Thursday, June 27, 2013

A Sermon on Philippians 1:18b-30: A Joy Beyond Fear and Death

You can listen to the audio of this sermon here.

Happy Father’s day! I don’t know if you were here with us on Mother’s day back in May but we had an entire sermon dedicated to mothers and Pastor Michael taught us using biblical examples of the kind of dreams that moms can have for children. Well, the way things worked out Father’s day is in the middle of our summer sermon series on the book of Philippians entitled Full of Joy. So, I’m sorry to say dads, this sermon isn’t completely dedicated to Fathers in the same way that Pastor Michael preached on Mother’s day, but after doing a little historical research, I did find  that this is pretty much par for the course as far as Father’s day is concerned. Mother’s day was made an official holiday in 1914 by president Woodrow Wilson, but Father’s day wasn’t an official federal holiday, even though it was celebrated, until 1972 by president Richard Nixon. I did try and think about how our text might apply specifically to Fathers, but this is difficult text and this happens when you preach a series through a book of the bible. The text for today, go ahead and open your bibles there, Philippians 1:18-30, has some deep truth about how Paul found joy in the face of death, a joy that surpassed any fear he might have faced and a joy that he passed on to others. It’s a tough text for Father’s Day and for the end of VBS week. It’s a danger for pastors to try and make a text say something, that it doesn’t say, but as I reflected this week on this text, I realized while the text doesn’t speak specifically to Fathers, our experience as Fathers helps us understand the text. In other words, in our culture here in the United States, it is unlikely that many of us will face the same suffering and even possibly death for the gospel like Paul did, so sometimes it is difficult to connect with how Paul had joy in such circumstances, but I think that my experience as a father helps give me an understanding of what it must be like to have the kind of joy that Paul seems to have in this letter.

You’ll see what I mean as we begin with the first two points in your notes, Joy in Salvation through the prayers of others.

One of my experiences as a Father has been that when you have children, if you’re to be a good father, then all shame and embarrassment must go out the door. And I don’t mean to scare those of you future father’s to be, but when you become a dad, everything about yourself is over and everything about your children takes priority. In other words, your days of looking cool are completely over. The other day I took my daughter Sophia, she’s four years old, to the swimming pool and we were swimming around having a good time and she indicates that she wants me to sing Sinamarinky Dinky Dink. Now I’m really an extreme introvert, and I know I can pull together for church functions, or for the sake of preaching, and by the way I would never be preacher except God made me, so I look around the pool and there are teenagers there, other adults and I have to make a choice. Am I going to sing Skinamarinky Dinky Dink with the full hand motions, that aren’t the real hand motions, they’re ones I made up, or am I going to not draw attention to us? Which do you think I did? I did Skinamarinky Dinky Dink. That’s what dad’s do. They aren’t in any way ashamed of their children. Here's a picture of someone who, at VBS this week, was unashamed to sing Pharaoh Pharaoh in front of hundreds of kids, parents, and visitors. If you’ve ever been in situations like these, you understand that even though the circumstances look foolish to others, the love that you have for your children creates a joy in you that no matter what happens, whether it’s singing Skinamrinky Dinky Dink or Pharoah Pharaoh, you are unashamed because of the joy and the love you have in your children.

The same is true for Paul but to a greater degree. The joy that he has in his deliverance, in his salvation, makes him courageous, and bold, and unashamed of who he is and whose he is, so much more even than we are empowered as Fathers and parents by the love of our children.

Follow along in your bibles as we read the first section together, verse 18-20. Paul writes:

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance [also translated salvation] 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

Paul is not ashamed. As he faces the courtroom, the judgment of the Roman Empire, he speaks of a certainty that regardless of what happens, whether he lives or dies, he will be delivered, he will be saved. Paul is really facing two courtrooms. He facing the courtroom of the Roman Empire and yet he knows that regardless of how this situation turns out, he ultimately faces the courtroom of God in heaven. When he says that what has happened to him will turn out for his deliverance,  he’s making a connection to the book of Job in the Old Testament where Job, getting ready to face the courtroom of heaven with God as judge, says in Job 13:15-16,18 ”Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him; I will surely defend my ways to his face. Indeed this will turn out for my deliverance….I know I will be vindicated.” Paul also uses the language of being ashamed from the Old Testament, where being put to shame meant ultimately the judgment of God.  Psalm 31:17 is a great example: Let me not be put to shame, O LORD, for I have cried out to you; but let the wicked be put to shame and lie silent in the grave.

