As I sat down to write this week I was struck by how long it’s been since I’ve written a sermon.
We had Disciple Now a few weeks ago, so Jake Conner preached. Then we had John Wallingford share with us about Africa and a message from his heart about missions. So for the past two weeks I’ve just been an observer.
Those of you who have just come the last two weeks may be wondering who this random guy is who just gets up occasionally and talks. It took me a little while to get my swing back, so to speak.
I know some of you think I’ve never had a swing anyway.
I’m really excited about this series. I’ve never preached a series quite like this one. We’re going to go verse-by-verse through the book of Philippians. If it takes us four weeks, that’s when we’ll stop. If it takes us four months, that’s ok too. But I think there’s a lot of great theology in this book. Philippians is one of those books you love to read. It’s got great verses that people like to quote.
“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
“For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.”
These and many others are in Philippians. One reason I think Philippians is such an easy book to read is that it’s so joyful. Paul has no condemnation for the church in Phillipi. In every other Pauline epistle, there is some sort of reproach, some sort of admonition to stop doing something and start doing something else. Not in Philippians, though. Paul has nothing but praise and encouragement for these people. That’s not to say there is nothing that is hard. There are some incredibly difficult passages that call us to action. The letter as a whole, though, is remarkably upbeat.
I think this is a great book to study for a couple of reasons.
First of all, because the Philippians seem to have gotten it right, it’s a book that gives us a great example to follow. If you want to know what life looks like for Christians who are getting it right, read Philippians. I think often we struggle with what it looks like to be a real, growing Christian. Philippians is not only where we can find encouragement, but where we are given evidence of what following Jesus looks like.
Secondly, Philippians is a great story for us to look at because of its beginning. I’m not talking about the first few verses of the letter, but of how the church began. If we read the first couple of paragraphs in Philippians, we see that Paul loved these people. If Paul had a favorite church, it was probably this one.
“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you…” Every time I think about you I thank God. Why? In verse 5 he says “because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” I thank God because you get it! You understand and are faithfully pursuing Christ even now. You got it when I first talked about it and you haven’t forgotten. Praise the Lord that you are continually faithful to him! For Paul, who spent the time after he planted churches going back to encourage and correct them, this must have come as some relief, to see a group of people finally get it. So if there’s ever a church we want to emulate, it’s this church at Phillipi.
He goes on, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” He began the good work in us. Salvation is an act of God. Mercy and grace are distributed freely by God to sinful man in an act of benevolence that is nothing short of amazing. In fact, unbelievable or insane act of benevolence is probably a better way to look at it. Throughout Paul’s letters (indeed the whole Bible) we are told that it is God who works in us. Salvation is a gift. We were unworthy of the love God showed to us, and yet it is offered to us freely. How can Paul say that he is confident God will complete the work he began? Because only God can. God began the work. God will complete it. There are many metaphors given to us in Scripture about this very thing. God is shown as a potter, molding clay in his masterful hands, smoothing out rough edges and scraping away that which is unnecessary or offensive to the finished product. In another place he is pictured as one sitting over a crucible painstakingly filtering off dross in order to refine silver. But while it is descriptive of the process, it is also encouraging. It shows us a God who is personally engaged, not aloof or uninterested. God will complete the work he began. He won’t simply leave you the way you are, but will faithfully contend with you to present a perfect product. Paul is encouraging the Philippians that God will continue to work in their midst.
The next several verses reveal Paul’s heart for the church in Phillipi. “I hold you in my heart…how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.” Paul loves this church. These people are very special to him and he writes with deep passion about them and about what God is doing in and through them.
I mentioned earlier that this is a letter that reveals not only Paul’s heart for this church, but indeed what a maturing follower of Christ looks like. One who is growing in his or her faith would share the characteristics of the people in this church. As we get deeper into this letter we will begin to see evidence of how we should live if we call ourselves Christ-followers.
In order to understand the Philippian church, though, we need to look back to when it first began. To do that we must journey back to the book of Acts.
Paul was a church planter. He felt like churches were the way to advance the gospel.
Everywhere he went he started a new church. He traveled around Asia Minor and the southern part of Europe taking with him the gospel of Jesus.
Whenever he came to a city he would go to the center of town or the local synagogue and start preaching the message of Jesus.
Then he started a church with whoever listened and believed.
