Monday, February 22, 2010

Shooting for the Stars

At some point we all start thinking that the world revolves around us; and yet the stunning truth of our faith is that the One around whom the universe really does revolve emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, and became obedient unto death -- even death on a cross. “Therefore,” Paul says, “God highly exalted him and gave to his Crucified and Risen Son the name that is above every name” (Phil. 2: 9). Now in Philipppians 2: 12-18, God’s “therefore” (God’s response) calls out from us our own “therefore” – our response. If praise was the Father’s response to Y'shua's (Jesus') work, what should our work be? If the work of Jesus was to humble himself and become the Servant Son, what will it mean for us to “shine like stars” for him?

First, let’s try to understand the nature of the work. For Paul says in vv. 14-15,“Do all things without murmuring and arguing so that you may be blameless and innocent…without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation in which you shine like stars in the world.”
Paul doesn’t mince words. If you want to shine like stars in the world, if you want to illuminate and influence this world in the manner of Jesus the Messiah, if you want to shine with your brothers and sisters like the fire of a hundred billion suns….then “do all things without murmuring or arguing (grumbling or complaining/ NIV).” It’s a bit of a let-down, isn’t it? When we think of ‘shining like a star” we might dream of being Olympic athlete like downhill skier Lyndsey Vonn, or a brilliant businessman…or (if we are trying to be a little more spiritual) ending world hunger, rebuilding Haiti, or winning a continent for Jesus. But no, Paul’s chosen example of what it means to 'shine like the stars' is to “Do all things without murmuring or arguing.” How unexciting, how ordinary…but how essential if we are to accomplish anything for our Lord! Because grumbling and arguing and complaining is the auto-immune disease of our culture and the church.

Imagine a restaurant where the moment you sit down…you hear nothing but complaints… the waitress complaining about that lazy cook who still hasn’t finished your order, or the bus boy who complains about how the waitress keeps shorting him on tips; or the manager who blames their “B” rating on the incompetent staff. No one would return to a restaurant like that…and no one would want to be part of a church like that. In Facing Your Giants, Max Lucado tells about running a half-ironman triathlon. “After the 1.2 mile swim and the 56 mile bike ride, I didn't have much energy left for the 13.1 mile run. Neither did the fellow jogging next to me,” he writes. I asked him how he was doing and soon regretted posing the question. “This stinks. This race is the dumbest decision I've ever made." He had more complaints than a taxpayer at the IRS. My response to him? "Goodbye." I know if I listened too long, I'd start agreeing with him. I caught up with a 66-year-old grandmother. Her tone was just the opposite. "You'll finish this," she said. "It's hot, but at least it's not raining. One step at a time… don't forget to hydrate…stay in there." I ran next to her until my heart was lifted & my legs were aching. I finally had to slow down. "No problem." She waved & kept going.

Complaining is a habit that we all indulge in, given the right situation. Sometimes we feel cheated – we don’t think we’re getting what we deserve. We may be spiritually lost – no one is more unhappy than the person who views life as hopeless. We may simply be lazy. Sometimes it’s easier to complain than to face life’s challenges, whether it’s a troubled relationship, finances, or the boss at work. But Paul knows that the church, of all places, must be a place in which men and women model the opposite of murmuring and complaining…who speak words of hope and encouragement, words that build up not tear down, that are truthful, constructive, and kind. It’s not just important for our community, it’s vital to our mission. Paul knows that they and we know that this is hard work. Are there any rewards, any incentives to do it? Yes, says Paul, so let’s look next at…

The rewards of the work. “It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. But even if I am being poured out….I am glad and rejoice with all of you and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me" (Phil. 2: 16-18). Paul says that it is by the Philippians’ faithfulness to the word of life, that it is by their willingness to live out the principles of Christ-like humility and love for one another that he will be able to boast on the Day of Christ that he did not run in vain. In other words, “Philippians, one of your rewards will be making me proud of you!”

