Please take a seat. And if we haven't had the chance to meet yet, then let me introduce myself to you – My name is Ken Matthews, and I'm the minister at St Joseph's, our other church in the west end of the city. And to those who I have already met let me say... I've missed you! I haven't been here for 5 weeks and it feels like a lot longer. So it's nice to be back, especially as I get the privilege of kicking off this new series of sermons from the book of Philippians this morning – a series entitled "The Joyful Life". And we're asking: What does it look like to live a life full of joy? Well let's pray and then we'll take the first few steps in finding out.
"Father God, thank you so much that you sent Jesus so that we might have 'life and have it to the full'. Help us as we open your word up this morning to see how that can be in a world full of trouble, stress and heartache. We pray in Jesus name. Amen."
Have you ever looked forward to something so much that you've not been able to think about anything else? Maybe it's an upcoming holiday, or a special event – like a birthday or an anniversary, or maybe it was just the end of a really stressful period of difficult challenges and intense pressure – the end of exam periods were always like that for me. I just couldn't wait for them to end! But what about you? What have you bee, or what are you, looking forward to?
My eldest daughter Lucy went to her best friend's birthday party last Saturday – trampolining in the morning, fast food for lunch and a sleepover at night just to polish it all off. It's great being a kid, isn't it? Kids get to have all the fun! But what was she like on Friday night as I was tucking her into bed? "Daddy, I'm going to Emily's party. It's so exciting. I don't think I can sleep!" And by the look on her face I thought: here is a child who has either had too much chocolate today, or she's looking forward to a great party! If you're looking forward to some future event, that's how it makes you feel, doesn't it? You're excited and happy. How you feel is being directed not by how things are in the present, but how they will be in the future. It's that future that shapes how we feel and how we act, in the here and now.
Well as we open up the book of Philippians we find a guy called Paul writing a letter to a church in the Greek city of Philippi in around 60AD. He writes because he wanted his Christian friends there to feel joyful. Why? Because Paul was a smart guy and God had helped him understand 2 things about life:
- That life on planet earth is tough going. But...
- That if you stick with God the future is unbelievably brilliant.
So he writes this letter to encourage us to look forward to God's future in a way that it will transform all of our difficulties and doubts in the now – so that we won't stop thinking about it, talking about it and rejoicing in it. And the starting point for that joy is thankfulness. Do you see that there in verse 3? "I thank my God in all my remembrance of you..." In these 11 short verses he thanks the Lord for what he has done, for what he is doing, and for what he will do. Got that? Past, present, future. What God has done, is doing and will do! Can there be anything more important than that in my life and your life this morning? Without knowing that, our lives don't make any sense. So let's have a look at the first of those 'Thank-Yous'. As Paul says 'thank you' firstly for:
1. The Work the Lord Has Done
What is the work the Lord has done? Well let's rewind back to verses 1-2 and see if you can spot it. What has he done for the Philippians?
"Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."
What is the work the Lord has done? Answer: Well look what they're called here... "All the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi." They are saints! Really? I don't know what you think of when you think of the word "Saint". My mind immediately thinks of:
- Some old dead blokes
- Southampton football club
- Handbags – especially if they are designed by Yves Saint Laurent, or
- St. Joseph's church – or maybe St. George's up Osborne Rd, or St. Hilda's up by West Jesmond Metro
But I would never think of real life, living, breathing people that I know. Because the word "Saint" here means "set apart" or "wholly separate". It's from this word that we get the word "Holy" in the Bible. The idea the word expresses is that of someone or something "belonging to a different order of things" or "living in a different sphere". And that's a God thing, isn't it? God is from a different order of things, a different sphere if you like – but we aren't! God is holy, but we are most certainly not!
So as Paul is writing to this little church at Philippi, why on earth does he call them saints? Well it's no accident. He could have easily just addressed his letter "To the Philippians... love from Paul". But he didn't, because he is not concerned with what they are by nature in the world, but who they are by grace in the sight of God. "Saints" are not a special group of wonderful Christians who are better than the rest of us mere mortals. No, they are people who… can you see it in verse 1? They are people who are "in Christ Jesus"! Brilliant! So how do you get "in Christ"? Well not on the basis of anything we do, but purely on the strength of what Christ has done. There's nothing we can do to make ourselves 'saintly', to make ourselves acceptable to God, or like God. But God still wants to grab a hold of us and make us more like him in Christ.