In this particular paragraph Paul and Silas were journeying through the area of modern day Turkey and wanted to go further into Asia to spread the gospel. For whatever reason, the Holy Spirit prevented them from going further inland, so they stayed along the coastline. One night Paul had a vision of a man standing in Macedonia pleading for him to come there and preach. So they got up and left for Macedonia.
I think it’s awesome how God uses circumstances to direct us to where he wants us to go. It shows me that he truly is in control and really does have a plan. I’m from Hallsville. I never would have dreamed I would end up living in Kilgore. Growing up in Hallsville you learn to hate Kilgore (not as much as Pine Tree, but still the hatred was there). We were living in Marshall at the time and I had received two inquiries about my resume. One was for this place called Highland Park Baptist Kilgore, TX and the other was some church in Austin. There’s something I should tell you first. I love Austin. I think it’s a great city. I know plenty of people think it’s weird and liberal, but I just love the atmosphere. I love Central Texas and the Hill Country. It’s my favorite region of Texas. Also, the church in Austin only wanted a music minister. Highland Park wanted a combination music/youth minister. At this point in time I only wanted to do music, and the church was in Austin. I was sold. I went through the motions with Highland Park just to be polite, but my mind was made up. We even met with the search committee at Highland Park and liked them, but still, the church in Austin was interested. We scheduled a phone interview and eagerly anticipated what we already knew to be true, we were moving to Austin.
The evening of the phone interview came and they called at the appointed time. They were very pleasant and we talked for an hour or more. They were very interested in me and seemed eager to pursue our dialog further. When we got off the phone, though, it couldn’t have been more obvious. We weren’t supposed to go to Austin. There were several reasons why we didn’t feel right about it. It had nothing to do with the people at all. We just knew we weren’t supposed to go. I was crestfallen. I don’t know exactly how Paul felt when the Spirit prohibited him from going further into Asia, but I can imagine it may have been something like how I felt when I realized that I wouldn’t be moving to the Hill Country.
So we continued the process at Highland Park and sure enough that’s where God wanted us. The last place I ever thought I would like, I was living. Our time was good there and a few years later we felt God leading us to plant a new church. Several of you have heard part of the story. A man who has mentored me for the past 16 or 17 years had planted a church south of Arlington and had wanted us to come learn with them and then go out on our own to start a new work. We were very excited about this and actually spent a day over there looking at houses. Surely this was what God wanted. I began to share my vision with Tim and sharing that I’d like for him to be involved. I felt that God had knit our hearts together and our relationship wasn’t an accident. Tim’s response to me wanting to plant a new church was “why not here?” Did I mention that I never wanted to live in Kilgore? It seemed like the same scenario from several years before. But Tim’s heart for this city and this area was infectious. Eventually I came to the conclusion I shared with you a couple of months ago. Everything in my life was shaping me for this journey we’re now on together. I was uniquely suited for this role because of my past experiences and personality. Tim was my vision of a man in Macedonia calling for me to stay and preach the gospel here. (I should say that we are very happy in Kilgore and I’ve never done anything this amazing in my entire life. I’ve gotten over not wanting to live in Kilgore.)
Once in Macedonia, Paul and Silas went to a city called Philippi. There they encountered a woman named Lydia. Lydia was a seller of purple goods. She was in the fabric trade. She dyed fabric and sold it. What do we know about the color purple in ancient days? It was a color of royalty. Rich people wore purple garments. So who do you think Lydia’s clientele was? They were wealthy. Hence, Lydia was probably rather wealthy herself. Scripture says she was from Thyatira, but she also had a house in Philippi. It seems that she was quite wealthy. It also says that she was a worshipper of God. She recognized somehow that there was a singular God who was all powerful and that salvation somehow came through him. Paul and Silas shared the gospel of Jesus with her and she and her whole household were saved and baptized. Then she begged them to stay a while longer with them, so they did.
The next person we’re told about was a slave girl who was possessed by a demon. This particular demon gave the girl a spirit of divination by which she would tell fortunes, making her owners a lot of money. Wherever Paul and Silas went, this little girl would cause a distraction in the way of announcing them loudly as servants of the Most High God who would tell the way of salvation. This may seem like a good thing, but I imagine it would grate on your nerves. It’s odd to me that what she was speaking at this point in time was the truth. They were indeed servants of the Most High God and were in fact proclaiming the way of salvation. Eventually, though, Paul had enough and commanded the demon to come out of her. I’m not sure why he didn’t do this at first, but he didn’t. Perhaps he didn’t realize it was a demon at first and it took some time for discern. I’m not sure. For whatever reason, though, he finally had enough. He commanded the demon to leave her and it did.
