Monday, 8 July 2019

The Secret of Contentment (Phil. 4:12)

An online dictionary defines discontent as, ‘dissatisfaction with one’s life circumstances.’  Do you think that you would be happier if you had someone else’s life?  Do you think that you would be happier if you had someone else’s stuff?  Do you think that you would be happier if you had someone else’s body?  Are you driven to succeed?  Are you living for a brighter future? 

This morning we are looking at the secret of contentment.  The secret of contentment is not about changing your circumstances.  Paul tells us that he has learned to be content in every circumstance (Philippians 4:11), and his circumstances were far from easy.  In fact, I have looked through this short letter and identified seven reasons Paul could be discontent with his circumstances and then asked why he is not discontent with his circumstances.

1.      Paul’s chains

Paul is under house arrest in Rome.  He is chained to a guard on either side.  Not only must he be enduring physical discomfort, but this man was ambitious to spread the gospel all over the world.  He is not getting things the way he would have planned them.
So why is Paul content with his chains?  Paul is content with his chains because he is getting opportunities to witness to his faith.  Every time there is a change in guards, he gets another captive audience.  Then there is the fact that his suffering is an inspiration to his fellow Christians.  Just like we are inspired when Asialink or Church in Chains come and tell us about our faithful brothers and sisters in Christ who stand firm under pressure, the Christian heard of Pauls faithfulness and were ‘encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly’ (1:14).
A woman in Australia inspired her non-Christian neighbour with the way that she trusted God in the midst of terrible arthritis.  Her neighbour wanted to know the secret to her contentment and so started to go to the suffering woman’s church.  Both herself and her son became Christians.  Indeed, that son is now a leading evangelical Bible commentator.  May God give us the strength to lean on him when life is weighing us down.

2.     Paul’s rivals

As Paul sat there in chains there were preachers who were taking advantage of his situation to stir up trouble for him.  Perhaps they said, ‘if only he was not so blunt, he would not be in prison’ or ‘if God was really blessing him, he would not be in pain’.  So why is Paul rejoicing when there are people trying to destroy his reputation?  He is rejoicing because Christ is being preached (1:18).
How excited are we about what God is doing in his world?  I tend to be concerned about what God is doing in my little world.  Pack a good Christian biography for you holidays and rejoicing in the fact that Jesus is fulfilling his promise to build his church all over the world.  Our God is not dead, he is alive!

3.     Paul would prefer to be with Jesus

Paul talks about life and death.  Those are very real thoughts when you are imprisoned and when you could be executed at any moment.  He would prefer if it was his time to pass on because then he would get to be with Christ.  But he is convinced that he is going to remain for the sake of the churches he serves.  He is content with this because ‘to live is Christ’ (1:21).
He is content because he loves to serve God’s people.  Contentment comes not through getting others to serve us but through serving them.  Is that really true?  I think so!  We were made to get joy through serving.  As we allow God’s love flow through us our hearts are enlarged.  Don’t be a resentful servant.  Don’t be bitter when no one notices or says, ‘thank you’.  Be privileged to serve others because you love Jesus.

4.     There were false teachers that could ruin the church

Paul warns the Philippians about false teachers who wanted to deny the gospel of grace.  They wanted to rob Christ of his glory by saying that becoming a Christian depended in part on rituals that we perform.  They were saying that Christ was not enough.  The threat of false teaching is a very real one.  Churches do fall into error.  In the early centuries after Jesus the church was strong in North Africa.  Then in the middle ages it was decimated by the spread of Islam.  In our own time we have the threat of prosperity gospel preachers who use gospel as a means of person gain (see 1 Timothy 6:5).
How can we be content when the church is in danger?  We have to trust God that even if some churches fall and some Christians depart from the truth, Jesus will build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18).  Trusting God is a secret to contentment. 
But trusting God is so difficult!  How can we trust God when our prayers aren’t answered as we had hoped?  How Can we trust God when our life is filled with sorrow?  God’s trustworthiness is not measured by our current circumstances.  His trustworthiness is measured by the cross. He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things (Romans 8:32)?  The cross teaches us that he can be trusted to supply all our needs.

5.     Epaphroditus had got ill

Don’t ever believe those who tell you that it is not God’s will for you to get sick.  Faithful Christians get sick, and we all are on our way to the grave.  Timothy had to take wine for his stomach.  Paul ended up in the hill country of Galatia because of an illness.  Trophimus had to remain behind in Miletus because he was unwell.  Epaphroditus, who the Philippians had sent to help Paul in Rome, had become so ill that he almost died.  Paul returned Epaphroditus as a hero not a failure.
But Paul could have done with the help of Epaphroditus.  So how can he be content when he has just lost a valuable helper?  Again, Paul has to trust God.  ‘And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus’ (4:19).
Paul teaches us to present our requests with thanksgiving.  Thankful praying is a way in which we learn that God has indeed being faithful to all our needs.  When times are difficult, we can remember that God has brought us through before.  When we don’t have all that we want, see that God has given us all that we need.  Thanksgiving is a part of the secret of contentment.

