Knowing Jesus | Philippians 3

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

In 1949, the Communist People’s party took over in China. Soon after, Christian missionaries were forced to leave.

The preacher Fred Craddock knew one such missionary family. It happened one morning that this family of four heard a knock at their door. It was a band of soldiers. “You have two hours to pack your things,” the soldiers said. “You’re allowed to bring 200 pounds of possessions with you.”

Immediately, this family began to sift through their belongings.“What should we take?” they asked each other. 200 pounds adds up quickly.

“We just bought this typewriter,” the husband said. “It’s heavy, but I paid a lot of money for it.”

“We can always buy another typewriter,” the wife responded. What we need to pack is our photo albums and family heirlooms.”

After some heated debate, the family finally managed to agree on what to take and what to leave. And 2 hours later they had 198 pounds of their most beloved belongings packed in suitcases.

The soldiers returned. “Are you ready?” they asked.

“Yes. We’re ready.” The family said.

“Have you weighed your possessions?”

“Yes we did. Here it is.”

“Did you include your kids in that 200 pounds?”

“Uh… no. The kids need to be weighed too?”

“Yes.”

The mother and the father looked at each other, and without a word of argument, they dropped their bags and scooped up their young children.

“We’re ready,” they said.

Craddock uses this story to talk about what he refers to as the “moment of truth”. There are moments in our life, where everything comes into focus. Moments when a new reality crashes in upon us and overturns our world. The things we once held dear become worthless. The things we once built out lives upon, we leave behind, without thinking twice.

Something like this happened to the merchant, in one of Jesus’s parables. When he saw the pearl of great value in the marketplace, all else faded away. And in his joy, he went home and sold all of his possessions, just to gain that single pearl.

The Kingdom of God is like this, says Jesus.

Well I think its safe to say that Paul had such an experience, a moment a truth, the day Christ came knocking on the door of his life.

Before this, Paul was merrily filling his suitcases with religious deeds and blameless living. He was a top prospect in seminary. A rising star in the Sanhedrin.

His pedigree was pristine. A Hebrew of Hebrews. Circumcised on the 8th day.

And Paul didn’t just talk the talk. He lived out his faith with zeal. He rightly saw that the Jesus movement was a threat to the Jewish Community, and so he actively resisted it.

Yes, Paul was building up quite a name for himself. And he felt proud about the life that he was building.

But that all changed on the road to Damascus

Some of you know the story. Paul was travelling to Damascus because the Jesus movement had spread there. And he wanted to arrest those who were preaching Christ.

But along the way, the resurrected Jesus, appeared to Paul—whose name at the time was Saul. “Saul, Saul, Jesus said, why are you persecuting me?”

And thus began Saul’s transformation.

And the change was radical. Saul went from being the chief persecutor of the faith to the chief promoter of the faith. The former things that he had built his life upon: His name, his pedigree, his moral record. All this stuff became nothing. Rubbish. In comparison to the gain of knowing Christ, and being found in him. Paul had found the pearl of great price.

In chapter three of his letter to the Philippians, Paul shares his testimony.  His hope, in doing so, is that the Church will join him in rejoicing in the Lord. And that they too would follow him in living in Christ’s Victory and in the hope of the resurrection.

You know, the early Church had a number of thorny theological problems they needed to wrestle through. The most significant one revolved around how to classify gentile believers who came to be followers of Jesus.

Were they now members of God’s Holy People? Didn’t they at least need to be circumcised in order to participate in the covenant?

The Old Testament seems to be pretty clear on this point. In Genesis 17, for instance, God makes an everlasting covenant with Abraham. And the sign of that covenant is circumcision.

This is what God says this to Abraham. “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you… 10 This is my covenant with you… the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” Genesis 17:9-14

So… there it is. Chapter and verse. All natural born Jews, and all foreigners who are brought into the family, are to be circumcised. This is an everlasting covenant. Chop it off, or be chopped off.

The in house conversation on this issue was fierce. This was such a hot topic, that Paul even circumcised his ministry partner, Timothy, just so Timothy wouldn’t be a stumbling block to the Jewish people they were ministering too. Now that’s what I call “taking one for the team”.

One wonders if Paul would have done things differently, however, if he would have met Timothy later on. For Paul’s thinking on circumcision crystallizes pretty quickly.

For Paul, the external sign of the covenant is not the thing itself. What matters is not having a mark on your body, but having a heart that is consecrated to the Lord. “For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh…” (Philippians 3:2)

Paul’s thinking on this subject won the day. It was adopted by the council of Jerusalem and became official teaching.

But the Judaizers—those mutilators of the flesh—didn’t go away. So Paul kept warning the Church about them.

“What’s the big deal?” We might ask. “Why fuss over a square inch of flesh? Why not let each individual Church decide how to handle this.”

To this, Paul would say “no way”. No way. For at stake is more than a bit of flesh. At stake is the power of the gospel itself.

The good news that causes great rejoicing is not that we meet God halfway; that our acts in the flesh somehow fill in what is lacking in Christ. The good news that leads to rejoicing, is that in Christ, nothing is lacking. 

He fulfilled the law. Entirely. He was without sin. Completely.

And yet he, out of love, fully gave himself. Laid down his life. Suffered on the cross. Endured hell and exclusion from God. So that we, the ungodly who deserved such a fate, could be made righteous, and be welcomed home.

This he did for us, while we were yet sinners. And this he gives to us, through faith. Period.

Faith alone. Not faith and “circumcision”. Faith alone. Not faith, and “the right sorts of good deeds.” Faith alone. The good news of the gospel is that it doesn’t depend upon me or my performance in the flesh. I bring nothing. My comfort in life and in death is not me. But Jesus!

And the Church enters into dangerous territory, whenever we teach or even hint that something needs to be added to Christ in order to shore up our status before the Father. For that takes away from the glory that Jesus is due, and introduces unnecessary anxiety into our life with God.

I mean, who’s to say that circumcision is the only holdover from the OT. What about the other feasts and festivals. The passover wasn’t optional for Jews? Do gentile disciples need to keep it too? 

Or what if the doctor had a wobbly hand the day of your circumcision. And 10% of your foreskin was left intact. Is that good enough? Are you in? Or do you have to go in for a redo just to be sure?

And what about women? If circumcision is necessary boundary marker, then what’s your status, ladies? Do you need to be married to a circumcised man, in order to “belong” to God’s family.

What if you’re married to an uncircumcised man who isn’t a believer?

All this produces fear? And anxiety. And that’s not the point of the gospel. Jesus is our all sufficient saviour.

Paul shares his testimony to describe the difference between the luggage he used to carry and the joy he now has in Christ.

If anyone had reason to be confident in himself, it was Paul. But all the fancy feathers he was gathering in his cap turned to dust the day he came to know Christ.

Paul’s words are so good here, that they are worth repeating:

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in[a] Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. (Philippians 3:7-9)

The things he formerly thought of as profit, he now considers loss. The things he used to hold onto at night, and rely on for security and purpose. All that is garbage now, in comparison to the pearl. Knowing Christ my Lord.

You know, we spend so much of our lives trying to measure up. Trying to prove to the universe that we are worthy of love and acceptance. We carefully cover over our flaws with stories and accessories; we do what we need to do to please the crowd we want to belong to. We evaluate ourselves in comparison to others. When they fall, we feel a little better about our own lovableness. When we fall, it feels like the world is ending.  We’re deathly afraid that people will come to know the real me. So we hide from God, and we hide behind the things that shore up our shaky identity. We cross our fingers that that will be enough.

But that’s a game that never ends. And its leaves us feeling isolated and anxious.

Brittney and I have been watching “The Good Place” on Netflix, over the last few months. “The Good Place” is a show about the after life. There’s a heaven and there’s a hell. Heaven is the “the good place”. Hell is “the bad place.”

What determines a human’s final destination is their performance on earth. In order to track that performance, there’s an office building in a neutral place filled with robot like accountants who are tracking the thoughts, words, and deeds of everyone on earth. Everything gets recorded. Everything gets weighed and is given either or a positive or a negative number. Those who finish life with a positive number go to the good place. Those with a negative number go to the bad place.

God is more or less absent from the plot of the good place. The justice system is a cold algorithm.

I haven’t finished the show yet. So I don’t know if God, or some sort of “grace” ends up breaking through.

But I’m sure glad that the true story of the world is much different that the narrative laid out in the good place.

