Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Philippians 1:12-14, 19-30
But I am hard pressed between the two, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Yet to remain in the flesh is more needful for your sake.
There was a post on Facebook with a number of photos of hidden cats. They can be very good at hiding; as a matter of fact, I think I spend half my day looking for my three. Some of the cats were fairly easy to find in the photos, especially since I understand cats. Others were far more difficult. It wasnít any easier that I was playing the game on my tablet, so the photos were tiny. I was glad they repeated the photo with a mark showing the cat because there were at least a few I would never have found. They became obvious once I knew where they were.
That happens with those pictures that can be interpreted different ways. There is one circulating that appears to be either a bird or a goat. A much older one can be seen as a young or elderly woman. Thereís one that is two faces or a vase. Iím sure youíve seen at least a few of those. Once you see what the game tells you is there, it is hard to believe you didnít see it in the first place.
I think that happens with spiritual things, too. People have spent lifetimes searching for something, not even knowing what they need. They try every sort of spiritual practice or device, jumping from one religion to another, trying different types of tangible items in the hope of filling the hole in their hearts. The self-help aisle at the bookstore is filled with hundreds of ideas, and the Internet is overflowing with people trying to convince us that they have the answer. They seek God, but in all the wrong places. They refuse to see Him as He is.
The blessed ones are those who seek Him where He might be found. When they find Him, they often wonder how they could have ever missed seeing Him. They become passionate about faith because they finally see what they have been seeking for a long time.
There is something incredible about a person who has that passion for Jesus. A German man named Count Zinzendorf had the motto, ďI have one passion; it is Jesus, Jesus only.Ē He was passionate for Christ, constantly desiring His presence. He lived during the 18th century, a time when Christians were being exiled from Bohemia and Moravia. He allowed the exiles to establish a community on his estate. They called this place Herrnhut that means ďUnder the Lordís Watch.Ē
He understood the necessity and the power of prayer, and his passion was passed on to the community of Moravians. In 1727, twenty-four men and women covenanted to hold to constant prayer, each member of the group taking one hour a day. This small but committed prayer team grew as others joined and their community was strengthened by unceasing prayer. They met together once a week to share prayer requests and encourage one another. Eventually this constant prayer led to greater outreach when Zinzendorf suggested they send missionaries to other nations.
That prayer meeting lasted a hundred years. Over three hundred missionaries were sent around the world. The Moravian fervor touched the lives of two men in England, John and Charles Wesley, bringing them to Christ. These two men had a significant impact on the Christian church, in music, and preaching. The Moraviansí passion for Christ and for lost souls had an impact on the Church around the world, playing a role in the Great Awakening, a revival that spread through Europe and America. These twenty-four people who began to pray unceasingly touched the lives of millions. The results of their prayers will last for eternity.
Seeking the LORD and calling on Him is spending time in prayer. Count Zinzendorf and the Moravians realized that God is always present with us and that they should be in prayer without ceasing. Not only did they have this group of people interceding constantly, but they also lived within a community of believers that practiced lives that showed the fruit of prayer. They lived like the early Christians in Acts, having everything in common, spending time together in fellowship and worship. They had a heart for spreading the Gospel and did what was necessary to bring Christ to the world. They knew the great gift of salvation and they were willing to follow their Lord Jesus anywhere. They dwelled in Godís Kingdom on earth. Their passion manifested itself in awesome ways.
Another way passionate faith is manifested is in complete and absolute trust in God. Have you ever known someone who had a certain peace and joy no matter their circumstances? They can praise God even when struggling to get through each day because of health issues, or financial difficulties. They smile when they should be in tears. They laugh when they should be angry. They love and trust God even when it seems as though He has abandoned them. The prayer of the psalmist has been answered in their lives; they are dwelling in the house of God today.
We who have known Jesus for our lifetime should have that kind of passion. Yet, how many of us go about our daily lives without even thinking about Him? How many of us would be willing to commit to an hour every day in prayer for as long as we live? Paul understood what it meant to be passionate about Jesus. He was a late bloomer, of course, after some time of persecuting the Christians. Stephen was stoned under his watch. He was on his way to Damascus to persecute the church there when he met Jesus. His life was changed; he committed himself to Jesus even unto death because he was passionate about his new found faith.
