Solitude | Psalm 46

Psalm 46 and Luke 5:12-16

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TRHS1JtEO2c

So Dave, let’s Dive right in. How would you define the Discipline of Solitude?

  • Like fasting, solitude is a discipline of abstinence. But instead of abstaining from food, in solitude, you fast from the crowd in order to be alone with God.
  • Put simply: solitude is a retreat into the sanctuary of the soul, the place where God’s Spirit dwells. Its alone-time with God.

So how is solitude different from just being alone. Is there any distinction there?

  • Ya… Good question. Solitude is a conscious choice to step out of the noisy world and come before the Lord and be reset and retuned in his presence.
  • So, in Solitude, you’re not simply alone. You’re alone, with your creator and saviour.
  • Loneliness is different than solitude. Loneliness is not a choice, generally. Its something that happens to us. Loneliness is inner emptiness—a hunger for connection that’s not being satisfied.
  • But solitude is a choice to step back from the world in order to connect with God. People are depleted by loneliness. But more often than not, people are energized by solitude.

What happens in solitude? Is it just a container space for prayer? Or is there something else that we are supposed to “do” while in Solitude?

  • That is such a great question. Brittney. You are such a splendid conversation partner.
  • As I was preparing for this discussion, I was reminded of a video series created by Evan Koon. He has a number of videos online.  I’ll put a link in the notes below. In these videos, Evan is talking with Jesus. He’s praying, in a way. But in all of the videos, he never lets Jesus speak. In fact, he’s constantly bombarding Jesus with words—cutting him off when he’s about to say something. And Jesus just sits there patiently. Calmly. He won’t interrupt.
  • Solitude is not that. Prayer is a component of solitude. But the point of solitude is not to pray. The point is to be still before God.
  • Evan’s Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6XeEXF25JWc
  • In Psalm 46, the directive is “be still and know that I am God”. Other translations say: “Cease striving and know that I am God.” In the Message, Eugene Peterson paraphrases the verse in a creative way: “Step out of the traffic! And take a long, loving look at me, your High God.”
  • And I think that is the heart of solitude. Its stepping out of the traffic, in order to take a long loving look at God. And to be refreshed and renewed in that inner place with him.
  • You know, I see how this works with our children. They are busy with friends. They get emotionally wrapped up in what’s happening at the park or in the house. And everynow and then, they just need a little reset. They need to step out of noise of what’s happening at the park or with their siblings, and they need to connect with one of their parents. One of our children, especially needs this. Everyone and then, he needs to be scooped up and held. And we need to whisper reassuring words into his ears. He needs to be still in order to remember that he is loved as he is. And from that place of strength, he can re-engage his siblings and park friends.
  • So… in short, there’s no formula for solitude time. Does it include prayer. Ya. Does it include reading the bible. Ya. Does it include worship and praise. Ya. Do those things have to be apart of every retreat with God. No. But what does need to happen for solitude to happen, is for you to step out of the traffic, and take a long loving look at your creator and saviour.
  • And its in that quiet place, in the sanctuary, that God can remind you who you really are, and that you belong to him.

So, you might say that there’s a re-centering that takes place in solitude?

  • Absolutely. You know, we are hardwired, psychologically, to the people around us. Our families, our communities. And its so easy to get caught up in the flow. And before long, you’re just reacting to everything around you. The pressures of the cultural system can swoop you up.
  • When you step out of the traffic and into God’s presence, God can retune you. And when you emerge out of solitude, you’re more able to be the person he has created you to be—in the midst of the traffic and noise.
  • We see this clearly in the life of Christ.

How did Jesus practice this discipline?

  • Well, Luke tells us that Jesus was often withdrawing to lonely places.
  • Why did he do this? Well, we know that he retreated to pray. But, I’m sure also retreated in order to be still before his heavenly father.
  • The pressure that Jesus experienced during his ministry was intense. The crowds wanted him to be a miracle worker. The disciples wanted him to rise up and be a political force. The Pharisees wanted to trip him up. I’m sure all that pressure took a toll on Jesus.
  • And so, every now and then, Jesus withdrew to a lonely place. He stepped out of the traffic and into the sanctuary. And there he was reminded of his status as the beloved of God, and of his mission.
  • From that place of strength, Jesus was able to resist the pressures of the crowd and continue on with his purpose.
  • And that’s another piece to solitude that is worthy of consideration. When we step out of the traffic in order to remember who God is and who are in him, God can, in that quiet place, give us direction. Clarify our purpose.
  • Jesus often changed course after retreating to a quiet place. He practiced solitude before calling the disciples. He was practicing solitude when he was transfigured on the mountain. And after that experience, he set his face towards Jerusalem. He was ready to be the King that God intended him to be. He was ready to wear the crown of thorns.

So, as his disciples, solitude is not just a place to be refreshed in our relationship with God, but its also a time in which God can give us direction.

  • Ya, I think that’s right.

Are there any other benefits to practicing the discipline of solitude?

  • Definitely.
  • Solitude is good medicine for the soul. It’s especially good for people who wrestle with the vice of vainglory—which is all of us. We’re all worry about what other people think of us. So we build up a name for ourselves. We curate our public image. And overtime, we become dependent on the the praise and approval of those around us. And when this really settles in, we are totally locked in with the crowd. The only way out is to retreat to a quiet place. It’ll be painful, at first. If you have a shaky sense of self, reliant on applause, silence and solitude will initially feel like torture. But its good medicine. Because solitude releases you from this cycle and, in it, God can create in you a deeper sense of self. You can become who you were meant to be, in him. Not who the crowds or even your family want you to be.
  • Solitude also tames the tongue. So often, we are quick to use words to defend ourselves, argue our point, or justify ourselves and our behaviour. But those who practice solitude know that they are God’s beloved. And so, over time, they are released from cycle of defending, and justifying themselves. When they speak, their words matter. They know when to speak, and how to speak.
  • Clarity with respect to decisions, relationships.