There is a heaven and a hell in the true story of the world. Justice too. Our thoughts, words, action and inactions are all known. But, and here’s the difference, they are known by the one who comes to save in Christ Jesus.  For God so loved the world, that he sent his only son. Jesus suffered hell for our sakes. He cleans our record with his precious blood. And then he clothes us with his righteousness.

The Heidelberg Catechism, one of our confessions of faith, spells this out in a powerful way:

Question 60 asks:

Qu. How are you righteous before God?

Ans. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ.

Even though my conscience accuses me

of having grievously sinned against all God’s commandments,
of never having kept any of them,
and of still being inclined toward all evil,

nevertheless, without any merit of my own,
out of sheer grace, God grants and credits to me
the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ,

as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner,
and as if I had been as perfectly obedient

as Christ was obedient for me.

All I need to do is accept this gift with a believing heart.

Let that settle in for a moment.

The last part gets me every time. “Nevertheless…. Without any merit of my own, out of sheer grace, God credits me with righteousness, as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, and as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me.”

The German bible scholar, Martin Luther, spent much of life wrestling and wondering about his status before God. He felt the weight of his sins. He had nightmares about it. He tried to take comfort in the patterns and practices of the Church. But no amount of time in the confessional booth ever gave him the assurance he so desperately craved. Then it hit him, while studying the book of Romans. He read the verse: “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” That day, gospel joy flooded Luther’s heart. He came to see that God had credited Jesus righteousness to his account.  In Luther’s own words: “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” 

On Friday morning, I woke up feeling tired. Physically tired. But also just tired of myself, if you know what I mean. So I pulled out my phone, and hit play on a song we sung last week:

Lost are saved, find their way, at the sound of Your great name

All condemned, feel no shame, at the sound of Your great name

Every fear, has no place, at the sound of Your great name

The enemy, he has to leave, at the sound of Your great name

Jesus, worthy is the lamb that was slain for us, son of God and man

You are high and lifted up, that all the world will praise Your great name.

We need to remind ourselves of this. Soak in it. Rejoice in it. Keep singing it. Keep reading it. Keep confessing it. And not allow any philosophy, tradition, or person, to sway us away from it.

How easy it is to forget.

We long for something concrete to put our confidence in. We long to prove ourselves to be worthy of love. To feel like we’re making progress towards the good place. Maybe if I volunteer enough or give enough money. Maybe if I say and do all right things. Get baptized, make profession for faith. Then, I’ll have something tangible. Something I can hold onto.

But the only thing we need to hold onto is the pearl. The rest God calls us to drop.

Rest in my grace, child. The gospel says to us. Allow Jesus to bestow upon you everything that is needed.

Paul’s former passion was to be as blameless a Jew that he could be. He thought this was the pathway to God. But that all became garbage when he came to know Christ.

And now Paul has a new passion. He wants to know this Jesus as deeply as possible. To live in the power of his resurrection. To know him in his sufferings.

Some of the words and phrases that Paul uses in this chapter are difficult. But the point is simple, I think. Like the merchant who forsook all for the pearl, Paul is now all in on the one whose righteousness is his through faith. He’s wants to be where Christ is, dedicate himself to Christ’s cause. To follow after his risen saviour on the road that moves from death to life.

Sometimes it seems like Paul is just transferring his former Jewish zeal over to Christ. Sometimes we just want to say, Relax Paul. Enjoy the grace of God for a moment and stop all this striving.

But that misses the point too. Paul’s not running to make the team anymore. Rather, he’s pressing forward

simply because he wants to experience all the riches of life with Christ.

I read a Dallas Willard quote a few days ago. I think it aptly describes what we see in Paul.

“The path of spiritual growth in the riches of Christ is not a passive one. Grace is not opposed to effort. It is opposed to earning. Effort is action. Earning is attitude. You have never seen people more active than those who have been set on fire by the grace of God.” ~ Dallas Willard

Isn’t that Paul? He’s been set on fire by the grace of God.

And what he wants for the Church in Philippi and the Church of all ages is for us to follow after him, as he follows Christ. That we would know Jesus and the joy of being found in him. And experience the freedom of his righteousness. To live in the power of the resurrection. And we press on, in the face of suffering, towards the prize.

Stand firm in the Lord. Brothers and sisters. Let us rejoice in Christ.

And set on fire by his grace, let us press on. Dropping the luggage that no longer matters. And taking hold of the that for which Christ Jesus took hold of us.

Amen.

Posted in Philippians, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Christ-like Mind | Philippians 2:1-11

Friends, the passage that we just read together contains the command that is both the most basic to living life as a Christian and by far the most difficult.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.  

The book of Philippians is a personal letter, written from the Apostle Paul to a small church in the city of Philippi.  Paul is one of the very first Christian missionaries, and he spent his life travelling around the middle east, talking about how Jesus of Nazareth died, was raised, and now reigns as Lord.  He spent some time in Philippi and a handful of folks believed his message about Jesus and became Christians.  After a time of teaching and getting the church started, Paul moved on and continued his travels.  At some point, Paul ran into opposition and ended up in prison.  And when the people that were part of the little church in Philippi heard about it, they sent someone with a gift to encourage Paul and help him out.  This letter was written in response to that.  You know, if you write a note to a missionary and send a gift of some money or something to bless them and their work, you are definitely going to get a letter back from them.  That’s this.  It’s a thank-you letter.

But this thank-you letter isn’t only a brief thank-you.  Don’t forget that the Apostle Paul is the one who set up the church in Philippi.  He’s got some teaching he wants to offer.  He’s got some instructions that he wants to give.  He’s so thankful for them, and he’s so pleased with how they’ve been doing, but he’s also interested in seeing them grow, in seeing them progress in their faith, mature in their faith, truly flourish as they follow Jesus.

So with that purpose in mind, we get to today’s section of this letter.  Imagine Paul saying, I want to see you continue to progress, I want to see you continue to mature, I want to see you really flourish.  So here’s the scoop:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  Rather, in humility, value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

I don’t know what thoughts, feelings, or questions fill your mind and heart when you hear those words.  But it’s my experience that we live in a cultural moment where valuing others above yourself is not widely encouraged.  Life isn’t about forsaking your own interests.  Life is about discovering your own interests, developing your own interests and – my goodness! – letting go of things that inhibit that or bog you down.

The amount of books written, blog posts posted, TED talks talked, and memes shared on finding yourself and taking time for yourself is astounding.  Self-discovery.  Self-improvement.  Self-expression.  Self-actualization.  Self-care.  You do you, baby.  You do you.  Who are you?  What are your needs, your desires, your dreams, your interests?  Make the time, read those books, spend the money, go on the retreats, figure it out… and then go for it.

(Homeschooling decision.)

Value others above yourselves?  Not looking to your own interests, but to the interests of others?  You can’t be serious.  But that’s just plain unhealthy.

Living a life defined by “you do you” is not just a message heard out there.  But it’s something heard deep in here too.  I reflected on this same passage at Andrew and Elyssa Deelstra’s wedding a few weeks ago, and during the ceremony, I shared that when I was prepping for the wedding, on the very same day that Andrew and Elyssa sent me an email with their choice of Bible verses for their wedding, I had this moment at home with my kids.  It was snack time, the kids where at the table, and I put this plate of Rice-Krispie squares down.  In a millisecond, all of them launched themselves out of their chairs to make a grab for the one that they wanted.  And like a millisecond after that, three of the four kids – including the 18 month old! – began yelling about how unfair it was that they didn’t get the biggest one.

This is the state of the human heart.  Looking out for the self.  Taking care of the self.  My kids at snack time is a childish example, but it’s really not that different for adults.  Grown-ups tend to be a little better at covering up their grabby impulses, or making their grabs more subtly and sneakily.  Full disclosure:  I’ve got numerous examples of my own grab at securing my own interests from this past week.  Abigail doesn’t sleep the best, and I can’t even tell how enraged I was to be woken up in the middle of the night by her last night.  I have a deep personal interest in sleep, after all.  Her interest in another drink of water and another hug from her mama is not what I care about.  How do you feel when your needs aren’t being met?  What will you do to ensure your interests are secured?  In what ways to do grab for what you want in your marriage, your particular household, your friendships, your workplace, your neighbourhood, when you’re in line at your grocery store, or you’re in traffic, or you’re in a restaurant, or in school, or at the pool, or at church, or in a meeting, or wherever?

It doesn’t matter if you are a kid or an adult.  It makes no difference whether you are living during this cultural moment or some other one in the past.  The truth is this state of heart has always existed in every single human being since the very beginning.  We’ve inherited it from the very first human, Adam and Eve.  Rather than trusting God and his word over their lives, they entertained a conversation with Satan, who said, “Does really God know what’s best for you life?  Or do you know?”  You do you, he hissed.  So they made a grab for the apple.  And we’ve been grabbing at what we want ever since.

