With Christ - our treasure - Philippians 1:12-26
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Count James von Moltke was 26 years old when Adolf Hitler came to power. He could easily have gone abroad as did many of his contemporaries but instead decided to stay. An international lawyer by training he was drafted into the service of German Intelligence. And it was here that he dedicated himself to two main tasks: countering the deportation and murder of Jews and the execution of captured soldiers; and bringing together the most brilliant resisters to plan the shape of a democratic Germany that would follow the collapse of the Third Reich.
Eventually he was betrayed and on January 19th, 1944 he was arrested. Moltke was a Christian. His letters home to his wife, Freya, while in captivity, have been preserved and it was the closeness of God that he experienced which is reflected in his very last letter home. In part it is a love letter because he knew it was his final message to his wife, he wrote: “You are not a means God employed to make me who I am, rather you are myself. You are my 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians. Without this chapter no human being is human.” But the letter was also the final word of a human being waiting in the departure lounge for eternity. He writes: “I always imagined that one should feel shock, that one would say to oneself: now the sun sets for the last time for you, now the clock only goes twelve twice more, now you go to bed for the last time. None of that is the case. I wonder if I am a bit high for I can’t deny that my mood is positively elated. I only beg the Lord of heaven that he will keep me in it, for it is surely easier for the flesh to die like that.” Facing death at the age of 37 he acknowledged, “Now there is still a hard bit of the road ahead of me.” But from beginning to end the letter is one of hope and trusting, “For what a mighty task your husband has chosen: all the trouble the Lord took with him.” “Dear heart, my life is finished” concluded Moltke, “This doesn’t alter the fact that I would gladly go on living and that I would gladly accompany you a bit further on this earth. But then I would need a new task for God. The task for which God made me is done.” A few months before the war ended Moltke was executed. A fellow conspirator commented, “Right to the end he was completely free in soul, friendly, helpful, considerate, a truly free and noble man amid all the trappings of horror.”
We are part of a generation which is concerned with living well. An earlier generation, the generation of men like Moltke, were also concerned with dying well. Just what was it that enabled Moltke to face death with calm and peace and live out his life up to his last breath in the service of others? It was the prospect of what lay ahead – meeting the Lord Jesus.
It is very difficult to read of the experience of Moltke without feeling that it resonated with the experience of the apostle Paul as he writes from a prison in Rome in Philippians 1:21-24: ‘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 labour for me. Yet what am I to 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.’ How can Paul speak of death as ‘gain’? In what way would it be better by far to ‘depart’, that is, to die? Those are quite alien ideas today are they not? Death is the great taboo, the ultimate unknown in the minds of many so that in every respect death is considered loss. And if I am not mistaken that thought also lingers at the back of the mind of many a Christian if the truth be known. You see, what the Apostle Paul speaks of here as departing to be ‘with Christ’ takes us to the very heart of the Gospel message. And it is that which is embodied in these few verses that I want us to think about this morning under two headings.
First, a sad short-change. Now to some the answer to the question: ‘Why is death gain for Paul?’ is obvious. They would say take a look at his lot in life which is not all that attractive. After all he is languishing in a Roman jail, probably manacled to a wall which was not the best place to be in the first century. What is more, in addition to the physical anguish he must have been undergoing is the mental anguish of hearing about people who are taking advantage of his absence from the wider Christian scene by defaming his character-v15, ‘Some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry’, and v17, ‘The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.’ And from what we can tell of what he writes in 2 Corinthians 11, his general apostolic life was one of nonstop hardship involving repeated floggings, shipwrecks and near starvation. Who wouldn’t want to be dead and out of all of that? It is the same sort of reasoning people use to justify euthanasia- life in intolerable, far better to end the misery now than endure it. But that is not how Paul sees things. As for those who are trying to cause trouble for him out of petty jealousy he says in v 18, ‘What does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether through false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.’ As far as his physical condition in prison is concerned, later in chapter 4 Paul says that he is rejoicing in the Lord and has learnt the ‘secret of contentment.’ So this is not the picture of someone who is desperate to end it all.
But you know, it is so easy for Christians to view the Gospel in this way too, as simply a means of escape. So you ask someone: ‘Tell me, why are you a Christian?’ and the answer they will give will run along these lines: ‘ Well, I now have forgiveness of my sins, the slate has been wiped clean, I am no longer guilty and life is no longer meaningless.’ All true, but all woefully inadequate as a description of what it means to be a Christian. This is a short-changed Gospel. Let me explain why.
