A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr C ~ Advent 2 ~ Philippians 1:3-11
My main focus today will be on the last couple of verses of this lovely passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, but to get there I’m going to go through all the verses and try to amplify it a bit as we go.
This is the second week of Advent, so our theme is peace, even though that word doesn’t appear in this reading. As you’ve hopefully realized by now the kind of peace we’re talking about isn’t just the opposite of war or conflict – it’s more about that inner peace of mind and peace of heart that comes when your spirit is in tune with God’s Presence. I’ll talk more about that concept in a few minutes.
And in case you weren’t with us last week, I’ll continue to speak a bit about what theology calls “the second coming” of the Christ. When Paul wrote this letter to the church in Philippi it was only a couple of decades after the physical life of Jesus. The narratives about Christmas were not yet known. The 4 gospels we have wouldn’t be written for another few decades so the Jesus story was likely shaped much differently than the one we know so well. In their day they had a sense that Jesus really was coming again soon in a physical form and he’d alleviate their oppression and persecution.
When that didn’t happen in an overt physical way a different kind of theological view of what a second coming of Jesus might mean emerged. Instead of a physical arrival a more spiritual revelation was embraced.
In this season we take that image and incarnate it in the story of a tiny baby being born in a stable.
But spiritually what we’re hoping for, what we’re anticipating and expecting and waiting for in this season of Advent, is a rebirth of Jesus’ spirit within us – a second coming, or third, or fourth, or fiftieth – that knows that while Jesus may not be coming in the same way Paul and the Philippians imagined he is most definitely coming, has come, and is always still coming to us, here and now, in and through our hearts.
And such a coming produces the peace that we so long for. That’s our topic for the day.
Let’s have a look at Philippians 1:3-11.
3 Every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God.
4 Whenever I pray, I make my requests for all of you with joy,
5 for you have been my partners in spreading the Good News about Christ from the time you first heard it until now.
Paul calls these church members his partners. But it’s actually even better than that! It’s a wonderful Greek word: koinonia! It means spiritual fellowship, communion with, sharing in, helping.
It’s more than just being partners, it’s what we have here at this church – a spiritual fellowship that works together – both staff and members – to share in the gospel.
What does that mean? Gospel literally means good news – God’s good news about God’s love and all the teachings and life of Jesus and all that great stuff. We all share in that – in communicating that – in living it out – in loving it out!
Paul continues, v.6:
6 And I am certain that God, who began a good work within you, will bring it to fulfillment and maturity as the Spirit of Jesus Christ is ever more fully revealed to and within you.
The good work that God has begun in you is nothing less than the transformation of your heart and spirit into ever-deepening Christ-likeness!
That’s not just a good work, it’s an awesome work! And it’s an unending work – not because you’re some kind of problem case, but just because deepening has no end, as God’s love has no end.
You are a good work! You are a work in progress!
And the good works you do are an extension of the good work God is doing in (and through) you.
Doesn’t that make you feel great?! It made Paul feel great too!
He continues, v.7:
7 So it is right that I should feel as I do about all of you, for you have a special place in my heart. You share with me the special favour of God, whatever our circumstances and in defending and confirming the truth of the Good News.
You should know that Paul’s good mood is despite his current circumstance. It is almost certain that he wrote this letter from a prison cell.
Sharing the gospel had dangerous and extreme consequences in their day!
For you or me the worst thing that might happen is an eye roll or a dismissive comment – for Paul it was imprisonment!
Defending the gospel was serious and hard work! But it was also, clearly, joyful work!
v.8 God knows how much I love you and long for you with the tender compassion of Christ Jesus.
Doesn’t that sound lovely! Paul loves his flock, and longs for them with the tender compassion of Jesus.
Except it doesn’t actually say compassion. Wait ‘til you hear the literal word!
I can’t even pronounce the Greek word, but the literal definition is about where they understood deep emotions came from – your guts – your internal organs!
The King James Version uses the word “bowels”!
“How greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ!”
So, it’s much more than just tender compassion! Paul longs for them with the visceral, gut-level, deep emotions of Christ Jesus! That’s pretty strong!
He continues to gush in v.9-10:
9 I pray that your love will overflow and abound more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding.
10 For I want you to discern (not just choose, but discern – spiritually weigh, pray, and contemplate about) what really matters, so that you may live pure and blameless lives – (don’t get caught on that – it doesn’t mean you have to be perfect – it’s really about offering your truest and deepest self, your kindness, your vulnerability, your compassion) – as you grow in awareness of Christ’s coming – Christ’s parousia (a word we looked at last week) – it means Christ’s presence entering your consciousness and entering your heart.
