In 1985 ABC found the secret to ratings success with its hit series Macgyver. Macgyver was a show about a secret agent who used the power of his scientific mind to defeat the bad guys, usually with whatever objects happened to be lying around. To quote an article from the online site, The AV Club, “Debuting in 1985 on ABC, the show ran seven years, six of which it spent as the lead-in for the network’s reliable warhorse, Monday Night Football. Over the course of 139 episodes (and two made-for-TV movies that aired after the series’ cancellation), MacGyver fought terrorists, Russians, mobsters, abusers, punks, psychopaths, drug dealers, (edited for church)…. con-men, and the Angel of Death, all with his signature mullet, assortment of vests and leather jackets, and the quickest mind this side of KITT.” KITT, by the way, is the name for the computer controlled , crime fighting car, in the 1980’s series Knight rider. ( I had to look that one up).
The article continues to describe MacGyver’s appeal, “The fabled “MacGyverisms” that have served to cement the show’s place in the pantheon really are goofy and frequently improbable, to the point where MacGyver sometimes seems like a superhero whose real power is the ability to subconsciously mold environments to suit his will. Episode after episode, there’s always the right mix of household chemicals and broom handles and whatnot close at hand, and always enough time to rig everything into a smoke bomb or a battering ram or an impromptu travois before the bad guys turn the corner. In one episode, MacGyver airlifts into a prison camp where he spends an afternoon building a two-man ultralight out of bamboo, garbage bags, and a generator. It’s not a show of documentary realism, basically. Yet there’s a reason these gimmicks remain about as charming today as they did when the show first aired: As silly as they are in practice, most of the ideas have basis in scientific fact, and that science—or more importantly, that pure love of knowledge—elevates Mac above most of his violence-crazed peers.”
“I have learned the secret, of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Like MacGyver Paul had a love for knowledge. MacGyver had a love for scientific knowledge and Paul had a love for spiritual knowledge. And today Paul is trying to express to us today knowledge that he has gained through his experience. But I think the secret differs a little from how we tend to use it. I think we tend to use this verse, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me,” to say that we are Christian MacGyvers. That it gives us the lock pick to the prison of our circumstances. That it allows us to turn lemons into lemonade. That this verse allows us to become physically self sufficient and get out of every problem we face. But that is not what this verse is saying. Paul accepts the church at Philippi’s financial offering with no shame, not because he doesn’t physically need it, but because he doesn’t need it to be okay in his spirit. In prison he is clearly physically dependent on outside help. Roman prisons were not like today’s prisons where you are guaranteed your basic needs. The Philippians knew this. That is why they sent Ephaphroditus with a financial offering, because they knew that sometimes people went hungry in Roman prisons. Paul was able to accept this offering with no shame not because he was physically self sufficient. He had no way of providing for himself in prison. He was able to accept the Philippians financial offering because he was spiritually self sufficient. He was sufficient in himself. And in our passage today Paul initiates us into a secret that is good news.
The Good news: When we are initiated into the secret we shall become spiritually self sufficient.
We become Self Sufficient by
- Partnering in the ministry of giving and receiving
- By being strengthened by the Lord in our inner selves
- By Giving of Ourselves
First we discover the secret of being self sufficient by partnering in the ministry of giving and receiving. The Philippians were mentioned throughout Paul’s letters as a continuing supporter of his mission. In 2 Corinthians Paul tells us that the church at Philippi set him financial aid. (2 Corinthians 7, Philippians 4). He tells us in 2 Corinthians that the churches in Macedonia, including the church at Philippi, gave not only according to their means, but beyond their means, to support the church at Jerusalem during a famine. They gave not just in terms of money, they gave in terms of devotion, faithfulness, and love. They gave of themselves. I believe the church at Philippi gave of themselves because Paul set an example for them in the way he founded the church at Philippi. In plenty and in want he showed the church at Philippi that he was self sufficient, not by always providing for himself physically, but by showing them how God made him sufficient in his self worth no matter what he was going through.