Come back with me just for a moment to the original fall and its aftermath as recorded in Genesis chapter 3. When as a result of their rebellion in defying God to his face, Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden and fiery cherubim were placed at the entrance of the garden to prevent re-entry, what was the worst thing about that? Was it that they could no longer enjoy the delights of the garden, drinking out of the cool refreshing river, tasting the luscious fruit, hearing the sound of the animals Adam had named? No doubt those losses would have been felt. But what is the most horrendous element of the judgement upon sin is not the loss of any of these things- it is the loss of the presence of God. That sweet communion God and man enjoyed together in the garden was no more. It was more like the pain of divorce, a torn relationship that Adam felt most acutely and his heart would have ached as he moved further and further East, denoting an increasing alienation from his Maker. And the rest of the Bible is really the story of how God goes about solving the ‘Eden problem’ so as to secure his presence amongst people without at the same time destroying them. That is why the pain of punishment for Israel as they turned their back on God and committed spiritual adultery was Exile- being taken away from the land and the temple both of which signified the blessing of the presence of God amongst them. That was the horror and dread they could not dare contemplate. And when you think about it, that is the ultimate horror of hell. For what is hell but the eternal absence of God, a heavy, cold blackness shut out from the One who is eternal beauty and light. That is what makes hell such an infinitely dreadful place, a night without end- the divine absence.
But could it be that in the thinking of some of us Christians about heaven, we are willing to settle for something which more resembles hell? Let me put it in the form of a question: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, with all the friends and family you have had on earth, all the food you have ever liked, all the leisure activities you have ever enjoyed, all the natural beauty you have ever seen, all the physical pleasures you have ever experienced, with no human conflict or natural disasters; would you be happy with that if Christ were not there? ‘But’ you say, ‘he will be there.’ Yes, but supposing he were off somewhere out on the dim and distant horizon- and you had everything else, how would you feel? I think the answer for some of us would be: I would feel alright actually, terrific, because that is what heaven is for me- it is a bigger and better version of this world. But you see, if hell is the absence of Christ and we would in effect be content with a heaven without Christ, then we are opting for a form of hell in heaven. And if that is so then we need to stop and examine ourselves as to whether we are Christians at all and have really understood the Gospel.
Which brings us to a glorious exchange. What is it that Paul is willing to exchange his present life for- a life with which he is more than content and fulfilled? He tells us in verse 23, ‘to be with Christ’ which is better by far. Do you remember what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount about the relationship between our heart’s desire and what we treasure? Matthew 6:21, ‘Where your treasure is there you heart will be also.’ By speaking of our ‘treasure’ he means ‘the object of what is being cherished’. By speaking of our ‘heart’ he is referring to the ‘organ’ which does the cherishing. So unpacking what Jesus is saying to us it is this, ‘Where the object is that you cherish, that is where you will find the organ doing the cherishing.’ So if the things which cause our salivary glands to move into third gear and which cause us to reach for our credit cards and which shape our priorities with what we do with our time and money are fixed here on earth, that is where are heart will be and that is where our heart will stay and we will be cut off from God because that is not where he is- he is in heaven. Now is that what we really want asks Jesus? Isn’t that a waste of a life? But let me ask then: what is the greatest treasure in heaven? What is it that the thief can’t steal or moths destroy? If you were to make an inventory of heaven, what would come out at the top of the list? The streets paved with gold, the heavenly choir? Surely there is only One of more value than heaven itself namely, the One who dwells at the centre of it all- Christ, the one the Puritans used to call ‘heaven’s darling.’ What Paul enjoys in some measure here on earth by the Holy Spirit, he will enjoy in all its fullness when he dies- the presence of Christ.
Maybe we can think of it like this: what is the nature of homesickness? I have only ever been homesick once which is when I took extended study leave in South Africa in 2002. I can tell you it was the most horrible feeling, I almost felt physically ill, it was like a living death-that is putting it rather dramatically-but it is an experience I would not want to repeat. And it all came to an abrupt end, however, not when I came back to Hull, but when my wife Heather and my youngest son, Philip, came out to me. That is when I realised that homesickness is not so much a longing for a place but a person- persons associated and located in a place. And that is what being with Christ is all about for the Christian. It is the perfect definition of heaven to say that ‘heaven is where Christ is.’, so when a Christian dies they can be described as ‘going home to be with the Lord.’ But if we have no friendship with him now, if he is more of a casual acquaintance than a close friend, then there will never be the thought of a glorious exchange when we die, we will still be clinging to this life with our finger nails. Could I ask whether at the moment you are fit for heaven? By that I don’t mean are you good enough, no one is, it is a gift, but do you have that faith and walk with the Lord Jesus now so that you will see him and be with him then? The 19th century Bishop of Liverpool, J.C. Ryle, once preached a sermon in which he offered precisely this challenge: ‘Alas, how little fit for heaven are many who talk of ‘going to heaven’ when they die, while they manifestly have no saving faith, and no real acquaintance with Christ. You give Christ no honour here. You have no communion with him. You do not love him. Alas! What would you do in heaven? It would be no place for you. Its joys would be no joys for you. Its happiness would be a happiness into which you could not enter. Its employments would be weariness and burden to your heart. Oh, repent and change before it is too late.’ Now, is that you?
