Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Phillipians 1:12-14, 19-30
One 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.
Apparently someone has decided that Jesus is coming on Saturday. When Bruce read me the headline, I said, 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 Sunday. 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 world to be over. There is still so much to do. Our Sunday school class has barely begun digging into the text from Johnís Gospel (even though we have been working on it for years.) 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. Thereís a retreat coming up, my daughterís graduation from grad school, my husbandís mission trip to Honduras. There are paintings I want to paint and books I want to write. I canít do it all in three days.
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 returns 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 Saturday. 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, ďAll I ask is to dwell in Godís house all the days of my life.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.
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 donít get it. How can Christian suffering make other Christians confident in the Gospel? As a matter of fact, it seems as though many Christians today have decided that it would be better to be silent than to suffer the ridicule and frustration that we meet when we try to share our faith with the world. A woman lost her job just for saying ďGod bless you.Ē Children are suspended from school for wearing ďJesus loves youĒ t-shirts or reading bibles during free time. Business owners are fined for making business choices that reflect their understanding of the scriptures.
American Christians have not yet had to deal with the suffering that Paul experienced: prison, beatings and even death. We know Christians are suffering all over the world, in places like Africa and China, but that is far away and completely removed from our experience. It is much easier to just go along with expectations of the world around us than to stand firm on what we believe. After all, why would we risk our lives and our livelihoods when it is just as easy to say ďHave a nice dayĒ or wear a different t-shirt? We can even find ways to remain principled in our business dealings while minimizing risks. We arenít willing to be one who suffers for the Gospel if we can avoid it.
So, how did Paulís suffering make the Christians of Philippi more confident and bold to speak the word without fear? Shouldnít they have been running off into the catacombs, hiding their faith, safely worshipping God apart from the prying eyes of their enemies? I think it is important to understand Paulís history with that Christian community to see how much of an impact he really had on them.
Paul begins todayís lesson by saying, ďNow I desire to have you know, brothers, that the things which happened to me have turned out rather to the progress of the Good News; so that it became evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the restÖĒ The Christians in Philippi saw the impact Paul had even in his suffering, which had an impact on the entire congregation. His imprisonment really did make them more confident in the Lord.
It wasnít his suffering that did it, but rather it was the fact that Paul lived for the glory of God. The Church grew because Paul knew that whether his circumstances were good or bad God could make incredible things happen. Paul simply trusted God and the people of Philippi learned from his example. It wasnít his death or his suffering that encouraged them, it was the way he lived his life. Paul lived in the Kingdom of God even as he waited for the Kingdom to come.
Paul wanted Jesus to come again. To put it bluntly, Paul wanted to die. He wasnít suicidal, but he knew that life would be so much sweeter in eternity. ďFor to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.Ē I feel the same way. However, Paul knew that it was not yet time for him to be with his Lord Jesus. He still had work to do; he still had Christians to encourage. He was, as they say, between a rock and a hard place. He wanted to be with Jesus, but he knew that his life had purpose. ďBut if I live on in the flesh, this will bring fruit from my work; yet I donít know what I will choose. But I am in a dilemma 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.Ē He fought his martyrdom as long as he could so that he could continue preaching the Gospel and teaching the Christians how to live.
We live in the hope of the things to come, and I admit that I cry out almost daily, ďCome, Lord Jesus,Ē but there is a reason we are still waiting. In good times and in bad, we are here to glorify God by sharing of the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the world. There is someone God intends on hearing the Good News, so it is up to us to continuing speaking the words that they might hear.
So what if that person hears that Word on Saturday morning, believes and is saved when Jesus comes? Suppose they have spent their life doing nothing good, perhaps doing everything evil. How will we feel if that evil has been done to us? How will we feel when we see that person sitting at the banqueting table?
Letís be honest with ourselves and with God: there are just some people weíd rather not share in that joy of eternity. Quite frankly, we donít want our enemies to know Godís forgiveness or ours. We withhold Godís grace from those we have judged unworthy. We donít think it is fair that someone can lead of life of willful disobedience to God and His Word and then make a deathbed confession and find their place at the banqueting table in the house of the Lord forever.
