This last week in preparing for this message, I read the saying, “Make your plans in pencil because God has a big eraser.” Proverbs 19:21 says, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.” Because our plans aren’t always God’s plans, and because only God’s plan will stand, there are times when our plans fail. It never feels good. If those plans or dreams really mean a lot to us, it is heart breaking when they are shattered. Back in the spring of 1985 I had just been ordained as a pastor, and was getting ready to graduate from Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. I was talking with churches here in WV about becoming their pastor. The only pastorate I’d had was a very small student pastorate in Indiana, so pastoring a church “full time” was going to be a new experience for me. Two churches were interested in me, and the one I really wanted to pastor was a large, respectable church for that time. I could envision myself preaching in their pulpit and everyone hailing and praising my wonderful leadership abilities as a 25 year old pastor. After they heard me speak they wanted to talk with me further. I sat down with the committee, eager about my prospects with them, and as we talked the interview was horrible. Basically they didn’t want me. Rejection is tough for anyone, and it was tough for me at the time. My dreams were shattered. Shortly after that rejection another church expressed interest, and that was the church I eventually pastored. I was blessed with a good ministry at that congregation, and was blessed even more by meeting a young lady there by the name of Jeannie Smith. Had I been called to the other church, I would have missed her, and I’m sure my ministry would have been rocky for having such little experience. Someone once said “When God says no, it is only because He has something better in mind.” That was the case for me, and that is the case for all of us when our dreams our shattered. In our passage for this morning, Paul has the same experience of his hopes being dashed. From his response, we learn important things about our response today when our dreams are shattered.
First of all, when your dreams are shattered, look for God’s greater purpose. We need to understand that when Paul is writing here in Philippians, he has been a man with a dream. His life had been radically changed by the good news of Jesus Christ. Since he had come to know Jesus, he had to spread that knowledge to others. He didn’t just want to go around the corner to tell someone about Jesus, he wanted to go across the world as he knew it. He wanted to have maximum impact for Jesus. He yearned to go to Rome, to the heart of the Roman Empire, and preach about Jesus there. I am sure he could envision himself doing so. He then wanted to travel west to Spain, and preach in the western most part of the world. His dream was traveling and preaching the Gospel. Finally he had his chance to go to Rome – while being questioned by the Roman authorities, he made an appeal to Caesar. As a Roman citizen he had that right. So he is put on a ship headed for Rome, and it hits a horrible storm at sea. It looks like he is going to die as the ship is being torn apart by the waves. Finally the ship is lost, but all the passengers were saved. They make it to the island of Malta. The survivors then build a fire to warm them after being in the water, and when Paul draws close a snake jumps from the fire and bites him on the hand. As a result the crowd first thinks he is a murderer who is being punished by some kind of cosmic justice. He doesn’t die however, so they change their mind and decide he should be worshipped. They weren’t worshipping Jesus as he would have hoped, they were all wrapped up in him. Finally Paul makes it to Rome, but when he arrives he has to face Emperor Nero, who was gaining a reputation as a brutal, heartless dictator who burned Christians at night to light his garden. So as the Philippians are reading Paul’s letter to them, I can imagine them thinking, “Paul your dreams have been shattered. The last time we saw you, you wanted to go to Rome, you wanted to go to Spain, you wanted to preach the Gospel. You were enjoying freedom. Now we’ve heard the stories of you being a prisoner and then being shipwrecked. On top of everything else that has gone wrong, you now have to meet Nero face-to-face? We are so sorry for you Paul. How can we possibly help you endure this horrible turn of events?” Paul has an entirely different take on things than most people would. Listen to what he says in verses 12-14, “I want you to know, brothers, 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, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.” Paul sees God’s greater purpose here, even in the midst of his shattered dreams. When Paul uses the term “advance the Gospel,” he is using a military term. It refers to an army conquering new territory of the enemy. Caesar in this time was worshipped as a god. Forty five years before the birth of Jesus, it was decreed that Caesar was superhuman. He was the lord, he was the savior, he was the king, and his authority was not to be questioned. Whenever a new man became Caesar, it was announced with the word “gospel,” which means good news. For example when Nero became Caesar, it was announced, “Here the good news! Nero is now Caesar! He is king, and he rules over the world.” So Paul is sitting in Nero’s prison in Rome, with Nero being hailed as the lord over all the earth, and from a human perspective things are going horrible. Paul says however, that “there is a true king, a greater King whose name is Jesus. He is really the ruler, not Caesar, and the kingdom of Jesus is advancing.” Paul of course is right. The imperial guard, the soldiers closest to Nero, are aware of Paul’s allegiance to Jesus – they’ve been listening to him. There have also been converts, for Paul speaks of “brothers” – they too acknowledge Jesus as Lord, not Caesar. As these brothers in Christ watch Paul suffer and continue to stand strong for Jesus, they are encouraged to stand strong as well. Even though this situation wasn’t his original plan, he can see that God is moving, and that he is being used in a powerful way to bring people to Jesus. So first of all, when your dreams are shattered, look for God’s greater purpose.