Paul was suffering. Heíd been imprisoned and he did not know what would happen to him. The people who might have been able to help were unwilling. His Christian congregations had no power or authority to help him, but they were able to give him some aid. The letter to the Philippians was a thank you note to them for gifts they sent to help him in this time of need. It might seem to readers that Paul was suicidal, wishing for death. Yet, his letter is so full of hope. He had hope because his life was centered on Christ: whether he lived or died, Christ was his life. He knew that if he died, he would gain, but if he lived, he could continue the work Jesus had called him to do.
Thatís what Paul hoped for the people of Philippi and all Christians throughout time. Suffering is often part of the Christian journey. There are always those who are against the Gospel of Jesus Christ and some Christians would be arrested, imprisoned, and even killed for their faith. Paulís word of encouragement to the community is that they stay centered on Christ, too, just like he had whether he was preaching, traveling, or imprisoned. If they were united around Christ Jesus, they would have the same joy in the good times and the bad. They would be fruitful together, able to face death (which is gain) or life which is for the sake of Godís glory and the increase of His Church.
Isaiah reminds us that our lives are meant to be focused on God. As we travel through this journey of life, we learn that we arenít in control of everything and that we shouldnít even try. We want to avoid suffering and so we let ourselves be led down dangerous paths. It just doesnít seem worthwhile to fight that which seems like it canít be fought. Sometimes these experiences are painful or inconvenient. Yet, God uses them for our good, to bring us to a deeper faith and closer relationship to Him. God knows what Heís doing, and His ways are always perfect. We canít imagine any good that might come from our suffering, but we can be like Paul, trusting that God can and does do incredible things even through our pain.
I have seen more and more posts of people suggesting that we are in the final days. Perhaps it is true, but then again other generations have faced difficult times, times much worse than we are facing today. There are other indicators, at least according to the way theyíve been interpreted, but we canít know for certain if Jesus will come again in our lifetimes.
When I see those posts I think: ďThatís ok. Iím ready. Come, Lord Jesus.Ē The reality is that no one knows the day or the hour, so Iím still making plans for tomorrow. I used to joke that as long as people predict the end of the world, God will keep putting it off. He canít have some human reading His mind, now, can He? I joke, but as Iíve grown older, I know that Iím ready. Jesusí return would certainly solve a lot of our problems, wouldnít it?
I may be more than willing to see the end of the world in three days, but that doesnít mean Iím ready for this life to be over. There is still so much work to do. Our Sunday school class just started a study on the Psalms. My children have not gotten married nor had children. There are places I want to go, things I want to see. Someone (or a lot of someones) still needs to hear the Gospel and be saved. There are several retreats I want to attend. There are paintings I want to paint and books I want to write. I canít do it all today.
Yet, Iím ready. Anything that will come after Jesusí return will be greater than all the great things I still look forward to experiencing. Jesus is preparing a place for those who love and believe in Him. The eternal banquet will be filled with an overabundance of the best food and drink, more delicious and satisfying than anything on earth. Jesusí return means that we will join together for an eternity of worship and praise of the One who has saved us. Yes, Iím ready. Come, Lord Jesus.
It will be great, but we canít count on it happening tomorrow. God knows the right time. He knows who still needs to hear the Gospel message and Jesus wonít come until the last ear has heard the Good News. That doesnít mean we have been left stranded and abandoned to the chaos and suffering that is in the world today. God is with us now; He will come again, but until that day we can trust in His presence as we live life in this world. As the psalmist says, ďOne thing I have asked of Yahweh, that I will seek after: that I may dwell in Yahwehís house all the days of my life, to see Yahwehís beauty, and to inquire in his temple.Ē The promise that will be fulfilled the day Jesus returns is already ours in the present. We dwell in Godís house in the here and now by faith in Jesus Christ and we have access to Godís grace through Him.
We who have been saved for a lifetime and those who have been saved for a moment are blessed, but there are still those who need to hear the Gospel so that they, too, can be saved. The eternal promise and all that goes with it will be theirs, too, one day. It may not come to them easily. They may search for it until their death bed, but if they believe in Jesus when they die, they will spend eternity with Him, just like us.
Sometimes it doesnít seem fair, especially if those deathbed confessions come from those who have harmed us. We look at the enemies who persecute Christians and ask God for justice. Our idea of justice, of course, tends to be that they deserve to spend eternity in hell rather than heaven. They donít deserve the blessing!