Paul ultimately knows that he is facing this heavenly court and he anticipates a deliverance at some point in the future, that does not depend on Roman justice. Paul is aware that his trial may be his last and greatest witness for Christ in his body. In fact, his witness may cause his execution, and yet he is confident in his salvation, in his deliverance in the heavenly court so much so that he is bold, unafraid, and unashamed of the gospel in the Roman court whether he lives or dies. We as fathers, as parents, have joy in our children that is difficult for others to understand. The joy that Paul has in his salvation pierces through the darkness of every circumstance making him unashamed of Jesus and the gospel and causes him to say “I will continue to rejoice” because of what he has in Jesus, ultimate salvation and vindication. Do you want know what it’s like to have no shame, to have great joy, in doing ridiculous things for your kids? Then have some kids, adopt kids! Do you want know what it’s like to have no shame, to have the greatest joy possible, no matter what the circumstance? Then pray for God’s Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus and have others pray for you as well.

Before moving on to the next section of text, just linger here with me for a moment. Paul writes that “what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.” He says that it is through two things that this deliverance, his ultimate salvation happens, through the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ and through what? Through your prayers. This inexplicable joy that Paul has in facing death comes from his salvation through the Spirit of Jesus Christ, but that presence is supplied, is poured out, comes in full measure through the prayers of the Philippians. The Spirit of Jesus and these prayers are so tied together in this verse that you could paraphrase this “Your prayers and the consequent supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ will turn out for my salvation.” Surely Paul could ask for the Spirit himself, Paul knows how to pray, but Paul didn’t conceive sanctification, perseverance in the faith, or even ultimate salvation as solely private enterprises. Don’t get me wrong, God saves. God initiates salvation and sustains us by His Spirit. Just earlier Paul wrote in this letter: “he [God] who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” It’s God who saves, but God ordains the prayers of his people as a means through which to accomplish his purposes, including his purposes for the perseverance of Christians in the faith and for their ultimate salvation. Who are we praying for that they might receive an abundant supply of the Spirit, receive ultimate salvation? Who are we praying for that they might continue in boldness, unashamedly in the faith? One of the great things about being a pastor is having so many people pray for you. I encourage you pray for one another, pray for others in deep earnest and sincerity. Pray, “for I know that through your prayers and the consequent supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ” others will experience the unashamed joy that comes from salvation in Him.

A number of years ago, a man named Peter Conway was vacationing from England in St. Augustine Florida. It was a very rough day, the waves were huge, someone reported them to be about 8ft. Peter looked out at the waves and about 400 feet out there were a 15 year old boy and a 20 year old girl struggling. Peter ran into the ocean and helped both of them get closer to shore and out of danger. As they got closer to shore, Peter had a heart attack while in the water. He lost consciousness and he died saving his two children. What can cause a man to sacrifice his life, to risk it all, for others? Being a Father can. The love that you have for your children gives you a courage in the face of death that you might not otherwise have and someone looking from the outside might say “why would you do that?” but those of us who are Fathers know that we would gladly give our lives for our children. We take great joy in the life that we have with them, but we also would take great joy if giving our lives meant something for them.

It might also be difficult for us to understand Paul when he says “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain”, as he finds Joy in Death and Joy in Life because of the love and the relationship he has with God through Jesus Christ. Read along with me this second section of our text for today, Philippians 1:21-26.

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 joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.

Paul, as he reflects on whether or not he will lose his life at the hands of the Roman court, feels torn, a huge tension, between what would be better for him. Since Jesus Christ is his everything, he knows that whether he lives or dies he will be with Christ. If he dies, he will depart and be with Christ, in his presence, which Paul writes “is better by far.” At the same time he recognizes that if he lives, he will continue to serve Christ, produce good fruit, and be a blessing to his spiritual children, the Philippians. He doesn’t really himself have a choice in this matter, it’s up to the Roman tribunal, but he sets an example for his spiritual children by choosing their interests over his own. It would be better by far to be with Jesus. No more pain, no more suffering, the race is over and he knows he will be vindicated in the God’s court, and yet he chooses as an example to the Philippians to continue on in the face of death and imprisonment for their joy and well-being. The joy that Paul has from being completely dedicated to Jesus and God overflows into others as he seeks their progress, their joy in the faith so that their joy in Jesus Christ will overflow also. Paul is facing death, and part of him as he is torn, wants it to be over and to be with Jesus, but the joy he has in life and in death through Jesus directs him to put others first. I know it is scary to hear someone saying they prefer death, but when you have this kind of dedication to something, you find a joy in life and in death. It may be hard for some who aren’t parents to understand how a father like Peter Conway could give up his life for his kids. As good as our kids are and as joyous as it is to be a parent, God is even better. The joy that comes from knowing God through Jesus Christ is insurmountably better than the joy that comes from being parents. I know it’s hard to understand. Just like it’s hard for someone who is not a parent to understand the kind of love and joy you take from your children so also those who haven’t entered into a real daily relationship with Jesus Christ can’t get it until they do.