It is 'in Christ' that God calls us to himself. It is 'in Christ' that he saves us from our sin – as he dies the death we deserved. It is 'in Christ' that he washes us clean and makes us fit for purpose. It is 'in Christ' that he makes us secure in him and gives us everything we need to be set apart and declared holy and to be part of his people forever. The Bible tells us that if you are in Christ Jesus you are a saint! It's not on the basis of anything you do, but on what Christ has done. As all we have to do is turn to Christ, believe in him, confess our sins and entrust our lives to him. And the minute we do that – in God's eyes we are a 'saint' who is 'in Christ Jesus'. And that changes everything!
Fiona and I had the privilege of being in Australia and New Zealand a number of years ago. It was gorgeous. It's the kind of trip we sometimes talk about or look at the pictures of – especially when it's April and it's still cold and grey and drizzly in Newcastle. And when we do talk about it our lad Jamie doesn't see himself in the pictures so he always asks: "Was I there daddy?" And I will say "Yes, you were." Which confuses and slightly annoys Lucy who is very proud of the fact that she was only child who was born to us at that point, and is the only child who appears in the photos. But my answer is still true, because – as I'm sure you might have guessed by now – even though he hadn't been born yet Jamie was there in his mummy's tummy. And that's why one of his middle names is Sydney. No it isn't – just kidding! So you could say he was there because he was "in mum". So where she went, he went. And what she did, he did. And what she ate, I guess he ate. And it's like that for us if we are "in Christ Jesus". We can go where Christ goes and do what Christ does.
So where can Christ go and what can Christ do? Well he can enter the very throne room of heaven and talk to God his Father about anything. And if we are "in Christ" so can we! He can face down the devil's temptations by remembering God's promises. And if we are "in Christ" so can we! He can rise from the dead and live forever in perfect glory. And if we are "in Christ" so can we! So the question is: are you in Christ? Well if you're not, let me invite you "in" this morning. Better still... Jesus invites you! Maybe today is the day to say "yes" to that invitation? This little booklet "Why Jesus?" will give you a bit more info about that. So grab one from the display racks on your way out. Or perhaps it might be helpful to come and have a chat to me or one of the church staff before you go.
That's Paul's first 'Thank You' – for the work that God has done in making the Philippians his saints. Secondly here is:
2. The Work the Lord Is Doing
What is God doing? Let's dive back in at verse 6 as Paul says:
"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."
In other words, God finishes what he starts! God is at work in the Philippian church to make them what he set them apart to be. And that is what I believe God is doing here at Jesmond Parish Church. Now I realise that for some of us in this room that thought terrifies us! It terrifies us because we're not sure that we can trust God to change us. God at work in me! What is he going to change me into – A Jesus freak? Ahhhh!
Can I tell you from a distance, that I know enough about many of you in this room to say you need all the help you can get. No offence! But many of you know enough about me, to know that I need even more help than you do. So if you're one of these people thinking "Oh no! What will God change me into?" Can I say anything is better than what we are at the moment! So let's rejoice that the Lord has begun a good work in us, and that He is going to carry it on. He is going to take us somewhere. And because he is the gracious Lord who gives you a new identity – as saints, you can trust him.
And while some people here might be thinking "No way – I don't want him!" Others sitting here are thinking "I want him, but can't see him at work." You've been trekking along this road with the Lord Jesus a long time, and you find it difficult to see any change in your life. Some of you every now and again will pluck up the courage to speak to your spouse or your friends and ask: "Have you actually seen much change in me?" Because sometimes the more you try to grow in grace, the harder it is to see it in your own life. And some of you are terrified that God might not fulfil his promise. But the Apostle Paul says: "You can't say that about God! What God has started he will finish."
It's not like me and The Times Crossword which I pick up in a fit of enthusiasm and then put back down 20 minutes later having run out of steam having only got half-way through. No! If God has called you and made you his child he is going to take you somewhere – He will finish the job! Sometimes we doubt God's ability to do it, because what we are actually counting on is not his ability to change us, but our own. If I am the one holding God's hand, I can let go of it anytime I want. But if God has got a grip of my hand then he will never let me go. His plans always work out and are always loving, even when it doesn't look like that. Even though we try to push God away, or run away or give up. He keeps hold of us.
Paul is confident that God is at work among the Philippians, not because they are super strong Christians who read their Bible and pray every day. Nor is it because they are excellent at living for Christ in the midst of all the pressures life throws at us. No! His confidence is in God and his work. Have you any idea of the value of that? You are encouraged day after day on the telly and in magazines to try this strategy and that strategy to change yourself – so that by the end of the day you're often left with just a list of things, that if you don't live up to, they will beat you down. And the Lord comes in and says I have a plan that I will work out in you, so that in a year, two years or ten years you won't be the same person at all.
