Posted by: Johnold Strey | October 10, 2009

Sermon on Philippians 1:12-18

THE WORD DOES ITS WORK!

  1. In spite of difficult circumstances
  2. In spite of selfish motives

Text: Philippians 1:12-18

Introduction

In the October edition of Forward in Christ magazine, you will find an article about the Lutheran Reformation by Daniel Deutschlander.  Professor Deutschlander was one of my college professors, and he is author of the book, The Theology of the Cross, which you have seen advertised in the bulletin for several weeks.  Lutherans typically celebrate October as the month of the Lutheran Reformation; the last day of October 1517 was the day Luther posted his “Ninety-Five Theses” and set the Reformation into motion.  Prof. Deutschlander’s article in Forward in Christ is designed to highlight the Reformation anniversary.

When you read through that article in the days ahead, you will read Prof. Deutschlander’s claim that Luther was one of few people in his day who actually took God seriously.  Maybe that sounds like an overstatement, but I believe that thought is right on the money.  The papacy certainly didn’t take the Word of God seriously.  How can you read Scripture’s clear statements that our salvation and forgiveness is totally a matter of faith in Jesus Christ, but then suggest that performing good works and purchasing church-produced pieces of paper called indulgences is a way to get right with God?  Many other Protestant reformers didn’t take the Word of God seriously, either.  How can you claim to treat Scripture as the authoritative Word of God, but then allow your reason to get in the way of clear statements like, “This is my body” and “This is my blood”?  Luther took God seriously, and that meant he took the Word of God seriously.

The Second Lesson for today’s service encourages us to take the Word of God seriously.  But the encouragement in that reading comes from a slightly different angle.  The encouragement in Philippians chapter one is not about taking the content of the Word of God seriously – though that is certainly something we ought to do!  The encouragement in Philippians chapter one is about taking the power of the Word of God seriously!  The Bible is God’s Word, after all – and if it is his Word, then it is powerful!  It has the power to do exactly what it claims to do.  When the Word is put to work, it will get its work done!  That’s what the apostle Paul teaches us in today’s Second Lesson: The Word does its work!  The Word of God does its work in spite of difficult circumstances.  The Word of God does its work in spite of selfish motives.

I.

If you know a little bit about Paul’s ministry, you know that he was imprisoned in Rome twice during his lifetime.  Imprisonment is never fun, of course, but during his first imprisonment Paul had some degree of freedom.  We could accurately call it a “house arrest” rather than prison.  Still, he was limited in his ability to travel and preach from city to city and region to region.  As far as preaching was concerned, Paul had less than ideal circumstances.

Sounds like a major obstacle in the way of the gospel, doesn’t it?  But it wasn’t.  “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.  As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.  Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.”

New Testament Illustrations 066It has been said that when the Lord closes a door, he opens a window.  Paul seemed to think that.  In fact, Paul seemed to think that the Lord closed a window and opened two doors!  The window that closed was the restriction of his freedom.  In its place, two doors opened.  One door was the unlikely audience who surrounded him.  The “palace guard” Paul mentions likely refers to a very elite detachment of troops that worked for the Roman emperor.  Paul wouldn’t have imagined the chance for members of the imperial guard to hear his preaching and teaching, but as they carried out their duties and watched Paul wherever he was, they heard him discuss the gospel with the many visitors he saw during his house arrest.

The other door that opened was the bold confession of faith that arose from the Christians in Rome who knew about Paul’s difficult circumstances.  It has also been said that there is no such thing as “bad press.”  Perhaps the Roman Christians took advantage of the news of this great missionary’s house arrest, and used that news as a springboard to launch into conversations and confessions about Christ whenever opportunities arose.

Does Gloria Dei have obstacles?  It would be foolish to deny them.  We’re not rolling in money; we’re trying to eliminate debt.  We don’t find ourselves in large and luxurious facilities; we’re working with our modest church and school and looking at dealing with some badly needed parsonage roof repairs.  We don’t have major visibility; we have to work hard to make our location known even though we are on a major street in Belmont.

Does Gloria Dei have obstacles?  Yes.  Would it be good to address those obstacles?  Of course.  But do our circumstances somehow diminish the power of the Word to do its work?  No!

