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Transient Facts and Transcient Faith
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It’s a regular moment of pain in the world of professional sports—and that’s when your favorite player decides to retire . . . or is abruptly traded. Fans sit in the bleachers with stunned looks on their faces. How can we go on living, they wonder.

Back in the year 2001, I don’t think the world of sports ever did get over the departure of one Mr. Michael Jeffrey Jordan from the game of basketball. Fans are still weeping in Chicago. He was probably the greatest player ever, by virtually every list-compiler there is. And of course, the newspapers were filled with numerous reports about how many dollars His Air Highness had put into his own pockets during his heyday with the Bulls. I read that he was taking home something like $400,000 for every single game he played. But that pile of greenbacks pales next to the $16 million he collected every year from Nike, the $5 million from Sara Lee, and right on down the line. He was receiving more than $40 million a year just to loan his name to these various companies.

And it’s estimated that just as a human franchise, a commodity—not only measuring what he earns, but the monies he generates for business and the world of sports—have grown well into the billions.

But all of this brings us to a question as here in this church building we stay in the much more humble world of first-century Philippi and Paul’s letter to the people living there. Most folks receiving this epistle from Paul probably weren’t as well off as Michael Jordan; they had to scratch to make a living. Paul himself had to regularly take a detour from his missionary trips and make tents for a while in order to pay for his next plane ticket and to keep updating which version of Microsoft PowerPoint he had in his computer.

Here’s that intriguing question, though. Because some sports fans have wondered, having read about Michael Jordan’s penchant for an occasional bet in golf, and for his trips to Atlantic City to visit the gaming tables there, how big a bet he would possibly have to play before it had any meaning to him. If he walked up to a baccarat table at one of those Trump hotel/casinos there on the Atlantic shore and put down a thousand dollars and lost it . . . what would it be like? It would be like you or me playing for a penny. How could there possibly be a jolt for him, that little flicker when you win and see the chips sliding toward you, or that pop in the stomach when the dice come up snake-eyes and he loses what for him is basically like a penny? Someone once calculated, proportionally, what it would be like if Bill Gates were to be walking out to his car in the parking lot and spotting a stray $100 bill there on the pavement. Would he lean over to pick it up? Well, again, using a simple proportion, for Gates to pick up a bill with Ben Franklin’s picture on it would be like you or me stooping over and straining our back in order to scoop up a faded copper penny. Is it worth it?

Well, this is maybe an odd beginning to a Bible sermon based on Philippians, but let me invite you over to verse four of our study passage, which is chapter four. And here’s what Paul has to say to people like you and me, who are a lot poorer than our retired friend, Number Twenty-Three, from the Windy City. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” he writes. And then: “I will say it again: Rejoice!”

And that’s it. “Rejoice in the Lord always.”  And even the happiest NBA Christian in the world knows that it’s pretty hard to rejoice “always.”  You rejoice when the Bulls win, but you cry on the rare occasions when they lose. Losing’s not as rare for them now as it used to be, but you understand my point. Nobody rejoices all the time. Some athletes in Beijing got to lose, but those swimmers who missed a gold medal by a hundredth of a second probably found it hard to rejoice. We all have to face despair and defeat every once in a while. But here this is what Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, tells us is the Christian way: to rejoice always. To always be celebrating. In his great book, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis observes that a Christian society should be relentlessly cheerful, singing and rejoicing and regarding worry as wrong, almost a sin.

Interestingly, I find in the finances of Michael Jordan the perfect illustration for this command. Because I’m sure there have been days—if we can get out of Atlantic City here—when even Jordan would find that his wallet was kind of empty. At the end of a long road trip, perhaps. And he would get down to a last $10 bill. Would he worry? Or feel all tight in the stomach about his cash-strapped position? Would he get out a little tin cup and begin to panhandle outside the stadium? Of course not! Because he had $40 million in reserves back home. He still had his Nike deal and his paycheck from the United Center and owner Jerry Reinsdorf. And so here is a man who, because of what there is in reserve, what he has back there, can certainly “rejoice always.”

What does this mean for the Christian, though? Because bad times certainly do come to the people of God. I know that, and you know that. We could all tell our stories of hurt and discouragement. Trying times have come to each of us. We live in a hard old world scarred by sin, and there are many shadows all around us.

I’d like to share with you a few excerpts of one of a truly life-changing magazine article. It’s by Pastor Jack Hayford, of Church on the Way in Van Nuys, California. He’s a senior editorial advisor for the magazine, Ministries Today, and this is where his article, “The Heart of Thanksgiving,” appears. He writes about a woman named Marti, whose husband had been a chronic alcoholic for more than ten years. Time and time again, he had disappointed her with his failed promises and violent outbursts. What’s more, she was facing terminal cancer—which meant several surgeries, financial difficulties, and certainly the specter of upcoming pain.

But here’s the incredible thing. This woman had a heart of thanksgiving! She wasn’t just rejoicing, she was “rejoicing always.”  She was a happy woman, through and through. On the fourth Thursday in November, and for the other 364 days of the year, she was able to look up to heaven and thank God for all of the blessings in her life. Hayford quotes her as saying: “[I thank God for His presence and strength] which enables me to love, care for and serve my dear Chuck”—remember, that’s her alcoholic husband—“even though there’s nothing we can really do together—other than wait.”