Paul sees this happening with the Philippians. He looks at their work in partnering in the gospel with him in verses 4-7 and he sees it as evidence that the Lord is working in them. And he is thankful. Are you thankful for your brothers and sisters in Christ here at Jesmond Parish Church? Be honest – all of them? I find that the problem with me is I look at other folks and I think "Oh they've still got a long way to go in that area and I really wish they'd get their act together when it comes to that discipline" – And I do that so much I fail to see what God is doing in them and I fail to praise the Lord. But look around our church and you will see much to give thanks for. You'll see…
- People giving generously, taking sin seriously, wrestling in prayer and seeking God's guidance.
- People who have taken the time to out to encourage others, who've arrived early to welcome people, who've turned up to serve even when it's costly.
- People who have struggled and have wanted to give up at points, but are still going on.
God is at work! So should we be confident that what God has started he will carry on? Yes! Should we be thankful? Yes! But will we be happy with what we've got? No! We want even more, don't we?! That is why there is a third and final "Thank You" here. As Paul turns his mind to:
3. The Work the Lord Will Do
Let's check out verses 9-11 as we head on into the final furlong:
"And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God."
What does it look like for God to carry out to completion the work he has started in us? Well it looks like this! As here Paul prays that the Philippians capacity to love might increase, that it might – verse 9: "abound". That word here has the sense of overflowing, wave upon wave, cascading like a waterfall. I stood next to a pretty impressive waterfall in the States last year – it was so powerful that I got soaked by the spray. And that's the image Paul has in his mind here. He in essence says: "I long that your love might flow in such a way that it would powerfully rush out of you, so that everyone around might get soaked by the spray."
But this love is not blind. Christian love is not mindless sentimentality. No! Paul also prays that our love would grow in "knowledge and all discernment". He wants them not just to love more, but to love more wisely. And the word used here is knowledge of the things of God. So, Christian love involves a thoughtful concern for the truth of God. And Paul is saying that our love will go wrong unless we also grow in knowledge of God. So as I grow in my understanding of the Bible I am loving you. For as I open up God's word I find it's the one place in life where my self-seeking and self-justifying thoughts and deeds are regularly challenged. Do you ever stop to ask yourself why you are really doing the things you do? It is crucial for us to stop every 24 hours and spend time with God. Letting God examine our hearts and speak to us is an essential part of love abounding in us.
Our aim here is that we should be able to figure out what is best in life. And Paul says that is ultimately what I want for you (v9-10): "that your love may abound more and more with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may [be able to] approve what is excellent", in the light of... what? What God is going to do in the end! This wonderful, glorious day of Christ.
Paul is saying that this reality that is awaiting all of us should change the way we think and act now. What is excellent, what is best, will be what lives in keeping with the fact of that coming day. You may already have thought through what is the best way to spend tomorrow, or next week, or this next term, or the next five years, but if it hasn't taken account of the fact that one day Jesus Christ is coming back to reign gloriously for all eternity – and on that day you will meet him, and he will ask you: 'what have you done with the life that I gave you?' If you don't try to work out your present in the light of that future day, then sadly you're on a road to nowhere. That is why Paul says 'I just beg God every day that you lot will be able to see in the light of Jesus return what is best.'
Ultimately Paul's concern is not actually for the Philippians – but that they would bring glory and honour to the Lord God. For, as they learn what is best Paul prays that they would "...be filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God" (v11). He is praying that as people met members of the Philippian church they would say "Do you know there is something about that person – there is something about them that draws me to God". So what people think about God is at stake here!
Pauls is praying what we prayed earlier in this service in the Lord's prayer – that God's name would be "hallowed". He is praying that great priority of the Christian life: that God would be honoured, applauded, recognised and wondered at by men and women. What a prayer to pray! What a prayer to pray! Isn't that what we want to be praying for each other this week? There are all kinds of things we could be doing this week as individuals and as a church. But we have to pray: "Please help us to know what is best in the light of your coming back – so that we bring glory and praise to your name." That's Paul's prayer for the Philippians. And it's my hope that we will follow his example and pray it for each other too. Let's do that right now. Let's pray. So what is best? How can we bring glory to God this week? Just let's take a moment in the silence to work out what that is.
"Oh Father God, We thank you that you are committed to finishing the work you have started in us, keeping us, growing us and bringing us home to be with you forever. Keep us prayerful until that great day. And as we pray we ask that in those we pray for your love would abound. And we ask this for Jesus glory. Amen."