6.      Paul is spiritually and physically imperfect

A famous preacher pointed out that he has never met a truly godly person who thinks they are.  Paul certainly knew his failings.  Not that I have already attained this or have already being made perfect (3:12).  If you think that you are on a spiritually higher plane than others, it is probably a sign that you are warped in pride.  
Not only is the apostle Paul not spiritually perfect, he is not physically perfect.  We have to wait until Christ’s return before we see our lowly bodies being transformed into the likeness of Christ’s resurrected and glorious body (3:21).  How do we deal with spiritual and physical imperfection?  We look forward to the day when our battle with sin will be over and we receive our glorious resurrection bodies.  
There is a discontent that is right in the face of our moral imperfection.  We should be straining ahead to become more like Jesus.  But we must not expect perfection.  The person who believes that they are without sin is deceived, and the truth is not in them (1 John 1:8).  We battle with the sinful nature, but we also rejoice that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).  When thoughts of past sin and present struggle cause us to feel insecure, remember that God does not treat us as our sins deserve but according to his loving kindness (Psalm 103:10).

7.     Euodia and Synthyche were dividing the church

Surely the argument between two of the church’s leading lights could cause him to despair.  Indeed, it seems that their personal falling out has damaged the whole congregation because he needs to address them about issues like rivalry and arguing.  Paul pleads with these two women, but what if they ignore him?  How can Paul be content when things are not going well in the church?  He has to trust that this is Christ’s church not his church, and that Christ can build his church even when people threaten to get in the way.
How good are we at leaving things in God’s hands?  How good are we in situations that we can’t control?  Are we able to present our petitions to God and then depend on him for peace?  May God give us the strength to leave our anxieties in his capable hands.  
A theological student went to a psychologist because he was struggling with depression.  The psychologist was a Christian.  The student explained that his life had not turned out as he had wanted.  He had grand visions for his future, and when he realised that they weren’t coming to fruition his world was shattered. 
‘Chris,’ exclaimed the psychologist, ‘it sounds like you want happiness to be the goal of your life.’  ‘Have you ever considered that God might not want the goal of your life to be happiness but maturity?’
‘I can do all things through him who gives me strength’ (Philippians 4:13).  Obviously, that doesn’t mean that I can jump over my house if I try hard enough.  But neither does it mean I can make million, never have any pain, never get sick and not die.  Look and the context of this verse and you will see that it means that I can be content in all circumstances.  You can grow in all circumstances.  You can remain faithful in all circumstances.  You can only through him who gives you strength.  The result might not be happiness, but it will be joy.

Monday, 1 July 2019

Philippians 4:2-9 ‘Mind matters!’

As you may know, my mother struggled with her mental health last autumn.  She had never had such problems before and then she became so ill that she had to be admitted to hospital.  Thank God, she is doing great now.

I recently asked her what she felt caused her breakdown.  She said that at her stage in life she had started looking back and thinking about what she could have done better.  She says that now she won’t allow herself think like this.  ‘God has forgiven all these things and doesn’t want me to dwell on them.’  An attitude of thanksgiving has been a great help to her.  She spends time thinking of things to thank God for.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians has a lot to say about how we think.  He calls them to be like-minded, having the same love and being one in spirit and of one mind (2:2).  We are to agree on the gospel of grace.  He tells us to have the mindset of Christ (2:5), who humbled himself to the extent on dying on a Roman cross, for us.  All this is compared to a mindset of grumbling and arguing.  Thinking about the gospel is to cause us to rejoice!

Be of one mind so that you get on with each other (2-3)

I plead with Euodia and Synthyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.  These women aren’t getting on with each other, and Paul appeals to their minds rather than their hearts.  The problem in so many of our disputes is that we are forgetting the gospel.  When we insist on getting our way, we are forgetting that Christ took the nature of a servant, for us.  When we recognise that we are amongst the chief of sinners forgiven by a God who does not treat us as our sins deserve but according to his loving kindness, how can we hold grudges?  When we remember that Christ died for us while we were his enemies, how can we make a big deal of the fact that some people get on our nerves?

In some ways this is a horrible way for Euodia and Synthyche to be remembered on the pages of Scripture.  He is not concerned to save their blushes.  Yet Paul actually deals with them gently.  He asks for an unnamed third party to step in and help sort out their dispute.  He doesn’t take sides.  And he recognises that these two have contended at his side for the sake of the gospel.  I remember talking to a pastor, John Samuel, about a situation where there was dispute.  I was worried about one person in particular.  He gave me a great piece of advice, ‘let them have no reason doubt that you love them.’  So many of our disputes would dissipate if we would only take Paul’s command seriously: ‘Let your gentleness be evident to all.’

Let your thinking make you glad (4-5)

The famous Welsh preacher, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, was doing a series on Philippians and he came to these verses.  ‘Rejoice in the Lord.’  So, he preached a sermon on rejoicing in the Lord.  The next week his text was, ‘I will say it again: rejoice!’  So he preached the same sermon again.  He explained to the congregation: ‘if God said it twice, you must hear it twice!’