We know more about the church at Philippi than most of the other churches Paul wrote to because the Gospel writer Luke records how Paul founded the church at Philippi in Acts 16. One of Paul’s first converts at Philippi was Lydia, a seller of purple fabric, and a wealthy business woman in the community. Paul met Lydia at a prayer meeting by a river outside the city of Philippi. As he preached the Gospel the Lord opened Lydia’s heart to the Gospel. She and her entire household were baptized. After she was baptized she said to Paul, “ If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” Luke records that Lydia, “prevailed against us.” (Acts 16:15). The language suggests that perhaps Paul and his band of travelers wanted to provide for themselves but changed their mind after Lydia’s strong urging.Why would this be?
Maybe it was because Paul saw himself as physically self sufficient. Because Paul was a tent maker. This wasn’t like making tents for the boy scouts. He made tents for the booths at the marketplaces where people traded their goods. His skill was always in demand. So perhaps he thought he didn’t need Lydia’s hospitality because he was physically self sufficient. Or perhaps he had yet to become established and he was too prideful to admit when he needed help. Lydia taught him the secret of being in plenty which is to receive hospitality when it is offered to us
This instance shows us there is a difference between providing for ourselves and being sufficient in ourselves. Perhaps Paul had yet to establish his tent making business and was too proud to ask for help. Or perhaps Paul had already established his business and was so used to serving others that he had become spiritually proud of his independence and had to be convinced to let someone else serve him. As Peter, a very capable fisherman, and passionate follower of Jesus, refused to let Jesus wash his feet in the Gospel of John, sometimes we who are capable, those of us with resources, can corner the market on service, denying others gift of giving, denying the gift of allowing others to serve us. Paul tells us in our passage today that he learned the secret of how to abound. Lydia probably read that and said something like, “ yeah I taught him that with my hospitality. The Lord used me to teach Paul to let others wash his feet.” What people has God put in our lives to serve us? Who have we been too proud to accept help from? Paul was confident enough in his identity in Christ that he could receive kindness and mercy from others without perceiving others help as implying that he was lacking in himself.
Paul also tells us he knew how to be brought low. The Philippians had seen Paul demonstrate this by example. One day while walking down to Lydia’s prayer meeting Paul and Silas encountered a demonically oppressed slave girl. The slave girl was being used by Satan to predict the future, thereby making a lot of money for her owners. When she was freed from her oppression her owners also lost their biggest source of income. Because of this the slavers riled up the community and had Paul and Silas beaten and thrown into prison. The jailer was told to watch them closely. All the jail witnessed Paul and Silas praising God and singing hymns late into the night. Suddenly an earthquake shook the prison, opening all the doors, and releasing Paul and Silas from their chains.
And if the secret was really about being Christian MacGyvers wouldn’t they have left? But they knew if they left the jailer would lose his life. The jailer, who had fallen asleep on the job, awoke thinking that all the prisoners had escaped. He raised his sword and was about to kill himself when Paul cried out, “ Do not harm yourself for we are all here!” (Acts 16:36). The Jailer rushed into Paul’s cell, trembling with fear he declared, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Paul replied to him, “ Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” The jailer was baptized that very hour. The jailer even invited Paul and Silas to dine with his family.
What does this say to us? It says at our lowest point we have the ability to give to others at their lowest point. When the prison is open what are we going to do? Are we going to be Christian MacGyvers and escape for our own sake. Or are we going to enter into the suffering of others even though we don’t know how it is going to work out?
First, we learn the secret of being self sufficient by participating in the ministry of giving and receiving. Second, when we participate in the ministry of giving and receiving we shall be strengthened in our inner selves. When we partner with others in the ministry of giving and receiving scripture says we shall receive strength from the Lord in our inner selves. Paul was not a Christian Macyver. Though the Lord helped him in some pretty amazing ways, most of the time the Lord helped Paul endure the suffering he was going through. Even when he was offered an opportunity to escape suffering, he chose to stay, in order that he could minister to those who were suffering. Paul says he gained the strength to do this because God was renewing him in his inner man. To quote Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, “So we do not loose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light and momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” I believe Paul is not just referring to his physical self that is wearying with down with the trials he is going through, but also his natural spirit, his natural emotions, that are also worn down when we suffer. But Paul says as this outer shell wears down the inner man is revealed and strengthened. As our natural plans come to nothing God’s will comes alive in us and we find another self rising from the ashes of our broken dreams. It is a self much like the old but built with sturdier material.
