God’s Story, Our Story: A Life Worthy of the Gospel
Preaching: Brian Keepers
Text: Philippians 1:1-11, 27-30; 2:12-18
“Get well soon! Jesus loves you! God is bigger than cancer!”
These words were scribbled on a card my good friend, Todd Billings, received from a 12-year old girl with Down Syndrome in his church. The card came just a week after he had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma—an incurable cancer of the bone marrow. He writes about this experience in his beautiful and profound book titled Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ:
My tears started to flow as I read these words….Less than a week earlier, the doctor spoke the diagnosis to me, about which he had no doubt: a cancer of the bone marrow, multiple myeloma—an incurable cancer, a fatal disease. I had been in a fog ever since. How was I to face each day when my future—which had seemed wide open—had suddenly narrowed? My “world” seemed to be caving in on itself with fog in each direction I turned, so that no light could shine in.
Do you know what that’s like--to be in a fog? To have your future, which seemed so wide open, now suddenly narrowed because of something that happens—something you weren’t counting on or couldn’t even have imagined? Maybe it’s not cancer but it is some other circumstance: a different kind of illness, the sudden death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the breakdown of a marriage, the poor decision of a child or grandchild. We all are feeling this to some degree or another after the terrible shooting in Orlando last Sunday.
The apostle Paul knew what this was like. He was sitting under house arrest, most likely in Rome, awaiting trial. He had known suffering first hand through so much of his missionary work, and here he was uncertain about his own future.
Still, even in his imprisonment, Paul was not without hope or joy. He had this keen sense that no matter how things turned out, his story was part of a bigger story. That God was bigger than whatever he faced.
My friend Todd had this keen sense too. As he reflects on the card he received from that 12-year old girl, he goes on to write:
While I had received many cards in the previous days, this one was different. “God is bigger than cancer!”…The fog is thick, but God is bigger. My cancer story was already developing its own sense of drama….But God’s story, the drama of God’s actions in the world, was bigger. The girl in my church wasn’t denying the fog or the loss but testifying to a God who was greater, the God made known in Jesus Christ, who shows us that ‘the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). In my tears, there was not only grief but also joy that in the body of Christ theological truths are not a commodity trafficked and controlled by professional theologians. God’s story in Christ is bigger than my cancer story, period. (pp.1-2)
I love that last line: God’s story is bigger than my cancer story, period. Paul writes his letter to the Philippians to assure his beloved friends that God is bigger than his imprisonment, period. God is bigger than the opposition he faced, period. That no matter what happens, whether he lived or died, his story was part of God’s bigger story of redemption in Christ. And Paul wants to remind the Philippians that this is their reality as well. They, too, knew what it was like to face hard circumstances—persecution from the Roman Empire and some internal squabbles within their community. It was easy for them to feel discouraged, to lose perspective.
So Paul writes to say, his own words, “God is bigger than cancer!” Here’s the way Paul says it: “I am confident of this: that the one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” This, really, is the main theme of Philippians. God is at work and will finish what he has started. God is bigger than anything we face, and our story is caught up in his story. So we can press on and live with hope, confidence and faithfulness.
Philippians is Paul’s warmest and most personal letter. You heard it in the segments that Pastor Lindsay read a moment ago. Paul’s affection and gratitude for his friends in Philippi pours out on every page, beginning in the very opening of the letter:
“I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.”
Acts 16 tells the story of that “first day” when the church in Philippi got its start. The city of Philippi was located in northeastern Macedonia, and it was a leading urban center in the region. It was also a Roman colony, which means that it was one of many Roman outposts throughout the ancient world that the Roman Empire was using to spread its influence.
After planting the church in Philippi, its likely Paul and Timothy visited them a couple more times over the years. A deep friendship emerged between them. Paul and his companions would go on to plant many other churches throughout the ancient world, but the church in Philippi would hold a special place in their hearts. The church in Philippi was one of Paul’s strongest financial supporters for his mission work. And even now, while he sits in prison, they show concern for him and provide care unlike any other church. Paul wasn’t just their pastor, he was their close friend.
So it shouldn’t surprise us that Paul begins his letter expressing gratitude to God for his dear friends and the way they been his partners in grace and in gospel ministry. Whenever he thinks of them, and how their stories have been weaved together into God’s larger story, he can’t help but smile and rejoice!
The source of Paul’s confidence and joy, even as he suffers in chains and his future is uncertain, is that God is at work in Christ by the Spirit and will finish what he has begun. Finish what he has begun in Paul’s life. Finish what he has begun in each of their lives. Finish what he has begun in their life together. Finish what he has begun in the entire creation, which even now is groaning for its redemption.
It’s Father’s Day, and I suspect there are a good number of us dads (not just dads) who are good at starting projects around the house, but not as good at finishing them. Am I right? Well, Paul wants us to be sure that when God starts something, God doesn’t quit or get distracted by another project. Even when it is not obvious how God is at work or when things happen that seem to suggest otherwise. We can have a deep confidence that God is present and active in Christ by the Spirit, advancing the gospel, and working to bring all things to completion by the day that Christ returns.