Joy is not an easy topic to preach on.  James says, ‘consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds.’  There again is the command for our thinking.  We are to consider it pure joy because God loves us, is in control and is working out his good purposes.  But I remember having that as my text and looking down at a friend who had just lost her father.  How could that trial feel like joy?

But Biblical joy is different from superficial happiness.  The Psalms are full of lament.  Jesus was a man of sorrows familiar with grief.  The apostle Paul can speak of being sorrowful yet always rejoicing.  As one friend who is a Biblical scholar points out: ‘I guess joy is not simply an emotion.  And so, someone with depression can still (though it would be harder) rejoice – have confidence in the Lord’ (Peter Orr).

In our sorrows we can know joy.  In our pain we know that God is our loving Father.  I asked a couple of people in this church how they cope with their depression.  One replied, ‘prayer, the support of friends and family, and knowing that the tears won’t last forever.  The thought that that heaven’s gates are already open for me is so comforting.  The thought of being immensely loved by God.  I also try to remember that I was in a bad place before and eventually got out of it.’  Another explained, ‘sometimes it’s to walk down the [canal] bank and watch all the wildlife.  The thing that really gets me through is to know that “this too will pass”, even though it does not feel like that.  Also, God is taking me through this to teach me something, i.e. to have more compassion and empathy for the people I come across who are hurting.  I can turn all my experiences into good.’  That’s joy!

Guard your thoughts as you hand your worries to God (6-7)

‘Do not be anxious about anything but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.’  Our loving Father gently reassures us, ‘I have all the resources of the universe at my disposal, and I love you with the same love as my son Jesus.  I know your need.  Don’t worry.’  Keep bringing your worries to him until your heart knows peace.  He won’t tire of listening to you.  And notice that the peace that he brings goes beyond understanding.  He won’t necessarily sort things out in the way we expect.   

The evangelist, Rico Tice, knew a young Christian who nearly died when she had her second child.  He noticed that she emerged from her ordeal more committed to her faith.  He asked her why this was.  She replied, ‘Rico, in the midst of fearing that I would die, and not be able to be a mother to my first son, and not be a wife to my husband, and love my family.  In the midst of worrying that my health was disintegrating and that the baby I had just had was going to die too.  In the midst of that, though I am a very young Christian, the thing that worked was prayer.’  In the midst of her troubles she knew that peace—the peace that transcends understanding!   She said, ‘It was extra-ordinary!’
Feed the mind well and be affected by good thoughts (8-9)
Apparently, the verb in verse 8 the verb translated ‘think’ means to think about in such a way that it will change our actions.  ‘Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, and whatever is admirable, if anything is excellent or praise-worthy we are to think about such things.’  We are to think about things that will affect our attitudes and actions in a positive way and, by implication, not feed our minds with trash.
That is a real challenge for you parents as the summer holidays approach.  The children get board and demand more and more screen time.  What are they watching?  How does it affect their mood?  Is there any way in which it builds up a gospel perspective on the world?  The same goes for us.  Why do we watch what we watch, read what we read, talk about what say?  As you think, you will be.

I want to finish on a positive note.  I began by mentioning my mother and how she has changed her thinking for pondering guilt to thanksgiving.  God does not want you to remind him of your past failings, for he has chosen to forgive them.  God doesn’t want you to tell him you are not up to the task, for he is the one who strengthens us.  We are told to present our requests to him with thanksgiving.

I read an article in Psychology Today that points out that research has shown thanksgiving to be good for your mental health.  It gives a feeling of well-being and increases positivity.  It helps counteract negative thoughts like envy, resentment and bitterness.  It even helps us become more loving and empathetic.  The Bible is a thankful book.  In the book of Psalms, we are told to thank God because he is good ‘and his love endures forever’ (Psalm 106:1).    We see Jesus giving thanks for the provision of food.  The apostle Paul regularly told the early Christians how thankful to God he was for them.  When our prayers lack thanksgiving we cut ourselves off from a source of God-given joy.  Indeed, the gospel gives us plenty to be thankful for.

So if you are a Euodia or Synthyche who is struggling to love someone who annoys you, thank God for the good news that God gave his Son to die for you while you were still his enemy.  If you are finding it hard to serve one another, thank God that his Son took the place of a slave and was humbled to death on a cross.  If you are struggling with worry, thank God that heaven’s gates are open to you and that this too will pass.  Thank God so that you can rejoice and until you know his peace. 