And how in the world could this woman take such a view? The essence of her life, and the essence of this magnificent article by a wonderful Christian pastor, is this: you and I can rejoice always because God is good always. It’s as simple as that. Maybe you’ve been to a youth praise concert where the lead singer will cry out: “God is good!” And the audience responds: “All the time!” And all the time . . . God is good. That’s true, isn’t it? And I think we would agree that any time God is good, we can rejoice—regardless of what might be happening with our wallet or purse at that particular moment.

There’s a bit of November flavor to how Hayford summarizes this point. Notice: “The splendor of the Thanksgiving season shines never so splendidly as it does in places and in hearts where the shadows of pain or disappointment are unable to dim the radiance of praise to God. Notwithstanding trials they’re traversing or difficulties being navigated, a multitude of souls are possessed of a wisdom this Thanksgiving Day that is rooted in the reality of God’s unchanging goodness.” The Bible tells us over and over that God endures forever, His love endures forever, and His mercy endures forever. How can we go wrong under those circumstances? How can we be anything but rejoicing with those promises? Every time we sing the song, Give Thanks, we notice that the poor can say, “I am rich,” and the weak can rejoice: “I am strong.” Why? Because of what the Lord has done for us.

Now, for all of us—this broken woman, Marti, and you and me as well—there are seasons in our lives when the shadows loom. Pastor Hayford uses the metaphor of fog, which comes in and blocks out our view of the sun. But then he adds: “But there is a breed of believer that never relents praising—come fog or shadow.”

This woman had spent a full decade with a husband who couldn’t stay sober. There had to be many long, lonely nights where her bed was empty and she knew he was carousing in a bar or lying face down in a gutter. Other nights I’m sure there were black-and-blue marks where he hit her in his alcoholic haze. Certainly there were extended bleak times of financial deprivation. But even with an alcoholic husband, Marti knew that her God in heaven was—at the height, even, of her pain—a good God. God had not made her husband an alcoholic. No, her good God loved her husband, and He loved her.

She had cancer, a terminal, fatal disease. Her days on earth were numbered. She knew the destructive cells were growing in her body every moment of every day. But God hadn’t given her that cancer. God hadn’t put that tumor in her body. Even when there was pain, even on the day when her physical body would finally be defeated by the specter of that disease, she knew that her God was still good, that God hates disease and pain and death even more than she did.

Sometimes, with our limited vision—admittedly, we can’t see through the shadows and the fog—we wonder why this good God, this always good God, permits cancer and alcoholism. Some of you probably rode through the Northridge earthquake back in 1994. Or through the tsunami which hit Asia a few years ago. Or Hurricane Katrina. God didn’t send those temblors and destructive winds, despite the language used by the insurance companies, but why didn’t He stop them? Couldn’t He have stopped them? Couldn’t He keep us from losing or jobs and our paychecks? Couldn’t He keep Wall Street from collapsing? Couldn’t He keep world dictators from slaughtering the innocent millions?

Well, that’s when you and I have to be like this brave woman, Marti. And like Paul in prison and Martin Luther in exile. We have to exercise this little thing called faith. We have to keep trusting that God is good even when things are not good. Keep on believing that God is love even when the world around us appears to be unloving. Our faith in God needs to be as steady and unswerving as our wedding vows: “For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, in prosperity and in poverty, in the sunshine and in the shadows.”

Pastor Hayford ends with this challenge: “Let’s take our cue from those people whose praise to God—however appropriately prompted by great blessings—is just as praise-ready when shadows come. They’re this way because their praise has found its deepest root in the abiding goodness of God’s nature, not merely in the temporal goodness of His providence. . . . Let’s become so fixed in gratitude,” he writes, “for the changeless fact that God is good that our praise persists even when transient facts tempt us to transient faith.”

And you know, this isn’t just poetic creativity from a human preacher in Van Nuys, California. Because the Bible itself, the unchanging Word of God, tells us that its author is also unchanging. Let me share just six words with you from Malachi 3:6. “I the Lord do not change.”

You see, God isn’t good on some days, where He sends rainbows, and then mad on others, sending earthquakes and the broken levees of Hurricane Katrina. We read in Hebrews 13:8: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” “Every good and perfect gift”—this is James 1:17—“is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does NOT change like the shifting shadows.”

Even though I’m your pastor and, I hope, your friend, I have to admit that I don’t personally know what the facts are for you today. Your life has pages that are hidden from my view. Now, maybe those pages are good right now. Maybe they tell a tell of success and good cheer. Maybe the sun in shining in your life. On the other hand, maybe discouragement has been your closest friend in recent weeks. You’re existing barely above the poverty line, or maybe even well below it. Maybe your marriage is slowly grinding to a halt in a way that escapes the rest of us. We don’t know how you cry yourself to sleep night after night.

Maybe someone you love is in a prison cell. That inmate number they wear on their shirt is a fact. That twenty-year sentence, two consecutive sentences, is a cold, hard fact. Well, all true. But an even greater fact is the goodness of God, the faithfulness of God, the love of God.

If you’re feeling poor today—if you are poor and it’s a fiscal fact that you have no money—remember that a God who owns far more than the Michael Jordan financial empire is your Friend today.

“Things may change,” Pastor Hayford writes, “but He never does; Tides turn back, but He never will; Turmoil churns, but He is my peace; Troubles come, but He’s present still.” Shall we pray?

Dear Father, we want to rejoice today that of all the things in our world that are “variable,” You are a faithful constant. Your love is eternal; Your care is ever-present. Your gift of salvation is non-negotiable and non-cancellable. Your interest in us is abiding; Your attention to the details of our lives is impeccable and tender. Thank You that we can rejoice always because You are our Lord and Redeemer always. In Jesus’ loving name we pray, amen.

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