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Having a Party in Prison
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There’s a praise song that’s a few years old now, but I know we’ve sung it before. It goes: “I could sing of Your love forever.” Now, that’s a beautiful sentiment, but I imagine our enthusiasm for that song depends upon where we are. We can all remember being in some church or chapel or mission trip where the auditorium was so hot and sticky, we finally began to think: “God, if I have to sing of Your love for two more minutes, I’ll explode!”

We’re studying together in the great Bible epistle or missionary letter from Paul to his fellow Christians in the city of Philippi. And early on, he includes an odd little line that I would frankly tend to dismiss . . . except that it describes an experience that is fairly common to Christians. First, here’s the Bible statement, and this is found in verse seven of chapter one. “Whether I am in chains,” Paul writes, “or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me.”

Now, as you probably know, this guy Paul did a fair amount of both of those things. He was the master defender and confirmer of the gospel, of course, the greatest preacher in the New Testament. But he also put in his time in chains, as you can read in the book of Acts, and then again in a kind of iron-man litany over in Second Corinthians 11. He was flogged at least five times by the Jews and stoned once. Someone once observed that he was either very dedicated or the conference office wasn’t paying him enough! But he’s telling the truth when he says that he’s able to bask in the hardships of prison, as long as he’s united with his brothers and sisters through the miracle of grace. As long as he knows he’s a saved man, redeemed by Calvary, he can actually be happy in San Quentin. He can “sing of God’s love forever” while he’s in solitary.

Now, I have to confess that I have never spent time in prison—probably to the surprise of some of you here. But we have all had hard moments where we lay awake in bed with tears in our eyes, knowing we were going to a very difficult funeral the next morning. Some of you have paced the floor at midnight, not sure you would have a job when the sun came up the next day. Most of us who are parents have anxiously looked out the living room window, knowing that somewhere out there in the darkness, our child’s heart was breaking. I have friends in this church who have had that first night where they were abruptly a divorced person.

When we feel secure, we can smile about the cartoon where an inmate looks into the mirror and reads the slogan: “Today is the first day of the rest of your life . . . sentence.” But how does that really feel? Richard Dortch, a well-meaning and devoted preacher in the Assemblies of God denomination, was sentenced to prison for his part in the Jim Bakker scandal a number of years ago. He was terrified; it weighed upon him. It came down to the night before he was to be incarcerated and his fears were overwhelming. He was a senior citizen and not in the best of health. How could he survive in the state penitentiary? How can the apostle Paul be serious about praising God and singing and counting his blessings when his wrists and ankles are in irons?

A generic letter to the Church was circulated via e-mail here in North America back in 1997. It had this title: Letter From a Friend in Honduras. Two incredible Christians, Ernesto and Sheree, pastor a church in El Progresso, Honduras, and sent out a late-breaking e-mail report regarding the horrors of Hurricane Mitch down there. And this document is really the most brutal thing you can imagine. Even the writers confessed: “It is a national disaster. [We] can’t even begin to express the tragedy.”

And they go on to describe—as best human language can—how terrible things were. A whole 20-mile stretch from where they lived over to San Pedro Sula was completely underwater. Hundreds of people drowned; thousands were homeless. People and kids and orphans were stuck on rooftops for three, four, five days with no food or drinking water or sleep. 

No hope of rescue. Dead bodies everywhere. Garbage floating by. Robberies and black-market entrepreneurs and crime. Doctors and nurses staying up 24 hours, trying to save a life here and a life there. There was infection and head lice and fist fights. It’s a story you and I just cannot comprehend. You can hardly read these words without turning away for a bit, switching off your Internet server and looking in another direction, just to get the lump down in your throat. And of course, since then we have had Hurricane Katrina and the recent earthquake in China.

Yet somehow, part two of the file, dated November 2, 1997, starts out like this: “Good morning!  It is so wonderful to see the sun out. We are thankful we can feel your prayers and our hearts are strengthened to continue in what is before us.”

And they talk cheerfully about digging their way out, about their gratitude for the prayers and the care packages slowly arriving. They even make a joke about their dilemma: The woman, named Sherree, almost tacks a smiley-face logo onto her goal for the day: “Today I am going to start cutting hair on all the children and checking for lice . . . sounds like fun, huh!” 