Monday, 24 June 2019

Philippians 2:19-30 'Selfless love'

On a university campus in Canada in the 1960’s two young students began an evangelistic Bible study.  It turned out to be more popular than they had anticipated.  The studies engendered all kinds of discussions.  Soon they realised they were out of their depths. So they turned to the help of a graduate student, called Dave, who was very effective in talking to people about the Christian faith.  
On one particular occasion they brought two students to meet Dave.  Dave was known for being rather abrupt.  So when the first student revealed that he had a merely academic interest in Christianity Dave suggested that he should come back when he was really interested in Christ.  Then he turned to the second student and asked, ‘Why did you come?’ ‘I come from what you people would call a liberal home,’ the student, whose name was Rick, replied.   ‘We don’t believe the way you do.  But it’s a good home, a happy home.  My parents loved their children, disciplined us, set a good example, and encouraged us to be courteous, honourable, and hard-working.   And for the life of me I can’t see that you people who think yourselves as Christians are any better.  Apart from a whole lot of abstract theology, what have you got that I haven’t?’
Dave stared at this guy for a few seconds and then he simply said, ‘watch me!’
Rick said something like, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand.’  Dave answered, ‘Watch me.   Come and live with me for a month, if you like.   Be my guest.  Watch what I do when I get up, what I do when I’m on my own, how I work, how I use my time, how I talk with people, what my values are.  Come with me wherever I go.  And at the end of the month, you tell me if there is any difference.’
Rick did not take Dave up on his invitation, at least not exactly in those terms.  But he did get to know Dave better, and in due course Rick did become a Christian.
I find that illustration really challenging.  If someone came and lived with me for a month, what would they see?  If someone watched you closely for a month, would they see Jesus?  Would they see that he is the centre of your life?  Would they see that Jesus flows through your veins?  This morning we see three people worth watching—Paul, Timothy and Epaphroditus.
So far we have said that Paul was writing to a church that a problem with unity.  There were two women that were quarrelling.  It may be that the rest of the church had taken sides in that quarrel.  Paul certainly needs to keeping telling the Philippians that they need to love each other.
Paul has told the Philippians to live a life worthy of the gospel.  He has told them consider each other as being more important than they do themselves.  He has given the example of Jesus—who didn’t consider equality with God something to be grasped, took the nature of humanity, became a slave and died a humiliating death, for us and our salvation.
But hold on!  I can’t do it.  I seem completely self-absorbed.  I feel helpless in the fight against my over-whelming ego.  Thankfully there is hope.  In one of my favourite verses in the Bible, Paul tells the Philippians that, God works in you to will and act according to his good purposes.  Get that!  God can change you in a way that you could never change yourself.  Look to Jesus and be inspired, and then ask him to fill you with his Holy Spirit, so that you might be freed from slavery to your vanity.  When you are reminded about how self-absorbed you are, thank God that he is gracious and forgiving, thank him that he is graciously showing you where you need to change, and then lean heavily upon him in prayer. 
The unity and love that we are to share with each other are so important because they please our heavenly Father and enable us to shine like stars in the world—people will see that Jesus is amongst us and that he is love!
Now, up to this point the letter has been filled with teaching.  But now Paul gives them some details about his plans.  Paul normally leaves his travel plans to the end of his letters, but here he brings them forward in order to talk about two people whose example we can learn from.  Timothy and Epaphroditus model the sort of sacrificial living that this letter is all about.  
Timothy—a person who cares for the interests of Christ above his own