When her owners found out she couldn’t tell the future anymore, they were rather upset with Paul. After all, he had just cost them their livelihood. So they went before the rulers of the city and told them what Paul had done. They played the race card and said Paul and Silas were Jews who were teaching unlawful practices and disturbing the city. The magistrates had them beaten and thrown into prison.
This is a story that would absolutely frustrate you if you didn’t like Paul. When thrown into prison for preaching the gospel, what do Paul and Silas do? They sing hymns and pray. You just couldn’t get Paul down. Everything was an opportunity to advance the Kingdom. This is an opportunity for us to think about how we respond to adversity. I usually get frustrated and cry out to God how unfair life is. Rarely if ever do I think about it as an opportunity to preach the gospel or to praise God. Sometimes I get frustrated with Paul myself.
Scripture says it was around midnight. Paul and Silas were singing and suddenly an earthquake shook the foundations of the prison. The earthquake was so violent, in fact, that it shook loose the shackles and opened the doors to all the cells. When the jailer woke up to see what the commotion was about, he discovered the prison doors were open. Thinking that he had lost all of his prisoners and believing he would be held responsible for their escape, he drew his sword to kill himself. Paul cried out to him “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” How Paul convinced all the other prisoners to remain in their cells, I have no idea, but apparently they did. The jailer was moved by this and asked what he had to do to be saved. Then he and his entire family were baptized.
This entire scenario was supernatural. First, Paul and Silas think they’re going deeper into Asia to preach the gospel, but somehow the Spirit prevents them. They tried twice and the Spirit would not let them go. Then Paul has a vision of a man in Macedonia calling for them to come there and preach the gospel. They end up in a city called Philippi where they encounter three very different people. First is an upper-class woman who sells purple fabric and dyes. She has two houses on two different continents. Paul shares the gospel with her and her entire household believes. Next is a demon-possessed slave girl. Paul casts the demon out of her and gets thrown into prison for it. Third is the jailer himself, a working-class, blue collar guy who takes his job seriously and feels honor-bound to see it done right.
Three different people encounter the same God and are changed by him. What could be a better beginning for a new church?
Remember, this was a church that filled Paul with joy every time he remembered them. They got something right. They weren’t homogonous. They didn’t all like the same TV shows. They weren’t all from the same side of the tracks. Yet when they encountered God they were all changed. It’s in this environment God chose to build his church.
I think about Cornerstone. We are all different people. There are young single adults in college. Young married couples with young children. There are also families with older middle-school and high-school children, families with children in college, and older families with grown children. We have business owners, teachers, working-class folks, and students. We all have different stories. We’ve all had varying levels of success as well as our own struggles that knock us down. But we serve the same God. I think this is such a fitting book for us to settle into and study for a while. The church that Paul loved was as diverse as they come. It was in a cultural center that had been established by Philip of Macedon (Alexander the Great’s father), ruled by Julius Caesar, fought over by Brutus, Cassius, Marc Antony, and Octavian, and settled by Roman soldiers.
I think it’s amazing and beautiful when God builds his church. He never does it the way we think it should be done. It wasn’t my choice to live here, but it’s become our home. It wasn’t our choice to stay, but we’ve grown to love the people and are burdened for this city. This building wasn’t in our plans, but it was given to us. I was never the kind of person who thought I could be a church planter. I always wanted someone else to plant a church and then let me come in and be a part of it, but God burdened me to do this. For all intents and purposes Cornerstone shouldn’t exist, but it seems like this is something God has designed. Last April when we began to seriously make plans for this church, we never imagined six months in that we would have over 100 people in attendance. When God builds his church it’s beautiful. It reminds me of what someone said to me a few months ago about Cornerstone. They said “individually we’re all broken, but together we create something beautiful.”
As we go deeper into Philippians I hope you’ll continue to join us. This is an amazing little letter that I believe can speak to us not only about who we are as individuals, but what we can accomplish together for the Kingdom of God.