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.
1 Thessalonians 3:9–13 (NRSV)
9 How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? 10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.
11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12 And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. 13 And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
How can we thank God enough…What a wonderful statement to ring in the season of advent and to close out the week of Thanksgiving. How can we thank God enough for you? How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? When was the last time you considered the shear joy that the fellowship of Christ has brought you?
These were the things that I have considered as I went through the past week. It has been difficult to think on these things to stay thankful because the world outside these wall so often distracts from that mindset. Especially when one has to go to work a few minutes after eating a feast dedicated to thankfulness, and try to manage a crowd that is focused of getting good deals. But I was challenged this week to consider these things.
I personally am thankful for this community. I have expressed often how blessed I have been to have been part of this community as a broken young man looking for an excuse to turn his back on God, only to be faced with a community that embraced me as a person and not judging me for my past. I am thankful for this community because you all reflected the love of Christ and encouraged me to strive for something greater. And even more you trusted me enough to allow me to marry one of your own. It is a weird thought I know.
When I examine my spiritual journey to Christ, and what has lead me to be the man I am today, this Meeting is very important. I almost understand what Paul means when he says that he thanks God for joy because of a church.
But then he goes on to say that he is in constant prayer, earnestly seeking to return to this same church that has brought him such joy, so that he might assist in restoring what is lacking in their faith. Does anyone else feel like they might be experiencing spiritual whiplash? This church that brought Paul joy, great joy, to the degree that words cannot be expressed to honor the gratitude that he feels, is also a source of a great burden.
Spiritual whiplash, the very dichotomy of church, the very people that bring joy also bring frustration. It is similar to the dichotomy of Thanksgiving in our culture, we celebrate a feast where we give thanks for all we have and then before digestion even has a chance to start we jump right into the frenzy to obtain more. If we were to examine that for a moment it is really enough to bring tears to our eyes. Moving from selflessness into selfishness in a matter of moments, maybe not individually but culturally. It brings to reality the very statement the Prophet Isaiah spoke after his vison of God, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
What is lacking what have the people that brought Paul such joy lost that has caused such a burden that has him yearning to return? Love. Love that flows from the very throne of God, the love that takes no account of individualism and just flows out to others. These people that brought joy to Paul, seemed to have slid back into previous lifestyles.
I say this because if we were to read deeper into this letter we would find that in the very next chapter Paul begins to speak about fornication, lustful passions, and exploitation. These are activities that do not foster love, but are focused on self gratification. They do not promote the building of a community but actually encourage the destruction of relationships.
But Paul does not look at them as a lost cause, he sees them as having great potential. This church, the community to which this letter was written is Thessalonica, which is a city in Macedonia, part of Greece. This is the very community Paul spoke about having a vision to go, and in that vision the yearned for him to come to teach them about the ways of Christ, and to share the Gospel.
Paul writes to them, urging them to return to the place where they let God direct their paths. Saying, “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.” Increase and abound in love for one another and for all. Let that statement slowly flow over you. The idea of increase so often is twisted in our contemporary culture. We interpret increase with the idea of profit and personal gain, this is far from what is being said. It is quite literally an increase an over flowing abundance but the abundance is not to be internalized but it should flow out.
Paul is urging them to consider the life and lifestyle of Christ, whose advent we celebrate and anticipate during this season of the year. Christ came from heaven to be born of a virgin, He came to live a full human life from an embryo to adulthood, to show us and empower us to live in relationship with God. Jesus taught us a rhythm of life that revolved around worship, prayer, and service to others which is an image of the increase and abounding love that Paul is urging the people in Thessalonica to embrace. It is in worship that we are encouraged to receive and are filled with the spirit of God. It is in prayer where we allow that living water to saturate our being and it is in service to others that the outflowing or increase happens.
Why did Jesus come? Why will he come again? Why does he delay? It is because of love. It is because God so loves the world that he gave his son. He gave the ultimate gift. He gave not to condemn but to redeem, not to judge but to restore. Not to shame but to encourage a different path. A path that is not focused on individualism but on the kingdom of God.