How do you practice this discipline?

  • Both of us answer.
  • I schedule it in. Right now, I do it once a week for 2.5 hours. In one sitting. I start by going for a silent walk.
  • Then I make coffee, and sit in silence. The I read a passage of scripture, stopping to chew on the things stand out to me. Then I write in my prayer journal for a while. I ask God questions, then I sit in silence. Then I write the things that are coming to me.
  • I also practice solitude before heading into difficult conversations. I step into the sanctuary for 10 mins or so. In that time, I’m still and I remember that I belong to God. That he has made me, saved me, and loves me. And then I ask God. “Who are you calling me to be in the midst of this conversation?”

Solitude in the era of Covid-19?

  • On the one hand, we certainly have time for solitude right now. All of us, in way are being forced to step outside the traffic of the world and retreat to our own homes.
  • But I’m guessing that most of us are probably experiencing Loneliness as opposed to the blessings of solitude.
  • Now, more than ever, I think, there is a need to uplug from our devices. Uplug from the news. And tune into God. There’s a tremendous need for deep Christians right now. People who are calm. Connected to God. Connected to themselves. Connected to their neighbour.
  • We’re anxious and fearful. I actually think that solitude time is paramount right now. So that we can be grounded in the steadfastness of God. In the midst of the storm, we can be still and know that he is God.

Solitude and the gospel.

  • Jesus is the ground that makes solitude with God possible. You can enter his presence knowing that your sins are forgiven. You are never alone.
Posted in The Spiritual Disciplines, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Meditation | Psalm 1; Colossians 3:15-17

Introduction to the Disciplines

Last week, the season of lent began, and we started a series on the Spiritual Disciplines.

I began the series with the call to discipleship. Jesus’ effective invitation: “Come, Follow me.”

We talked about how the Church is a gathering of the called out ones. Indeed, that is exactly what the word “church” means.  Ekklesia, the greek word for Church, means a gathering of the called out ones.

But we also learned that the “call out” is only the first step for the Church. The second step is to enter a discipleship relationship with Jesus.

We talked last week, how this is very much like an apprenticeship relationship. Apprentices stick with their teacher. They do as their teacher does. And one day, they become the kind of people who are capable of carrying on the work of their teacher. This is what is means to be a disciple. The Church has been called out of the world and into a discipling relationship with Jesus. Together, we are learning from him how live life in God’s Kingdom.

Called to be with Jesus. Become like Jesus. And carry on the work of ministry of Jesus.

That’s who we are. And growing that direction is what we’re aiming for this lent.

Now, in order to become like Jesus, we can’t just try to emulate Jesus in the moment. We will never be as merciful as Jesus, as consistently as Jesus, or as just as Jesus, as consistently as Jesus. Becoming like Jesus is nearly impossible through will power alone.

The key to becoming like Jesus is to realize that his discipleship program is a training program, not a trying program.

This principle is easy to understand.

If you want to play the piano like Glen Gould, you can’t just listen to him play Bach’s Variations on youtube, and then sit down at the piano and expect to do the same thing. You need to practice. Submit yourself to the authority of a teacher. Play scales and master the proper fingering. And then, one day, after training, you’ll be able to sit down at the piano and play Bach. Maybe not like Glenn Gould. But who knows!

The same principle goes for sports. If you want to Run a marathon, you have to train. You can’t go from couch to 42km in an afternoon. Start with 3km. Work your way up to 10. Get an accountability partner. Run together.  And slowly, your body will become capable of 20, 30, and 40kms.

Well, becoming like Jesus  is just like this: John Ortberg, put it like this:

“The need for preparation, or training, does not stop when it comes to learning the art of forgiveness, or joy, or courage. In other words, it applies to a healthy and vibrant spiritual life just as it does to physical and intellectual activity. Learning to think, feel, and act like Jesus is at least as demanding as learning to run a marathon or play the piano.” John Ortberg

In other words, if the goal is to become like Jesus—which is the goal of a disciple—then we need to train with Jesus and allow him to school us in the practices that will lead towards greater maturity in him.

This is where the Spiritual disciplines come in. First let me define a few terms. Discipline, what is a discipline.

Discipline = “Any activity I can do by direct effort that will help me do what I cannot now do by direct effort.” (John Ortberg) 

Example: Today, I can learn to play scales by direct effort. That is within my power. Tomorrow I can play: Twinkle Twinkle little star. Two years from now, I can play Bach. You start with something you can do now through direct effort, and work your way up to something you cannot now do by direct effort.

So what is a Spiritual discipline:

A Spiritual Discipline — “Any activity that can help me gain power to live life as Jesus taught and modelled it.” (John Ortberg)

For example, Jesus modelled radical forgiveness. He forgave the very people that were nailing him to the cross. That’s hard to do. If you’ve ever been wronged, you know how hard it is to forgive. But is there any activity or practice that I am capable of today, that will help me grow that direction?

Maybe I can start by meditating on the Lord’s Prayer—forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors. I can commit to praying it everyday. Or maybe I can memorize the passage where Jesus tells his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. And maybe I need to let someone in on my struggle. Someone who can encourage me and keep me accountable.

You see how this works? The Spiritual disciplines are the scales of the Christian life. They are the practices we can do today, that help us live like Christ in the future.

There are a lot of caveats that could and should be mentioned at this point. I’ll mention the most significant one. Practicing Spiritual disciplines is not about proving ourselves to God or our peers. We don’t get extra credit points in heaven for practicing the disciplines. Nor do we need to do them to be welcomed in. Is that clear? 

The disciplines are valuable insofar as they help us grow to become like Jesus. If they become an end in themselves or are not helping us love God and neighbour like Jesus, then they should be dropped.

And, so, with that long introduction complete, let’s explore our first discipline. Meditation.