What if it was simply our goal to make each other proud of our progress in becoming more like Y'shua (Jesus), to "spur one another on to love and good deeds" (Heb. 10:24); and to be personally proud when others “hold fast to the word of life,” hold fast to the teaching of Scripture, build others up with their words, offer help to those in need, and make disciples of Jesus our Lord. On the other hand, like Paul, we should feel a deep sense of grief when others in the body are hurting or feel hurt, when others have failed and have fallen. Like the relationship between a coach and an athlete…there is a sharing both of the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Notice that Paul never rejoices in the Philippians’ failures. He prays for them and exhorts them like a good coach! He wants to see them on the medal stand; he wants the reward of knowing that his friends have dealt with their disunity, their grumbling and arguing, and remained faithful to Jesus. And Paul hopes to make them similarly proud – even if it means he must face death for Jesus' sake.

I ran into someone two weeks ago who left our church more than 10 years ago because of a conflict. She is doing well. God is using her. But it reminded me of the pain of that conflict; not something to be proud of. Certainly we have our weaknesses as a church. We have our moments. There are times that we grumble and complain, and act selfishly...but I don't believe this speaks the deepest truth about us. I belong to a family of believers that truly loves Jesus, and I'm proud of my family. I'm proud that many lives are being touched through our Int'l Student Fellowship and the work of our Resident Missionary, In Cheol Kim. I’m proud of our ministry to children, families, and youth thanks to our terrific staff members Alea Hessler and Joel Dunn. I’m proud of the way our Deacons help those who are in need. I feel like boasting about the spiritual leadership of our Elders over this past year despite some real challenges; about the many quiet acts of humble service that are displayed in our church; and about the fact that there are men and women here who have walked with the Lord for more than 70, 80, or 90 years! And yes, I’m proud of our sacrificial commitment to mission around our city and around the world.

So here is a challenge to you...assuming that you belong to a community of Jesus followers somewhere on this planet. Make it your goal to make each other proud just as Paul hoped the Philippians would make him proud! Beyond that, let’s live a life that makes our Lord proud…which is our greatest reward, to hear him say, "Well done, good and faithful servants" (Matt. 25: 21). To do that, however, we will need more than an understanding of the nature of the work, or its rewards, we will need to understand, first and foremost, who the workers of the work are.

"Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil. 2: 12-13). The most important thing to get straight as we read these verses is that there are two workers. First, there are the Philippians. Paul -- who can no longer be with them personally, who is now absent and can no longer personally oversee their spiritual growth -- challenges them to “work out their own salvation.” Don’t misread Paul. He is not telling them they must earn their salvation through their good works. He uses the plural here (Keep on working out, all of you, your salvation: that is, the “wholeness and healthiness” of the entire church, which is what the noun soteria means in this context. Hear me again: Paul is not telling them that they must “work for” their salvation, but that they must “work it out” (pres. imp.) – that is, ‘continually work out’ the practical implications of the salvation which they already possess. It’s as though Paul were saying, “My beloved, (Notice how Paul sets the example with his pastoral tone) when I was with you, you always followed my example, but now I am in prison and it’s even more important. I can’t be there to guide you. It’s time to start walking on your own two feet; to start taking responsibility for the health and well-being of your life together in the Messiah Jesus as you address your problems.

BUT, as you engage in this work…be encouraged. You are not alone. There is another Worker, the strong and faithful God who always finishes the good work that he begins (see Phil. 1:6); “who is at work in you now (lit. “energizing you”) enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Where did Lyndsey Vonn get the energy to ski the women’s downhill to gold medal victory despite the pain of her shin injury? It came from physical training…6-8 hours a day. It came from a good diet. It came from mental and emotional toughness. Maybe those commercial deals didn't hurt either! But when did she begin to draw on all this energy? Answer: When she put her poles in the snow, and began to propel herself down the hill. She could not draw upon that energy until she began to ski; she could not be sure of her capacity to overcome the pain and to endure to the end until she faced her fear and began careening down that mountain at 65 mph. But as she started to ski, her mind and body immediately began to draw upon all the energy sources that were available to her.

