for the people that they worked with. I was sorry because when I met people who had become Christians whilst in prison I was encouraged to see that the power of God to change lives isn’t kept out by gates and doors. But, I was glad that I didn’t have to stay. I’d seen the effects that being held captive was having on people. I wouldn’t want my freedoms cut off in that way, not being able to go where I wanted, when I wanted, to be with who I wanted. If I’d ever doubted it before, I was left in no doubt that prison is not a good place to be as an inmate.
The part of the Bible we’re looking at this afternoon is a prison letter. It was written by Paul from prison in Rome, and more than that, it was written to a church, the Christians in Philippi, who had know Paul as a prisoner when he was in that city.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin: The Earth Shakes.
So, the background of this letter is prison. And this seems to me to make the content of the letter even more remarkable. The section that we’re looking at this afternoon gives some brilliant examples of this.
Paul talks about rejoicing, being joyful. Despite the circumstances, Paul talks about joy – not happiness which depends on what’s going on around us, but joy that is given to our hearts by God, and isn’t affected by the situation we’re in.
Paul reminds us that the Lord is near. Even when it feels like God has gone on holiday, the Lord is near. The Holy Spirit is always within us, as close to us as our heartbeat, the Lord is near. Jesus has promised that he will return, it could be this afternoon. As followers of Jesus we live always with the expectation that Jesus will return, and ready for him to do so at any time. The Lord is near. Even when we feel trapped and in prison, shut away from everything, the Lord is near.
Then Paul starts talking about not worrying and about having peace. Here he is, in prison, being guarded by soldiers, but that isn’t the guard that is most important to him. He has no control over the way in which his body is guarded, but he does have control over the guard on his heart and mind. On what keeps his thoughts and feelings safe and secure. He knows that the peace of God is able to do that. The warriors of the world may be outside the door, but the peace of God can be in our inner being. How can this be? By not worrying about anything, but by asking God for what we need and by being thankful.
Paul wasn’t the only person in the Bible to talk about not worrying. When Jesus was on earth he told his followers not to worry about things as well. He said that we didn’t need to, because God already knows what we need.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t find it easy not to worry, not to fret, not to be anxious. Paul knows this, so he gives some solid instruction on what to do instead. “by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God.”
That’s all very well to say, but how might it work in practice?
Let’s have some suggestions of situations that we might be worried about, that might make us anxious.
So if something like one of these situations is worrying us, what might we do?
Well, firstly I’d suggest that we need to get it off our chest – talk to God about it. Tell God how worried we are, why we’re concerned, what we would like to happen. Think about times that have turned out well for us or other people, and thank God for them. Thank God for creating you, for loving you, for adopting you as God’s child, and for promising never to leave you.
We give the situation to God and resist the temptation to take it back. If you’re anything like me, it will keep popping back into your head, and when that happens or something occurs to remind you of your worries – don’t worry about that but, again, pray about it, give the anxiety to God. Thank God for something.
This doesn’t mean that we should be afraid to be persistent. When you have your normal times of prayer, talk to God about the thing that’s concerning you and then leave it with God again.
By doing this we give the peace of God the opportunity to guard our hearts and minds and to keep us joyful, despite the circumstances surrounding us.
Then Paul keeps going with two practical things we can do to live in that peace, and not to get distracted.
Firstly – fill our thoughts with other, positive stuff.
Secondly – have a good role model.
Imagine this jug is my thoughts. Perhaps I start off like this – with it all empty, but then I start worrying – about money, about elderly relatives, about my job, about my faith, about the children, about the economy, about global warming. As I worry the jug fills up. Then I decide, no this is no good, I’m not going to worry, I’m going to pray about this things instead. So I take them out and pray about them and give them to God. Here I am with my empty thoughts. What’s going to happen if I don’t fill them with something else. The worries might start coming back again – there’s plenty of room. I know. Why don’t we fill the jug with something else. What positive things could we fill our thoughts with. Excellent – now my thoughts are filled with this, what happens if the worries try and sneak back in? There isn’t room for them.
So the first thing Paul suggests is to fill our thoughts with good stuff, so that there is less room for the negative stuff.
The second thing Paul tells the Philipians to do is to, “keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.” The Christians in Philippi had seen Paul praising God in prison and the prison fall to pieces because of it. They had seen him come out and lead his jailer to faith. They knew that Paul wasn’t someone who talked a good game but never put it into practice. They knew that Paul practised what he preached and was a good role model for them.
I wonder who your role model is in faith? Do you have someone who you learn from and receive from, who lives out their faith in a way that inspires you? If might be someone you know, it might be someone you’ve read about. I find that Christian autobiographies can be really inspiring for this, true life accounts of how people have lived their lives following Jesus.
One of the things that they would have learnt from Paul and will have seen him doing was praying for each other, sharing one another’s worries and concerns. One of the gifts that God gives us is each other. If there has been something about what I’ve said this afternoon that has left you wanting more peace or joy, or if you feel so overwhelmed by a situation that you can’t see any way to peace in it, then you are not on your own. We are here together to share with each other and pray for each other. You might want to write a note about it and put it in the prayer box, or you might want to ask someone to pray with you. Whatever you need to do, do it before you leave this afternoon.
In the end, after all the practical guidance, Paul comes back to the most important thing. It is all about the God of peace and the peace of God. Throughout the Bible we are given examples of God’s people holding onto peace and joy by trusting God in the most difficult of situations. Daniel in the lions’ den. Jesus on a sinking boat in a storm. And, of course, Paul in a prison in Philippi. In all these situations rejoicing, trust, and prayer led to peace.