12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
Dear Friends in Christ,
I’d like to begin my sermon this morning by taking an informal poll among all of you here today. And the question I want you to respond to is this: What was or what is your favorite subject in school? How many of you liked English best of all? How about math? How about geography? How about science? How about history? How about PE!! Of all those subjects, I would have to say that my least favorite was history. I had to take so many history courses especially during my years at the seminary that I simply got burned out on that subject. All of which makes my sermon this morning kind of amazing because today I am going to give you a history lesson of sorts. And I’m going to help you see that history can actually be fun.
I’m going to take you back in time to 1st century Rome where the residents of that great city had a rare privilege. Had you lived in Rome during the 6th decade of that century you would have had the honor of living at the same time and in the same place as 2 of the most famous men who have ever walked this earth. Interestingly, one was in a palace while the other was in a prison. And the question that we’ll be trying to answer today is, who was in which? And the lesson I’ll be teaching you today is this: You can have everything but Jesus and be joyless. Or you can have nothing but Jesus and be joyful. Let me show you what I mean.
The 1st man I want to introduce you to was originally named Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, though later his name was changed to Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus, or simply Nero, for short. I don’t know how much you know about Nero right now, but I guarantee that when we get done with this portion of my sermon, you’re going to know a whole lot more about him than you probably ever knew before. Though his years on this earth were not many – he died when he was only 31 – they were definitely full – full of hatred, murder, revenge, paranoia, wickedness, and much, much more. Let me explain.
Nero’s mother was named Agrippina. She was a very aggressive, arrogant, greedy woman. She was the 5th wife of Emperor Claudius I. He had a son named Britannicus who was the rightful heir to the throne, but Agrippina wanted her son, Nero, to be the emperor. So one day Agrippina volunteered to serve Claudius some mushrooms and Britannicus some wine, after which neither one ate nor drank again because she had added poison to them.
So with Claudius and Brittanicus out of the way, that left Agrippina and Nero to rule the Roman Empire. Nero was only 17 when he assumed the throne, but in reality it was Agrippina who ruled.
Things went pretty well until a luscious Roman beauty by the name of Poppaea Sabina appeared on the scene. She had something few Roman women had back then: naturally blond hair. She also had silky soft skin that she kept soft by bathing in the milk of donkeys everyday. 400 donkeys were kept on her property just for that purpose. And you men thought your wives’ occasional beauty treatments were a bit too much! After her bath in donkey’s milk, she would then be dried by her servants with soft downy feathers, leaving a chalky fine dust on her skin. Then they would massage her hands with the mucous of crocodiles. And there was something about the milk and the mucous that caught the eye of Nero and he wanted those soft hands for himself.
But Nero has a problem…actually several of them. Problem #1: Nero is married by this time. Problem #2: So is Poppaea Sabina. Problem #3: Nero’s mother, Agrippina, does not like Poppaea Sabina and does not want Nero getting divorced. So Nero, who has learned well from his mother’s example, promptly disposes of her, leaving him and Poppaea Sabina to do whatever they want to do. The problem is Nero has no clue what he wants to do. After all, he’s only 20 years old by this time.
One thing he did enjoy doing was singing, even though it was said of him that he had only a “tolerable voice.” He threw lavish parties and provided himself as the entertainment. He even went on tour throughout the empire and made attendance at his concerts mandatory. So strict was this requirement that babies were even born at his performances. There were stories of people who feigned their own death so they could be carried out and not have to listen to his seemingly endless performances.
At the age of 25 Nero deified himself, which means he declared himself to be a god. He erected a 125-foot colossus in his honor. The figure on the statue was handsome and haloed when in reality one historian back then described Nero as a “degenerate with a swollen paunch, weak and slender limbs, fat face, blotched skin, curly hair, and dull gray eyes.”
By the age of 29 Nero was lonely and paranoid. Everyone close to him had been murdered either by him or by others. His 1st wife had been murdered by his 2nd wife, Poppaea Sabina. And Poppaea Sabina died when Nero kicked her pregnant stomach. His final spouse was a male and his final hours were spent hiding in a servant’s quarters because word had reached him that he was to be assassinated. So he took his own life and reportedly died saying the words: “What an artist dies within me.”
Nero was wealthy, but he died alone. He was a god in his own eyes, but he died alone. He was the emperor of Rome, the most powerful position in the world at that time, but he died alone. In the end, he had everything but joy. The Apostle Paul, on the other hand, had nothing but joy. And he’s the 2nd historical figure that we want to look at this morning.