Friends, this is your coach talking. Be encouraged! Even the desire, the will, to propel yourselves up and down the mountains of life come from God. Because as we begin to move out together in faith and humility he will provide the energy “to do all things without murmuring and arguing,” to “hold fast to the word of life,” “to shoot for the stars, and shine like the sun,” to cross the finish line in victory…and hear our Lord’s “Well done, good and faithful servant”!

Jesus our Mighty Savior, you are the Light of the World. Shine your light in our hearts, exposing anything that is displeasing to you or that would hinder your kingdom work in this world. Help us to turn from hatred, infidelity, untruthfulness, abuse and disrespect, taking what is not ours, ignoring those in physical and spiritual need, the desire for more of everything but You. Thank you that this does not begin with our work for then we surely would be lost. It is your work in us that we count on today; that we are your children because you claimed us, that our labor will not be in vain because you empower it; and that we really can shine like stars, bearing witness to your grace and truth because you continue to illumine and transform us with your Holy Spirit. Amen!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Fellowship of the Servant

Years ago while on a summer long trip to the Middle East, my friends and I found ourselves in Alexandria, Egypt...sharing arabic coffee and a warm meal with a Coptic Orthodox family in their sea side home. As I stood on the balcony overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, I was intensely aware of two things. First, how far away from home and everything familiar I was. Second, how completely at home I felt at the table of these brothers and sisters in Christ. We spoke different languages, grew up in different cultures and Christian traditions, but our faith was a bond that made us family. Just last week I was worshiping in a Chinese church in which I understood little of what was being said, but as a beautiful song was being sung, a man leaned toward me with warm and gracious eyes and said, "The song is saying that we are family in Jesus." I experienced again the miracle of this international fellowship of Jesus' followers. In Philippians 2: 1-11, Paul urges us to treasure this gift of community, alerts us to what threatens it, and reveals the key attitude that makes it grow and flourish.

Treasure the gift of Christian community. “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind" (Phil. 2: 1-2). This is the first hint we have in Paul’s letter that there may be discord in Philippi. You don’t ask people to be of the same mind, have the same love, and be in full accord unless folks are not of the same mind, do not share a mutual love and respect, and are not in one accord. And so Paul appeals to the truth of what they’ve experienced together…. If you were ever encouraged by this fellowship or if it means anything to you that you met him and began to follow him here; if you’ve ever been loved here, I mean really loved, accepted, forgiven; if there has ever been a true sharing (lit. a koinonia) in the Spirit in which your gifts and the gifts of everyone else were truly welcomed and appreciated; and if my joy means anything to you….do me a favor and work together, be united in your thoughts, decisions and actions.

Christian fellowship is a gift, but I’m afraid that it’s one we can easily take for granted. Jesus certainly did not enjoy the kind of fellowship or popularity which we define as success in the American church, nor did his disciples. John the Apostle lived out his last days exiled and alone on the island of Patmos. He prayed in the Spirit moment by moment and found his comfort there, but the physical presence of his brothers and sisters was nowhere to be found. There is a dedicated man from our own congregation who is serving Christ in the Balkans where the majority religion is not Christian. But for the sake of sharing the gospel, he has given up the privilege of Christian community that he knew here. Christian community has not been guaranteed us by God. It is a gift we must treasure while we have it.

And if we treasure this gift we will be beware the threats to Christian community. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Phil. 2: 3-4). When a 21 year old Georgian luger was killed on a practice run in the Vancouver Winter Olympics…it cast a pall over the Opening Ceremonies, but it especially effected his fellow athletes. U.S. Snowboarder Shaun White put it this way: “We are all in different sports and from different countries but when we get here, we’re all part of the same family. It’s definitely effected everyone here.” We often describe the church as a wonderful family, but like any family…it is not invulnerable. There are hazards….and people can get hurt.

The biggest threat is what Paul calls “selfish ambition and vain conceit” where we begin to think of ourselves as better than, set apart or more important; focusing on our own interests instead of the interests of others. I don’t know about you…but I’m floored by this call to humility and the challenge that Paul puts before us. Repeat after me, “(I) do nothing from selfishness or conceit / but in humility (I) regard others as better than (myself); (I) look not to (my) own interest but to the interests of others.” Can you say this without any nervous laughter? Imagine if we began to look at one another in this extraordinary way; as though everybody else and their needs were more important than our own?!

