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.
2 Corinthians 4:13–5:1 (NRSV)
13 But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—“I believed, and so I spoke”—we also believe, and so we speak, 14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. 15 Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
Living by Faith
16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
5 For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
Have you noticed how a change of perspective can change your entire view? Perspective is the way that we look at the world around us, it’s what we see. Many times because we are rushing from one thing to the next we do not have time to examine things more deeply, but there is more going on than what we see.
If we were to take an art class one of the first lessons would be a perspective drawing. I remember doing this in the seventh grade. The teacher would have each of us sit in the hall way and draw what we saw. Then he would have us move to a different location and draw everything again. Some of us would have to draw as best as we could laying on the ground, other would have a seat in a high chair, others of us would stand close to a wall, and some right in the center of the hallway. The one thing that took from these lessons was that I am not an artist. But I also learned that from where we are standing the view changes, certain things seem to become more of a focal point while others fade into the background. The teacher was trying to give us the techniques to draw but he also taught us that there can always be a different way to look at things. I think that is the whole purpose of the creative arts. God has gifted certain people with an ability to assist everyone else to step back and look at something from a different vantage point, and just possibly see something more clearly.
In today’s scripture we find Paul speaking to the church in Corinth. It is important to remember who this letter was written to because it helps us put things into perspective. Corinth was a very important trade city during this time frame. Not only was it a center for trade but it was one of the host cities for athletic events that were associated with the origins of the Olympics. This gives us clues as to the reasons Paul speaks in a certain way to this particular church. Words like, “You know that in a race all the runners run, but only one runner gets the prize. So run like that. Run to win!” (1 Corinthians 9:24) or “No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” (1 Corinthians 9:27). These are terms that speak volumes to a population that lives for the games. Paul spoke and wrote to them using language that they would understand, preaching the Gospel from a perspective that was unique to them.
There is another bit of information about ancient Corinth that sheds light into the words that Paul uses in his letter. Corinth as a culture was deeply devoted to the goddess Aphrodite. As many of us are aware the worship of this goddess usually revolved around sensual rites with the temple slaves. This one city was home to over a thousand sacred prostitutes. This city locate on a busy trade route connecting two seas, was the home of one of the largest sporting events in the empire and was deeply devoted to the goddess of love (or lust). Everything about this city revolved around entertainment and commerce, with a specialty of entertainment commerce. But even within this city devoted to pleasures of the flesh there was a large Jewish population, so they were not totally unaware of the history and religion that brought our Lord to us.
This city would make places like Las Vegas seem pretty mild. Yet this is the city in which Paul spent the most time in his missionary journeys, and it was the recipient of two of the most widely read epistles in scripture. Not only do Christian athletes find comfort and encouragement from these letters, but quotes from the letters penned to Corinth are the most widely read passages from scripture in weddings. I even used a passage from 1 Corinthians in a wedding on Saturday. We find them encouraging and comforting because the people of Corinth and the people of America are not that different. Many of the issues we struggle with today are issues causing stress to the people who first heard the words written by Paul.
If we were to look at the city of Corinth and visualize an ancient version of Las Vegas we might get an idea of just how big the task set before Paul might have been like. He had to start with the basics and then work his way up to the deeper things of Christ. In his first letter, the most widely read, he explains to us what Love is, what discipline looks like, and how important a life with God really is. The second letter is a bit more depressing, mainly because this is one of the few major first century church centers and they required a second letter from the apostle.
Yet even though Paul felt the need to remind them of all the ways they were falling short of the glory of Christ, he tells them do not give up, and to look at things from a different perspective. Not necessarily a new perspective but to slow down enough to look around. He reminds them of the faith that they had heard him and others speak about. Reminding them that very spirit that prompted the apostles to go out and boldly speak and live for Christ was available to them in the very real way.
That spirit was given so that each of us could relate to the living God personally. God sent the Spirit to us so that the one who and through whom all things were created could know us deeply and so that we could know him deeply. When he says “I believe, and so I spoke,” refers to a belief that goes beyond knowledge, goes further than trust it is a belief that entrusts every aspect of his life to the hands of God. Entrusting to such a degree that Paul would leave the comforts and security of his position as a Pharisee to speak the words the Spirit of God laid on his heart to a city consumed with the worship of pleasure.
“’I believe, and so I spoke.’ – We also believe, and so we speak.” This statement gives us a glimpse into the heart of God. Yes He desires a close and intimate relationship with us individually, one in which we are loving Him with all of our heart, with all of our mind, and with all of our strength but that relationship is not to be lived out alone. It is to be shared with the world around us, invested in the lives of others. But the church of Corinth was struggling. They lived in a culture that was about as far from God honoring as a culture could get. For every new person added to their ranks others would be drawn back into the clutches of the idolatry of the flesh. It was as if all of the work they were doing was for nothing, and many believed that they should withdraw, isolate and fortify themselves from the influences of the outside world.
Just looking at our world today we can understand how and why they might come to that conclusion. It is extremely difficult to believe and speak to a world that seems to have little interest in knowing Christ. We can look back in our history and believe that the best days are behind us, that the end is near and pray Lord Come! But Paul tells us do not give up. We know that the one that raised Christ from the grave is with us even to this day. We know that he will not forsake us even when we cannot see him working. We know that He is here and wants us to be in His presence. We know this…but do we believe?
Corinth was distracted. They could not get a handle of what it means to be in the world but not of the world, because so often when they would try the assembly would be flooded with people trying to move them away from God. They would reach out becoming vulnerable to people only to be burned, and as a result they took steps back to protect their own. They may have even pushed people away from their Meeting that had a different perspective because the very idea of looking at things differently scared them. But Paul says all this grace is for you, so that you can extend it to others. God gave us grace so we can extend that very same grace to those around us.
Paul is graciously telling them that they are wrong in their thinking. They have taken a perspective that is so limited in view that they cannot see beyond themselves, and that is an unhealthy church. It is a church that is not living out the holy rhythm of Christ. It is a church that has stopped listening and stopped believing. They may worship God, they may have all the right answers and the best systematic theologies but they are stuck.
Do not lose heart Paul tells these broken people. Though you may be weak in your body, the very same Spirit that raised Christ from the grave can renew within you the right spirit. Do not lose faith, but get back to what you know. Go back to that lifestyle of loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. Enter again into that holy rhythm of life that Christ himself taught us, a life of prayer, worship, and service to others. Listen again, believe again, believe so deeply that you are willing to give all that you are and all that you have for the glory of God, and love those lost people of the world that are wondering in the darkness without the light.
It is very easy to get bound in one perspective, unable to step back and examine life from a different point of view. It is easy to believe that the way that I think is the only way that things should be done, because the others options require that we put faith in someone else. It is easy to step back and isolate ourselves, because there are risks when we step forward into the unknown. God took a risk by coming to live among mankind, He took a risk by allowing His son to die on our behalf, and He took a risk by ascending into heaven and leaving what He started in the hands of man. He took a risk in us. He invested life in us. Are we willing to risk what he has given us for our world? Are we willing to believe and speak? Are we willing to entrust and act? Are we willing to allow God to use us in His ministry of restoration? As we enter into a time of holy expectancy and communion as Friends, I challenge each of us to ask those questions and to be still before God to listen to what He will say.