Philippians 1:3–11 (NRSV)
Paul’s Prayer for the Philippians
3 I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. 9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
The season leading up to Christmas and shortly after, is one of my favorite times of the year. I know it sounds pretty cliché but it is not about the gifts, mainly because I am a terrible gift giver. I think it has something to do with the whole concept of leaving my job at a store and going back into a store when I am not working that just has an adverse effect to my mental wellbeing. What is it about this season if it is not the gifts, I really like the gatherings. I love the idea of friends and family coming together and sharing meals and laughter with one another. We live in such a busy spread out culture that we rarely gather, there is too much to do. I love these gathering because these are the times that memories are made. The moments we stop what we are doing to enjoy the fruit of our labors.
The season of advent is a season of longing. It is a season to celebrate the anticipation of the coming messiah. It is a time to recognize the hope that those in ancient days looked forward to and to remember that we too are longing for the fulfilment of that coming to be seen today. I have a fear that as we mature physically and emotionally we forget about the anticipation and longing of the season. Kids on the other hand they get it, well I should clarify that by saying they get the longing of the season though maybe not the reason we should be longing. Advent is filled with longing but also joy. There is hope for those of us in Christ because there is a reason behind our longings, we do not wait appearance of the king, but we are waiting for the return of the king.
There is a difference in these longings. Those of ancient days were longing for the Messiah, they had these preconceived ideas of how this person would look and act. They studied this in great detail, to such a degree that when the one came many missed it. We on the other hand have the actual personality revealed to us, we know what to expect and our hope is not in hypotheses but in observations. There is a difference in the two types of longing. One is based on ideas the other is based on experience. One is founded on interpretation of hope, the other is anticipating the fulfillment of that hope in the world around us. One is like living in the shadow where the other is like turning around and walking toward the light.
This holy anxiety is something that I would like us to consider today. Anxiety might not be the best word to use, but the idea of a joyful anticipation that cannot be stilled in response to this turning from the shadows to walk in the light. Paul understood this holy anxiety. Last week we got a glimpse of it when we read his prayer to the Thessalonians, today we see it again as he writes to the people of Philippi. Both of these places were in Macedonia, both were people Paul was called to minister through the vision he received while at a cross road in Troas. He could have gone south to Ephesus or north across the sea into the heart of the Hellenistic world. God led him to the north and Paul began the ministry that brought the Gospel of Christ to the west.
There is a difference in the joy, the holy anxiety that Paul feels between these two cities. To the Thessalonians the anxiety was a longing that they would remember and to the Philippians there is joy that they have continued. Some biblical scholars feel that a more accurate translation of Paul’s opening would be, “I thank God for your remembrance of me.” Instead of him thanking God when he remembers them. There is something to that statement. They remember him and he is aware of their remembrance. This could only mean that they were participants in the continued ministry that Paul started among them. If you were to look at a map you would see that Paul would have gone from Troas directly to Philippi, and from Philippi to Thessalonica. So the Philippians were the first Macedonians to encounter the Gospel. And they were so engrossed in the new life that Christ had to offer that they assisted Paul in spreading the gospel throughout their land.
I think that it is a valid point that the scholars make because of how Paul continues his greeting and prayer of blessing. The next verses he speaks of the joy that he has for them because they participated in the spreading of the Gospel from the first day until the moment he penned the letter. They were active, their belief was more than just knowledge based but it moved into the deeper regions where they put their very lives into the hands of God and allowed Him to direct their paths.
He says to them, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Witness the holy anxiety. There is a longing not only within the life of Paul but one that he senses within the lives of the community of Philippi. Something began in their lives and it continues to well up within them, it stirs and moves, it makes it difficult to stay still, they are on the verge of becoming charismatic Quakers literally moved by the Spirit. But I want us to focus on the word began. The use of this word means that they are involved in a process that started at one point and is growing. A seed is taking hold and through the fullness of time will bring forth fruit. It began, it continues to press through the anticipation of advent reaching out to that glorious day of the return of the one on whom we lay our hope.
Life with Christ is a process it is a journey that begins, and stretches along life’s pathways as we walk toward the light. The difference between the greeting Paul give the Philippians and that of the Thessalonians is that the Philippians continue to walk with their faces pointing to the sun, where the Thessalonians turned their heads and begun to cast shadows. Paul looks to the Philippians with increasing joy, and those in Thessalonica there is thoughts of nostalgia.
