The Epistle to the Philippians begins with Paul identifying himself as a “slave of Messiah Jesus.” And, at the time, he might have felt acutely like a slave, sitting as he was in a prison.
He also might have been tempted to feel like a mistreated slave, after all he had done and all he aspired to do in the service of his Lord. Why in the world would the sovereign God let one of his best preachers rot in prison? Surely there was someplace else he could be that would be far more influential: Ephesus, Athens, Corinth, Rome….
Yet Paul does what a faithful slave is supposed to do (Colossians 3:22-24), and works at what work is at hand—heartily, as for the Lord—in this case, letter-writing. And out of this obedience comes…Philippians.
That’s a pretty good day’s work. Maybe even worth a little prison time.
I cast my mind over other Christian leaders who were placed in places they didn’t want to be.
Augustine didn’t want to be in Hippo and certainly didn’t want to be bishop. It seems in retrospect, however, that it was at least somewhat helpful to the entire Christian church for the next millennium and more that Augustine was placed in a situation in which he had to deal pastorally, politically, and theologically with the issues of the day.
John Calvin wanted nothing more than to stay with his books and study in Strasbourg. But God, in the persistent person of William Farel, kept re-locating him to Geneva, which became the very “school of the prophets” (Knox) as the model reformation of a city.
Jonathan Edwards endured betrayal and even firing at the hands of the very church he had helped lead into revival…because he was too Christian for them. He and his large family were, in effect, exiled: out to the frontier, where America’s greatest mind was put to work evangelizing rough traders and struggling to communicate with native peoples. Yet in little Stockbridge, Massachusetts, precisely because it was not a demanding pastorate the way, say, Augustine’s or Calvin’s was, Edwards had the time to study and produce book after book of classic theology, philosophy, psychology, and more.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer never got a proper teaching job, but instead was stuck out in the country teaching in a tiny, renegade seminary—and out of that came Life Together. Even worse, much worse, he was soon afterward relegated to a Nazi prison, where he cared for other inmates and even guards as he could—and wrote his masterful Ethics and provocative Letters and Papers.
Martin Luther King, Jr., must have thought it was (almost?) all over as he sat in a Birmingham jail. But his epistle from that cell became a modern ethical and political classic.
This is a weird world, wildly deranged from its original order and varying hugely from the shalom God intends for it. In such a bizarre situation, very odd measures must frequently be taken. And God takes them, and takes them with us if we will cooperate with him, if we will yield to him completely as grateful, trusting slaves.
We are still in the afterglow of celebrating the Nativity, one of the most extreme moments in history, an utterly odd event that could make sense only if the world were in need of a deeply strange salvation.
So our lives: much of them ordinary, predictable, but sometimes wrenched into shapes and plunked into contexts we could not possibly have imagined, let alone chosen. Yet, in a Chestertonian paradox, we Christians should rather expect to have things go weirdly, at least from time to time, in order that God can work with us to meet the broken surfaces and jumbled-up needs of this kaleidoscopic cosmos God is resolutely and masterfully saving.
Today, then, is the day that Yhwh has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. And let us, like Paul, do whatever it seems evident we are to do in the circumstances of the day, trusting Messiah Jesus to keep doing through us the saving he came at Christmas to do.
And, if one feels inclined to do so, maybe write a letter….