Psalm 1; John 15:5-8: Colossians 3:15-17

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

In order to graduate from seminary, I had to jump through a lot of hoops. I needed to pass orals exams, submit sermons for evaluation, and make my way through extensive psychological testing, etc…

In addition to all these things, I also had to pass a “Bible Knowledge” exam. I guess the seminary wanted to make sure that her students could wield the Sword of the Spirit with some degree of accuracy. Fair enough.

The problem with the Bible Knowledge exam, from my perspective, is that it was more of a Bible Trivia exam, than it was a Bible Knowledge Exam. The test was done online, and it was multiple choice. Here’s a sampling of what we were asked?

What was the name of Moses’ Father-in-law?

On what mountain did Elijah meet with God?

Then we’d get a passage from the bible.  Like this: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” And the question would be: Is this quote found in Isaiah 11; 42; 60; or 61?

Thankfully, you were allowed to take the exam multiples times. Which was good, since I failed the first two attempts.

Looking back on that experience, sometimes I wonder about the value of that Bible Knowledge exam. Studying greek and Hebrew was valuable. Studying Paul’s letters with Dr. Weima was valuable too. Those classes helped me grow in knowledge and in my love for God and his word.

But that multiple choice Bible Knowledge Exam…. Did it help me out, as a Disciple of Jesus?

In his classic book, The Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster argues that the desperate need of our times is not more intelligence, but depth of character. 

What we need most crucially today is not communities of Christians who can pass the bible trivia exam, but communities of Christians who are letting the words of Christ dwell in them richly, so that they may be saturated in the Lord’s will, like Jesus was saturated in the Lord’s will.

We don’t know much about Jesus’ bible meditation routine. We know he was raised in a God fearing home, with God fearing parents. And we know that God fearing parents in Jesus day were supposed to write the commands of God on the doorframes of their houses. They were supposed to impress them upon their children;  talk about them before they went to bed and after they got up. (Deut. 6)

We know that many Jews in Jesus day had the entire Torah memorized. We know that the religious feasts and festivals featured many re-tellings of the story of how God had rescued his people from Egypt.

And we know that one day, instead of returning to Nazareth with his parents, Jesus stayed in Jerusalem. He was found In the Temple. He wanted to be where his Father’s word was read and discussed.

Jesus quoted the old testament extensively throughout his ministry. He used it to shield himself from the flaming arrows of the evil one. He called upon it in order to speak truth when confronted by the Pharisees.

We have to remember that Jesus wasn’t walking around with an NIV in his back pocket. Nor did he have “google”, to help him search key words.

The word was just in him. Part of his body. His mind. His soul.

How did it get in there?

“Well, he was God?” You might say. That is true. But you have to remember that Jesus wasn’t quoting the Torah as a 6 month Baby. He had to learn how to speak. He had to learn the law.

Jesus didn’t start his ministry officially, till he was about 30 years old. We don’t know exactly what he did during his 20s, but what we see displayed in the gospels tells us that he spent a lot of his 20s meditating upon God’s word.

Blessed is the one

who does not walk in step with the wicked

or stand in the way that sinners take

or sit in the company of mockers,

but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,

and who meditates on his law day and night.

There are two Hebrew words for Meditate in the Old Testament: Haga and Siha.

Haga is the world used in Psalm 1. It means: to mutter, murmur, repeat. When I was in Israel, staying in a Jewish hotel run by Orthodox Jews, I saw a few people doing haga with the Old Testament. They’d be sitting on chairs. Rocking. Mumbling the words of the text underneath their breath.

To Haga is to dwell with a particular text. To let the words roll over your tongue again and again. Blessed is the one whose delight is in the law of the Lord. Blessed is the one whose delight is the law of the Lord.

The goal of Haga is to have the words move from your mind to your memory to your heart. So that they become apart of you.

Siha is similar to Haga, but it carries slightly different connotations. To Siha is to muse over, ponder, reflect upon.

Siha is about savouring. Instead of wolfing down the word, you take a bite, and note its subtle texture and flavour. You wonder what the Chef had in mind when he chose that flavour. You enjoy the experience and talk about it with your friends.

In Psalm 119, the Psalmist Siha’s God’s law.

I have hidden your word in my heart

    that I might not sin against you….

With my lips I recount

    all the laws that come from your mouth.

I rejoice in following your statutes

    as one rejoices in great riches.

I meditate [Siha] on your precepts

    and consider your ways. Psalm 119:11-15

That last line really highlights the line before. To Siha is to consider. Ruminate upon.

Whatever the difference in nuance, the goals of meditation in the Old Testament are the same. The goal is a deeper love of God and a closer walk with God, through a thorough saturation in his word.

Fundamental to this is too things. First a genuine love for God and desire to commune with him. And secondly a realization that his word to us is not a text to be objectified, but a love letter to be savoured.

Some of you lived in the days when people still sent physical letters. And you immigrated to this country not knowing if you’d ever see your parents again. So, when you arrived, you sent your folks a letter. And when they received it, you just know that they paraded it through their village, holding it close to their chest. They read it out loud. Multiple times. And then they wrote you a letter in response, you did the same with theirs.

The content of the letter was precious because the letter came from the beloved. Now imagine instead of savouring the words, because of your love for your beloved, you started analyzing the penmanship and grammatical structure of the letter. Such study can be fruitful. Indeed, study can be a spiritual discipline too. But the goal of meditation is not to get lost in the details. The goal is to have an encounter with God himself through the word that graciously reveals his character and plan.

The fact that biblical meditation is scripture based is important. This point contrasts Biblical Meditation from eastern forms of meditation.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but meditation is all the rage these days. Many People are seeking opportunities to detox from social media and clear their mind. Secular professors of wellbeing are assigning meditation in their coursework. Headspace, an app created by a Buddhist monk, turned entrepreneur, has 31 million users worldwide.

In eastern forms of meditation, the goal is to clear the mind. To detach from the world. There is an emphasis on self-forget-fullness. Becoming one with the universe. Through this process, it is believed, you get insight into yourself, mastery over your emotions. And then you can experience peace within.