But the Apostle Paul puts another way before the Philippian Christians.  He puts another way before us.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  Rather, in humility, value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.  Not you doing you, but you doing others.  Not grabbing, but giving.  A life not aimed at self-fulfillment, but self-sacrifice.

So very basic.  Yet so very difficult.

As if the Apostle Paul can sense that the Philippians are going to need more than these instructions… he offers a little inspiration.

Putting it another way, he pens another paragraph.  What I mean is,

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used to his own advantage; rather he made himself nothing, by taking the very nature of a servant, being made into human likeness.  

And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross!  

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow in heaven and an earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.   

Friends, there is One who did nothing out of self ambition or vain conceit. There is One who out of humility valued others above himself.  There is one who did not look to fulfill or satisfy or make a grab for his own interests, but who spent his life on behalf of others.  His name is Jesus.  And he just like Adam and Eve, he was tempted by Satan once too.  Just after his baptism, and just before he began his ministry of teaching and healing, etc, he went into the desert to fast and pray and prepare himself.  And while he was there, Satan showed up (because he always does) and hissed, “You do you”.  Wield your power, stake your claim, exert your rights.  Take what is yours.  You’re feeling hungry, just have some bread.  You’re feeling weak, ascend a throne.  You’re feeling tired, command your angels to show up.  You don’t have to go through this.  Your life doesn’t have to be this way.  Your life doesn’t have to be hard.  You do you.

Hungry and weak and tired, Jesus looked Satan right in the eye. Unlike the very first humans, instead of making a grab to satisfy his own interests, Jesus said,  “I don’t do me.  I do my Heavenly Father.  I do His Word. I do His Will.”

And what was the will of His Heavenly Father?  That his beloved people would be saved from this state of heart.  That his beloved people would be healed from this state of heart.  That his beloved people would be brought back into life, true life, a flourishing life that is life with Him.   And it was the Father’s will that this would be accomplished through a radical self-sacrifice, in which the Son of God would become human and die a human death, as a substitute for ours, in payment for every selfish grab we’ve ever made or wanted to make.

Not looking to his own interests, Jesus,

Being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used to his own advantage; rather he made himself nothing, by taking the very nature of a servant, being made into human likeness.  

And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross!   

Jesus did this for you.  God willed that this would happen for you.  That we would be forgiven and freed and counted as one of his children, something we could make that happen on our own.  That’s why we get together week after week to, together, praise His name.  To lift up His Name.  To exalt His Name.  And to proclaim that His Name saves.   To proclaim that His Name is above every name.  To proclaim in faith and hope that one day, every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongues acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  

He did this for us.  But he also did this to show us the way.  To forge a different path. To be the first to walk a different road.  Not Adam’s road, but the right road.   Jesus is our model, or example, of the human life lived the way God intended it to be lived.  Not as turned in on itself and it’s own interests.  But turned out towards God and other people.  Do you want to flourish?   Reject the popular advice on discovering yourself, developing yourself, expressing yourself.  Instead, get out there and sacrifice yourself for crying out loud!   Forget the grab.  It leads to death.  Start giving.  Spend yourself for Him.  Spend yourself for others.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  Rather, in humility, value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests, but to the interests of the others. 

Because, as I’ve already said even though this command is very basic it is very hard to live out, let me end by way of encouragement.  Jesus has not only already saved you, redeemed you, forgiven you through his sacrificial death.  Jesus has not only provided a picture, an example, a roadmap for how a life of self-sacrifice should look.  But he is with you.  When Jesus ascended into heaven, exalted to the highest place, he did not leave his people on their own to try their best.  From his place of glory and authority, he sent down his Spirit to be in our hearts, to change them, and to give us power – not human power, divine, supernatural power – to serve, to love, to sacrifice.

Holy Spirit, from creation’s birth, giving life to all that God has made.  Show your power once again on earth, cause your Church to hunger for your ways.  Let the fragrance of our prayers arise, lead us on the road of sacrifice, that in unity the face of Christ might be clear for all the world to see.

When you are tempted by the allure of a life where “you do you”, call on the Name of Jesus, call on the Name of the One whose Spirit lives in you.  He is near.

When you are tired of giving, call on the Name of Jesus, call on the Name of the One whose Spirit lives in you.  He is near.

When you are confused or stressed or suffering more than you expected to or under more strain than you could have imagined, call on the Name of Jesus, call on the Name of the One who Spirit lives in you.  Exalt his name.  Rehearse his story.  Trust his presence and his power at work in you.  And remember with faith and hope that one day, in the midst of a whole world made new, you will be among those raising your voice in joyful song and praise proclaiming that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

Amen.

Posted in Philippians, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Is the Gospel Ok? | Philippians 1:12-26

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

People are endlessly fascinating to me. I love to learn about the things that interest people, and how those interests came to be.

So, when I meet new people, I typically ask them: “what do you like to do?” When you’re not working, and you have a choice about it, what do you like to do?

I asked someone this question at a Christmas party recently, and he told me that he likes to make cheese and go on epic backpacking adventures. “Tell me more!” I said. And away the conversation went.

A few years ago, Brendan Bosma got me into mountain biking. At the time Brendan didn’t have three young children, and so he was something of a mountain bike fanatic.  He may have even told me once that work was a hobby that he did to support his passion for mountain biking.

Sometime around then, Brendan showed me a picture of a shirt that he had found online. Here’s the picture.

The shirt asks a question. “Is my bike Ok?” But the text is upside down. Hard to read in the upright position, but easy to read after your biking buddy goes over their handlebars. “Is my bike ok?” 

“Don’t worry about my body. Bodies heal. But my bike. Is my bike Ok?”

Now, you’d really have to be a mountain biking fanatic to care more about your bike than your body. But some people, I suppose, are that focussed on the thing that they love.

As I was meditating on Paul’s words this week, I found myself thinking about this funny shirt. Not that Paul was into mountain biking. He wasn’t. But Paul was passionate about another extreme activity: proclaiming the gospel.

Proclaiming the gospel landed Paul in Prison on multiple occasions. People beat him with rods and threw rocks at him, for proclaiming the gospel. Paul never knew what would happen when he opened his mouth. He never knew if his message about Jesus would be favourably received or vehemently rejected. But that didn’t stop him from preaching his passion. 

I doubt that Paul and his companions had shirts printed up for their gospel tour around the Mediterranean. But if they did, the text would probably be upside-down, and it would say: “Is the gospel Ok?”

“Don’t worry about my body. Worry about the gospel. If its Ok, then I’m Ok.

The gospel was Paul’s passion. He built tents to support his preaching habit. He travelled to foreign lands, not to see new beaches, but to preach the gospel. Why? Because he knew and had experienced first hand, that it was the power of God unto salvation.

Gospel is an old English word that simply means “Good News”. Evangelion is the greek word. It basically means “News that changes things for the better.”

In ancient days, when armies didn’t have modern communication tools, Kings would send runners home, ahead of the army, to share the good news that the war was over and that the battle had been won. These runners, the evangelists, would pass through the countryside proclaiming the good news. And when they arrived in the capital city, they would enter the city gates and lift up their voices: “The War is Over. The Battle has been won. Prepare to celebrate and receive your king.”

When you’re living in a war zone, how beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news. Who announce peace.

Well, Paul was ordained by King Jesus to carry out this task for the Kingdom of God. He was the runner. The evangelist of the evangelion. Sent out to share the good news of Victory and new life in Christ Jesus. To proclaim that the war against sin and death was over.

When your trapped in the war zone of sin and guilt, lost in the valley of the shadow of death, without hope and without God in the world, how beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news. Who announce peace.

The message about Jesus victory over sin and death is news that changes things. Paul himself experienced the power of the gospel on the road to Damascus. He was going there to persecute the church. But Jesus interceded, turned Paul around, and sent him off on a new mission.  Paul left Jerusalem a persecutor of the Church. He returned a living testimony of the power of the gospel.

The gospel transforms hearts and lives. It produces infectious joy. Lydia, the first convert to the way of Jesus in Philippi experienced the power of the gospel. So did the jailer on the night of the earthquake.

Of course, not everyone was receptive to the announcement of peace in Christ Jesus. If your business is war, the announcement of peace is not good news.   

