Posted by: Johnold Strey | June 5, 2016

Sermon on Philippians 1:18-26

Third Sunday after Pentecost — June 5, 2016 — Sermon starts at 27:45

A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH

Text: Philippians 1:18b-26

Introduction

Screenshot 2016-06-05 22.05.25Ed Stetzer is a fairly well-known pastor, author, speaker, and the Executive Director of Lifeway Research. Last week he garnered some attention when he posted the following pithy and thought-provoking message on Twitter: “In 5 days: 700 refugees drowned off Greece, 9,000 babies were aborted in the U.S., 68 were shot in Chicago … and a gorilla dominated the news.

I don’t plan to preach about refugees, abortion, violence, or a gorilla that was shot in the Cincinnati Zoo two Saturdays ago. We’ll let those discussions take place in other venues. But Stetzer’s tweet does make you think: In a world where death is all around us and human life is not valued as it should be, why was one of the top news headlines about the death of a gorilla?

We like to keep thoughts about life and death at a distance. We just celebrated the graduation of the eighth grade students of St. Mark’s school, and we can’t help but think about their bright futures that lie ahead of them. I don’t think I’ve heard a middle school graduation address that got 14-year-olds to think about their own mortality. Even on matters as simple as our food, we keep death at a distance. When’s the last time you slaughtered an animal because you wanted beef or chicken for dinner? No, you drive over to Safeway or Sprouts and there in the meat department are some nicely prepackaged steaks or ground beef or a whole chicken for you to take home and prepare—with no loss of life taking place directly by your hands.

Matters of life and death are a part of life, whether or not we acknowledge it. But we don’t do ourselves any favors by ignoring the topic. In the first chapter of the apostle Paul’s letter to the ten-year-old church he founded in the ancient city of Philippi, he deals directly with a matter of life and death—his own life and death! And the way Paul dealt with this matter will be a source of education and inspiration to us too.

I.

If you are at all familiar with this letter that St. Paul wrote to the Philippians, you know that the major theme throughout this letter is joy. Even though Paul was under house arrest in Rome as he wrote this, he expressed his Christian joy throughout this letter. Just before our selection for today, Paul said that he was joyful because the gospel was continuing to spread even though he was imprisoned. It didn’t even bother him that some were proclaiming the gospel with less-than-honorable motives in mind. He simply found great joy in the fact that the good news about Jesus was getting “air time” in spite of—and even because of—his imprisonment.

That thought led to yet another reason why Paul remained joyful despite his circumstances. “Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.” 

New Testament Illustrations 066Paul had another strong reason to be joyful despite his situation. He had a very strong reason to believe that he was would be freed from this house arrest in the near future—and part of that confidence was from the prayers of his readers and the support from the Holy Spirit. But notice that Paul believed he would be unashamed no matter what happened—whether he was freed, or even if he ended up being executed! Paul’s attitude here is a concrete demonstration of that famous Bible verse that he wrote in Romans 8:28: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

With a strong sense that he was likely to regain his freedom, Paul explained the positive blessings that would come out of that situation. “It is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.” Not only was Paul strongly convinced that God was going to spare his life at this time and free him from house arrest, but he knew what purpose God would have in mind if he regained his freedom. This young Christian congregation would certainly benefit if Paul could serve them further. They would grow in their faith and the joy that flows from faith, and that would give his readers reason to boast in their Savior Jesus, who had directed circumstances to free Paul and have him serve them with the gospel.

There are two hymns in our hymnal that include this phrase: “If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul, you can tell the love of Jesus, you can say he died for all.” You have been given a gift to serve in God’s kingdom even if you don’t think that’s the case. When we hear Paul’s thoughts about the blessings that would come to his readers if he remained alive, maybe there’s part of us that thinks there’s no way God can use us and our situation to help in his kingdom. But isn’t that really the thinking of our sinful nature, which is a master at coming up with any excuse why we shouldn’t participate in the work of God’s kingdom?

There is not one person here today that Jesus didn’t die for. There is not one person here today that Jesus’ blood does not cleanse. That comforting message not only puts faith in our hearts, but that God-given faith and forgiveness puts zeal in our hearts. The teenager who thinks he can’t offer much to God’s kingdom really does have something to offer. He has youthful energy to serve in ways that others might not be able to! He is the right age to connect to other young people and encourage them in their faith! The stay-at-home mom who thinks she can’t offer much to God’s kingdom really does have something to offer. She has the ability to personally educate and influence her children in ways that no other person can! She can make the Christian faith “real” to her children! The elderly grandparent who thinks he or she can’t offer much to God’s kingdom really does have something to offer. They can pray for the spread of the gospel and the work of the church and know that those prayers are as effective as Paul described the Philippians’ prayers in this reading. They can offer godly advice and be a mentor to others with the wisdom that comes from a long life lived under the cross of Jesus Christ.

