Sermon: Encouragement When You Need it the Most - Philippians 4

The peace that passes all understanding is one of the most precious forms of encouragement that God has ever given us. It's the solution for the pursuit of peace. It's the peace that comes when we avoid impure actions. And it's the satisfying answer in our chase for contentment, for the ability to actually enjoy life.

Scriptures: Philippians 4:4-13

Introduction

In part of this country in the 1980s, when wolves were in danger of extinction, there was a special bounty offered for wolves caught alive. Each live wolf brought into captivity would bring $5,000! That turned two men, Sam and Jed, into fortune hunters. They headed for the forest. Day and night they looked for their $5,000 wolf, but they couldn't find him. It was hopeless. One night, as they camped in a clearing, Sam awoke to find more than 50 wolves surrounding the camp. Their eyes were flaming and their teeth were bared. He nudged his friend and said, "Jed, wake up! We're rich!" That's a pretty good attitude!

Or what of the two men who were sent by a shoe manufacturer to a remote country to sell shoes? One wrote back: "I have terrible news. This is a God-forsaken country. Nobody here wears shoes. I'm coming home." The other man wrote: "This is a wonderful country. I am so grateful you sent me to this territory. Nobody here wears shoes. Send me 5,000 pairs."

What about the day when attitude won't carry the day? What of the day when life's circumstances are simply overwhelming? That's when you need encouragement the most. Thankfully, that's also the moment you might realize that encouragement like that is actually available!

The peace that passes all understanding is one of the most precious forms of encouragement that God has ever given us. It's the solution for the pursuit of peace. It's the peace that comes when we avoid impure actions. And it's the satisfying answer in our chase for contentment, for the ability to actually enjoy life.

If you'd like to experience the peace God offers ...

I. Choose joy in times of anxiety

When Paul first visited Philippi, it didn't take him long to find trouble. He and Silas were arrested, stripped of their clothes in front of a crowd, and brutally beaten. (Acts 16:22) When Paul and Silas regained consciousness, they were in the most secure portion of the Philippian jail, surrounded by prisoners. Their wounds were fresh, and the dirt of the prison floor must have added to the torment. With their feet in stocks designed for discomfort, it made for a day when Paul and Silas needed encouragement about as badly as they ever had.

Their reaction to a really bad day? "About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them." Acts 16:25 (HCSB)

I've always found that passage of scripture nearly unbelievable. Two men serving God were singing praise to God, on a day when God apparently took the day off. Paul had seen God's miracle-working hand before. In fact, a miracle of God was what led to all the trouble. So where was the miracle during the arrest, the humiliation, and the beating? Why had God let his missionaries sit in the rot of a prison dungeon all afternoon, and half the night?

The bigger question: Why would God's missionaries sing praise to God under such conditions?

Before the questions could be answered, an earthquake shook the prison so perfectly, Paul and Silas were freed from their chains, but the prison didn't collapse upon them. By morning, their wounds were clean, and the a revival was sweeping across the city.

There must be a connection between what happened to Paul in Philippi on his first visit, and what he wrote to the believers there several years later. "Rejoice in the Lord always," Paul wrote. Could they have forgotten the innocent prisoner who sang at midnight? "Don't be anxious about anything. Instead, pray. And God's peace will cover your heart."

If anxiety rules your day, turn the tables on your stress. Sing a praise song as if it's the best day of your life, and not the worst. Tell God how much you love Him, even if you feel quite unloved during an anxious season. Choosing joy in the midst of anxiety is faith lived out.

Chuck Swindoll tells this true story of a couple who had been to a Bible conference for a week. The theme of the conference was spread all over a big placard that was held above the speaker of the week: "Looking Unto Jesus." And hiscontinued emphasis was: No matter what, keep your eyes on Christ. Focus fully on Him. Don't let your circumstances get you derailed. In all things, rejoice!

Now when the conference was over, this couple got in their car and drove across several states to get back home. And late one evening, through a freakish event, they were almost hit head-on by a car. The older gentleman twisted his steering wheel and drove their car into a ditch, and, of all things, it wound up in a shallow ravine, just under a little bridge. This older man and wife, who had just committed themselves to following fully the Lord, decided in that moment that even this must be from God.

So they quickly climbed out and stood on top of their car, put their arms around one another and began to sing, "Praise God from whom all blessings flow ..."

There were people already gathering on the bridge to see if they were OK, and now they were watching, the way those prisoners were watching Paul and Silas when they were singing. They sang the entire Doxology, and it had an unusual effect on people. The wife even said, "The policeman was there and he had his hat over his heart."

When they finished singing the last "Amen," the husband shrugged his shoulders, looked up at the crowd and said, "You folks might have wondered why we called this meeting this afternoon." And then he told them about Christ - right there, standing on the top of their wrecked car in the middle of a shallow ravine. Rejoicing always.

II. In an immoral world, choose an intentional path of purity

One of the surest ways for a Christian to lose his peace is for him to intentionally choose a path of immorality. If he gives in to the temptation, he'll find that he can have only one of two options - the sin that violates God's Word - or the peace of God that follows an obedient lifestyle.

Watch how intentional Paul is with his instructions:

Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable - if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise - dwell on these things. Do what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. Phil 4:8-9 (HCSB)

Dwell on these things.
Think on these things.
Concentrate on them.
Meditate on them.

When we focus on the things of God, it only makes sense that the peace of God would follow. And when we choose the opposite focus of our thought life, we shouldn't be surprised at the unpeaceful results.