Now I don’t want to slam Easter forms of Meditation. I’ve never tried it, nor do I know much about it. And if people all over the world are giving it a try, then that seems like a good conversation starter to me.

But for our purposes today, it important to see that there’s a big difference between biblical meditation and eastern meditation. The goal of Eastern Styles of Meditation is to detach from the world. The goal of Christian meditation is to step back from the world in order to attach to God. And to enjoy loving communion with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, using his word.

Another crucial thing to understand about Biblical Meditation, is that a secondary goal, which is basically an extension of the first goal, is obedience.

I have hidden your word in my heart

    that I might not sin against you…. Psalm 119:11

When we meditate and savour God’s word, the content makes a home in our minds and hearts. And once inside, the Spirit can use it to protect us and change us.

Notice how Jesus stood firm against temptation in the wilderness. He simply quoted texts from Deuteronomy. He had hidden God’s word in his heart. And it came out when it was needed.

Brittney shared a story with me on Friday that illustrates this point nicely. And I share it today with her permission.

In our house, after breakfast we go through a routine we call “morning time”. Its basically family devotions. One piece of morning time involves memorizing scripture. Texts are chosen seasonally. And at this time, Brittney and our children are memorizing Philippians 4: Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition… and so on.

So everyday, since Christmas, Brittney and our Children have been meditating on these words. Repeating them. Brittney has even created actions.

Well last week, after morning time, Brittney took our playful children to play-fair park. Playfair park, if you’ve been there, is known for its rhododendron forest. Giant Rhododendron’s. In about a month it will be the most beautiful park in all of Victoria. You should go check it out.

Now our Children love this rhododendron forest. They love it, not because they love flowers, because they like to hang from the rhododendron’s like monkeys. And they like doing this thing they call a tree transfer. Which is basically jumping from one rhododendron bush to another.

Sometimes I wonder if we should let our children climb these beautiful plants. But they look strong enough, and there are a lot of them. So, what’s the harm.

Well, this past week, our children were accosted by a local horticulturalist while swining from the trees like monkeys. This woman was livid. She lost it on our kids.

My poor children were scared. Near tears. “Our mom lets us climb,” they said.

Brittney was far enough away to witness the encounter, but not close enough to stop it. But when she saw this woman yelling at our children, her mama bear instincts kicked into gear. And you guys don’t know Brittney like I know Brittney…. But as she was storming over to intervene, a word from Philippians 4 popped into her head out of her heart. “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.”

And in that moment, Brittney made a decision to try to live into that verse.

Do you see how this works? The more the scriptures are in us, the more God can use them to grow us and change us. A year ago, Brittney probably would have just reacted to this situation.

But because she’s been training. Allowing the word to dwell in her richly. In that moment, she was able to respond in a more Christ-like way.

Meditating on scripture in order to commune with God. Some of the disciplines are optional. But, to my memory, no Christian in history has made any progress in discipleship without incorporating some form of Bible meditation into their routine. It is the sword of the Spirit, the means through which God transforms our mind.

So, how do we do it.

I’d like to say that I’m an expert. But I am not. I’m more skilled in the discipline of “study” then I am in meditation. This is a growth area for me. One that I’m taking on for lent.

Since hurry is the enemy of meditation, time and space need to be set aside for this practice. You need somewhere to retreat, where you won’t get interrupted. The phone can’t be on. Lest you hear one of those dreaded “dings”.

Don’t make quantity of scripture the goal. Make communion with God through his word, the goal.

When I’m doing well at Meditation, its usually because I’ve chosen a particular book to read. And I have my pen and paper beside me. I read, and then I write. I read, and then I write. I write what really stands out. And then I chew on that. Read it a few times more.

Often, this leads into prayer of some sort. Or more journalling on a particular verse in the Bible.

Remember, the goal of meditation is not trying to master the text, but to have the text get inside and let it lead you closer to God.

You may want to study something deeper on another occasion. That’s fine! Study is a spiritual discipline that is connected to Meditation. Its also very important.

There’s no hard and fast rules to follow with Meditation. Literally, creating time for it, and space for it is all that is needed. And then, all you need to do is give yourself the freedom to let the Spirit lead as you ponder the love letter that God has given us.

The whole bible can be used for meditation. But I wouldn’t start in Chronicles, or even Leviticus. Go to the Psalms or the gospels.

A good place to go this lent is the passion narratives found at the end of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Choose one, and work through it slowly. Let God reveal to you the depths of his love for you in Christ.

I want to conclude this sermon, but offering some space for meditation.

Instead of responding with a song, we’re going to listen to a song. The song is an invitation from Christ to his Church. This invitation is found in Matthew 11: 28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Prayer

Posted in Psalms, The Spiritual Disciplines, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Come, Follow Me | Matthew 4

Dear friends of Jesus Christ,

I imagine that it was an ordinary day on the lake. The water still. The air cool. Peter and Andrew gathered up their nets. James, John and Father Zebedee paddled out to their favourite fishing spot.

Such was life, 6 days a week, for the good folks who lived on the Northern tip of the Sea of Galilee. They were Fisherman. It had been that way for generations. Peter learned the trade from his father, and his father learned from his Father. And so on.

James and John were still in training, it appears. I imagine father Zebedee showing them the ropes “This is how you do it James. Watch close. Did you see the way I flicked my wrist. If you do that, the nets won’t get tangled. Now you try.”

I’m not sure if you’ve ever had the experience of joining a fishing crew for a day, or if you’ve volunteered to work a day in some other kind of specialized trade. Its a little awkward at first. Your hands aren’t used to the motions. You make rookie mistakes and have to back track.

When I pastored in Owen Sound ON, a lot of my parishioners were dairy farmers. So I thought I’d better go try my milking cows. I tried to be helpful, but I wasn’t much use. I watched a 14 year old boy hook cows up to the milking machine. He did it so swiftly and confidently. Then he looked at me, standing there: “the next cow is yours” he said. 