I began by speaking of the joy that this community has brought me. I experienced the increase and flowing love from God through a community that sought God. I came here not really knowing what might happen, and I did not really expect what I found. The increase and abounding love this community shared flooded my very being, leaving no question in my mind that I must embrace the calling that was in my heart. A calling I was not yet willing to embrace because I did not understand it. You all sent me out and you brought be back. The question is why? The only answer I can come up with in my mind is to remind you of the love that God has showered on this community, the love that was once shared and the love that God wants us to share again. The love that brought healing to a broken man, and gave encouragement to overcome the past and embrace the future. The love that was saturated in grace and forgiveness.
I look out at the community our Meeting serves and I see people all around us that are hurting, I see even within our walls a dryness, and a hardness. Why did you bring me? Why did you bring someone that has such a great love for you to this place? Increase and abound in the love of one another and for all, just as I abound in love for you. Seek the Lord and his will, let him direct and strengthen our lives so that we can be a blessing to others.
John 18:33–37 (NRSV)
33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
As we head into the holiday season, we begin by remembering the things of which we give thanks. This is one of the greatest traditions in all of America, and is a tradition that is really unique to our culture. When I was in Ukraine and the students I worked with were curious about our culture, the most common question after how much money I had was, “What is Thanksgiving?” How would you answer that question? We say that it is a religious holiday, but has never been a day universally recognized by the greater church body. That being said it does have a spiritual dimensions to it. If we practice it properly we slow down our lives and reflect on things that have true meaning in our lives. Oddly enough the secular and religious communities seem to consider the same things as important on that day, because it is the busiest period of time for travel. And people travel to meet with family and friends. I want us to consider Thanksgiving, as we reflect on this passage today. The activities that we participate in and why it is that we do those things.
I said that the universal church does not necessarily consider this holiday to be one of their liturgical holy days, but that does not mean that the roots do not have spiritual meaning. The first thanksgiving, the one we learned about in grade school, is a day that the pilgrims celebrated the harvest with the indigenous people of America. The reason they celebrated the harvest was because they were puritans, and the puritans were a group of people that attempted to conform all of life around scripture. They were deeply devoted people, and they only celebrated holidays that were listed in scripture. And the holiday that they were celebrating was a form of the Feast of Booths. This particular holiday in ancient days was a feast that lasted seven days, seven because when God commands a celebration He intends that we really celebrate. But this holiday was to remind the people of their exodus and wanderings, how they lived in tents and shared all that they had because all they had was a direct gift from God. As they moved away from the exodus this festival became one of great importance, they were commanded to leave their house for a week, set up camps, and to share the fruits of their harvest. It was a festival that celebrated the end of the growing cycle, and the abundance that was given to them. During this festival all people were considered equal all were wanderers in the world and if someone wandered to your tent they were treated as a guest and were asked to join in your feast. The first thanksgiving was an attempt at recreating this festive atmosphere where we are mindful that all that we have is a blessing from God and it is not to be hoarded but shared.
Today we read a passage that does not seem too festive. Most of us would not choose to read a passage about a trial that would eventually lead to an execution as something to highlight a time to be thankful, but this is actually a beautiful passage. I will be honest, it has been hard for me to focus on one central theme because as I have studied the passage left me sitting in awe. I have found myself reading and then caught up in the words, unable to move forward because the Spirit of God urged me to just consider what is being said more fully. It has been a week filled with reflection.
“Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate asks to opens the conversation. This is a loaded question, because no matter how Jesus would answer it consequences would follow. Is he the king? Pilate is not asking if he is a rebel wishing to start a revolution, but he is honestly asking if Jesus is the hereditary king or ordained ruler of the Jewish people. The answer that Jesus gives is actually quite intriguing, “Do you ask this on your own or did others tell you about me?” This is intriguing because it causes Pilate and everyone else that reads this passage to reconsider what was being said. Did Pilate consider Jesus the King of the Jews? Did he come to his own conclusion about the personality before him? Did the political power structure truly believe that Jesus was a threat to their status, or was this simply a case of jealousy by people attempting to maintain some semblance of power? By answering Pilate in this manner Jesus causes his questioner to contemplate not only his politics but also the actions of the man before him. He had to actually look at Jesus’ life and lifestyle, the way He lived and consider why Jesus did what he was doing. For the questioner there is no easy answer. Is He the king?