III. Learn contentment in every life situation

We should know by now that contentment isn't an automatic right, despite the fact that the pursuit of happiness is right at the top of our Declaration of Independence. Or maybe the founding fathers got it right. Maybe they knew we'd frantically chase contentment, pursuing happiness, all the days of our American lives. So many of us seem to be convinced that the next thing we buy, the next job we take, or the next hobby we tackle will bring happiness.

And so many of us are frustrated.

When I was a boy, my mother made me a butterfly net. With that net I spent hours chasing butterflies on my grandparents' farm. I don't recall ever catching a single butterfly, which is why I put the net down decades ago. Since that time, however, it seems I have been surrounded by butterflies. They land on my hoe when I'm resting from yard work. They've parked on golf balls I wanted to hit, which was probably the safest place they could have landed - They've even landed on me, in some of my quieter moments.

Perhaps contentment and happiness are like butterflies. The more you chase them, the more they fly away and hide. Come to think of it, chasing butterflies is a worthless occupation. You can't eat one, and you can't sell one. It won't do your chores, and it won't keep you company late at night. So it's really a smart thing to put down the butterfly nets. Ironically, once you stop and busy yourself with things that have great value - like relationships with your family and friends - contentment and happiness will sneak up on you from behind and land on your shoulder.

And you'll have encouragement when you needed it the most.

Paul had pulled it off through his persevering, life-long walk with the Lord.

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at last you have renewed your care for me. You were, in fact, concerned about me, but lacked the opportunity [to show it]. I don't say this out of need, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know both how to have a little, and I know how to have a lot. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret [of being content] - whether well-fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need. I am able to do all things through Him who strengthens me. Phil 4:10-13 (HCSB)

Did you see his secret? He had learned contentment as a direct result of his walk with Christ. "I am able to do all things through Him ..." This was Paul's "secret of being content in every situation." He had cultivated a life of Christ-following discipleship.

If you pull this off, with intentional rejoicing, and intentional purity, and an intentional concentration on contentment, something wonderful will happen. God's peace - which is like no other peace - will be yours. Remember, Jesus once said, "My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives" John 14:27 (HCSB) It's the same kind of peace Paul gives here in a great word of encouragement. It's the peace that passes all understanding, taking away anxiety, guarding against impurity, and blessing us with contentment.

When Paul painted a picture of this very unusual peace for the Philippians, he looked no further than their town limits. Since Philippi wasn't far from the coastline of Greece, it was something of a first-alert station for invading armies. And since most of the residents in this town were families of retired Roman soldiers, they understood the danger of attack.

That's why a sentry worked through the night at Philippi. While people inside the city slept, the sentry kept watch. Knowing there was a guard on alert, people rested easily. The sentry - the "phulasso" - would watch for enemy soldiers, for a midnight thief, or even a destructive rabbit looking for a garden snack. The sentry was on guard, and that gave the Philippians reason to rest peacefully.

When Paul talked about the peace of God, the kind of peace that was beyond human understanding, he capitalized on that imagery to communicate his message. "And the peace of God," Paul wrote (4:7), "will guard (like a phulasso will guard) your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." The peace of God will be like that sentry, marching around your life, watching for things that might battle your peace of mind. When you need the encouragement the most, God's sentry-man of peace will be at its best.

One winter morning in Georgia I awoke to find that an ice storm had silently arrived during the night, knocking out our electric power in the process. Because I worked for an afternoon newspaper, I had to make every effort to get to work before daybreak. Since it was cold, I let my car warm up in the carport behind our home, and turned on the headlights so I could see my way in the dark. In a few moments, I headed for the road. As the headlights of the car swung around our property, the damage from the storm was obvious. Shrubbery and plants were frozen and broken. The trees glittered with their coats of ice. Countless limbs were fallen to the ground. Slowly, I drove around the house, only to discover that a tree had fallen across my driveway. It completely blocked my path to the road! Just at that moment, however, I saw some motion in the headlights. My next-door neighbor was already trying to move the tree! He knew about my job and had seen the tree on my driveway earlier that night. So when he saw the headlights of my car while it was warming up, he dressed for warmth, headed for the trouble and began clearing my path before I even knew I had a problem. We moved the tree away from the driveway, I thanked him for the help, and made it to work on time.

That's the idea of God's peace that passes all understanding. Before we're aware of the fallen limbs across the paths of our lives - before we ever see the stumbling blocks before us - God is already working to provide care. When God works, it's impossible to describe the peace, which is why the Bible calls it a "peace that transcends understanding."

Conclusion

Before the days of Jay Leno, and even before the era of Johnny Carson, Jack Parr was the host of the "Tonight Show." And in those days, America was regularly treated to the piano playing of a man named Jose Mellis.

Mellis, who was the music director for the show, regularly amazed the television audiences with his versatility on the keyboard. One of the really fascinating things that Mellis would do was to invite Parr to come over to the piano and strike the keys in a completely arbitrary manner. Parr would strike a horrendous discord and then say to Mellis, "Okay, Jose, let's see what you can do with that."

Mellis would respond by putting his fingers on the keys struck by Parr and blend the notes of the discord into a beautiful piece of music. He would not only start with the discord struck by Parr, he would come back to it time and time again, making it an integral part of the music. Something ugly was transformed into something beautiful while America watched and listened.

There's a great analogy there as to what God can do with our lives. With sin and pride and greed and mistakes, we sure have struck enough discordant notes ... But God has the ability to reach into our lives - when we give Him the chance - and make beautiful music out of all our discord.

In your greatest need for encouragement right now? Choose joy. Choose purity. Choose trust. Reject anxiety. Forget the circumstances. Memorize and soak in scripture. Find the confidence that comes through knowing Jesus.

And the encouragement is yours.

Andy Cook is the pastor of Shirley Hills Baptist Church in, Warner Robins, Georgia.