Let’s look at the final section of our text, Philippians 1:27-30:

27 Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man [SOUL] for the faith of the gospel 28 without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved-- and that by God. 29 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, 30 since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.

Paul finishes this chapter with a joy beyond fear and through suffering. This is a real transition point in this letter where Paul begins to turn his focus on the Philippians rather than on himself. He appeals to the Philippians as citizens. That verb there, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel, has political overtones. We remember as pastor Michael described during the first sermon of this series how the city of Philippi was a Roman colony and had certain privileges because of that title and being a citizen of Rome carried privileges and responsibilities. Paul is here making the analogy and appealing to the Christians in Philippi as citizens of Christ’s kingdom. As Philippi is a colony of the Roman Empire, a micro expression of Rome out in Macedonia, Paul considers the church a colony a micro expression of heaven here on earth. He encourages them and challenges them, whether Paul himself comes or not, whether he gets out of this mess in Rome or he ends up dead, to continue the struggle of the Christian faith. He encourages the Philippians in their joy, their courage, in the face of opposition as they, like Paul are imprisoned, suffer, and even die for their faith. He’s saying that the conflicts, the suffering you are experiencing may appear frightening. You might even think that God is displeased with you and intends to destroy you. But that is exactly wrong. Suffering is the way to glory. Look at Jesus. Look at Paul. 2 Timothy 3:12 says “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Romans 5:3-5 says: Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.  And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.

As a Father, I’ve had some particular challenges over the last four years with regards to suffering. As many of you know, I’ve mentioned this in sermons before, my daughter Sophia had a heart transplant at 8 mo. old. That was a particular type of suffering that both Benita and I went through and continue in many ways as Sophia faces different challenges. These last three and half months with Ezra has brought its own challenges and in my case suffering. I have a condition called Ulcerative Colitis, UC. My immune system sometimes, especially when under great stress, decides that my colon is an enemy and so attacks it with inflammation and basically tries to destroy my colon. Well when we had Ezra, he had severe acid reflux which meant that for the first couple months we were literally waking up every 45 minutes and when Ezra was awake he wasn’t easily consoled. He took a lot of attention and none of us were getting any sleep. It seem like we’re getting out of this phase now and getting some sleep, but in the process of all that stress my UC decided to act up like it has never acted up before. So I’ve been really struggling with this, even on nights where the kids were sleeping I would wake up because I was bleeding internally, or had built up too much mucus from the inflammation and had to use the restroom throughout the night. Even this last week I had to leave during the middle of a staff meeting because I had to use the restroom pretty quickly. I want you know, that every Sunday for the past few months has been a huge risk for me to try to make it through as service. 

Just to give you an understanding of how bad this can be, we went to Orlando so that the doctors at Arnold Palmer could help us with Ezra’s reflux, they did a swallow study where they watch him eat and see what’s going on. While Ezra and my wife Benita were at the hospital, I took Sophia to the park. We were in the park, just arrived there and Sophia was so excited to go and play. Right as we walked through the gates to the park, I had to use the restroom, but before I could take a step further, I pooed myself. My daughter didn’t seem to mind, she was excited about the playground. Obviously that had to wait, she was pretty upset as she had to wait while I cleaned up as best I could in the public bathroom and once we got out she was ecstatic about riding the see-saw with me. Not necessarily the wisest toy in the playground for someone who poos himself, but it worked out alright. And even in the midst of all that, I took great joy in my daughter, in her laughter, and in the time we shared together in that playground. Even though, and I’m very hopeful that this is all but under control at this point, my son Ezra indirectly has led me down this path of suffering, he himself suffering, I would not trade anything in the world for him or Sophia. I take great joy in my children. I believe, no, I know that I am a better father for the suffering that I’ve been through. I have a different depth of character, of perserverance, that I would never have if I had no suffering. I do not delight in pain, but I take joy in being a better father because of it.

Often Scripture uses the illustration of family, of being a parent, adoption, of marriage – almost universal conditions - to help us understand what it’s like to be in a relationship with God. You can’t understand marriage until you put the ring on, you can’t understand being a Father until you have children, you engage with them, and you experience life with them no matter what the circumstances. You can’t understand God until you have a relationship with Jesus Christ – which is a continued struggle – strengthened by prayer – that gives you Joy in His courtroom, Joy in the face of death or life, and Joy beyond fear through suffering.