5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.
Dear Friends in Christ,
Back on Aug. 9 of last year I started a sermon series that was unlike any I had ever done before. I started preaching through an entire book of the Bible. Though we took a break during the Advent and Christmas season to focus more upon the meaning of Christ’s coming into our world as a tiny babe so that he could become our much-needed and all-sufficient Savior from sin, we pretty well stayed with Philippians for the last part of 2015 and the 1st part of this year. And today I’ll be bringing this series of sermons to a close by talking about a subject that we are all familiar with, some more than others, and that is the subject of loneliness.
I want you to think back to a time in your life when you were lonely, and I mean reallylonely. Some of you may have to think back pretty far while others of you may have to think back no farther than yesterday or even today. For me, I would have to go back about 43 years. The year was 1973. I had just graduated from high school and was ready to begin my studies for the ministry. Though I had lived in Staunton, IL all of my life, that summer my dad who was a pastor accepted a call to a small town in southern Illinois called Campbell Hill where I knew I wouldn’t know a single soul. On top of that, I would be going away to a college where I didn’t know a single soul. And I can still remember so clearly how agonizing and heart-wrenching those first few months were at that college. Since I wasn’t the most outgoing of teenagers back then, I had some trouble making friends. And to be honest with you, I was so homesick and so depressed that I didn’t even want to make friends. My loneliness was so overwhelming I could almost touch it and see it and smell it.
And I’m sure many of you can recall similar instances of loneliness in your life because it’s a common problem, especially in our day and age. And if we don’t learn how to deal with our loneliness, it can very easily lead to other problems that are even more significant. For when you don’t know where to go with your lonely heart you may very well go to the wrong place. And you may find yourself in the arms of the wrong person or drinking too much of the wrong stuff or busying yourself with the wrong activities. So let’s spend some time this morning talking about loneliness and what we can do about it, or maybe I should say, what God can do about it.
First of all, a definition. Loneliness is not necessarily the absence of people in your life because you can feel lonely in the midst of a crowd, can’t you? Rather loneliness is the fear of facing life alone. It’s the fear of facing death alone, facing debt alone, facing disease alone. Loneliness is the recognition that I’m all I’ve got and I ain’t much.
Do you know who I think are some of the loneliest people in our society today? Teenagers. The suicide rate among teenagers has gone up dramatically over the past several decades and we have certainly seen evidence of that in our area in recent years. Suicide is now the 3rdleading cause of death among adolescents ages 15-19 and the 2nd leading cause of death among college students. And I firmly believe that loneliness has a lot to do with that because the world ahead of these kids is so complicated, so busy, so difficult to figure out. And let’s face it, a lot of teens are not good at sharing their fears and anxieties about the future with others, especially their parents, either because their parents are never around or because there’s a lack of communication there. Consequently many teens live with an overwhelming sense of loneliness.
Well, if there was ever a candidate for loneliness in the Bible, it was the Apostle Paul, especially when he wrote his letter to the Philippians. Stuck in a Roman prison, far away from family and friends, uncertain of whether he was going to live or die, Paul had every right to feel lonely. And yet how many of you would describe his letter to the Philippians that we’ve been studying the past several months as a lonely epistle? How many of you would say that it sounds like it was written by a lonely man? Far from it! In fact, it sounds like just the opposite. For when you read through this epistle you find the writings of a happy man, a content man, a man who was brimming over with pure, unadulterated joy.
So what was his secret? What was his cure for loneliness? And what can we learn from him to help us when we feel like we’re facing life alone? The answer to those questions can be found tucked away in one of the shortest statements that Paul records in this epistle. It’s so short it doesn’t even get its own verse. It has to share a verse number with another sentence. But it can be found in our text for today where Paul says: “Let your gentleness be evident to all. THE LORD IS NEAR.”
Think about that for a moment. THE LORD IS NEAR. The One who stilled the storm and calmed the waves is near. The One who healed the lepers is near. The One who gathered the little children into his arms and blessed them is near. The One who called the dead back to life and who himself walked out of the tomb alive, that Lord is near.
Now the word “near” is an interesting word because it can have 2 meanings. It can refer to location in the sense that this Bible up here is nearer to me than it is to you. Or it can refer to a future time or event like when we say around the end of February, “Spring is near,” or in December we say, “Christmas is near.” The question is, how is Paul using the word here? Is he saying the Lord’s presence is near, or is he saying that the Lord’s coming is near? And I’ll bet you know the answer to those questions. The answer is yes. Both uses of the word “near” are implied here. Are you lonely? The Lord is near! He’s present with you. But not only that. His coming is near too. And when he comes, whether it’s his 2nd coming when he returns as King of kings and Lord of lords or when he comes to take you home to heaven, at that time he is going to give you something far better than what you’ve got right now that will take your loneliness away forever. My point being, because the Lord is near, that changes everything.