This is why those who owned the oppressed slave girl in Philippi, didn’t like it when Paul cast out the girl’s demon. Her transformation impacted their bottom line. So they stirred up trouble for Paul, which resulted in Paul and Silas spending a night in the clink.

But that didn’t matter to Paul. Because the gospel was alive and well in Philippi. And that’s all that mattered.

With this in mind, let’s look again at Paul’s reflection on his current state of affairs:

“Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. 13 As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.” (Vs. 12-13)

You have to love Paul’s relentless optimism. Here he is, in prison, and he can’t help but see the good things that God is up to in the midst of this. Sure, he’s not able to roam about freely anymore, but being locked up in the palace has given him access to an entirely new group of unreached people. The very people who live and work in the halls of power.

The irony here is thick. The authorities are trying to keep Paul under wraps. They are trying to contain the message by locking up the messenger. But in reality, their attempt at containment is opening up new avenues for the message to go forward.

This is a truth that echos throughout history. The more a government tries to contain the message, the more it leaks out. Its like trying to contain water with your hands. God’s word always finds a way to eek out. 

Additionally, there’s something about persecution that emboldens Christians to proclaim the gospel with greater courage.

Paul notes this reality in what he says next: “And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.” Vs. 14

Seeing someone suffer for the sake of their relationship with Christ, is a profoundly inspiring thing to witness.

A few years ago, I read Pastor Wang Yi’s public letter of Faithful Disobedience. Wang Yi is a pastor of a large unsanctioned Church in China. He was arrested a few years ago for preaching the gospel. Pastor Yi saw this day coming. So he wrote a letter and asked his Church to publish is widely, should he ever be arrested.

I was profoundly moved by Pastor Yi’s public stand. His courage in the face of opposition has encouraged Christians all over the world. Myself included.

A few weeks ago, Wang Yi was sentenced to 9 years in prison. History suggests that this will not go well for the communist party. For, Christ can not be contained. And whenever people try, God’s kingdom expands.

So, while Paul is locked up, he’s ok, because the gospel is free and continues to make an impact.

And that remains true, even if those who preach the gospel, preach it with impure motives.

15 It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. 16 The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. 18 But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. (vs. 15-18)

So here we get a little window into what Paul is dealing with in his current church community.  Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Paul’s in Rome. Prior to getting put in prison, he was preaching in the synagogue and sharing the story about Jesus with anyone who would listen. But now that’s he’s in prison, others are stepping up to fill the void.

Some of those people are motivate by goodwill. They see what’s happening to Paul and they know that someone has to continue preaching Christ in his absence. So, out of love, they step up to do just that. But others, those who disagree with Paul on a number of matters, see this as an opportunity to sway the crowds their direction. So while they are preaching Christ, they are not doing it purely for Christ’s sake, but to win the argument and win people to their perspective. 

It happens, you know. Preaching Christ from less than pure motives. Preaching Christ to prove a personal point. Preaching him to build up a reputation as a good preacher.

Sometimes I get a little nervous on Saturday nights. I’m nervous not because I’m having trouble exalting Jesus in my preaching, but because it feels to me like my sermon is not very good. And I worry what you all will think of it. So I stay up late and try to make my sermon more clear and compelling. For Christ’s sake, yes. But also to shore up my own insecurities.

And sometimes people tell me that they like Brittney’s preaching more than they like my preaching. In response, I usually say, “ya, me too.” But imagine for a moment that Brittney’s superior sermons really got to me. And that I became jealous. And then I started working overtime to try to compete with Brittney for your approval. All of it sudden its not primarily about Jesus anymore, is it. Exalting Jesus is just a means for me to be better than my wife. 

Or imagine that Pastor Henry got up here next week, and decided to preach on the this same passage that I’m preaching on today, because he thought that I was doing a poor job on the book of Philippians. “The Salverda are out of town. Now’s my chance to set record straight.”

That too would be preaching Christ from less than pure motives.

Well something like that was evidently happening in Rome. Paul’s away from the pulpit, and people are using the opportunity to pursue their own ends.

But notice what Paul says about this. “I’m not going to let this get to me,” He says. Because regardless of motives, what’s important is still happening. Yes, it would be better if preachers left their egos at the door and preached Christ out of love. But so long as Jesus is being proclaimed, that’s what really matters.

The message is the power of God unto salvation, not the messenger. This is good news for preachers and congregations alike.

There are times when Paul will take a more firm approach towards those who preach with poor motives. But he only does so when the gospel itself is at stake.

Next, Paul does a little reflecting on his situation and his prospects for the future. We see the priority of the gospel come through loud and clear here too.

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.[d] 20 I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me. Vs. 18-26

So Paul is pretty sure that he will be delivered from his current predicament. He’s confident that the prayers of the Church will be effective, and that the Spirit of Christ Jesus will make a way for him to be released.

But once again, notice that being released is not Paul’s main concern. His main concern and hope is that he will not be ashamed of the gospel while on trial, but that he will courageously bear witness to it so that Christ will exalted in his body.

Paul’s not worried about death. In fact, as far as he’s concerned, death is preferable. For it means that he goes to be with the Lord. This is what Paul longs for. But he also knows that there is fruitful work left for him to do. The Church needs him. More people need to hear the message of salvation. And just think of all the glory the Church will give to Jesus, if Paul is released from prison.

Paul is singularly focussed. To live is Christ, to die is gain. What matters is not release from prison or being spared death. What matters is that, whatever happens, that Jesus is exalted in his body.

I know that Paul’s example and passion for the gospel isn’t the main point of this passage, but I don’t think we should skip too quickly over his example either. How many of us are as sold out for Jesus as Paul? Do we value Jesus about all else, or do we try to fit him in, when we can, when it doesn’t disrupt our schedule too much.

How would you fill in the blanks of this sentence: To live is …………. To die is …………….

To live is family, to die is tragedy.

To live is to have fun and see new places, to die is a depressing thought that I’d rather not think about today.

To live is to experience pleasure in the body. So eat, drink, and be merry. For tomorrow we die.

I remember talking with a couple after a funeral service here a few years ago. “You just never know when its your time to go,” the woman said. “It really makes you think about life. I guess you just have to live everyday to the fullest. Because you just never know.”

I’m sure you’ve heard statements like that before. I’ve even thought it myself on a few occasions. But what would Paul have to say about such a philosophy of life.

What matters is not carpe diem. What matters is that we seize Christ, and seek first his Kingdom. This is where true joy is found.

To live is Christ, to die is gain.

If you’re in love with your own life, this sounds like death. And in some ways it is death. Its death to self.

But its also most certainly the path that leads to life.

Jesus said: Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.

Notice that Paul has a joy that cannot be taken away. He’s able to rejoice, even though he’s in prison. And death is not scary for him, because in a very real way, he’s already died.

How can this be? Well he has Christ. And he knows himself to be the beloved of God, in Christ. All else is rubbish in comparison to this.

You know, I’m sure what the gospel means to you. I find that for me, the power of it all comes in and out of focus. Somedays, I don’t experience the gospel as the Power of God unto salvation. Somedays, it feels rather ordinary—a little like a good story that I’ve read a few too many times.

But then there are other days and moments when the Spirit ignites the message, and the message resonates so deeply that I am caught up in a power and a joy that is hard to describe.

And then to participate in the ministry of the gospel. And to see the victory of Jesus bring joy and comfort to others.

There have a been a number of occasions over the last year, where people have confessed their sins to Brittney and I. And we’ve be able to respond, not with a list of practices or new things to try, but with Christ crucified.

Dear beloved of God, in the name of Jesus, your sins are forgiven. As far as the East is from the west, so far has he removed your transgressions from you.

This is news that changes things for the better. News that ushers in a peace that passes understanding. People need to hear this.

The latest guru or self-help strategy might be able to put a bandaid on the worlds problems and your wounds. But the gospel enacts transformation in the depths of the human heart. The war is over. The battle has been won. Enter the joy of life with God in Christ.

There is no greater thing.

Amen.

Posted in Philippians | Leave a comment

Partners in the Gospel | Philippians 1:1-11

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

The selection of scripture that God has for our edification this winter is Paul and Timothy’s letter to the Church in Philippi.

Before we read Paul’s introduction and opening remarks, allow me to take some time to share some important background information.

Paul’s ministry in Philippi is a fascinating story. After participating in the council of Jerusalem, Paul set off on his second missionary tour. With Silas and Luke, he travelled North into Syria and Cilicia. Along the way he visited and encouraged all the churches that he planted on his previous missionary journey.

When Paul came to Derbe and Lystra, he met a young disciple named Timothy. Paul liked Timothy and saw potential in him, so he invited Timothy to join the mission.