Once a month, some of the Christian leaders meet together on a Saturday for breakfast and prayer.  At one of these meetings, Jim Smiedt, from the World Outreach Christian Centre, gave us a book.  It is entitled, ‘In Search for Timothy—discovering and developing greatness in church staff and volunteers.’
There is no shortage of emphasis on leadership in Christian circles, but what about the need to be followers.  Indeed, I would suggest that you are not qualified to lead, if you have no desire to follow.  Timothy is a great model of follower-ship.  
I hope in the Lord to send Timothy to you soon.  Timothy is mentioned in a number of Paul’s letters.  He seems to have been Paul’s most valued co-worker.  The Philippians knew Timothy—he had been with Paul when he first visited Philippi (Acts 16).  Timothy had been converted through the ministry of Paul.  Now, like a son serving an apprenticeship, Timothy had served (literally ‘slaved’) with his spiritual father.  He had travelled with Paul, and was now with Paul in Rome (remember that Paul is in chains).   
He is not going to send Timothy until he sees how things go with me.  Paul is waiting to see if he will be released.  Until then he wants Timothy to stay with him.  Then he will send Timothy, who will bring back a report to him about how things are going with the Philippians.  He hopes that Timothy will bring him back news saying that they have got over their divisions.  Paul then anticipates coming himself, when he is released.
Look at how Paul describes Timothy.  He has proved himself (22a)—the word translated proven his worth, refers to the character of one who has remained faithful under pressure.  One of the things that strike me, as I work through these verses is that Paul is painting a picture that says that the Christian life will not be a bed of roses.  Sometimes it is really good to be amongst God’s people in church, because it is refreshing to be among people who know how we feel.  They know what it is like to feel looked down on and opposed because of what they believe.
Timothy takes a genuine interest in your welfare (20).  He is an example of someone who considers others more important than himself.  What is more, he puts the needs of Jesus before his own needs.  For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ (21).  Not Timothy.
Before I came to Limerick, I spoke in our church a couple of times.  On one of these occasions I used a children’s story that explained the acronym J.O.Y.  What do you think the key to ‘joy’ is?  It is putting Jesus first, others second and yourself last.  If that unrealistic, look at the example of Timothy.  For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ (21).  My mother is the person I have seen this quality in most.
Epaphroditus—the web of love
This letter was delivered to them by a messenger.  That messenger was Epaphroditus.  The Philippians would have been surprised to see Epaphroditus coming to them, for they had earlier sent him from them to Paul.  They had sent Paul a financial gift, and Epaphroditus to care help with his needs.  They didn’t expect him back so soon.  Paul explains why he has sent Epaphroditus back to them—it is all about love!      
They had heard that Epaphroditus was ill.  Poor Epaphroditus was distressed that his friends at home in Philippi were worried about him.  Indeed, he had been ill, so ill that he almost died.  But God had mercy on him, and not only him but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow (27).
They are not to consider Epaphroditus’s return home to be a sign of failure.  He comes highly commended by Paul.  He is to be honoured.  Paul calls him a brother, fellow-worker and fellow-soldier (25), he is to be welcomes home and honoured, for he risked his life.
Notice the web of love.  Paul loves Timothy as a son.  The Philippians love Paul, and so send him Epaphroditus.  Epaphroditus loves Philippians and was distressed when they heard he was sick.  The Philippians love Epaphroditus, and were worried when he was sick.  And on and on it goes.
I once went to a senior pastor to get advice about someone I was concerned about.  I feared that their behaviour needed to be addressed.  He gave me a wonderfully gracious instruction.  ‘Never let them have any reason to doubt that you love them.’  Sometimes we do need to talk to people about issues in their life, they may not be happy about what we have to say, but never give anyone a reason to doubt you love.
I was reading a commentary on these verses.  They gave the illustration of Detrick Bonhoeffer.  Bonhoeffer was a German leader who opposed the Nazis.  He went on a study trip to Germany, just before the war broke out.  He was given an option of staying on in America and avoiding going back to Germany.  But he felt that he needed to go back and support those Christians who were standing against the Nazis.  So he returned.  He ended up in a concentration camp.  And he was executed weeks before the war ended.  He is an example of someone, like Timothy, who put the interests of Christ above his own.
How do we do it?  Be inspired the love of Jesus.  We love because he first loved us.  Realise that loving Jesus and others next is the key to joy.  There is a freedom in self-forgetfulness and peace in following one who loves you with an infinite love.

Monday, 17 June 2019

Philippians 1:27-2:11 - ‘The imitation of Christ’

There was a tribe in a dry part of Africa that dug a deep well for water.  This well went a hundred feet into the ground.  Tribesmen climbed down alternating slits in the wall of the well to reach the base.  Only the strongest men could go down and emerge with a skin full of water for the whole tribe.