And he finishes with, v.11:
11 May you always be filled with the fruit of righteousness (the NRSV says “having produced the harvest of righteousness) – it’s the righteous or holy character produced in your life by Jesus Christ that helps you be your best self —for this will bring much glory and praise to God.
Ok, let’s go back and dive into these last few verses!
Filled with the fruit of righteousness.
Isn’t that a nice image!
Your love, your understanding, your knowledge, and your discernment all work together to help produce this harvest!
In order to harvest you have to first plant, and then tend, and weed, and water, and wait, and wait (it is Advent, after all), and wait while things you aren’t in control of – earth, sun, wind – do their thing and grow what’s planted. Gardeners have a critical role to play, but the growth is beyond them.
God gives the growth!
So, what’s planted in you?
Philippians 1:6 says that God has begun a good work in you. Earlier I said that what’s planted within us are the seeds of our transformation.
And just like us being in a hurry for Christmas to get here and we don’t want to wait through Advent, we’re also in a hurry to get harvesting that fruit that’s growing in us.
But we have to wait. We’re not in charge.
God began the good work, and God will bring the spiritual equivalent of earth, and sun, and wind.
And we wait in hopeful, expectant anticipation – trusting that we are being filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
Filled with the fruit of righteousness!
But what if you’re not?
What if you feel the opposite?
What if you’re feeling empty?
‘Tis the season to be jolly – but what if jolly ain’t cutting it for you this season?
What if you’re just going through the motions and putting on a brave face?
The last thing I want to do preaching a sermon about being filled with the fruit of righteousness is to somehow suggest that if that’s not where you’re at today that somehow you’re wrong, or lesser, or not faithful enough.
No, no, no!
That is not what this scripture, and others like it, are meant to teach us.
Be pure and blameless, it says – a phrase that seems to be setting up an impossibly high bar for us to measure up to.
But again, that’s not what this is supposed to mean.
It’s not a measuring stick.
It’s not a righteousness or holiness test.
We’re not being graded here.
That’s not what God does.
But we can’t ignore the idea either.
Here’s an image for you that may help.
At the church our pianos got tuned this week.
We all fully understand that from time to time pianos go out of tune.
That doesn’t make them bad and worthless pianos.
It just means they need some particular attention to bring them back in tune.
In tune with what? In tune with the harmony that is inherently standard in the universe.
That’s one of my favourite ways to think about what God’s all about.
God is the fundamental harmonic vibration of the universe.
That vibration is pure, and constant, and ultimate, and never changing.
All things that are in tune with that vibration – all things that resonate in harmony with it – feel peace.
Like those pianos felt more at peace when they were in tune – because being in tune is their desired natural state!
That, for me, is what being pure and blameless before God means. It means to be in tune. And the Holy Spirit is our tuner!
So where’s the peace?
The peace comes in the waiting.
The peace comes in the trusting.
The peace comes in the tuning.
The peace comes from knowing that even though you may not be able to see it or feel it right now, that God has indeed planted a good work in you, and the Spirit is tending, and nurturing, and tuning that work even as you breathe.
So breathe! Be at peace!
You can’t rush the harvest.
You get nowhere trying to push the river.
That’s easy to say, and I believe it is absolutely true.
But what about when you’re not feeling so much at peace?
When it feels like that creeping December darkness is winning?
In this part of the world we really feel the cold darkness of the longest nights of the year that are upon us.
And while we may not be able to really perceive it, starting the day after the longest night our nights become shorter and shorter.
Psychologically we know it though.
And spiritually we definitely know it because just a few days after the longest night we get the greatest light! We celebrate the birth of the light of the world – incarnated in the most unlikely way! And while we make a massive deal out of it now, remember that the story of Jesus’ birth is a very humble and quiet one.
That’s how peace usually comes to us too – not with a flourish – probably imperceptibly at first.
But then, it dawns on us that we’re noticing light and not darkness.
Do you know what inspired me to write these sentences?
As I was toiling away on this sermon I realized that I was starting to squint my eyes.
I hadn’t realized that the sun had continued to rise that morning (as it always does!) and it had moved to where it was streaming through the window beside me.
And I realized that light in my eyes was shining on me, warming me, awakening me, illuminating my work.
I had only two tasks in this equation and the rest wasn’t up to me.
My two tasks were to be open enough to receive the gift, and to notice I had received it!
And with those two tasks I was able to harvest the fruit that had grown.
It was a moment of deep peace!
And having received that gift I smiled, breathed deeply, and said a little “Thank you, God” prayer.
Philippians 3:11 ~ May you always be filled with the fruit of your salvation—the righteous character produced in your life by Jesus Christ —for this will bring much glory and praise to God.
May peace be your harvest!