Second, when your dreams are shattered, flourish where you are. Verses 15-16 say, “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel.” Paul says, “I am put here.” He looks at his prison, his looks at his suffering, he thinks about his shattered dreams, and says, “I am put here.” God has greater plans for you than you have for yourself. When we acknowledge that truth, we can begin to flourish where we are. Whenever God says “no” to you as you crafted your life plans, its because He wants to say a better “yes” to you. God has better plans, bigger plans, and you must trust Him. He is ultimately in control of all things – He is sovereign. He is wise beyond any human wisdom – He knows what is best. He is holy, with no bad motives or intent to harm – He is good. He wants the best for you, and will take care of you right where you are. Later in this passage in verse 18 Paul says he is rejoicing. Despite the prison, despite the suffering, despite the broken dreams, he is flourishing. He is flourishing because he knows God can use him where he is. He is flourishing because life isn’t about him and his comfort, it is about Jesus and others knowing Him. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” All things that happen to you, all that you have done, all the mistakes you have made and even the sins you have committed can all be worked together for good by God, if you are called according to his purpose. In other words, if your life isn’t about yourself, if it is about God and the Lord Jesus, you can flourish right where you are.
Then, when your dreams are shattered, turn your prison into a pulpit. Use the very situation that may seem bleak and hopeless to show others what a difference Jesus can make in a person’s life. Verses 15-18 say, “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice,…” Paul doesn’t respond to his shattered dreams in a passive way, just putting what has happened to him in the best possible light. He goes on the offensive, actively sharing with others how God is working. Paul used to his harsh situation to tell others how great God is. We can do the same. Whenever circumstances seemed to have trapped you, whatever barriers you may face, turn those things into opportunities to share your faith. One of the best recent examples I’ve seen of someone doing this very thing was when Madi McGrew was injured and her athletics hopes were dashed for her senior year. Rather than wallowing in the situation or becoming resentful, the Scripture verse of Jeremiah 29:18 became her theme. “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” More people were pointed to God and to Christ through that kind of spiritual witness than through any athletic performances she may have given. She turned her injury into an opportunity. God calls us to do the same. When your dreams are shattered, turn your prison into a pulpit.
About two hundred years ago, a ship carrying a large number of people left England, bound for the New World to start a new life. These people had great plans for what awaited them on the other side of the ocean. Things were going well until the ship hit a huge storm, with hurricane force winds and crushing waves. Everyone was in the hold of the ship, trembling with fear, being tossed back and forth, and throwing up with all the violent movement. It was frightening and horrible, to say the least. It looked as if this thing was going to kill them all. One brave young man peeked from hold to see what things looked like on the deck. It was pitch black, but through a break in the clouds a bit of moonlight enabled him to see the waves and the boat tilting back and forth. Then he caught a glimpse of the captain, standing at the helm. The captain saw the man, and just smiled at him. The young man immediately went back into the hold and told the others, “I’ve just seen the face of the captain, and he is smiling. All will be well.” However your dreams may have been shattered – look to the face of your captain. He is smiling, and all will be well. You can trust Him in the midst of your storm.