Maybe you and I can’t fully comprehend their cheerfulness, their optimism in the midst of mud and crime and death. But somehow these two remarkable Christians are reading from the same page of the Bible as Paul. They have God’s grace! They know fellow believers are sharing in that grace, praying for them. And so their testimony is that they can react with joy.

What should we learn from this? What is Paul telling as we eavesdrop our way through this letter he writes to real people, with real problems, and real challenges in Philippi? Well, it’s important to know the things that are true. What are they? First, others are praying for us. We can know that; we can believe it. How many of you have gone on mission trips for this church, and known as you were away that others back home were on their knees and praying for you—because they promised to do that? 

In addition, you can know that your suffering often makes a real difference. Others are blessed and encouraged because you get through the hard time. 

Thirdly, it’s good news that all of our trials here are temporary. Actually, if you type a sermon too fast, the word trials comes out “trails,” and we know that trails are usually for short-term journeys. They don’t go forever. A trail finally comes out at the main road and we eventually do get home.

Let me share a slice of “rejoicing through pain” from the wonderful book, The Lady, Her Lover, and Her Lord by T. D. Jakes. “Many women have been robbed. They are outwardly successful but inwardly impoverished. Life has robbed them of optimism. They trust no one. They expect nothing, and they are hard to convince. These are the casualties of war. They lost their treasure to some pained incident that snatched away their hope. Even after the incident is over and there is someone new in their lives, they are so pained by the past that they have not fully been able to open their hearts again. No one can pump life through a broken heart. It is like pouring perfume into a broken decanter. No matter what you put in it, it always leaks out again.” But now here are the words of power, which enable us to rejoice: “If your heart has been broken by life, if your optimism has died in the fight to endure, I speak resurrection to you now.”

Let’s go back to the Apostle Paul now, and this business about rejoicing in prison is a very real testimony even right here. Because Paul is actually writing FROM jail! That’s right. This is a jailhouse epistle, written from the penitentiary in Rome. A believer named Epaphroditus carried this letter from Paul to his friends in Philippi.

But let’s explore together how Paul discovers yet another silver lining about being a ward of the state. Here’s verses 12-14. “Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.”

So Paul is a celebrating cellmate for two reasons. One: all of his fellow Christians are emboldened in their own witness, seeing as how he’s in jail for his faith. That’s a tremendous example. The infant church is encouraged to be zealous and strong and faithful in their freedom when they see how their champion and mentor is all of those things while in prison. 

But here’s the second silver lining. Paul’s there in Cell #250. And all the guards in the joint, the men in the machine-gun towers, the cooks in the kitchen know that he’s a believer. They’re all getting exposed to the gospel message, hearing bits of it in the yard, hearing his prayers before lunch in the cafeteria. Prison is a whole new mission field for Paul, and he’s actually loving it.

You know, the Clear Word paraphrase of this chapter, Philippians chapter one, captures the almost childlike joy as Paul writes about how God works through adversity. Here it is: “My imprisonment for Christ,” he says, “has been instrumental in taking the gospel right into Caesar’s palace”—not the Nevada model, although that’s not a bad idea—“and into many other neighborhoods in Rome.”

And you know, this kind of bad news-good news scenario happens all of the time within the Body of Christ. Chuck Colson used to work in the Nixon White House, where he was a bit too zealously involved in the Watergate coverup. So he ended up in prison. That’s bad news, right? No, it’s good news because his Christian faith flourished and he felt empowered to begin an evangelical ministry known as Prison Fellowship as soon as he got out.

He later wrote about an inmate named Danny Croce, who murdered a police officer while driving under the influence. So of course he was put in the slammer as well. That’s bad news again, correct? No, guess again. What did Danny Croce end up doing? He became a Christian prison chaplain at that very same jail where he served out his sentence. He’s chaplain to some of his former prison pals, and these guys know he’s for real because they used to share a cell with him. His witness is multiplied more than anyone could measure because of his jail experience. 