Well, the cow walked up to the milking station. “Easy girl,” I said. “Oh, and I’m sorry, in advance, for sticking this vacuum cleaner like thing on your… Utter.”

As I was taking my aim, a whole bunch of bloody-goo fell down and coated my hands. After-birth. This particular cow had just given birth. Everyone in the parlour laughed at me. And I handed the suction cups back to the teenage old boy.

He had been schooled in the milk business. I was schooled in books and sermon preparation.

Well, Peter and Andrew, James and John were schooled in the fishing industry. Their dads showed them the ropes. And through years of emulation, practice, and reflection, the craft made its way into their bodies.

This is the pathway of an apprentice. If you want to master a skill, you go and work with someone who knows what they are doing. And eventually, with the right coaching and practice, you become like the one you are apprenticing under.  And then you are ready to go out on your own.

Be with. Become like. Continue the work of. This is the apprenticeship model of learning and growth.

Another way of describing the apprenticeship model of learning goes like this:

Step 1: I do. You watch. We talk.

Step 2: I do. You help. We talk.

Step 3: You do. I help. We talk.

Step 4: You do. I watch. We talk.

Step 5: You do. Someone else watches. You talk with them.

Step 6: Repeat

This process of learning—The Apprenticeship model—is the way we learn how to do most everything in life, whether we realize it or not. You learned how to talk by being with people who talked to you and taught you the nuances of English grammar. You learned how to make your bed, because one of you parents spent months of their lives training you how to tuck in your sheets and pull up your covers. This is true for driving a car, learning and musical instrument, mastering a trade. You see someone you admire. You study their movements, routines, way of life. And slowly, you become like them and are capable of doing what they do, or living the way they live.

There are apprenticeship programs available for just about ever kind of skill or trade. But what about life itself? Who do you have in your life, that is showing you how to live? Who is training you to seek what is good and live a life that is truly worth living?

Religious teachers in Jesus day, men called “Rabbi’s”, used an apprenticeship model of learning with their pupils. Their students were called “Talmadim” (Hebrew). “Disciples” in English.

To be a disciple of a Rabbi in Jesus day was a great honour. Given the intensity of the learning experience, a Rabbi could only have so many disciples at one time. You had to apply. Only the best and brightest were accepted.

To be a disciple was a live-in experience. 24/7, onsite learning. You had to leave your family and cling to your teacher. The goal was to be with, in order to become like.

And so, to that end, disciples didn’t just read the assigned texts in order to regurgitate the right answers on the exam. Rather, they shaped their living and learning based on the pattern set by their Rabbi.

If your Rabbi retreated to pray, you retreated to pray. If your Rabbi fasted, you fasted. If your Rabbi got up in the middle of the night to meditate on the Bible, then you got up in the middle of the night to meditate on the Bible.

Be with. Become like. I do. You watch. We talk. You do. I watch. We talk.

The goal for Rabbi’s was not to create a big crowd of converts. Rabbi’s didn’t host big tent revivals. The goal was cultural influence through the multiplication of people who had become like the Rabbi and were capable of training others in the way of the Rabbi.

12 disciples can develop 12 more disciples each. That’s 144. 144 disciples can disciple 1728 more disciples. And so on.

Now, with this background information in mind, let’s revisit the text.

Notice Jesus. What’s he doing?

Well he’s acting like a Rabbi. And he’s calling people to be with him and learn from him.

The one major difference between Jesus and the other Rabbis, is that Jesus doesn’t wait for disciples to apply. He calls on them. And he seems to prefer simple folk with calloused hands. 

“Peter, Andrew, James, and John: Come, Follow me. You have been trained to catch fish. I will train you how to catch people. And at once, they left their nets and families and followed Jesus.

You have to wonder what was going on in the disciples minds and hearts as they dropped everything in order to follow after this relatively unknown Rabbi. Maybe they had heard and were inspired by Jesus sermon the day before.  “The Kingdom of heaven is near. Repent and believe the good news.”

Or maybe they were getting a little tired of smelling like fish at the end of the day, and they were looking to make a change.

Whatever the discernment process, all we see is obedience. Immediately, they left their craft to learn a new craft. And they became apprentices of Jesus.

Bible scholar Dale Bruner believes that the obedience that these fisherman highlights not the strength of their character, but the spiritual potency of Jesus’ word. This rings true.

Peter, James, John. We know these guys. We know that they have a lot of learning to do. Their obedience here is laudable, of course. But the power to turn and follow Jesus comes not from within them. What we’re seeing is the power of the word at work in their hearts.

In the beginning, at creation, God’s spirit hovered over the waters of choas. God said, let there be light, and there was light. And in the beginning of the new creation, the Spirit hovered over the sea of Galilee. Jesus said, “Come, follow me.” And the fisherman left their nets and followed him.

There’s a lot that can be said about the Church of Jesus Christ. But one of the foundational things we must say is that the Church is not a gathering of the willing, but the creation of the one who calls.

Does that make sense?

People congregate for all kinds of reasons, of course. People join a church because they want moral instruction for their children. Or maybe they’re craving a little social connection with people that are like them. So we shop around to find a place that feels like home. 

These are all very human reasons that people join a Church. And they are not unimportant. Old Mariette Breuker, remember her. She became a follower of Jesus through this Church. But that’s not what got her through the doors. She came in, because she wanted to be where people spoke her language. And it was through those relationships that the call of Christ was heard.

The greek word for Church is Ekklesia. Its a compound word. Ek = out of. Caleo = called. Ekklesia — a gathering of the called out ones.

The Heidelberg Catechism nicely nicely articulates this.

Q. What do you believe concerning “the holy catholic church”?

A. I believe that the Son of God through his Spirit and Word, out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith. And of this community I am and always will be a living member.

The Church is the community that Jesus forms. He invites people to himself through the preaching of the gospel. Come to me, you who are weak and heavy laden. Become my apprentice.