What happens next is a little strange. In Act 16, Luke records that the Spirit prevented Paul and his companions from preaching the gospel in Asia. Additionally, the Spirit would not let them travel North into Bithynia.

I’m sure that this confused Paul and his companions. But they pressed on, trusting that the Spirit would open doors for them at the right time. And indeed, that is what happened.

One night, Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia. The man was begging Paul to come and help. Immediately, Paul and his companion headed for the coast. They boarded a ship in Troas and sailed off to Neapolis. And from there, they travelled on foot to the most prominent city in Macedonia: Philippi.

Philippi… what do we know about this city? Well, we know that it was founded by Philip of Macedon, the Father of Alexander the Great. Years later, it was conquered by Octavian, who would become Ceasar Augustus. After Octavian conquered the city, he gave the fertile land that surrounded the city to his soldiers as a gift. So in short order, Philippi went from being a Greek town to being a Greek and Roman mix.

Now, if you know anything about retired soliders, you’ll know that they are generally a patriotic bunch. In fact, that is partly why Octavian gave his soldiers land in Philippi. He wanted to create a patriotic outpost in Macedonia.

So Philippi was loyal to Rome and the Emperor.  In fact, in time, they would even come to refer to Ceasar as their lord and saviour. That’s the language that they would use. This will become important as we consider some of the opposition that the Christians in Philippi faced.

So Paul and his companions arrive in Philippi. And on the Sabbath, they go down to the river to pray. While there, they meet a woman named Lydia. She’s in business. A dealer in purple cloth. Luke tells us that she was also a God worshipper. And by God’s grace, the Spirit opened Lydia’s heart to receive the Good News about Jesus Christ. 

In fact Lydia’s whole household received the good news about Jesus Christ. And they were baptized into his kingdom.

A few days later, while walking through the city, a slave girl began to pester Paul. She followed him around and created a scene wherever she went. After a few days of this, Paul engaged the woman directly. He cast the demon out of her.

This angered the slave girls owners. You see, they had been profiting off of their Slave girl’s oppression. And her deliverance was bad for business.

To make a long story short, Paul and Silas ended up in prison that night. But even there, though bound and chained, their hearts were filled with joy. And they began to pray and sing hymns.

About midnight, there was a violent earthquake in Philippi. The earthquake shook the foundations of the prison, opening all the doors, releasing prisoners from their chains.

When the jailer saw what had happened, he drew a sword to kill himself, thinking that all the prisoners had escaped.

But Paul stopped him. “Do not harm yourself!” said Paul. We are all still here.

That night, by God’s grace, the jailer, and his household came to faith and was set free by the transformative work of God in Christ.

And that’s how the Church in Philippi got its start.

It was born, not of Paul, but of God. Paul was there. Paul followed God’s lead and obediently proclaimed the gospel. But the whole process was Spirit led.

Fast forward to a later date. The Church in Philippi has grown and Paul has moved on. He’s in prison again. Probably in Rome—but scholars aren’t totally sure. 

And then one day, while in Prison, Paul receives a visitor. A man named Epaphroditus comes to see him. He’s come from Philippi, bearing gifts on behalf of the Church.  Money, probably. Maybe some food and clothing.

Word had reached the Church that Paul was in prison. And so, they took up an offering and sent him a care package.

Well, this, as you can imagine, filled Paul’s heart with joy. Notes of thankfulness and gratitude permeate this entire letter—you’ll hear that loud and clear in the verses we’re about to read.

The conversation that takes place between Ephaphroditus and Paul doesn’t show up in Acts. So, all that we can know about it is what we can derive from the letter.

Its clear that they talked about the Church for a while, because Paul does bring up a few issues that needed addressing.

But in the end, this letter is not about issues. Its about friendship. And encouragement. Its about the partnership that Paul, Timothy, and the Church share in Christ and their collective desire to see the name of Jesus lifted up, as they await his return.

So, with all this mind, let us turn to the Letter itself. 

Philippians 1:1-11

Can you feel the love in Paul’s opening address and prayer. He is filled wit joy when he thinks of this Church. He longs for them with the affections of Christ Jesus.

Often when Paul writes a letter, he feels it necessary to begin with an assertion of his God given authority. For instance, when Paul writes to the Church in Corinth, he begins by letting them all know that he is an Apostle of Christ Jesus, by the will of God. This is Paul, laying out his credentials. He wants everyone in Corinth to know that this letter is not the opinion of an ordinary man, but the written word of one who has been set aside by Jesus himself.

But there is no need for Paul to lay down his credentials in his letter to the Philippians. He already has their respect. He’s among friends. So, instead of referring to himself as an Apostle. He refers to himself as a servant. “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus.” (vs 1)

The English word “servant” doesn’t fully capture the meaning of the greek word. The greek word is “doulos”, which means slave. One who belongs to another. One who lives in the service of another.

Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus.

Christ, meaning the anointed one. Christ meaning the Anointed King. Paul and Timothy, slaves of King Jesus.

There’s some political overtones here. For if Jesus is King, then that means that Caesar is not. The weight of the word “Christ” would not have been lost on the original hearers. They needed to hear this from Paul. When Caesar’s face is on all your coins and when statues of him are placed all around the city, you need to be reminded that the one you worship is higher than him. It takes faith to look beyond the powers of the world. And to remember who has been given all authority in heaven and on earth.

Right away Paul makes it very clear who he is and who he belongs to. And he makes it clear who the Church belongs to too.

“To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (vs. 1-2)

Saints in Christ Jesus. Saints. I don’t know what you think of when you think of Saints. I usually think about special people. With Halos. Whose faces get immortalized in paintings or on stained glass windows. I don’t think of regular people like you and me.

Who considers themselves to be a saint? Anyone? “I’m no saint,” we say.

Well, I have good news for you today. For as far as Paul is concerned, sainthood is not something that is achieved. It is something that is bestowed upon those who are found in Christ Jesus. Sainthood is the identity of the cleansed and redeemed family of God.  All those who are in Christ are clothed in Christ’s righteousness.

When the Father looks upon the people who belong to his son, he sees Saints.

I know sometimes it doesn’t feel or look that way. I mean, sometimes when I’m looking for volunteers, I open up the VCRC directory, and—true confessions—sometimes I get a little discouraged.

How are we going to get anything going around here. What could God possibility do with sinners like us! 

Obviously, I’m joking around a bit. But I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. Its not hard to get jaded when it comes to the Church. Some of you have been around here so long, that when you look out over the congregation, you don’t immediately see saints, you see people foibles and the quirks. “That person… she’ll never change. And, old so and so… don’t worry about him. He’s always complaining. He’s just a stubborn complainer.”

Sometimes we get the urge to start fresh. To start or to find a Church that really looks and acts like a Church is supposed to look and act like. And so we leave one church and head to another. Initially, the grass is greener on the other side. But then, people begin to disappoint us, and hurt us. And we become jaded with the Church, once again.

(C.S. Lewis Story—Screwtape letters)

From a worldly perspective, most Christian communities aren’t much to look at. But from God’s perspective. We are the Holy Ones who belong to his holy Son. The people in whom God delights.

This perspective is so foundational for how we view ourselves and each other. We aren’t primarily sinners. That belongs to our old identity. In Christ, we are saints.

And your neighbour in the pews. He or she is a saint in whom Christ dwells. When talking or thinking about them, you should put the word saint before their name. Imagine them with a Halo. See them how God sees them.

Sainthood is the Church’s current identity and future destiny.

To all the Saints.

“I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy… [why?] because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now…” (vs. 3)

Lydia didn’t just receive Christ, she brought Paul and his companions into her household. The jailer didn’t just receive Christ, he brought Paul and his companions into his household, and served them a meal.

And when Paul left Philippi, the Church continued the mission while Paul wasn’t there. And now, Paul is in prison and in need of support. And so, members of the Church take up an offering, and they send it Paul.

Not only are they Saints in Christ Jesus, but they are partners in the gospel. This is what fills Paul with Joy.

The greek word translated partnership is Koinonia. It means “fellowship” “a sharing in”.  In Acts 2, we read that the early followers of Jesus devoted themselves to the “Koinonia”. The Fellowship.

My favourite modern day example of Koinonia is found in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  When the fellowship of the ring is formed.

Its such a powerful scene. Representatives from the different kingdoms of middle earth come together to create a team, a partnership. Each brings their gift to the table. The elf his bow; the man his sword; the drwarf his axe. And together they make a covenant. The commit themselves to the mission of seeing the ring destroyed.

