These are dangerous times but perhaps not for the reason that first comes to mind. I mean – the first thing that pops into our mind is all the news, the data, and the concerns regarding COVID-19. And unless you’ve been living under a rock – which at this point may not be such a bad idea –unless you live completely off the grid – these are dangerous times to be out and about. After all, until a few weeks ago, I don’t think I had ever even heard the phrase community spread or community transmission.
Yes, there is danger in the air, but the viral danger isn’t the sort of danger that I am concerned about at the moment.
These are dangerous times because it is easy to become discouraged. A lot of people are spending more time locked away at home than – well – maybe ever. And, a lot of people aren’t really around a lot of other people – at all – which can lead to being self-consumed – which can lead us to be discouraged when we are our only company. And, when you spend so much of your time in a confined space, even with lots of projects to do, well, discouragement can pop up unexpectedly. And, add to that, there is so much information going on around us that it is a challenge to know what is what and what to believe and what’s right. There is a lot of unknown – really – and we just aren’t used to that. We are used to getting accurate information at Google Speed. But if you Google COVID-19, you are going to get a ton of information and different models that predict different dates for peaks – and a lot of other information and it – just – well – at the end the day – who knows. We just don’t really know for sure – and we aren’t used to that – and that can be discouraging.
Well, this morning, I was reading in Philippians 2:1-11. If you can, look at it. That text is powerful in and of itself, but it becomes all the more powerful and timely when you considered the context out of which Paul wrote. I’ve mentioned this before, but it is worth noting again. When Paul wrote this letter to his friends in Philippi, he was not free to move about the city. He had a stay at home order, too. He was imprisoned for advancing the Gospel and found himself in chains and under constant guard.
It is important to realize that – like a lot of prisoners – Paul was waiting for his case to be heard. While Paul trusted the Lord, he didn’t know the outcome. He didn’t know what was going to happen next. Can you imagine the stress of that? I’ll bet you can because in some ways that is exactly what we are facing. We don’t know how long this is going to last. There are a lot of unknowns – even if the stay-at-home order is lifted – we don’t know what impact that will have on the spread of the virus. While we may not have literal chains on us like Paul did, we still can still relate to the stress of staying put and not knowing what is next.
Those days in prison were dangerous days for Paul and not simply because of the obvious. A danger for Paul, like us, was the danger of being consumed by the circumstances and so self-consumed that discouragement set in. But you know what Paul did? He wrote to the people of Philippi. Oh, and did you know that the people of Philippi – Paul’s friends – did you know one of the reasons that Paul wrote to them was because they were concerned about the health of their friend Epaphroditus? Did you know he also wrote to encourage them?
Isn’t that amazing? Paul is in no position to encourage anyone – right? He’s in a bad situation. If anyone has the right to sulk right down and to be discouraged, it is Paul, but he just can’t do that.
Do you know why Paul doesn’t just sulk down into discouragement? It isn’t because he’s some super saint. It isn’t because he’s ignoring reality. It is because he isn’t focused on himself – he’s focused on Jesus and focused on encouraging others – and he sees his life as part of God’s mission in the world.
First, according to what he said to the Philippians, Paul didn’t ignore his circumstances; he just saw them through the prism of the person, word, and work of Jesus. He looked at how Jesus poured himself out for others. Paul didn’t sulk down into discouragement because he was thinking Jesus and then he was able to think of others as more significant than himself – because that’s what Jesus did.
Paul wrote, “ So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy,  complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,  who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,  but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,  so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:1-11 ESV).
That’s the first part of digging out of or staying away from the pit of discouragement: thinking of Jesus and encouraging others. I mean, the very fact that Paul – who is in the midst of some crummy circumstances – can write a letter that points to Jesus and is filled with encouragement for others – a joyful letter – a letter that isn’t all woe is me – is evident that he is looking beyond himself to Jesus and to others. That, my friends, is what I think is the first step in protecting ourselves from the danger of discouragement: look to Jesus and look to build up others.
But there is probably a second step too. I think Paul also saw his life as being part of God’s mission to advance the Gospel, which meant his circumstances – no matter what they were – were also part of God’s plan and purpose. Now, you’d think that being imprisoned, wearing chains, and under constant guard would have been some sort of dead-end and major discouragement. But Paul didn’t see it that way. In fact, the way he saw things maybe something for us to consider.
Get this – Paul saw being imprisoned, in chains, and under constant guard as an opportunity to advance the Gospel. In fact, he told the Philippians, “ I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel,  so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.  And most of the brothers and sisters, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear” (Philippians 1:12–14).
Here are a few questions for you, have you considered that a stay-at-home order is an opportunity for you to advance God’s kingdom and purposes? Paul was imprisoned and yet he said his circumstances had “really served to advance the gospel.” In your circumstances, it is possible for you to advance the gospel – right where you are. It is also possible for you to be an encouragement for others without ever leaving your home. You can do what Paul did.
You can write a letter, too. You can write to people and just tell them you are praying for them and remind that God loves them and they can best see His love for them in the person of Jesus. You can call them and tell them that. You can send them an email. You can post it on Facebook, or Twitter – or Snapchat. You too can dig out and protect yourself from discouragement by looking to Jesus and encouraging others and advancing the Gospel.
These are dangerous times indeed. But God’s people thrive in dangerous times because we understand that no matter the circumstances, God’s kingdom and the message of His deep and abiding love are on the move.
May the Lord richly bless you this day. May you remember that God loves you and He’s made that love known to you through His Son, through His Spirit, through His word, and through the fellowship we have with one another. He sends us into the world with this blessing: Now may the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make His face to shine upon. May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you His shalom.