About the same time Nero was born in Rome Paul, or Saul as he was known then, was bornagain on the road to Damascus. And for the next 3 decades Paul would crisscross the Mediterranean region preaching Christ and planting churches. Bold in his proclamation of the Gospel, faithful to his calling, and fearless of the consequences that might come his way in an empire that was less than friendly to those who called themselves followers of Jesus of Nazareth, Paul frequently found himself in trouble with the authorities and on more than one occasion, spent the night in jail. But sometime around A.D. 60, 61, 62 he found himself in a Roman prison, awaiting trial.
In that prison Paul had nothing. He had no money. He had no health. His body had been beaten multiple times. It had endured shipwrecks, snakebites, diseases, and even being stoned on one occasion. His eyesight was so bad that he had to have others write his epistles for him as he dictated them. He had what he called a thorn in the flesh. Though we don’t know exactly what that was Paul described it as a messenger of Satan that buffeted him and tormented him. His ministry was obviously in jeopardy at this point.
Imagine now that you’re living in Rome at that time. There you are walking down the streets when some nosy reporter who’s taking an informal poll like the one we had at the beginning of this sermon comes up to you and says, “Would you rather have the life of Emperor Nero in the palace or would you rather have the life of that Christian fellow in prison? What’s his name? Paul, I believe.” No doubt you would say what anyone would say. You’d rather have the life of the emperor. You’d take the palace over the prison any day.
But if you were to ask that question of Paul, if you were to ask him if he’d like to trade places with Nero and leave the prison for the palace, I’m pretty sure he’d say, “Not on your life. I’d rather have the prison with Jesus than the palace without him.” You see, Paul had learned from personal experience what I stated before, namely, that you can have everything but Jesus and be joyless. Or you can have nothing but Jesus and be joyful. Paul expresses this so well in Phil. 4:12-13 when he says: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”
And so we ask the question that I alluded to before: Which one of these two, Paul or Nero, was really in prison and which one was really in a palace? I don’t think there’s any doubt, do you? Though Nero was physically in a palace of marble and cedar, he was technically in a prison created by his own sinful desires and devices. And though Paul was physically in a prison of stone and mortar, in his mind he resided in a palace made beautiful by the presence of the Savior he loved so much and who loved him so much.
All of which takes us to one more question I want you to consider this morning: Of the 2, Paul and Nero, which one do you most resemble? Some of you really remind me of Paul. Though you’ve lost a lot in life and your health is not what it used to be and you’ve maybe buried your spouse, there’s still that twinkle in your eye that reflects the joy of the Lord in your heart. You, like Paul, could sing in prison.
Others of us, perhaps, are a bit more like Nero. Oh, we’re not prone to murdering people to get ahead in life, but sometimes our tongues can inflict pain through gossip and perhaps damage or destroy a reputation. And we don’t demand that other people come to our concerts, but we have been known to demand our way from time to time. And we don’t build a colossus to ourselves, but we sure do like it when people notice what we do. So again I ask you, which of these 2 are you most like?
I would say that we’ve all got a little of both in us. And one of the challenges that we face each day is getting the Paul side of us to shine through over the Nero side. And one of the best ways we can meet that challenge is by remembering what we’ve learned here today, namely:You can have everything but Jesus and be joyless. Or you can have nothing but Jesus and be joyful. Let’s pray:
Heavenly Father, you are such a good God. And we thank you that though we are not good by nature you still love us and you make us good by providing us with the perfect goodness of Jesus. Help us to find our joy in life not in the pursuit of the palace, not in the acquisition of worldly wealth and pleasure, as Nero did, but rather in a relationship with our beautiful Savior, as Paul did. Father, I know that there are some here today who are hurting, who feel as though they are in a prison of sorts. That prison might be a marriage that is failing, a family that is falling apart, a financial stretch that is causing deep anxiety and worry, a body that is held captive by pain, a mind that is incarcerated by depression or despair, a job that no longer brings joy and fulfillment, or a job that no longer even exists. I pray for them, Father. Wherever or whatever their prison might be, I ask that you would visit them and in your own special, wonderful way turn their prison into a palace. Bring to them the joy that Paul knew in his prison and keep them true and faithful to Jesus until they can taste of the greatest joy of all, the joy of living forever with you in the beauty and glory and perfection of your heavenly kingdom. We ask this in Jesus’ name.