We can make todayís Gospel story a lesson about a living wage and Godís generosity. We can discuss the rightness and fairness of an employer paying the guy who works an hour the same wage as the guy who works ten. Thatís where the discussion always goes. We take our human experience and put it into this story. In a sense we are reminded that even the human landowners have the right to be as generous as they please, as long as they uphold their promises. Thatís what happened in this story. The first to be hired, however, expected that if the landowner was so generous to the ones hired last, then surely they must be worthy of even more. They thought it was unfair that they all earned the same payment, but there was nothing unfair about the landowner. He fulfilled his contract.
As we look at this story from a spiritual perspective, the wage is an eternity in Godís presence. How could we possibly expect anything greater than the promise? Do we, who have been Christians for our whole lives expect to have a larger mansion in the heavenly city than the guy who made a deathbed confession? Is there anything greater than an eternity at the feet of our Lord God Almighty, worshipping Him and singing His praise? How can God give anyone any less?
It is not natural for us to have such intense faith in God that we donít care if there is a tomorrow or that those late to faith will experience the same grace. We grow in our faith, or at least we should, as we live out our salvation in this world. Isaiah writes, ďSeek Yahweh while he may be found. Call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts. Let him return to Yahweh, and he will have mercy on him; and to our God, for he will freely pardon.Ē The ability to have joy in the midst of trouble comes from a deep personal relationship with God. This takes communication; it takes prayer, study, communion, and fellowship with other Christians.
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. 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.
This prayer meeting, which began in 1727, 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 have had a significant impact on the Christian church, in music and preaching. The Moravianís 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 prayed unceasingly and 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. The dwelled in Godís Kingdom on earth.
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 a dangerous path. 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 donít know what will happen on Saturday, although I am probably a better prophet than the Christian numerologist who has predicted the end of the world. I will rejoice if I do see Christ coming because I know He will be faithful to His promises. I look forward to worshipping Him for eternity in the Kingdom He has built for those who love Him. However, I will also rejoice if I get to worship Him in the community of faith at my church on Sunday morning, gathered together in the midst of our hopes and our sufferings to commune with our God in Word and in Sacrament. And I will look forward to the work He has for me to do in the days, weeks and months to come.
The world is a dangerous place for Christians, and lately it has seemed like the dangers are more imminent. Our human nature, of course, tends to make us see our situations as worse than anyone elseís. Our pain is greater, our suffering deeper, our needs more intense. We think it should be easier for them to get over it, to pay their debts, to offer their forgiveness, but we think that no one knows what it is like to really suffer but me.
We might have good reason to be afraid. There are folk who are determined to steal our lives, to harm our children and to destroy the things we hold dear. Yet, we are called to fear only one: the Lord God Almighty. This isnít a fear of loss, as if God will steal, harm or destroy us, but rather an attitude of awe for the One who is our light and salvation. No matter what threatens us, we can know Godís grace and mercy and love. We can dwell in His house today. In Him we can find peace in even the most difficult of circumstances; we can trust that He will make all things right.
Paulís suffering gave the Christians in Philippi reason to be confident in the Lord because God did a good work in that prison. It is possible many came to be saved because of his joy in the midst of his suffering; at the very least they looked at the Christians with a new understanding. Each one, despite any harm they may have caused to Paul and the other Christians, were given the chance to know the Lord God Almighty, to experience His grace and receive His forgiveness so that they might, too, spent eternity dwelling in the house of the Lord.
It wasnít easy for the Philippians. They still experienced persecution and even death. The same is true for us. For Paul, the Gospel of Jesus Christ creates an expectation of life for himself and for others who have heard the Good News. He expects that Christ will be glorified whether he lives or dies, is free or imprisoned. Paul also expects that those who have come under the grace of God will live the life worthy of the Gospel, the life that expects Christ to be glorified in good times and bad. The life lived in faith will always glorify God with confidence.
Let us trust God because our bold proclamation of the Gospel can impact the world in ways that we would never expect. Jesus could come and the world could end today, but it could happen in a thousand years. He has plans we canít even imagine and people who still need to hear the Gospel message. He has given us the promise of eternity and has invited us to share that same promise with others even those we think do not deserve His grace.
His generosity may not seem fair to us from our human point of view, but Godís ways are higher than our ways. He canít give less than everything to anyone who trusts in Him, whether faithful for a lifetime or a minute. He is generous beyond our imagining and has more than enough for us all. No matter what we face, whether good or bad, we can know by faith that we will dwell in Godís house today, tomorrow and forever. Thanks be to God.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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