(Shawn Sikkema Story.)

The second important thing we learn about Christ’s community, the Ekklesia, is that it is fundamentally a community of apprentices. Called out of the world, to a relationship with Jesus. That we might be with him, become like him, and so do as he did, in the world.

Modern Christians have reduced faith to conversion. “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” That’s it. This is the decision that gets you in. But trusting Jesus for your salvation is just the beginning. Those who are called out, are called to discipleship.

When Jesus was preparing his disciples for their mission in the world, he didn’t say go into the world and make Christians. Rather, he called his apprentices to make more make more apprentices, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

In other words: I have rabbi’ed you in the ways of my Father’s Kingdom. Now you train others to do the same.

I don’t know about you, but clear teaching and training in the ways of Jesus was not central to my formation as a Christian. I was taught to be thankful for Jesus, to adore him as saviour. I was taught to fear God and keep his commandments. Certainly, these things belong in a disciples life. But apprenticing my living to his? Being with him, becoming like him. Learning to do what he did empowered by his Spirit. This was new.

But the call to a discipling relationship with Jesus Christ is so clear in the gospels. Called out of the world. Called to a discipling relationship with Jesus Christ.

Here me correctly here. I’m not saying that something other than Faith in Jesus is necessary for salvation. We are not justified with God by our discipleship.

What I’m saying is that discipleship is part of the outworking of our salvation.

And how good, and important it is! I mean we come to Jesus have been discipled by hell knows what in this word. We come to him, trapped in lust, having been discipled by the porn industry. We come to him, filled with fear, because we were discipled by the news cycle. We come to him hiding our true selves, hiding behind make-up, and embellished stories, we come to him with a fake smile, because we’ve been wounded by our families or origin, have made choices that we’re ashamed of, and don’t believe that he will love us for who we are.

Here’s the thing. The world is discipling you. All. The. Time. The advertising industry preys on your insecurities and desires for pleasure, status, and security. The tech industry builds features into their apps to keep you coming back, clicking to stimulate the dopamine. And then they get you with more advertising, which makes you feel what, poor, lonely, and ugly.

That’s just what you need when you wake up in the morning. A little scroll through facebook to make you feel poor, lonely, and ugly.

Next thing you know, you’re in debt, big-time, because you are trying to keep up with the people that you are with. Or your crossing boundaries you never thought you’d cross just to receive the affirmation of someone you want as a friend.

Discipleship happens. If its not culture. Then its celebrities. Or the latest guru.

An acquaintance of mine in Ontario is really into video games. He’s so into it that he watches other people play, live, on YouTube. Then, after learning some tricks, he goes back to his own game and tries to implement what he has learned. Little does he know that he’s an apprentice of this gamer. Next thing you know it 4am. And you’re still at the computer. Bloodshot eyes.

Who’s disciplining you? Who’s shaping your loves and your heart? What is the end for which they disciple? Do they have your wholeness in view? Or are they just hoping you’ll give them your credit card number?

And Jesus. His heart breaks when he sees people wandering aimlessly, like sheep without a Shepherd. And he says: Come to me all you who are weak and heavy laden. Come to me, you who are anxious and alone. I will give you rest. Let me disciple you. Let me show you the ropes. My yoke is easy and my burden is light. The world will weigh you down and take life. But with me, you will find life, and find it to the full.

If Jesus thought there was a better way to live, other than in submission to him, he’d be the first person to tell you to take it. Dallas Willard said that.

Dallas Willard, also said this: “There is no problem in human life that apprenticeship to Jesus cannot solve.”

I tell you, I’ve been thinking about this quote for like a month. Is it true? Can apprenticeship to Jesus really solve every problem in human life?

Can Jesus change a racist heart? Can he restore a broken marriage? Can he revive and forgive someone crippled by shame. Can he break the chords of generational sin? Can he heal my hidden wounds? Can he transform my greed into generosity. My lust into service. My anger in patience. Can he raise the dead and give us life everlasting in his Kingdom.

There is no problem in human life that apprenticeship to Jesus cannot solve.

I think Willard is right. The question is, will we let Jesus disciple us? Trust him when he says “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Peter, Andrew, James and John would encourage us down this path. They spent three years with Jesus. And afterwards, they gave up their lives in order to introduce people to him and disciple others in the way of his Kingdom.

Brothers and sisters. The invitation extends to you this morning. Jesus’ powerful word can be heard today: “Come, Follow Me.”

You who are beaten up by the world. You who are tugged this way and that, pulled different directions by different masters who do not have your good in mind. Come out of the world. And come to Jesus.

Set up life in his house. He will pour into you.

Do as he does, and his way of life will get into your body. And like throwing out a net, it will slowly become second nature.

This is where the spiritual disciplines kick in. You see, you can try your whole life to be like Jesus. You can try to be as patient as him, as loving as him, as full of grace and truth as him. But trying really hard, rarely produces the results we want. What is needed is training.

The principle is simple. If you want to run a marathon, you can’t just try really hard to run a marathon, you have to start small. Train your body.

If you want to play the piano like Csaba, you can’t just try really hard to play the piano like Csaba. You have to study theory, practice scales, practice for hours and hours with the help of a teacher. And slowly, the proficiency comes. And then one day you can sit, and play, and it becomes second nature.

In the gospels we see Jesus in all his excellence. He’s performing perfectly on the spot. What we don’t see as much, is all the training that Jesus did behind the scenes. How he was constantly retreating to quiet places to pray. How fasted and memorized God’s law. How he practiced submission to his Father in the small things, before being able to be faithful in the large things.

In order to become like Jesus, we need to train with Jesus. To practice the scales of our life with God. And then, slowly, over time, we become more and more like Jesus.

The scales of the Christian life are the Spiritual disciplines. And studying them, and practicing them, will be our focus this lent.

Listen: Jesus is a good master and Lord. He will not break your heart. He will form it. His yoke is easy and his burden is light.