A hard-nosed guy named Don McClure was tossed in the brig for committing virtually every low-down crime there is. They threw the book at this guy. What a lost cause! What a wipeout. Correct? Actually, he found Jesus there, got out, and came up with a ministry called “Someone Cares” and a unique letter-writing ministry of service called “Paper Sunshine.” It’s one of the most thriving Adventist prison projects ever devised. Don routinely goes back to serve the very cons he once served time with.

Maybe you remember the classic old bad-news story at the very beginning of the wonderful book, The Cross and the Switchblade. Back in the late 1950s, this skinny young Assemblies of God preacher from Pennsylvania drove to New York City with his youth associate to try to intervene in the murder trial for a bunch of teenage boys, gang members. He got into the courtroom, and of course, he didn’t know how to get involved, how to help. He was an ignorant bystander, a babe in the woods in big, bad New York City. 

And when the trial abruptly ended, he made an incredibly stupid blunder. He just began shouting out from the visitors’ balcony, “Your Honor, Your Honor!  Can I talk to you?” Well, the bailiff and the cops in the courtroom just went crazy. I mean, this was a gang trial, with death threats and tight security, and this Bible-waving preacher looked like some kind of a nut. All the press took pictures of this wild-eyed, lunatic preacher, and they escorted him firmly outside and told him to get lost. And Wilkerson was in tears out in the parking lot. How could he have been so stupid? Where was God’s leading anyway? Why didn’t the Holy Spirit help him to keep his own flapping, stupid mouth shut? He could just imagine all the New York tabloids with this picture of an idiot preacher on the front page.

And he drove home to Pennsylvania with his tail between his legs, feeling so ashamed. Now he had to explain to his church members, who’d scraped together the gas money to send him to New York. By the time he got home, they’d all seen the papers. It was an embarrassing, agonizing experience, and it certainly seemed like there was nothing to rejoice about.

Well, here’s the amazing conclusion. A few months later the Holy Spirit began to bug David Wilkerson again: Go back to New York. And he was aghast at the thought. “No way, Lord. Leave me alone. Not a chance.” He turned purple at the thought. “I hate New York and New York hates me back.” But he couldn’t fight that voice. Finally he went to his church, heart in his throat—and incredibly, they gave him the money to drive the 400 miles back to the Big Apple and the porno theaters and the prostitutes and the gangs. And he got out of the car, not knowing where to start, where to make contact with these hurting, broken kids.

Well, he’d walked something like half a block when he heard a voice. “Hey!  Davie!” And he looked around. There was no one else on the street. And some kid was shouting out at him. “Hey!  Davie!” “Are you talking to me?” he asked. “Yeah,” the gang member said as he tucked away his switchblade and lit a cigarette. “Aren’t you that preacher who was kicked out of the Michael Farmer trial?” “How’d you know that?” Wilkerson wanted to know, incredulous. “Are you kidding?” the kid snorted. “Your face was in every paper in New York. All the gang kids know who the preacher is: Davie.” 

And David Wilkerson wanted to just fall down on his knees right there in Times Square and weep for joy. What an amazing God, to turn his stupid courtroom blunder into this rendezvous moment. And this leather-jacketed boy, Tommy, president of the Rebels, took Wilkerson around and introduced him to all of the gang members. Within half an hour he was preaching a simple sermon to the two biggest gangs in New York City: the Rebels and the GGI’s—the Grand Gangsters Incorporated. Amazingly, the kids immediately idolized him. “You’re one of us,” they kept repeating. He didn’t get it. “Why am I one of you?” Easy, they told him. “The cops don’t like us; the cops don’t like you. You’re one of us!” At that very moment, the ministry known as Teen Challenge was born. All because of a mistake in a courtroom, the divinely-ordained blunder of a man waving a Bible and shooting off his mouth about a God who loves teenage kids.

So God’s Word gives us this great promise of encouragement. We can rejoice in adversity. We can praise God when things look dark. We can trust Him when it looks like we’re on a trail instead of a freeway. If you’re in some kind of “jail” today, and you don’t feel like “singing about God’s love forever,” just hang on. Just like for Davie Wilkerson, God may be setting up something very interesting.

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