It is as if when we come to trust in Christ, God takes a construction crane and moves our natural self, from a foundation of sand, onto the rock of Christ which cannot be moved. The foundation is free. But if you want to build the structure of the house that requires work. And that work comes when we give of ourselves.
Finally, Paul shows us that to be strengthened in our inner selves we must give of ourselves. To quote Paul in 2 Corinthians 9:6-9, “The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. As it is written, “He has disturbed freely, he has given to the poor, his righteousness endures forever.”
Paul says we grow spiritually when we challenge ourselves in giving. And part of challenging ourselves is knowing what to expect. What our return on investment is. Because if we have the wrong expectations we will become disappointed. But if we have the right expectations we will keep working and will reap a harvest if we don’t give up. And Paul says what we should expect from our giving is being strengthened in our inner selves.
As I was thinking about of being spiritually self sufficient I thought about the experiences I have had in my own giving. I tithe to the church as well as supporting a couple of missionaries. This was easy in Indiana when I was making more money. I gave cheerfully there. But here I make less, and I have found I have been less cheerful in supporting the missionaries I support since it is more of a financial strain on me.
I have supported one friend and his family for about two and a half years now. He was trained as a pharmacist. Shortly before I arrived here at Calvin he, his wife, decided to uproot themselves, along with their young daughter, and move to Jordan as missionaries. Their goal is eventually to work in a tuberculosis hospital ministering to refugees, since Jordan is one of the few stable places for refugees in the Middle East to go. But to reach that goal they have to be proficient in Arabic. This requires language school for a couple of years even before they start their official work.
Frankly, I was a little frustrated with my friend. I had been financially supporting him and I had barely heard from him in two and a half years. I hadn’t even received a news letter from them. I was so frustrated that I considered withdrawing my support. But recently I did receive a newsletter from them where my friend apologized for his lack of communication. And he did get back to me and we scheduled a time to talk via skype, an online video conferencing program. I was glad to catch up with my friend and learn about his ministry in Jordan.
But as I was studying this passage I started to think about my friend and the reasons for my giving to his ministry. Was I giving so that I could receive a newsletter telling me all the stories about how my donations were making a difference? Was I given to make myself feel better about myself? To convince myself that I was a good person, to convince myself that I was sufficient in myself? Was I giving expecting a return on my investment even though I knew rationally it would take my friend years to become proficient in Arabic and even longer to get established in the community. It would take years for him to sow spiritually before he reaped physically.
I thought to myself what am I expecting as a return on my investment in my giving? And I thought about this verse. I thought about the secret of being strengthened in our inner selves in our giving. And I asked myself if I had been strengthened in my inner self through my giving. And I realized that I had. As I thought about the ministry of giving and receiving a thought hit me like a bolt of lightning. I hadn’t received what I had expected from supporting my friend in Jordan but did that mean that God hadn’t rewarded my giving? Had I been strengthened in my inner self by giving of myself? Had God made me more spiritually self sufficient? I realized that he had. I saw how he had strengthened me in my inner man. In my inner self. Psalm 34 was our call to worship today and it is one of my favorite psalms. And I have found that the Lord hasn’t always delivered me from my failures some failures I have had to live with. But the Lord has delivered me from my fears. I have tasted and seen that the Lord is good. And I believe he can provide for all our needs. Sometimes that is physically but sometimes that is spiritually by making us less needy. And I believe that His Grace is sufficient for us for his power is made perfect in our weakness. When we do not loose heart, when we learn the secret, we will reap a harvest if we don’t give up.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.