That’s Koinonia. Partnership.

Christians are people that God has gathered together in Christ. We are his chosen Saints. But we’re not the frozen chosen. The Spirit has been poured out on the Church. Gifts have been given. And they are to be used for the furtherance of the mission. That the world shaking news of Jesus death and resurrection may be proclaimed and that people can find wholeness in his Kingdom.

Today we use the word membership to talk about being apart of the Church. Membership is an Ok word. Paul uses the word when he talks about us being “members of Christ’s body”. But I much prefer the word partner. When I think of membership, I think of a piece of paper sitting in the filing cabinet. When I think of partnership, I think of linking arms in the fellowship of the King. That’s the Church. A community that links arms and offers their gifts in service to the mission of the King.

Our Sunday school teachers are partners in the gospel. They are downstairs now, teaching our children about Jesus. Those of you who sing at the Saanich Peninsula hospital on Sunday afternoons, you are partners in the gospel. You who pray for missionaries and quietly give money to Resonate global missions. You are a partner in the gospel.

This gives Paul joy. This gives Dave joy. This gives God joy.

And all this. All that Jesus has done, and that the Church is doing in partnership with Jesus and Paul, it fills Paul with confidence.

He’s confident that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (vs 6)

This word from Paul was undoubtedly a note of assurance for the Church in Philippi. Recall that they were surrounded by people who were loyal to Caesar. Its seems pretty clear that this community was facing a fair bit of pressure to conform. Maybe the pressure was even mounting.

But with these words, Paul reassures the Saints: “Don’t worry, God’s got you. Remember how all this began? He brought you all together, he’s not going to let you go. Not till he comes again.”

Paul didn’t have the Heidelberg Catechism at his disposal. But if he did, this would be the time where he would pull out Question and Answer #1.

Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?

A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.… He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

Those who belong to Jesus Christ can be confident of this. That he who began a good work in them, and continues to work in them, will carry it on to completion. God doesn’t let his Holy ones go.

I visited Ruth Longpre last weekend. She was on her deathbed; breathing but not conscious. Ruth was a Saint in Christ Jesus. But she didn’t always feel like it. And she didn’t always have a lot of assurance.

I didn’t read Philippians 1 over her. I read Psalm 23. And the end of Psalm 23 has similar notes of assurance. Surely his goodness and love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord, forever.

God doesn’t let go of his holy ones. Rest in peace, Ruth.

So Paul is grateful for the Saints and their partnership in the gospel. And he’s confident that God will not let his Saints go.

The next thing he does is tell them that he’s praying for them. He also tells them the content of his prayers.

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. (Vs. 9-11)

In essence, Paul’s prayer for the Philippian Church is that they continue to grow up into their identity in Christ.

He wants their love to abound more and more. He prays that their knowledge of God’s will and that their moral insight would expand. So that they would be wise and discerning and know how to love in a way glorifies God, and give themselves fully to what really matters. He prays that they may be the pure and blameless bride of Christ, ready to receive her groom, when he comes.

Paul’s prayer is that the Church would shine like stars in the world. That they would be like a City on a hill, in Jesus words. That others would be drawn in by the light, come to Christ, and glorify God because of their witness.

What does this righteous way of life look like in action? Its the way that was modelled by Jesus. Jesus did not consider equality with God as something to be held onto, but who made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant. He humbled himself and became obedient unto death.

Loving like God loved the world through his son, empowered by the Son. That is the righteousness way. That is the life that gives glory to God.

We’ll be returning to this prayer as the series progresses. Because most of the key themes in the letter are found here in Paul’s prayer for the Church.

Saints. Partners in the gospel. Servants who belong to King Jesus.

This is who we really are.

I don’t know about you, but the busyness, complexity, and drudgery of life has a way of flattening my world and making me forget these truths. And after a week of changing diapers and wrestling with my own sin, I don’t feel like a Saint, or a partner in the gospel.

But my feelings don’t change the reality.

God’s got you. You are his holy and beloved child. And there are things that you’ve been given that his mission needs. So let us link arms together and continue pressing on towards the goal, as await the return of our King.

Amen.

Posted in Philippians, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Jesus is Growing Up | Luke 2:41-52

Its not easy being a parent. Kids require a lot of love and attention. They need to be fed and clothed, bathed and nurtured, protected and corrected. They cry. All night long, they cry. They don’t care how late you went to bed and how early you need to get up.

It’s exhausting work, parenting. Physically exhausting when they’re young. Emotionally exhausting when they get a little older.   

Its only a little natural for parents to worry about their children. We see things in them, and we wonder where that habit or inclination will take them. And we see them taking steps towards independence, but we’re not sure they’re not mature enough to handle the responsibility.

I’ve heard it said on a number of occasions that “a parent is only as happy as their unhappiest child.”

We become so connected. And after a while it becomes hard to untangle ones own sense of well-being from the well-being of our children.

And that same sense of connectedness, that bond, can also make it hard to “let go” when a child becomes an adult.

I found myself thinking a lot about the parent’s journey this past week, partially because its my current reality, and partially because this text is filled with all kinds of family feels and parental angst.

Imagine being Mary and Joseph for a moment. Walking home to Nazareth, after a busy week of celebrating the passover in Jerusalem.

They didn’t need to worry about the whereabouts of their eldest son. They were among trusted friends and relatives. Jesus was somewhere in the crowd. Hanging out with his cousins, probably.

But when Jesus didn’t join them for dinner, they started worry.

Its hard to describe that terrible feeling of dread that settles in when you realize that one of your children is missing.

I’m sure that Joseph and Mary shouted Jesus’ name for hours. I’m sure the whole caravan checked their bags and retraced their steps. But Jesus was no where to be seen.

I imagine that Mary and Joseph were gripped with all kinds of different emotions. Fear. Anger. Guilt. Embarrassment.

And to top it all off, Jesus, of course, was no ordinary child. The Angel’s had told Mary that this child, her child, would sit on David’s throne. Let’s just say you don’t want to go down in history as the mother who lost the Messiah.

Early the next morning, Mary and Joseph anxiously returned to Jerusalem. And to their horror, once they arrived, they couldn’t find Jesus anywhere. He wasn’t in the marketplace. He wasn’t in the guest room where they had stayed. Where did he go?

Three days later, they finally found him in the temple. He was “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” Luke 2:46

Jesus was 12 years old at the time of this incident. 

12 is a significant age in the Jewish community. Its a transition year. In the Jewish community, a father is responsible for the actions of his pre-teenage children. But when a boy turns 13, he becomes accountable to God and the community. In modern terms, he becomes a bar mitzvah — a son of the law.

In order to prepare for this transition to responsibility, 12 year old boys in Jesus day spent many hours memorizing and studying the Torah. And being the son of pious, passover celebrating parents, you know that Jesus never missed catechism class.

And he must have been paying attention. For “Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.” Luke 2:47

Mary was less than amazed, however, when she saw her lost son sitting with the teachers. She doesn’t see that the boy is turning into a man. She sees her precious little lost child.

Overwhelmed with emotion, Mary chastises Jesus:

“Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” Luke 2:48

Notice that Mary uses possessive, diminutive language to address Jesus. She addresses him using language that highlights the relationship that Jesus has with her.

“Son” The greek word used here is Teknon. Which means “child.” Or “offspring”. By using this word, Mary is highlighting the fact that Jesus is still just a boy. Her boy. Son, why did you do this to us. Your Father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”

Sometime I use language like this with my children, when I want to remind them who they are, and who I am as their Father.

“Son. Your mother and I do not stand for that kind of behaviour.”

Alas, it rarely has the desired effect.

Jesus’ response to Mary is interesting, and important. He doesn’t apologize to her. Instead, he responds with a gentle chastisement of his own.

“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house?” Luke 2:49

You could read this as a sarcastic response from Jesus. You can almost imagine Jesus rolling his eyes in that way that only pre-teens know how to do. But I don’t think Jesus is being sarcastic.

There’s something gentle about asking a question.

A question doesn’t accuse. It invites reflection. And a good question, can disrupt our anxiety fuelled reactions and reignite our capacity to think. 

Should it be a surprise to Mary and Joseph that Jesus was found in the temple. No, not really. This is the child that the Angel said would be called “son of the most high.”

Deep down Mary knows this. Deep down she knows that Jesus is not hers to keep, but hers to steward. But she’s not quite ready to let him go.

“Don’t be so surprised, mom. I’m getting older now. This is where I need to be.”