This lent, let us apprentice our living to him. Let us be with him, so that we can become like him, and so do as he did.

Amen.

Posted in Matthew, The Spiritual Disciplines, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Lord is Near | Philippians 4:1-9

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

Perceiving distance in space and time is a hard thing to do sometimes. The olympic mountains look pretty close to when you’re driving into town on the Pat Bay highway. But when you make it down to sea level, you realize just how far away they actually are.

Getting an accurate read on distance can be tricky. This is true spatially and temporally, but it’s also true in our life with God.

“The Lord is near” writes Paul. Close by. Coming soon.

I think its clear from the context that Paul isn’t just talking about that close feeling we sometimes get in our relationship with Jesus. That kind of nearness is real too. The Holy Spirit brings Jesus near when we gather in his name.

But that’s not what Paul is talking about here.  What he’s talking about is the “Day of the Lord”. That day when Jesus will return to earth to judge the living and the dead. “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The day of Christ’s return draws near.”

Paul wrote those words some 2000 years ago. Generations of Christians have come and gone since then. Generations of Christians have scanned the horizon waiting for Jesus to return? Was Paul wrong to say “the Lord is near”? That’s what it looks like from our perspective. But what does it look like from God’s perspective?

From his perspective, Paul’s words are true and remain true for us today. You see, in the long drama of history, we’re in the last act. We live between the dramatic resurrection of Jesus and the return of Jesus. God’s next move will be to dwell with his people in the New Jerusalem. The only thing left in His Story is the grand finale and curtain call.

The Lord is near.

What does that mean for us? As actors in the last act of history? What’s the Church’s  role in God’s drama of salvation?

Well, I think Paul lays out some important points on just this to conclude his letter to the Church in Philippi.

These final exhortations and encouragements can help us to find our bearings in the times and time that God has given us to live.

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!

This point wraps up what we studied last week. Chapter 3 ends with Paul encouraging the Church to press on in the faith, taking hold of all that for which Christ Jesus took hold of them. Paul’s firm belief is that the Church’s role, in the present, is to live in the power of Christ’s victory and to model Christ’s ways, as we wait for his return. 

This is going to involve suffering. As we follow Jesus in the world, we will know Jesus in his sufferings. But that’s Ok, for this current age is not our home. Our citizenship is in heaven. And we will be raised when Jesus brings heaven down to earth.

Stand firm in this my friends, says Paul.

Philippi wasn’t an easy place to be a follower of Jesus. Philippi was loyal to a different lord. They were loyal to the emperor. If you wanted to fit in, and be an acceptable member of society, you gave homage to Caesar.

Its unlikely that the Christians in Philippi experienced physical persecution because of their refusal to bow to Caesar. But the pressure to conform was huge. And the costs of following Jesus were felt.

Imagine being in business. And then imagine that word got out that you had become a follower of Jesus. In a highly relational society, this would probably reduce your customer base by 50%. People might not throw rocks through the widows of your shop, but they’d stop frequenting your store. That hurts.

Things are a little different for us here in Canada. Most of the time, I don’t feel ostracized from civic life because of my Christian commitments. But things are changing. The pressure to conform is mounting. What does courageous, winsome, Christian witness look like at a time like this?

The gospel will always encounter opposition in the world. One of our main roles, as God’s last act people, is simply to stand firm in the truth, as we await the return of our King.

And one of the ways that we can stand firm together, is by modelling Christ’s way in our life together.

I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche continues Paul to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

Its very rare for Paul to name names in his letters. Most often, when he names names, he is naming the people that he loves.

You can imagine the embarrassment that Euodia and Syntyche must have felt when they heard their names read allowed in Church the Sunday Paul’s letter was read. But Paul doesn’t name them to embarrass them. Rather, he draws attention to these sisters becomes he loves them and he wants to see them have the same mind as Christ Jesus.

Its likely that Euodia and Syntyche were leaders of some sort in the Church. Paul doesn’t lay out the nature of their conflict. He doesn’t need to. Everyone hearing the letter would have known what was going on. Paul doesn’t take sides either. Whatever the situation was, he doesn’t feel it necessary to weigh in.

What was needed was not correction but mediation. So Paul enlists the help of his trusted companion, and pleads with these two women to be of the same mind.

Earlier in the letter, Paul encouraged the whole Church to have the same mind as Jesus Christ. Jesus did not look to secure his own interests, but looked to the interests of others. And though he was Lord of all, he became a servant to all.

Have the same mind as Christ Jesus.

Its very easy to get locked into arguments and power struggles in the Church. Things get political. People jostle for position. Factions form. When that happens, our witness is impacted in a negative way.

Its important that we remain rooted in the teachings of Christ. But if our life together does not reflect the message and saviour we proclaim, then our witness loses its integrity.

May God’s last act people be known for their self-sacrificial love. And their ability to work through conflict in a Christ-like way.

And may we also be known for our joyful, gentle, and non-anxious way of life.

4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

To rejoice is to give voice to the joy that’s within. People who rejoice are people who are filled with joy. For Christians, our joy is rooted in our relationship with the Lord and all that we have in him.

Paul modelled joy-filled living when he started the Church in Philippi.

Even in Prison, Paul sang. Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice.

Its not always easy to be bubbling over with joy, all the time. Life can be very challenging. And distressing.

But its also true that there’s always something to be thankful for, in the Lord.

There’s creation and salvation. There’s the Spirit who ministers within and the hope of glory to come. There’s the comfort in knowing that “he who began a good work in you, will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus’ return.”

On Friday, I attended Anna van Akker’s funeral. And you know what happened there. We sang. We sang, “When Peace Like a River”. We sang songs in the face of death, because we know that nothing in all creation can separate Anna from the Lord of God in Christ Jesus. Not even death.

Yes death hurts. Yes it leaves us feeling wounded and worn. But nevertheless, even in our grief there is reason to rejoice. And we can sing, even through tears, “it is well with my soul.” This is the power of Christ in us.