But do we realize that?  Have we internalized that?  Sometimes I’m not so sure.  I’m not so sure we realize that the Word will do its work when one of our major tools for inviting people to church is coffee hour.  I’m obviously not against coffee hour – just look how much I eat there!  But shouldn’t our personal interactions with others emphasize the opportunity to dig into the Word of God like they’ve never done before?  I’m not so sure we understand the Word’s ability to its work when I hear the kind of thinking that implies that the Word gets its power from the preacher’s enthusiasm, or when I hear that the Word will be able to work more powerfully if we downplay or dismiss some of the less popular doctrines taught in the Word.  Our sinful flesh has done a fine job of convincing us that various challenges – sometimes real, sometimes imagined – can get in the way of the Word’s power and its work.  But maybe the real obstacle is the satanic thinking of our sinful nature and its failure to believe that the Word does its work despite challenging circumstances.

But stand out of the way for a moment and let the Word do its work!  Stand out of the way and watch as the Word attaches itself to the waters of baptism and connects you to the blood of Jesus that washes away your sin.  Stand out of the way and watch as the Word is proclaimed by a mere human being in this church, and yet it takes you to the foot of the cross and applies Jesus’ work to your hearts.  Stand out of the way and watch as the Word does its work at this altar, assuring that your lips are not only receiving human food and drink but also the very body and blood of Jesus given and shed for you and your forgiveness.  Don’t let your sinful nature convince you otherwise.  Look at the Word’s work in your heart and how it has brought you to this moment through plenty of prior challenges and obstacles.  Then listen to Paul’s words, and trust that the Word will do its work in spite of difficult challenges.

II.

You have probably noticed that there is often a common thread among the three Scripture readings we hear each Sunday.  Did you catch the common thread today?  In the three lessons, Moses, Paul, and Jesus state that the ministry is not a competition.  When preacher “A” preaches the gospel, preacher “B” ought not feel jealous, but rejoice that others are hearing the good news of Jesus’ redeeming work through the faithful work of others.

That common thread comes out especially in the second half of today’s Second Lesson.  “It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill.  The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel.  The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.  But what does it matter?  The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.”

It seems that Paul’s imprisonment may have become an occasion for others to get out with the message of the gospel.  That’s great – but the motives of those preachers were not always so great.  Some were driven by a jealous rivalry to see if they could experience the same kind of visible results that Paul was blessed with.  Fortunately, others were driven by the right reason – a desire to proclaim the same gospel that Paul unfailingly defended to the point that it ended him up under house arrest.  In spite of the selfish motives driving some of those preachers, Paul seemed to shrug his shoulders and say to himself, “So what?”  The selfish motives inside sinful hearts do not change the soul-saving facts of salvation through faith in Christ’s atoning sacrifice.

We should probably also note that Paul is not talking about false doctrine, or non-biblical teaching.  People can preach the pure gospel with less than pure motives, and Word can work in spite of those selfish motives.  But the Word doesn’t work when it is distorted, altered, and twisted.  In other New Testament books, Paul doesn’t leave us guessing what he thinks about false doctrine.  It’s damnable and dangerous as far as he is concerned – and as far as the Holy Spirit is concerned!  The matter here in Philippians is selfish motives, not false doctrine.

Can selfish motives infect the church today?  Do clicks develop around favorite pastors, or select church leaders, or certain strong personalities?  Do church councils deal with power plays and pointless arguing?  Do parishioners play politics to get their way with the pastor or in the congregation?  And is Gloria Dei immune from such selfish motives and ways of operating?  Not as long as there is sin residing in the hearts of our members – and that means not as long as we’re on this side of heaven.

Isn’t it amazing, that despite selfish motives, power plays, and internal politics, the Word of God still does its work?  That’s because the Word of God points you to the One who set all selfish motives aside to selflessly give himself for you.  The Word of God presents us with the One who set aside personal pride and glory and took on the humble nature of a servant even to the point of death on a cross.  The Word of God reveals to sinners like you and me the humility of our Savior, Jesus Christ, and how his humility from cradle to cross has won the forgiveness our all our sins before his heavenly Father and ours.  And the Word not only presents us with that message, but it has the power to deliver Christ’s forgiveness, to plant faith in the promises of God, and to strengthen our trust in the Savior whose selflessness went to hell and back for our salvation.

Conclusion

Today’s bulletin lists an upcoming stewardship Sunday that we will hold near the end of next month.  Usually when you hear the word stewardship, you think about money and offerings.  But our stewardship focus this year, while not neglecting financial stewardship, will center on our stewardship of God’s Word.  How often do we study the Word?  How can we better understand the Word?  How can we make it a part of the fabric of our lives?  I think a stewardship program based on our use of the Word of God is a wise thing for any congregation, ours included.  Because the Word is powerful.  It is “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12).  It is the “sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17).  It is the story of our salvation and the sourcebook of forgiveness.  Let’s get into the Word, so that the Word can do its work!  Amen.

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