II.

Several years ago, just before Easter, my wife’s paternal grandmother passed away. Emily’s grandmother was the glue that held the family together. She was a Christian inspiration to everyone who encountered her. And that was not only true in life, but it was also apparent as she prepared for death. We remember visiting her when she moved into the local hospice house. She was ready for the Lord to call her home. She practically invited the family to pillage her home and take any items that they’d want, especially if they had sentimental value. She was quite content to let go of this world and her possessions and as she neared her final days, she wondered why it taking so long for God to call her home to heaven!

That’s the kind of perspective on life and death that every Christian wants to have when their last hour comes. And even though Paul’s last hour was not close at hand when he wrote these words, he put that perspective into practice as he faced his matter of life and death. “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.”

Paul knew that his release from house arrest was likely—and that’s eventually what happened—but if he had a choice, his preference was actually to have the Lord call him home to eternal life in heaven! That’s what he meant when he said, “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.” Paul actually felt an inner struggle, as if two sides were pressuring him with their perspectives—the advantages of continued service in God’s kingdom, and the advantages of leaving this world of pain and problems and persecution and entering into the permanent paradise that God has prepared for all his believers in heaven. Paul took comfort in the reality that if he should die, it would be the biggest gain of God’s blessings he could imagine or experience!

But there’s that topic again—death. Who really wants to talk about that? “I have a life to live! I have travels to undertake! I have experiences to check off my bucket list!”

There is, of course, nothing wrong checking off those experiences on your “bucket list.” There is nothing wrong with enjoying the earthly blessings that God richly and daily showers on us. But do we also need a reality check? God is not calling on us to be obsessed with death, but could it be all too easy for us to be obsessed with life—this life? Is the reason you live to enjoy life, or to serve your God? Is the reason you live to eat, drink, and be merry, or is the reason you live to find your place in the mission of the church and of this congregation that now adorns our back wall? Isn’t it all too easy to try to live this life to the fullest without ever thinking about the life that follows this one or the faith in Jesus that makes us ready for that next life?

“Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” would have been a good motto for this life were it not for the life and death and resurrected life of our Lord Jesus. For all the times we have failed to make God our number one priority in this life, Jesus honored his heavenly Father’s word and will above anything else. For the sin that so easily entangles our hearts and pulls us away from God, Jesus suffered the ultimate punishment of being separated fully from God in our place so that our guilt has been paid in full. And for those times when the terrible reality sets in that “the wages of sin is death,” Jesus rose from the grave on Easter morning to also prove that “the gift of God” to his believing children “is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). And with that saving knowledge and faith filling our hearts, we have joy serving God now and the greater joy that we will worship and adore this perfect and awe-inspiring God forever in heaven.

Conclusion

A couple of summers ago, my oldest daughter and I attended the WELS National Worship Conference. It was my sixth worship conference (they’ve been held every three years since 1996), but it was my daughter’s first conference, and she sang in the children’s choir with about forty other children—not to mention the Teen Honors Choir with nearly 100 teens from across the country and the nearly 1,000 adult registrants who were involved in the conference. Now you would think that a worship conference would be about the least exciting thing for kids in middle school and high school to attend, right? Think again! So many of those children and teens raved about their experience and said that when it was over, they didn’t want to leave the campus. (And if you want that experience, I suggest that next year you register for the next WELS worship conference planned for June 2017!)

My point from sharing that anecdote is that spending eternity in the presence of God might not sound like the most glamorous activity to us now—but that’s because we have a sinful nature still attached to us! But let your Christian nature bask in God’s presence in glorious public worship, and even middle school and high school students will say that they want to stay! Today St. Paul took that thought one step further: He knew that when it came to life versus death, life meant a chance to serve; but he also knew that death meant that he would gain the greatest everlasting benefits that come from sin and sorrow being set aside once and for all! So let Paul’s words and Jesus’ sacrifice inspire you to face death with complete confidence, and to face life with joyful service. Amen.

 

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