And because we’re secure in him, there’s no need to be reactive in the world. No need  to act like a cornered animal when things don’t go our way.

“Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.”

God’s last act people will be known for their gentle forbearance. Their ability to suffer ridicule with grace. Their ability to return a kind word after receiving a nasty word.

What Paul means here is very similar to what Peter said of Jesus in 1st Peter: “when they hurled insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” 1 Peter 2:23.

I’ve always found Polycarp’s story to be an inspirational example of this. Polycarp was a leader in the early Church. The bishop of Smyrna, in Greece. He was martyred for his faith. And when the soldiers came to arrest him, he invited them in for dinner. And asked them if he could have time to pray.

I love that part: He invited them in for dinner.

What gives a man that kind of strength. An ability to stand firm with gentleness when facing his own death? Polycarp had entrusted his life to Him who judges justly. Its the Lord that enables us act gently, in the face of opposition.

Knowing God is near also enables us to live a non-anxious life. This quality belongs to the life of God’s last people too.

6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

There’s a beautiful exchange found in this famous piece of scripture. We give God our worries. And God gives us his peace.

Anxiety is a common experience and a growing problem in North America. We worry about a lot of things. Money. Career. Family. School. We worry about missing out. Of being liked.

The weight that some of you have to carry on a daily basis is staggering.

Paul’s words here seem almost unrealistic. Do not be anxious about anything. And it seems almost trite to say “take it to the Lord in prayer.” Could it be that simple? Is that too simplistic?

You know, for years I’ve believed in my head that God cares for me. That he watches over me like a Father. But you know, I don’t know how much I took things to him in prayer. My prayers were always general. Not specific.

But now that my life is endlessly complex and there’s a lot more outside my control, I find myself praying more often. And, I will say, anecdotally, that when combined with faith in God’s goodness, it makes a big difference.

I wouldn’t say that I’m anxiety free by any means. But I will say that when I truly take the time to give something over. The result is peace. I do this formally, not casually. I write out my fear or worry on a piece of paper in my prayer journal. I try to name it as clearly as possible. That takes work. But it’s an important step.

Then I look at that worry. Read it out loud, then hand it over.

No request is too big or small. In every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving present your requests to God.

God is totally trustworthy and totally caring. God is totally trustworthy and totally caring. His beloved have his ear. He may not handle our anxious prayers as we wish him too. But what a gift to be able to hand over the burden. And to walk in his peace.

We give God our worries; he gives us his peace. And that peace guards us. It stands sentinel over our hearts. When the worry warriors attacks, which they do. I can go back to my prayer journal. I gave that fear to the Lord. You can take it up with him. Not me.

God’s last act people are a people characterized by joy, gentleness, prayer, and peace.

And finally, God’s last act people will be a discerning community. Discerners of what is good.

Finally, brothers and sisters,[f] whatever is true, whatever is worthy of respect, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if something is excellent or praiseworthy, think about these things. And what you learned and received and heard and saw in me, do these things. And the God of peace will be with you.

At a glance, it seems like Paul is simply encouraging the Church in Philippi to think about noble things. To let their minds be occupied by what is excellent and praiseworthy. As opposed to what is detestable and shotty.

There’s some truth to that, but Bible scholar Gordon Fee argues that Paul’s point here is slightly different. He’s not asking the Church to think about good things, but to be discerners of the good. In the marketplace, in education, in family, in society. Whatever is just, pure, praiseworthy, lovely, good. Discern these things.

Lydia was one of the first converts to Christ in Philippi. She was a business woman. A dealer in purple cloth. And she didn’t close up shop after becoming a Christian. But you can bet that her conversion changed the way that she operated her business. She saw everything in a new light. What does it look like to operate a business in an excellent way. What conforms to Christ and the values of the Kingdom of God.

This jailer that converted to the way of Jesus underwent the same radical change. And then he went back to work. What does it look like for a baptized Christian to be a prison guard in a Roman jail. What is just? What is pure and respectable? What conforms to the way of Christ?

Those of you who study at Camosun College or Uvic, have to do this discernment work everyday. Everyday, as you sit in class or read your textbook, you have to ask yourself: What am I learning today that overlaps with the values of the Kingdom of God? Where is their dissonance? I can agree with my professor on this point, but I don’t agree with that. 

We all have to reckon with the world. And Live in it. Paul doesn’t advocate that we reject the world outright and start our own subculture. Instead, he calls on God’s last act people to be discerners in the culture. If something is lovely, excellent, just, true—celebrate it. If something is ugly,  shottly, unjust, and false, reject it.

Follow me, says Paul. Put into practice what you’ve heard from me, and what you’ve seen me do. Put on gospel glasses as you engage the art and culture of your day.

I had a university professor that was concerned about the university party culture. Parties are good, he would say. A good party is a good thing. There’s a lot of celebrate and this world. Accomplisments. Friendships. Birthdays. Etc… 

His rule around parties was this: Never go to a party where people are drinking cheap beer out of a plastic cup. That’s an ugly party. The purpose of that party is to get drunk and lose your mind.

That is neither excellent, nor praiseworthy.

Whatever is true. Whatever is just. Whatever is lovely. Discern these things. Hold everything up in the light of the gospel.

May God’s last act people be known for their noble way of thinking and acting.

Dear brothers and sisters in Victoria. The Lord is near.

Therefore, stand firm in the faith. Have the same mind as Christ Jesus. Rejoice in the Lord. Always. Let your gentleness be evident to all. Do not be anxious about anything. But in every situation, present your petitions to God. Finally, whatever is good, lovely, respectably, excellent, and conforms to God’s will for the world, discern these things, and celebrate these things.

Because one day, when Christ returns, all that will be left is these things.

And as you live into all this, the peace of God which transcends understanding with Guard your heart and minds in Christ Jesus.

The Lord is near.

Amen.

Posted in Philippians, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

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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.

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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.

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