One day the man carrying water out of the well shaft slipped and broke his leg.  There was only one man in the tribe who was strong enough to carry a man out of the well.  That man was the tribe’s chief.
The chief customarily wore a massive headdress and ceremonial robe.  However, in order to rescue the man in the well he had to remove both.  He descended down the well, put the injured man on his shoulders, and removed him to safety.    
In the same way we were at the bottom of pit.  We were dead in our rebellion and sin.  Jesus saw us from heaven, removed his glory, took on a human nature and descended to a cross to rescue us.
How does his example affect how we live?
Stand firm when people hate you because of Jesus (1:27-30)
Our reading begins with the Paul calling us to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel.  What does this mean?  It involves standing firm in one spirit, contending as one person for the faith of the gospel, without being afraid in any way of those who oppose you (28-29).  As people who have been rescued by our humble chief, we are to stand together out of loyalty to him.
The message of our chief is not an easy one for people to hear.  We live amongst a people who base their image on being ‘a good person.’  Even when our children do wrong, we are not to say they are bad, but that they are good kids who have done a bad king.  Then Jesus comes along and calls us evil.  He says that he is our only hope.  He is politically incorrect that he claims that he alone is the way to the Father.  No one else has come done the well to rescue us!
I sometimes wonder if my friends are happy enough to tolerate my faith simply because I haven’t been clear enough about what I believe.
Stick together as you imitate Christ (2:1-5)
One of the keys to standing together is to imitate our humble chief.  If he was willing to take off his heavenly robes and descend down to the pit of the cross for us, should we not be willing to humble ourselves to serve each other?  How can we say that we are his disciples and refuse to follow his example?  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.  Each of you should not only look to his own interests, but also the interests of others.  Your attitude should be the same of Jesus Christ (3-4).
In a foreign country, missionaries put on a meal for some international visitors.  They entertained with a lavish meal.  There was food left over.  So, they said to a local man, ‘why don’t you take some of this to your wife and family?’  He declined.  They insisted, and he declined again.  ‘Why not?’, they protested.  ‘I don’t carry,’ he replied.  That man was too proud to be seeing carrying anything, so his family missed out on a feast.
We might look down at such obvious pride, but aren’t we proud too?  We are just very subtle with our pride!  Or maybe we are just too lazy!  We know someone needs help, but we pretend that we have not noticed.  We know if we offer a hand, they might say yes.  We lack generosity with our time.  We lack charity with our words.  We know that someone is feeling burdened, but we are too busy to listen.  God forgive us.  We are so unlike our chief!
The way up is to bow down (2:6-11)
Do you see how verses six to eleven are laid out differently?  That is to indicate that what we have here is a poem or a song.  It seems that Paul is either quoting or composing a song about Jesus.  This song is about the attitude of Christ, and it centres on Jesus’ humility.  
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant (more literally ‘a slave’), being made in human likeness (6-7).
When the chief took off his robes and descended down the well, he did not stop being the chief.  Similarly, when Jesus left heaven and took on the body on a man, he did not stop being God the Son.
What Jesus did for us was infinitely more impressive than that African chief.  Having enjoyed the Father and Spirit for all eternity, he was born in Bethlehem to a poor family.  Our king never owned a home, yet alone a palace.  He didn’t take on an impressive body but had nothing in his appearance that we should admire him.  He was misunderstood by his family, betrayed by his friends, despised by the elites, and he experienced the most shameful of deaths—that of a Roman cross, naked with people mocking and spitting at him.
The one who causes the mighty cedars to grow is born and placed in a manger made wood.  The one who hung stars in space learned how to hang doors on their frames.  He who stand out side of time was made in time.  He who made mankind was made within a womb.  He was given existence by a mother he had brought into existence.  He was carried in hands he had formed (adapted from Augustine).  No Roman citizen could be crucified, and it was a subject that was not to be spoken of in polite company.  The Jews considered a curse of God.  But Jesus did not consider it beneath his dignity.
Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (9-11).
This is a very important verse in proving that Jesus is God. The Jehovah Witnesses believe that Jesus is the archangel Michael.  But the New Testament constantly uses titles and descriptions of God and applies them to Christ.  Before me every knee will bow (Isaiah 45:23).
I don’t think that chief was any less wonderful when he took off his robes and descended down that well.  He was still their chief and his people marvelled at his kindness.  He descended into that dirty well as the only one who could rescue the endangered man.  When he emerged from the well and put on his robes, I think that the people will have loved him more than they had before.  He would have been somehow more glorious than if had not helped.
Our chief, Jesus is somehow more glorious now than before he came to earth.  The resurrected Christ has now been restored to the right hand of God the Father.  He actually remains in his resurrection body.  We will worship the lamb who was slain.  We will gaze upon the scars that were for us.
The way up is to bow down.  The humblest task is to do those things that no-one notices.  Don’t get overly upset if no-one says thanks.  Don’t get mad if you feel taken for granted.  It’s not like we spend all our time thanking Jesus for all he does for us.  The most important person to please is the person who never takes his eyes off us, our heavenly Father.  The most important place to please him is with the attitude of our heart.  The apostle Paul told the slaves at Ephesus: ‘Slaves obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.  Obey them not only to win favour when their eyes are on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.  Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does whether he is a slave or free’ (Ephesians 6:5-8).  In other words, Christ will share his heavenly glory with those who humble themselves for others.  The way up is to bow down!

Monday, 10 June 2019

‘Do I love Jesus more than…?’ (Philippians 1:12-26)