You know, there comes a time in every young person’s life when a transition needs to be made. A transition from childhood to adulthood. From playing with toys in the living room, to working with one’s parents in the family business. From being a recipient of parental care, to being a participant in the household economy.

In this scene, Luke is giving us a little window into Jesus’ developing sense of self and purpose. The little boy phase of Jesus’ life is coming to a close. And he’s about to take on his role as the eldest son, in the household of his heavenly Father.

And what is an eldest sons roll? Well, in Jesus day, an Eldest son’s roll was to extend the renown of his Father’s name. To carry on the family business. To be a living breathing representative of the Father’s will, in the world.

Its only natural for a mother to want to hold on. I mean Mary carried Jesus in her womb for 9 months. And then breast fed him for another 14. For 12 years she put food before Jesus at his table, and tended to his skinned knees and owies. For 12 years she tucked him into his little bed, and comforted him when he had nightmares.

But now that Jesus is on the cusp of adulthood, things are changing. Now Jesus wants to spend more time with Dad than with mom. And who is his Father? His Father is the the one who brought Israel out of Egypt. His Father, is the one who made the passover possible.

No wonder Jesus didn’t want to leave the temple. It was passover time, and he was a learning his Father’s craft.

This is our first glimpse, in the gospels, of the kind of person that Jesus will grow up to be.

The wisdom that the teachers of the law noticed in the temple, will be noticed by the crowds, when Jesus appeared in the Galilee, preaching and teaching with authority.

The growing favour that Jesus received from God and people will be publicly confirmed on the day of his baptism. On that day, Jesus will hear his heavenly Father say: “You are my son. With you, I am well pleased.”

But just as Jesus’ true identity will be confirmed on many occasions, so will people not understand him on many occasions. Mary didn’t understand why it was necessary for her little boy to remain in the temple. The disciples didn’t understand why Jesus must suffer and die. The crowds liked Jesus when he was healing them of their illness, but they didn’t understand why it was necessary for him to say: “Now pick up your cross and follow me.” 

“Who does this guy think that he is,” the people said, when the Jesus tour rolled into Nazareth. “Isn’t this just Mary’ child?”

The religious leaders saw Jesus as threat. The Romans saw him a public nuisance.

Very few saw him for who he actually was… the Son of God who must be in his Father’s house, extending the renown of his Father’s name, while going about his Father’s business. 

Its Epiphany Sunday, today. Epiphany means “manifestation” or “appearance”.

Epiphany is the season in which the Church is invited to take a good close look at the person of Jesus. In this season, we remember that Jesus is so much more than Mary’s boy child. Rather, he is the manifestation of the invisible God. The exact representation of God’s own being. He’s come to extend the Father’s work in the world.

Our culture is pretty good at celebrating the birth of Jesus. Every year, our Churches—even here in Victoria—swell with people who come out to hear the story and sings the familiar songs.

But by Ephiphany, things are more or less back to normal. Which is sad, because things are just getting started.

The world has never had a more accurate representative of the Father’s word and will on earth. Jesus makes manifest the ways of God, and the face of God, and the love of God.

In the ancient times, God spoke through prophets in various ways. But then, at the appointed time, God sent his one and only son. A son knows the Father’s business. A Son extends the Father’s work. He represents all that the Father represents.

And those who receive the son, and listen to him, receive the Father, as well.

I love that this little, home-alone-like incident, happens during the passover. In the Old Covenant, the Exodus from Egypt was God’s most significant act of salvation. In Egypt, Israel lived as slaves under Pharaoh’s fierce grip. But God saw their oppression, heard their cries, and came down to the rescue.

Liberation from oppression is the Father’s business.

22 years later, Jesus returned to Jerusalem to celebrate the passover once again. This time he came with his disciples, the brothers that God had given him. And on the night that he was betrayed, Jesus took the elements of the passover meal, the bread and the cup, and used them to teach his disciples about a deeper liberation that was about to take place through his own broken body and poured out blood.

After his crucifixion, Jesus went missing for three days. For three days the disciples anxiously searched for a meaning that could help them make sense of all that had taken place. They didn’t understand that it was necessary for Jesus to suffer and die. They didn’t understand that this was the means that God was using to liberate the world from slavery to sin and death.

But three days later, Jesus was seen by the woman in the garden. Then he was spotted on the Road to Emmaeus. Walking alongside the weary and the heavy laden. Should that be a surprise? No. For bringing hope to the hopeless is the Father’s business. And the Father would not let his holy one see decay.

And now, even as he sits at the right hand of God, Jesus is still in his Father’s house going about the work the Father has for him. Together, they are building a new household. One not made with bricks and wood. But one that is made up of people from every tribe, nation, and tongue.

And all those who hear the call and respond with faith, are renewed and repurposed and reassembled into the household that God is building on earth.

And then, with the son, those same people can call the creator, their Father. And then, with the son, those same people are invited into the exceedingly meaningful work of bearing witness to the Father’s ways through our words and actions.

When you look at Jesus, do you see what God sees? Or do you see what Mary sees?

Who do you say that he is?

If Luke were here this morning, he’d want us to see more than Mary’s boy child, lost in the temple. He’d want you to see the Son of God, growing up into his identity. Poised and ready to join his Father, in his Father’s work.

“This is my son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him. Follow him. Trust him. And live.”

Amen.

Posted in Luke, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Christmas Eve Reflection | John 1

Friends,

When we take in the Christmas story somehow, we are taking in two miracles.  Two amazing acts of God.

The first one is this:  “The Word became flesh”.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”  What that means is before anything, before the world, before time, there was God.

The Bible teaches us so much about God.  The Bible teaches that God is a Trinity, one God in three divine persons.  God and Word and Life.  Father and Son and Spirit.  The Bible teaches us that this triune God is eternal, invisible, infinite, holy, powerful, and perfect.  And the Bible teaches that this God created the world.

In the Christmas story, something shocking happens.  The God who created the world enters into it.  God becomes human.  The Word becomes flesh.  The Eternal One inserts himself into time.  The Invisible One makes himself visible.  The Infinite One confines himself, submits himself to the limitations of our very finite, physical world. The Creator, high and above and holy and powerful and perfect, stoops low, comes down, comes in to his creation.

Why?  So that we, with our limited capacity, might see him, might touch him, might comprehend He who is incomprehensible.  It turns out that God is not just Creator, but Lover.  God doesn’t want to be above and apart, but with and within.

That’s the first miracle.  But there’s a second one too.  Listen to this:  “To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”  Amazing act of God number 1:  God came down.  Amazing act of God number 2:  those who receive him get lifted up.

God is like a family.  It’s family language that is used to describe the Trinity.  There is a Father, a Son, and Spirit.  And the Son was born a human, born into the human family.  And those humans who receive him, get birthed too.  Birthed to be children of God, birthed into the family of God.  He joined us, that we join the communion of God.

If you want in on that miracle, or if you want to continue to be in on that miracle, the key word is “receive”.  “To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”  To receive Jesus means to welcome him into your heart and soul and life.  It means to take in all that he is.  It means to allow him room, permission to do all that he wants to do.  It means to trust all that he gives:  his life of love, his saving death, his resurrection power, and his ongoing instruction and strength for everyday life as God’s child.

Friends, the work of God at Christmas is a two-parter.  While the first happened once, a long time ago, at specific point in history, the second is ongoing, it’s been happening ever since and continues on.  God came down, born a human.  That we – and all those who receive him – can be taken up, born of God.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we thank you that you are not just the Creator of the world, but that you love it.  We thank you for sending the Son to be born a human, to walk and talk and teach and die that we might see you and know you.  Open our eyes to understand you.  And then open our hearts that we might receive you, welcome you, believe you, trust you, and allow all that you are to shape us.  Thank you for coming so near to us, living with us.  And thank you for making us your children, for drawing us up, to live with you.  In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Angel’s | Luke 2:1-21

It seems like – all the time – I’m simply and un-poetically rehearsing the basic events of my day-to-day life.

My mom calls on FaceTime:  How is your day going, hon?  Oh, it’s good, I say.  The kids and I had breakfast and did our prayer time.  After doing some school work and having a snack, we went off to the park for some fresh air.  (Shrug.)

My friend greets me on Monday morning at our homeschool group:  So, how was your weekend?  Oh, it was good, I say.  We relaxed on Friday, went to the soccer field on Saturday, and did the church thing on Sunday.  (Shrug.)