This is incredibly good news. Not just for Paul and the Philippians. It is good news for us. There are some of us today especially, because of our current circumstances, who really need to be reminded of this. When we put our faith in Christ, we are united with Jesus and God begins the work of transformation in our lives by his grace. And God will continue to work in and through us until the job is finished. It’s this promise, this assurance that gives us confidence in any and every season of life.
It’s in light of this confidence that God is at work and will finish what he started that Paul calls his friends in Philippi to stay faithful, stand firm, and keep growing in grace. He calls them to live a life worthy of the gospel, which means to live their story right now—no matter what they face-- in light of God’s larger story in Christ. And he calls them to do this by praying for them—praying three specific things.
First, Paul prays that their “love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight” to help them “determine what is best.” At the heart of learning to live like Jesus is learning to love like Jesus—a kind of self-sacrificial love that looks to the interests of others and is expressed in humble service. Philippians chapter two is one of the most important parts of the letter where Paul uses “the Christ hymn” and calls us to let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus.
What’s important about this kind of love that Paul prays for is that it is not to be confused with simply an emotion or some kind of sentimental type of love. It is a love that works its way out in knowledge and wisdom, which is all about learning to love wisely and well. It’s the kind of love that doesn’t just give others what they want but what they most need for their flourishing. And it’s the kind of love that can only come from staying joined to Jesus as his love flows through us into the lives of others.
Second, Paul prays that, as they learn to love wisely and well, they will progress in their faith in such a way that they become pure and blameless by the day of Christ. What does Paul mean by “pure and blameless?” This will come up again later in chapter 2:14: “so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation…” By pure and blameless Paul is not praying that they would commit to a kind of unhealthy perfectionism or work hard in their own effort to eliminate all the sin from their life (which typically leads to either self-righteousness or feelings of failure and shame).
No, this is about growing in holiness, what is often called “sanctification.” Paul already declares them as “saints in Christ”—which means that they have a new status with God because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Paul’s prayer, then, is that they would grow into that new identity as a child of God, that they would become who they already are in Christ! And this can only happen by God’s grace. Yes, they have a responsibility to be obedient, to pattern their lives after Jesus and his teaching. But it is God’s power that is at work in them, enabling them both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure. In effect, Paul is saying, “Continue to stay joined to Jesus and obey him in God’s power that is working in and through you. And in him you will become holy and whole.”
This leads to the last part of Paul’s prayer. Finally, Paul prays that as they grow in learning to love wisely and well, and as they grow in holiness and wholeness, it will produce “a harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory of God.” Just like the words “pure and blameless” are not always helpful, neither is the word “righteousness.” What Paul means is that their lives might overflow with the fruit of right living. That as they grow in love and discern what is best and practice obedience—all in the grace of God—God would transform them and produce fruit in their lives. But this is not to their own glory. They don’t get to take the credit for this fruit. Paul is clear: this is for the glory and praise of God.
This is also for their witness in the world. That’s why Paul prays for these three things for his dear friends and partners in the Gospel. So that they might experience transformation and live a life worthy of the Gospel in order to demonstrate to the world God’s good intent for all of creation—to bring healing and restoration to the whole world. In other words, Paul wants them to know that God is bigger than anything they face so that they can proclaim this to the whole world. As they find their own stories in God’s larger story, they in turn have been given a mission to help the whole world finds it true story in Christ.
Paul calls them to “shine like stars in the world,” to be a lighthouse in a dark storm, showing the world another way, embodying a better story—a story of beauty and hope and new life. Later Paul will tell them to live as a “colony of heaven.” It’s the same word used by Rome as they marched across the ancient world setting up their own colonies. Paul is calling the Christians in Philippi to bear the fruit of right living, to shine like stars, as a colony of heaven showing the world what it means to live as a contrast society under the reign of God. This is their missional witness.
This missional aspect of Paul’s prayer has been stirring in me all week after the mass shooting in Orlando. Amid all the media coverage, investigation, analysis, debates, political sound bites…my heart has simply been heavy for the lives lost and the way prejudice and violence remains a reality in this dark and broken world. There is a sense of urgency, I believe, for us as the body of Christ to overflow in Christ-like love and shine like stars amid such painful tragedy. Can I just remind us again? I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. Or as that little girl might say, “God is bigger than…terror.” “God is bigger than…hatred.” “God is bigger than… prejudice.” “God is bigger than…all the pain and heartache of a world that is not the way it’s supposed to be.”
The good news of the gospel is that no matter what we are facing in our lives today, no matter what we face as a congregation, no matter what happens in our world…God is bigger. Though we may not understand it or get the answers to our most nagging questions, we do get this assurance, this promise: God’s story in Christ is bigger than any and every story, period.
So say it with m one more this morning: I am confident of this: that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ!
And all God’s people say: Amen!