How is your passion for Jesus?
The apostle Paul talks openly about death.  He can’t avoid thinking about it because he is under house arrest in Rome.  He might be taken from that place of chains and be brought to a place of execution.  Death could be just around the corner for Paul.  But then, death could be just around the corner for any one of us!
We are going to thing about life and death, and how our love for Jesus should shape our living and dying.  In particular, I am going to ask you three questions:  Do you love Jesus more than comfort?  Do you love Jesus more than your reputation?  Do you love Jesus more than living?
Do you love Jesus more than comfort? (12-14)
This imprisonment that Paul is enduring, as he writes to the Philippians, is probably the same imprisonment as is as described at the end of the book of Acts.  As it turns out, he will be freed, only to be imprisoned and executed at a later date.
Here he is under house arrest.  Most likely he is chained by the wrists to a Roman guard on each side.  But he is not feeling sorry for himself.  This letter is full of rejoicing.
We might think that he should be frustrated.  He was a tireless worker for the gospel.  He wanted to take the message of Jesus to the ends of the known world.  Yet he is happy in these difficult circumstances.  Why is he happy?  Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel (12).  
He can see two ways in which this imprisonment is a good thing for the message of Jesus.  
Firstly, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ (13).   Paul has a captive audience.  As the guards change shift he has new companions to witness to.  As he shares with them, and word about him spreads, it becomes clear that this man is not in prison because he is guilty of some crime but on account of his stand for Jesus.
Secondly, his efforts in prison are encouraging his fellow Christians.  Because   of   my   chains, most   of   the brothers and sisters in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly (14).  Isn’t that what happens when we hear of the work of some courageous missionary?  The speaker tells stories of hardships endured, difficulties overcame, and opposition faced.   Instead of going away thinking ‘my goodness that sounds tough, I’m glad my life isn’t like that,’ you actually are courage.    Their courage encourages us.  Their example inspires us.
It may be that rather than make our life easier, Jesus wants to be our strength through the pain.  Would you be satisfied with that?  Do you love Jesus more than comfort?
There was a woman in Australia who struggled with terrible arthritis.  She was a Christian.  She struggled bravely.  The patience she had with her discomfort had a profound impact on a neighbour.  That neighbour wanted to know the woman’s secret to suffering well.  So, the neighbour started coming to her church.  That neighbour became a Christian, as did her son.  That son is now a leading Bible commentator and teacher.  We might not always see what God will accomplish through our pain, but he won’t let our pain be wasted if we trust him with it.
Do you love Jesus more than your reputation? (15-18a)
Some people were using the fact that Paul was in prison to stir up trouble for him.  Perhaps they were undermining him: ‘What use is he now that he chained up?’  Maybe they say he has let the side down: ‘if only he had been a little more subtle, he would not have got himself in trouble?’  These trouble-makers are motivated by envy, rivalry and selfish-ambition.  They resent his authority and see him as competition.
But Paul is not worried about them.  So, what if they are trying to destroy his reputation?  The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached.  And because of this I rejoice (18).
What matters is Jesus and his gospel, not Paul and his reputation.  He would have had no time for the competition that often exists between churches.  He wouldn’t be worried if others got credit for work that he had done.  Does it hurt us that people think that we are out of our mind to follow Christ?  Are you embarrassed to be a Jesus freak?  Can we take it when someone points out where we need to change?  If we love Jesus more than our reputation, then we will invite people to correct and challenge us.  We will be more concerned that we grow in godliness than defend our behaviour.  If we love Jesus more than our reputation, then we will be vulnerable with people, because it is only when we are honest about our real selves that we can invite people to help us change.  In an age of carefully crafted Facebook profiles, people need to see honest people who can admit that they have not got it all together. They need to see the beauty of broken people who are holding on the Jesus.  
Do you love Jesus more than life? (18b-26)
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, 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 (19).  Notice his confidence in the power of prayer.  He knows that the Philippians are praying for him and that the Spirit will help him.  The deliverance that he speaks of here may refer to the strength to keep on going to the very end.  So, he continues, 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 (20).  Paul wants to honour Jesus in how he lives or how he dies.  It is not comfort, nor reputation, nor life, nor death that matters most to him, it is exalting Christ.
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain (21).  He can declare, ‘I desire to depart and be with Christ which is far better’ (23).  If to die is gain, what is the purpose of life?  Paul says, ‘to live is Christ’ (21a).  The very purpose of our existence is to make Jesus look good.  He expects that he will go on living because he believes that God has graciously given him work to do.  I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me (25-26).
Conclusion:  How can I love Jesus more?
It would be wrong for me to tell you that you should love Jesus more than comfort, reputation and life and not tell you how you can love.  How can I love Jesus more than anything else?  Think of the woman who washed Jesus feet with her tears (Luke 7:47).  Jesus said that she loved much because she was forgiven much.  The apostle Paul loved Jesus so much because he was content to think of himself as the greatest of all sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).  Our love for him will only grow as we are enabled to rejoice in the measure of love he has shown to us!
So, stop excusing your sin.  Resist the urge to cry with the world, ‘but I am a good person!’  See that the roots of every conceivable evil lie in your heart.  Don’t look down on others when they fall, but remember that ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’  Acknowledge that you are far worse than you realise, and far more loved than you dreamed.  
Then pray that God would allow you to feel assurance that your sins are forgiven.  He is the one who grants repentance and he will never turn away anyone who comes to him in repentant faith, no matter what you may have done.  There is a work of the Spirit here: the apostle Paul prays that we may have the strength to comprehend with all God’s people the breath and length and height and depth of God’s love (Ephesians 3:18-19).  There is also a very practical side to this: the apostle John says ‘see what manner of love the Father has lavished on us’ (1 John 3:1).
Prayerfully consider God’s gracious love for you so that you love for him would grow beyond comfort, reputation and even life itself.  Then you will have reason for rejoicing!

Monday, 3 June 2019

‘Are you glad to serve God together?’ (Philippians 1:1-11)