I’m sure this sort of back-and-forth is familiar to you.  Your parents pass the salad bowl your way at dinner and ask, How was school today?  Oh, it was good, you say.  Math, English, Drama.  Talked with the teacher about the final project, hung out with my friends at lunch.  (Shrug.)   You bump into an acquaintance at the grocery store or in a coffee shop or in the church foyer.  How has life been going, they ask?  Oh, good, you say.  We’ve had these changes at work, I’ve had this change in my health.  I’m busy with these appointments and these family commitments. (Shrug.)

Today’s scripture passage reads a bit like that, actually.  It’s really just a play-by-play of the basic events.  The author is a man named Luke.  From what we can tell from piecing together historical documents and timelines, Luke was a scholar and a doctor who was an active leader in the early church.  Imagine bumping into him on some desert road in the ancient Middle East.  He’s heading one way, you are heading another, but you stop to talk for a minute.   So Luke, how did the birth of Jesus go again?  Oh, that!  Yeah, it was good, he says.  Remember how Caesar wanted to do this census a while back, so Joseph and Mary had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  That’s where He has born.  It was a busy time, so it actually happened in a barn because there wasn’t any space in any of the hostels there.

That’s it.  Plain-jane.  The straightforward run-down.  As far as birth stories go, Luke’s version is a rather simple, unpoetic re-telling of the events.   It’s almost “shruggable”.

UNTIL, that is… He gets around to mentioning those angels.  It’s the presence of the angels that alert us to the fact that there is more going on than what we see.  There is a reality beyond what meets the eye.  The basic play-by-play is totally correct, but what’s really happening?  The straightforward run-down is absolutely accurate, but what’s the deeper reality?

Lest anyone then or now shrug off this birth story as just another simple, unpoetic birth, God sends angels to open our eyes to what is really going on.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.  An angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid.  I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.  

(Here’s the deeper reality.)

Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”  Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”

 

The appearing of the angels is this moment when the curtain of heaven is pulled back just a bit.  It’s this moment when that divide, that wall between the material world and the spiritual one is taken down for a minute.  It’s this moment when the shepherds and everyone listening to the story since get to see what’s really going on.  They indicate that there is an unseen reality… and that this unseen reality is in fact more true more real than the seen one.

What’s real here?  What’s really happening?  What’s the deeper reality?

Do you see Caesar Augustus, on his throne, ordering a census of his empire on a whim of political power?  Or do you see what is unseen?  Do you see God on his throne, ordering earthly events in such a way that His Kingdom will come and His Will will be done?

Do you see Mary and Joseph veering off the road to Bethlehem, just a small town, just the place where his grandparents were from, don’t blink or you’ll miss it?  Or do you what is unseen?  Do you see the exact location spoken about in ancient prophecies, a location heavy with historical significance and pregnant with divine promise?

Do you see a quiet night, locals and travellers alike asleep in their beds?  Or do you see the vast movement of an army of angels, gathering, advancing, alert, more awake than every before?

Do you hear a silent night, a holy night, where all is calm?  Or do you hear the shouts and praises of heavenly beings as they cry “Gloria”?  Do you sense the trembling of the stars and all elements as their Creator makes a move toward the redemption of all things?

Do you see a baby?  Or do you see a Saviour?

It’s described this way:  While they were there the time came from the baby to be born and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.  But then the angel says, in an eye-opening announcement that there is more than what is seen:  Today in the town of David, a Saviour has been born to you, he is the Messiah, the Lord. 

A fundamental aspect of living as a Christian is being committed to the idea that there is an unseen reality.  We are living in a moment in time, historically and culturally, where this is very, very challenging idea.  Over the past few hundred years, our minds have been shaped by the belief that the only things that are real are material things, things that you can observe with your senses, things you can taste, touch, smell, hear, things that you can see through a microscope or through a telescope.  But a mind shaped by the Bible believes that reality is not merely material.  But also immaterial.  The world is physical and spiritual. It is made up of things visible and invisible.  There is what’s seen and what is unseen.   And the Christian faith involves the belief that there is not only both elements to us and to our world.  But that what God is doing in the spiritual, invisible, and unseen realm is actually more true, more real than what is immediately obvious to the naked eye.

One of my favourite moments in the Bible highlighting this comes from the book of 2 Kings, and it’s a story about a prophet named Elisha.  The king of Aram was at war with the king of Israel.  And every time Aram tried to attack Israel, Elisha who was hearing direction and guidance from God, would just warn the king of Israel about when and where the army of Aram would be showing up so that the army of Israel could be well prepared.  This was making the king of Aram so mad!  He didn’t understand what was going on.  He was like, which one of you is a spy working for the king of Israel, telling him all my battle moves.  And his men were like it’s not us.  It’s this man named Elisha in Israel who is a prophet of God, who is hearing everything and helping to keep Israel protected.  So the king of Aram was like, okay.  Change of plans.  If I want to successfully attack Israel, I’m going to have to get Elisha first.  So at night, he takes his army and goes to the town where Elisha was living and he surrounds it.

In the morning, Elisha’s servant wakes up and opens the door to get newspaper and almost drops his coffee because he sees the army of Aram encircling the town with their spears and bows and arrows pointed right toward Elisha’s house.  The servant says to Elisha, and I’m quoting now from the passage, “Oh no, my lord!  What shall we do?, the servant asked.  “Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered.  “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”  And Elisha prayed, “Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.”  Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.

What was the truth in that moment?  That Elisha and his servant were under seige and in grave danger?  That they were alone and vulnerable and undefended?  Or was the truth that Elisha and his servant were completely safe, and that the army of the king of Aram was actually no match for the angelic army of the King of Heaven, who were at their posts and ready to protect God’s own?

Elisha knew the deeper reality, he was seeing with his spiritual eyes.  So he could eat his breakfast in peace.  But his servant needed his eyes to be opened.

And the shepherds needed their eyes to be opened.  So the angels were sent to tell them, to show them, to pull heaven’s curtain back for just a moment.

And that’s what we need too.  We need our eyes opened during Christmas, and every day of our lives to see the unseen.

The baby is not just a baby.  He is our Saviour and Messiah.  He is the Lord.

And that baby didn’t grow up to be a religious teacher that’s just one of many influential religious teachers from ancient times.  He is the embodiment of God’s Word and fulfillment of God’s Law.

The death he died on a cross isn’t just a death.  It’s the heart of God on display.  It’s the love of God poured out.  It’s justice, satisfied.  It’s sin, defeated.  It’s death, conquered.  It’s victory, won.

And the empty tomb discovered 3 days later isn’t just an empty tomb.  And because it’s just always been true that we humans have a hard time seeing the unseen, God sent an angel that day too so the deeper reality wouldn’t be missed:  “He not here,” he said.  “Because he is risen.”

Today in the town of David, a Saviour has been borne to you.  He is the Messiah, the Lord.

Friends, what do you need your eyes opened to see?  We need to see Jesus for who he really is.  We also need to see our simple, unpoetic selves living our simple, unpoetic lives with spiritual eyes too.

When walking our dog down a path in the forest, we need to see not just the material, physical word, but beloved creation shot through with the glory of the Creator.

When talking with a family member or friend or neighbour who has frustrated us or hurt us, we need to see not just a flesh and blood human, but a being who bears the image of the living God.

When feeling immense guilt or shame, we need to see that we are forgiven.

When feeling weak or tired, we need to see that the strength and power of God indwelling us by His Spirit.

When feeling alone, we need to see that we are not alone.  But that the God loves us has gone to great lengths to be with us.

(Amy’s story).  After months of struggling with loneliness, she walked into her apartment as saw the deeper reality.  She wasn’t alone at all.  God was there waiting for her.  And it wasn’t just God, it was the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Spirit.  It wasn’t just a friend, it was like a whole family.

Is it just another day at home with the kids?  Something to shrug off?  Or is it an invitation to both enjoy and give out God’s grace and love?

Is it just another day at school?  Shrug?  Or is it an opportunity to have our minds and hearts touched by knowledge of God and God’s amazing world?

Is it just another day at work?  Shrug?  Or is it a participation in God’s Kingdom?

When we wake up to yet another day, we need to see the fresh invitation to know the goodness of the Gospel and the opportunity to give God glory.

When we go to sleep on yet another night, we need to see God welcome us to be at rest and at peace in Him.

And all of this starts by hearing what the angels said.  It starts by seeing what the shepherds saw.   It starts with making the baby who is the Saviour your Saviour, and letting him rule and shape your life.  May Jesus, by his Spirit, open our eyes the truth:  Today, in the town of David, a Saviour has been borne to you.  He is the Messiah, the Lord.  Amen.

Posted in Luke, Uncategorized | Leave a comment