Tom Wright describes a luncheon he went to with a friend where there were several well-known public figures. As he said grace at the start of the meal he also said very firmly: “Remember that the most interesting person in this room…is the one you’re sitting next to.” That’s the attitude Paul wants us to have; and it's impossible, unless we have our eyes fixed on the One who is the model of Christian community. But, as Tom Wright, suggests, perhaps we should first stop for a moment and ponder how far we fall short of this goal.

Imitate the model of Christian community. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus who though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself taking the form of a slave….Therefore, God also highly exalted him…” (Phil. 2: 5-11). I read about a flight being canceled due to bad weather. One solitary agent was trying to rebook all of the travelers whose schedules had been delayed. One man impatiently pushed his way to the front and slammed his ticket down on the counter. "I have to be on this flight, and it has to be first class!" The agent politely said, "I'm sorry, sir. I'll help you as soon as I can, but I have to take care of these other people first." The man became angry and shouted, "Do you have any idea who I am?" Without hesitating, the agent picked up the loud speaker microphone and said to the hundreds of people in the terminal, "May I have your attention, please? We have a passenger here at the gate who does not know who he is. If anyone can help him find his identity, please come to the gate." The man backed off, and the crowd of people burst into applause.

Here was a guy who really thought the world revolved around him…and we’ve all been there. It’s so much more fun when things are going my way…when everyone is orbiting around my needs. It’s the life of a baby…and we all have days when we’d like to get back there, wearing our Huggies. But here is Paul’s point. In Jesus’ case, the world really does revolve around him! After all, Paul says that he was in the form of God (lit. having the very nature of God). In Colossians we read that “He is before all things and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). And yet…and yet…this one around whom the whole universe literally revolves, humbled himself before the Father and took the form of a servant!

In Philippi, the image of the heroic leader would certainly have been men like King Philip of Macedon , their city’s namesake, or Philip’s more famous son, Alexander the Great who quickly became master of Greece and then at the age of 20 set out to conquer the known world…and succeeded. What a very different kind of leader was Jesus than Alexander, who came not as a conqueror but a carpenter; who reminded his disciples that “Whoever wishes to be great among you must become your servant … just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20: 24ff.). This one around whom the universe really does revolve humbled himself even to the point of death on a cross. He went down to the lowest, most shameful, seemingly God-forsaken place, to raise us up with him.

I’ve been told that nearly all of his professional life Albert Einstein kept the portraits of two scientists on his wall—Newton and Maxwell. But toward the end of his life he replaced those with portraits of Gandhi and Schweitzer. He said this: "It is time to replace the image of success with the image of service." Paul says that it was the Father's Servant Son that “He highly exalted…that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that “Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father!” The glory that the Father and the Son share with the Holy Spirit is the glory of humility and self-giving love…and it is to be the mark of Jesus' followers, the fellowship of the Servant.

One last thought: Jesus said that if we care for the very least of his brothers and sisters, it is like we are caring for him, and if we disregard the very least of his brothers and sisters, it is like we have disregarded him. The next time you share in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper…consider the words of C. S. Lewis: “Next to the blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses” (C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory). What Lewis meant is that we honor our Savior’s sacrifice and his Supper…when we love one another. We honor the One who came not to be served but to serve, when we humbly serve one another. We honor Jesus when we begin to handle one another with the same loving care and the same respect that we handle this cup and hold this bread.

Gracious Lord Jesus, thank you for the gift of Christian community. Thank you for enfolding us in this miracle of encouragement, love and compassion that was purchased with your blood, and set aflame with your Spirit. Forgive us for taking this gift for granted and the blessing that it is. Forgive us for the times we’ve contributed to its division through our own actions or inactions, or thought only of our own interests instead of the interests of others. Help us to turn from selfishness and pride. Let your example be evident in every aspect of our life together: the way of self-emptying humility; the path of the lowly servant; the way of self-giving love – for you died on a cross for our sin! Together we confess you to be the very life and breath of this church, our true hope and joy! Amen.