Let’s talk for a moment about the nearness of his presence. In Ps. 145:18 David writes: “The Lord is near to all who call upon him, to all who call upon him in truth.” Remember that 1st year of college I told you about before and how lonely I was? I really don’t think I could have made it through that year had it not been for the nearness of the Lord that I especially discovered for myself when I would go to bed at night. For there in the darkness of my room I would simply talk to God. I wouldn’t necessarily ask things of him in prayer. I would just talk to him. I would tell him all about my day. I would let him know how I was feeling. I would do what David said in that psalm I just quoted. I would call upon him in truth and share my innermost thoughts with him. And as I did so, I discovered the wonderful truth that not only was he near to me, but he was also the best friend I could ever hope to have.
What about you? Have you discovered that truth as well, my friends? You may be facing death right now, but you aren’t facing it alone because the Lord is near. You may be facing a serious illness right now, but you aren’t facing it alone because the Lord is near. You may be facing marital struggles, but you aren’t facing them alone because the Lord is near. You may feel as though everyone else has abandoned you; you may not even know the names of your real mother and father like one elderly lady I used to minister to who was adopted more than 80 years before; you may have even done things worthy of being abandoned by God – I know I have – but one thing you can always be sure of: The Lord is near. “I will never leave; I will never forsake you…I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.” That is his personal promise to you and to me. And again I say, because he’s near, that changes everything. Let me explain what I mean by that.
Remember when you were little and you’d wake up in the middle of the night kind of afraid in that dark bedroom and you’d cry out for your mom or dad to come into the room? The moment they set foot inside that room, what happened? You felt better, didn’t you? They hadn’t really done anything, but you felt better because they were near.
Sometime ago in one of my sermons I talked about a terrible fear I had when I was little, the fear that if my mom and dad went anywhere without me in the car they would have an accident and be killed and I would be left without parents. Well, let me tell you, there was no more comforting sound in the world to me back then than when I’d hear their car pull into the driveway and the back door of our house open. For then they were home. Then they were near and just their presence made such a difference.
And so it is with God. Just knowing that he is near can make such a dramatic difference with us. But so also can the nearness of his coming. The New Testament is full of passages that speak about the imminent return of Christ. In fact, in the 2nd last verse of the Bible Jesus himself says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” And whereas I believe that the Bible speaks so frequently about the nearness of Christ’s return so that we’ll be ready and prepared for that moment at all times, I also believe that it does so as a source of comfort for those of us who are his followers. For if his return is near then that changes everything too, doesn’t it?
Sure, I might be sad today, but I won’t be sad forever because the Lord’s coming is near and when he comes, he promises that he’s going to wipe away every tear from my eyes. Yes, I might be in a body right now that is handicapped, a body that doesn’t work very well, a body that is really beginning to show signs of the aging process, but I won’t be in a body like this forever because the Lord’s coming is near and when he comes, according to Phil. 3:21, he will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. I may be facing financial struggles today, I may be unemployed today, I may be in a depression today, but praise God I won’t be like this forever because the Lord’s coming is near and one of these days he’s going to come and take us to our forever home where endless joy and bliss will be ours to experience for all eternity.
Some of the most courageous men in our country served as prisoners of war in Vietnam, some of them up to 8 ½ years. Sometime ago there was a special program on TV describing their life in the prison camp known as the Hanoi Hilton. On that program those former POW’s talked about how the only thing that enabled them to survive the tortures and the beatings they were given was the knowledge that there was another prisoner nearby. And they worked out their own code system so that they could communicate with one another. They said at night it sounded like a bunch of woodpeckers tapping on the walls. It wasn’t Morse code. Rather they developed their own code system. And they would sweep the floors in that code and blink their eyes in that code because they needed to know that someone else was there who knew who they were and understood what they were going through.
That’s how you survive life in prison. And if you’re in a prison right now, if you’re in the prison of depression, or the prison of a bad relationship, or the prison of a bad job or an unhealthy body, I cannot promise you that God is going to snap his fingers and instantly deliver you from that prison. But I can promise you this. The Lord is near. He is with you in that prison. And he loves you so much that he sent his own beloved Son into this world to suffer and die on a cross for you so that all of your sins that separated you from him could be paid for and you could have life with him forever someday. And it could be that the only thing that God wants to give you more than freedom is the gift of himself so that you’ll discover the wondrous truth Paul discovered in that dark and dingy Roman prison from which he wrote his letter to the Philippians, namely, that when God is all we have, God is all we need.