You see at the heart of the Gospel is Christ himself. It is coming to know him, it is coming to love him and adoring him, being restored to God as Father through him, so that in the here and now we have an open and intimate relationship with him, a relationship lost by Adam and by our sin but restored by Christ. And heaven is more than Eden restored, it is Eden surpassed. The supreme object of desire in heaven because he is the supreme embodiment of beauty and holiness and love is the Lord Jesus. That sense of joy and wellbeing we have on earth when we meet up again with someone whom we love but from whom we have been separated will be as nothing compared to the sweet welcome home that Christ will give to those who love him. The most breathtaking sight we have ever seen, whether it is the Grandeur of the Grand Canyon or the sublime crimson sunset will be underwhelming compared to seeing Christ. The 18th century American preacher Jonathan Edwards describes it like this: ‘When all the saints shall see Christ’s glory and exaltation in heaven, it will indeed possess their hearts with the greater admiration and adoring respect, but will not awe them into separation, but will only serve to heighten their surprise and joy when they find Christ condescending to admit them into such intimate access, and so freely and fully communicate himself to them. So that if we choose Christ for our friend and portion, we shall hereafter be so received by him, that there shall be nothing to hinder their fullest enjoyment of him, to the satisfying the utmost cravings of our souls. We may take our full swing at gratifying our spiritual appetite after these holy pleasures…There shall never be any end of this happiness or anything to interrupt our enjoyment of it.’ Friends, that is why to depart to be with Christ is better by far. That is why we are to get on with cultivating those desires for him now- preparing ourselves for heaven by being here as often as we can on the Lord’s Day with Christ’s people, hearing his wonderful voice in Scripture, speaking to him in prayer, adorning him with our praises. If we are reluctant in doing that, then heaven is never going to seem like our true home. But as we do these things, as we ask God to change our hearts and turn them from the cold blocks of ice they tend to be towards him into hearts on fire, then with Paul we shall have the same longing to be with the One who loved us and gave himself for us. As the writer John Piper is quite right in saying- God is the Gospel, the God whom we come to know face to face in Jesus Christ. All the other things, forgiveness of sins, justification, being made more like Jesus are but means to this great end- knowing and being with Christ as the supreme object of our thoughts and affections.
And you know this is something which is extended even to the simplest child. So let me tell you about a nine year old boy who found himself in a Sunday school of eight year olds. And let me say, eight year olds can be cruel. His name was Philip and they weren’t keen on welcoming him into the group because Philip was ‘different’ he suffered from Down’s syndrome and it was obvious in the way he looked and behaved. Well, one Easter the Sunday school teacher gathered some of those plastic eggs which pull apart in the middle and gave one of these to each child. On that beautiful spring day each child had to go outside and find a symbol of ‘new life’ and place the symbolic seed or leaf or whatever, inside the egg. They would then open their eggs one by one and each youngster would explain how this find was a symbol of new life. And so having done this they gathered around and placed their eggs on the table and the teacher began to open them. One child had found a flower, and all the others “oohed” and “aahed” as eight year olds do. In another was placed a butterfly. But then another egg was opened and inside was a rock- all the children just laughed and thought it ridiculous, and many said so. “How on earth is a rock meant to symbolise new life’ they jeered. Immediately a little boy spoke up and said, ‘That is mine. I knew everyone would choose a leaf or a flower, I just wanted to be different’. The sniggering continued for a while but then the teacher opened the last one and there was nothing in it. “That’s not fair” someone said. “That’s stupid” said another. The teacher felt a tug on his shirt. It was Philip. Looking up, very slowly he said, “It’s mine. I did it. It’s empty. I have new life because the tomb is empty.” The class fell silent. And you know from that day on Philip became part of the group. Whatever made him different was never mentioned again. Well, Philip’s family knew he would not live a long life; there were just too many things wrong with his tiny body. That summer after an infection, Philip died. On the day of his funeral nine eight year old boys and girls confronted the reality of death and marched up to the communion table but not with flowers. Nine children with their Sunday school teacher placed on the coffin of their little friend their gift of love- an empty egg. You see Philip had gone to be with Christ.
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