Pilate does not want to actually consider this, it challenges everything he knows in the world. Jesus did not act like anyone else he knew, he did not seek power yet He stood there accused. So Pilate says, “How should I know I’m not a Jew. But why have your own leaders sent you here?”
This is where this passage gets me. Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” This single verse is what caused me to stop and think for the past week. Words like fight, from, world, kingdom, and followers all seemed to lunge toward me leapt from the page and implant themselves into my mind. I realized I never really understood what was being spoken.
Imagine yourself in the conversation. Jesus is telling you these words. “My kingdom, what I find most important is not what you think. If it was I would have armed agents keeping me from being arrested. This is not about a debate or a championship bout, the things you spend your day investing in. What I find most important is not territory, power, or fame. I am interested in life.”
This is why this passage struck me as beautiful. It is a testimony of peace and freedom, but not because it has been liberated but because it is released. So often we think of our faith in Christ as a battle between good and evil, a war between what is right and wrong, but in our fights we can become distracted. Jesus says if my kingdom was the same as yours my followers would fight. The word fight used here is to describe a contest between athletes in an arena or a debate within a forum. These are the things that are important to the world. Connected to a “fight” in this sense of the word is fame, fortune, entertainment, and power. The idea of convincing people that you or your ideas are the most important or that you are the champion. It speaks of numbers, votes, status, and wealth everything that the world deems as being symbols of status and worth in a society. Jesus is saying if that is what I wanted you could not have touched me, but that is not at all what is important. What is important is much deeper.
What then is his kingdom? If he is not interested in the fight, or the debate what is important? This is the heart of the feast of Thanksgiving. The feast of Booths and the day of thanksgiving revolves around everything Jesus came to bring us. A life of abundance, a life filled with joys of companionship. We gather in the dining rooms on a holiday for no other reason than to enjoy the company of other. We visit with the people that we do not have to fight with to be seen as acceptable.
In my family Thanksgiving was probably the most important holiday of the year. As I am speaking here today my family is making their way from Texas, Colorado, and all across Kansas to meet together in a small town in the middle of nowhere. My family has a wide range of political views, they have various careers, and differing ideas on religious practice (though predominately Quaker). But when it comes to family all those differences fall away. My salary is of no concern, my job only matters if it brings joy, and politics might make interesting conversation but they do not really care. The important thing is that we are there together. If we cannot be together someone will pick up a phone and everyone will yell their greetings. We eat, we laugh, we enjoy a game, and we sing. Everyone gives something and no one leaves without a deep sense of belonging.
His kingdom is not from the world. His kingdom is from something deeper, a place that connects us together in ways that go beyond the superficial. His kingdom is life. His kingdom revolves around our relationships with each other and with God. It removes all the things our society deems important. Everyone sits together equal, sharing what we have to encourage and bless those around us.
Pilate listens to Jesus as He basically told him that everything he stands for is pointless, and Pilate ask, “So you are a king?” Pilate missed the point. He acknowledge that Jesus had something great, that there was something that gave Jesus power over the people but he did not quite understand what the use of that power was for. He did not get it because he is a man from the world instead of a man dedicated to life. Jesus responds again saying that he came for one reason, to testify to the truth, and that everyone that belongs to truth hears his voice.
As I sat this week contemplating this passage, it occurred to me that often I am just like Pilate. I miss the point and I enter into the fights of the world. I engage in debates trying to convince those around me that my way of thinking is the right way and if they disagree they are wrong. I spend my time chasing after the things that hold value in society, a job title and the influence that that can bring as well as the income. That is why it struck me so hard. I toil and struggle wondering if I am a success or a failure, and all I really need is right here around me. It is in the screams of joy I hear when I walk through the door. It is in the songs of praise I lift up on a Sunday morning. It is in the shared meals that I have with friends and family every day of the week. The most important things are not the achievements or the gains but it is the things shared. It is the shared life and the holy rhythm that Jesus taught us a life of worship, prayer, and service. The life of loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. That is why Jesus came, he came to save us from the emptiness of the world so that we could know the truth of life. Life with Him and each other.
As we enter into this time of Holy Expectancy and communion in the manner of Friends, let us reflect of the truth that Jesus brought us. Let us consider the life he wishes to give us, and let us be released to live the truth of Thanksgiving.