I love the description that someone gave the early Christians of the second-century: ‘They marry, like everybody else, and they have children, but they do not destroy their offspring [in that culture people left unwanted babies out in the cold to die or be eaten by wild animals].  They share a common meal, but not a common bed … They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.  They love all men and are persecuted by all … yet those who hate them are unable to give any reasons for their hatred’ (The Epistle to Diognetus).  They shone like stars in a crooked and depraved generation (2:15).
Philippi was a cosmopolitan city in what is now northern Greece.  We can read of Paul’s visit there in Acts 16.  It was there that himself and Silas sang in prison, experienced an earthquake and the jailer asked, ‘what must I do to be saved?’  It was there that we read of a merchant called Lydia, and how the Lord opened her heart that she could believe.  They had left a fledgling church behind them.
Ten years have passed.  Paul is now under house-arrest in Rome.  But when he thinks about those Christians in Philippi his heart is warmed.  This church brought him more joy than any other church we know of.  They are so generous towards the famine-stricken believers in Jerusalem that Paul holds up their example of giving.  They also have sought to care for him in prison.  But there is a problem, for two of their leading ladies have fallen out with each other.
As we look at this letter we are going to be thinking about how we can shine like stars in our crooked and depraved culture.  This passage teaches us how we can serve God together in away that brings glory and praise to God.
We need each other
I thank my God every time I remember you.  In all my prayers for you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now (3-5).
The word for ‘partnership’ (5) is often translated ‘fellowship’.  This word has everything to do with practical, coats-off, sleeves-rolled-up, tiring work.  Paul is glad to serve God with them.
Notice that they had different roles to play.  The Philippians partnered with Paul in their giving—both to the poor Christians in Jerusalem and to the mission of the apostle (4:10).  Paul partnered with them through his prayers and teaching.  I am sure that they did many other valuable works, but their partnership with Paul shows how their generosity was a key part of his mission.  They served together as different links in a chain.  I hope that is what we do!
The writer to the Hebrews tells us to encourage one another daily (3:12).  We are to help each other shine like stars in our crooked and depraved setting.  We need each other.  The person who is living for Jesus in a home with an argumentative spouse needs to know that he is held before God in our prayer.  The person nursing a sick child, needs to know that we genuinely care.  The person who has been given the privilege of speaking to their neighbour about Jesus, needs people to rejoice with.  We shine like stars as we partner together to live lives that bring praise and glory to God.  One of the key parts of this partnership is holding each other before God in prayer!
We need God (who does not need us)
Of course, not only do we need each other, we need God.  We need to encourage each other with the fact that ‘he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus’ (6).  As one person explains, ‘if you have given your life to him, then you can be cast-iron guaranteed that he won’t dump you along the way.’
In the second-century, the bishop of Smyrna (which in now in modern Turkey), a man called Polycarp, was executed because of he refused to worship the emperor.  As they travelled to the place of execution the officer pleaded with him to recant.  ‘What harm can it do to sacrifice to the emperor?’  But Polycarp refused.  Again, when he was brought before the proconsul in the amphitheatre he was urged to recant his faith.  
Polycarp, who was a very old man, replied, ‘For eighty-six years I have served him, and he has done me no wrong; how can I blaspheme my king who saved me?’  Polycarp was then placed by a stake, and he prayed, ‘O Lord … I thank you for counting me worthy of this day …’  The wind was blowing in the wrong direction, driving the flames away and prolonging his suffering, until a soldier put an end to his suffering by stabbing him with a sword.
Under house-arrest in Rome, Paul remembered that God is faithful.  Facing the flames of martyrdom, Polycarp knew that God was faithful.  As we seek to shine like stars in our crooked generation, we must remember that God is faithful. 
But while we need him, he does not need us.  David knew this.  As he faced Goliath he proclaimed, ‘the battle belongs to the Lord.’  Jesus knew this.  He said, ‘I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against us.  He doesn’t need us, but he delights to use us.  He is not a desperate boss, who need a hand.  He is a generous father who wants us to have a sense of privilege and purpose doing the works he prepared in advance for us to do.  This week pray that he would give you the opportunity to tell someone why you are a Christian.  Pray that God would enable you to live a life that reflects his transforming and forgiving grace.  Pray that God would help us love and be patient with Christians who are very different with us.  
As we grow in knowledge of the gospel our lives will be changed
The apostle Paul seems to pray more for people’s spiritual needs than their physical needs.  It is not wrong to pray for each other’s physical needs—we should cast our anxieties on God because he cares for us.  But the most important desire for our Christian friends should be that they should grow in faith and love.  ‘And this is my prayer: that your love may grow more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God’ (9-11).
Do you see that there seems to be a relationship between what we know (knowledge and insight), how we feel (love) and how we live (pure and blameless)?  The apostle John, in his first letter, expounds the same idea.  John writes, ‘The is what we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down life for us (1 John 3:16a). ‘We love because he first loves us’ (1 John 4:19).  ‘Dear friends, let us love one another for love comes from God (1 John 4:7).  The key to living a loving life is seeing the love of God, the love of God is seen in the cross of Christ.
Our greatest problem is not that we don’t love God enough—although none of us love him as we ought—but that we don’t realise how much he loves us.  Carefully contemplate the gospel of Christ on his cross.  That will lead to a life of love.  Then we will rejoice to shine like stars together and we will be assured that our God will be faithful to us to the end.  
This letter begins and ends with grace, so I want to tell you a story of a partnership founded in grace.
I was reading a book about the Guinness family.  One of the many missionary Guinnesses was in China when a burglar broke into his house.  Henry, the missionary, greeted him in his pyjamas.  He invited the burglar to sit down and read him John’s Gospel.  Within a short time, the thief had decided to become a Christian.  Henry prayed with him and the next morning left him in charge of the house with instructions to prepare lunch.  When he returned home later that day, the house was immaculate, and the meal was waiting on him on the table.  Henry invited the former thief to become his co-worker and he never regretted it.  Gospel partnerships are forged in grace!