Last week I asked a very personal question, I asked each of us to consider why this meeting called me. I asked this because I have a great deal of love for this meeting, it is something very deep within my spirit. To be fully honest I longed to be here with an anxiety that I could only say was God’s calling. When I left from the care of this meeting, I walked out into the life of being a pastor knowing that eventually I would be back here. What surprised me was the timing. I did not understand the longing that I had stirring within my soul, was it a stirring of nostalgia a longing to return home to the comfort of home or was it this joy similar to what Paul feels with Philippi? That is my own part of this journey. But what is yours? Was the longing that you had one of nostalgia or anticipation for the next phase of the journey?
Paul writes to these people of Philippi, the people that first responded to his ministry in Macedonia, and he longs for them with a longing of continued partnership. He urges them in his prayer to continue pressing on toward the goal before them. He prays that the love of God will overflow among them that they will become a greater blessing to those around them, and that as they continue with their journey toward Christ that the very Spirit of God will grant them greater knowledge and insights in how to proceed.
There is a reason that Paul writes this prayer, because Philippi is a very important place. It was an important port for Macedonia, a center for gladiatorial sport, and the religious cult of Dionysus. We are far removed from the ancient practices of the pre-Christian Roman Empire so many do not understand the importance this has, but Dionysus is the Greek form of the god Bacchus. This is the god of wine, merry-making, and insanity. This god was believed to be a shape shifter that would appear as a drunk man that would shift into a frenzied lion or bear. Those that participated in the worship Dionysus would engage in drunkenness, fornications, and would work themselves up into a violent frenzy where they would rip sacrificial animal apart with their hands. Rituals of this kind were so disorderly and threatening to the community that the roman government was forced to regulate it. Much of the letter to the Philippians was written to encourage the community of Christ to live his lifestyle even though so much of their culture opposed the ideas of Christ.
Remember his prayer again, that love would overflow abundantly, filled with knowledge and insight. This prayer and these words speak volumes to our own culture that seems to be fixated on intoxication, sexuality, and violence. Our current era is far from the debauchery those ancient Philippians witnessed daily. I admit that we as a culture have turned our faces away from the light of Christ and are standing in the shadows instead of facing the light of God’s grace, but there is hope. All we are experiencing today are things that our spiritual ancestors face two thousand years ago and they filled Paul’s life with joy.
We are called also. We are called to live through this time. God has given us gifts to minister to the people of this era, He will continue to give us insight that will direct our paths for His glory. Do not lose heart. Do not lose hope. Have faith that the one who began this work in our lives will see it through. Believe that we will see a harvest. Pray for knowledge, pray for insight, and pray for an overflowing abundance of love. It is the life of Christ that turns people away from the emptiness of the world. It is lives that reflect the holy lifestyle of Christ, that give this broken world hope.
When people experience the love God has for them through us it causes them to question us and themselves. When we live the love of Christ with them and encouraging them to walk in faith they have to respond with belief or rejection. Remember who the people Paul wrote this letter to, they were a people that were once actively pursuing a life totally dedicated to the satisfaction of their own lusts, yet they turned from those ways to embrace life with Christ. They actively pursued this life and spread this life from the very moment they heard and continued long after Paul left from their presence. This tells us that our current culture is not irredeemable, there is still hope. If God can turn Philippians to Him He can do a great work among us.
The question is how do we move from where we are today into that anticipated future in Christ? We get to that place only by loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. We get to that place when we stop arguing about who is right or wrong and encouraging others to embrace life with God.
We live in a culture that is broken, hurting, spiritually sick and hungry. We live in a world that does not need more judgement but hope. We have that hope, we know that Christ came just as the ancients hope for. We know that he was born, lived, and taught us how to live life with God, and He made that life possible through His death and resurrection. He empowers us to continue the work He began by giving us the Holy Spirit who gives us all the gifts we need to spread the Gospel of the kingdom in our communities, states, nation, and world. He gives us gifts of teaching, healing, encouraging, hospitality, wealth, music, art, and various others. He gives these gifts for his glory and our joy. He gives us all we have for this time and this place. I ask again, “why did you call me?” Am I here to pat you on the back and say we are better than others or to encourage you to continue participating in the spreading of the Gospel? I long with the compassion of Christ that his love will overflow more and more among you and this meeting, and that we will see the fulfillment of what He began in our lives.