The landowner in todayís story made a deal with the first workers: they would work for the day and receive a dayís wages. A denarius, a dayís wage, was enough to feed a manís family. It sounds like a ridiculously small amount to us, but it was enough. The workers agreed, gladly. They were happy to have the work. The landowner returns to the corner and discovers more workers throughout the day, each time hiring them to work his fields. He made no agreements with those later workers, but they were happy to have the work. When the day was over, the landowner paid each worker a dayís wage, one denarius. He gave each worker enough.
We are, of course, incensed by this story because we believe that the person who worked more hours deserves more wages. What is right in this situation? The first workers agreed to the wage and when they agreed they felt it was right. Yet, when they discovered that the last hired also received a dayís wage for their, they grumbled about it to the landowner. ďItís not fair.Ē ďWe have rights.Ē But what is right in this situation?
The landowner decided that a living wage is what was right and just in this situation. Perhaps it was generous, but it was also right. Can a man live on less than a denarius a day? Can he feed his family? We want to assume that a man who is not hired immediately has not tried to get hired. And, there are certainly those in this life who refuse to do what is necessary to get a job. Yet, there are some who have tried, but who do not have the necessary skills or whose circumstances make it difficult to find a job. The landowner could have been generous and simply gave those last men some charity, but he chose to hire them for work. He was not only generous with his money, but he was also generous with compassion and encouragement. He did what was right, even if it seemed like the rights of the other workers were traipsed upon.
When it comes to eternal salvation, we think we deserve something better because weíve spent a lifetime working in Godís kingdom. Does the one who makes a deathbed confession deserve the same reward? God says, ďYes.Ē All those who believe in Jesus, whether they have believed for a lifetime or a minute will receive the inheritance promised in the scriptures, even those who did wrong but found what was sought at the last minute. As He says in Isaiah, ďĎFor my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways,í says Yahweh. ĎFor as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.Ē
We are reminded that our enemies belong to God, too, and since He is God, He is the one who chooses what to do with His people. Whether baptized as a baby or converted on a deathbed, all those who hear Godís voice and turn to Him will receive mercy. Are we willing to be Godís voice to those for those to whom weíve been sent, especially those we would rather not see benefit from Godís grace? It is often said that we will be surprised when we get to heaven and see some of the people who are there. How will we feel? Will we be like the field workers and battle the landowner over his generosity?
God has granted us the privilege of believing in Jesus and suffering for Him. What does this mean for us today? For some, it means everything that goes wrong in their life is some statement by God about sin or His response to our actions or lack of action. For others, every burden is a cross to bear, the suffering they have been called to do for God. Yet, the suffering Christ calls us to is like that of Paul to go out into the world and share the message of forgiveness and mercy with those who are dying in their sin. It isnít easy to preach repentance to those who are our enemies. It might mean we will be dealt with unjustly and we might just feel like we would rather die than see their salvation.
However, we have found what we sought in God for a purpose. He has given us His grace to be shared, even with our enemy. He saves us and calls us to a life of passion for Jesus that is meant to manifest in faithful action and trust in God. God loves even those who do not love Him and He desires that they hear His word of grace so that they might repent and worship Him too.
Like Paul, we are called to take the message of grace into the world, no matter what suffering we face. We are not given the responsibility to decide who gets how much of our Fatherís love. Thatís up to God. We canít pick and choose who we want to hear the Gospel. We canít decide someone doesnít deserve to receive mercy. We canít get angry if we see our enemies turn to God and receive salvation. Whether we are part of Godís kingdom for a lifetime, a day or a minute, those with faith will spend eternity with God.
We thank God for His mercy and grace because we are imperfect; we donít deserve eternal life in His kingdom any more than the other. We need His grace and mercy as much as our neighbor. How blessed are we that we have received the grace that has given us time to enjoy the benefits of living in His kingdom today! That grace has given us strength and courage, hope and peace, joy and love that makes our life worth living. We have that grace to get us through the bad times and help us do what is good and right in the world. That grace gives us the wisdom to treat our neighbor with respect and to value them as God does. Donít we want to share that with others so that they donít have to wait until that last minute to have what we have enjoyed our whole lives? Who knows, we might just discover our enemies make wonderful friends.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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