The work out - Philippians 2:12-18
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
A number of years ago a national newspaper ran an article which involved asking several well known personalities what their view of God was. Many of them began with words like these: ‘I like to think of God as…….’ You know, there are many irrelevant questions we can ask, but that question must come pretty well close to the top of the list. It is as irrelevant to ask; ‘What do you think God is like?’ as it is to ask, ‘What do you think life is like on the other side of the universe?’ The real issue there is, ‘Is there life on the other side of the universe and what evidence do we have as to what it is like?’ And similarly with that question about God. The vital question is not, ‘What do I think he is like?’ but ‘What is he like?’ And in one of the most breathtaking hymns of the early church, the apostle Paul within the space of a few verses has answered that question perfectly in Philippians 2:6-11. And it is there that we discover that the true God, the living God is not as we would have ever imagined him to be at all, for he is the humble God who rescues, he is the God who became a man. Someone has described the real God that we have in Jesus like this: ‘A God who knows exactly what it is to eat a meal and to take a walk, to have a tooth-ache and a stomach-ache, to rejoice at a wedding and mourn at a funeral, to be indebted to an earthly mother and her husband, to stand trial in a human court, to be flogged, to be cruelly executed, does not need to apologise to men and women for his immunity still less for his existence.’ (Harry Blamires) And it is this One who has now been raised from the dead and exalted above every power and authority to reign for ever. That is the doxology of verses 6-11, but doxology- praise, rightly understood always leads to discipleship-practice. And that is what Paul is about to show us this morning as he works through the stunning implications of what we have been considering over the last few weeks in that great hymn to Christ, in the rough and tumble of our day to day lives. So let’s look at this passage under three headings.
First, work out vv 12-13, ‘Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed--not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence--continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.’ Did you notice that little word ‘therefore’? Paul is saying that in the light of all this wonderful and glorious truth about the person, life, death, resurrection and exaltation of the Lord Jesus Christ, there are some things you should be getting on with whether I am with you or not, in fact all the more so because I am not able to be with you. What sort of things is he talking about? Well, first of all, continue to work out your salvation. Now you may say, ‘But Melvin, a few weeks ago as you were explaining the meaning of Jesus death on the cross, you said that in order to become a Christian, to be saved from sin now and hell to come, we had to ask the Lord Jesus to come into our lives. Surely if we have done that then we are saved, it has happened?’ Well, let me tell you a true story from the life of a well known and much loved evangelical Anglican Bishop of the early twentieth century – Bishop Taylor Smith. He was travelling by train on one occasion when a young Salvation Army girl timidly came up to him, touched him on the arm and asked him, ‘Excuse me sir, are you saved?’ That is a very good question to ask a Bishop! Well, the Bishop, famous for his humour as well as his ministry replied with a twinkle in his eye, ‘My dear, do you mean have I been saved, or am I being saved or shall I be saved?’ He then spent the train journey giving the delighted girl a wonderful bible study of the three tenses of salvation- that it is something past, present and future. It is past according to Philippians 1;1, because on believing the Gospel message the Philippian people became ‘saints’-that is set apart, ‘saved’ by God and for God. It is also a future event according to chapter 1:28, for speaking of the judgement day Paul says, ‘you will be saved.’ But here Paul is speaking not of the two ‘thens’, the past and future, but the ‘now’ -the present. He is saying that we are to work out or work through what it means to be saved people. If you like, we need to ‘activate’ our salvation, our new found relationship with God through Jesus and to keep on doing it. Don’t you find that in one sense you need to keep on being saved? I don’t mean by that the need to keep becoming a Christian over and over again. The Australian evangelist, John Chapman, who spoke here a few years ago, had a very devoted mother and she was always keen to encourage her boy. So when he was out speaking at an evangelistic event and made an ‘altar call’ asking anyone who wanted to commit their life to Christ to come forward, the first person there at the front of the church was always his Mum! So one day before his next meeting he took his Mum to oneside and said, ‘Mum, who do you love?’ ‘I love the Lord Jesus’ she replied. ‘Who do you trust?’ ‘I trust the Lord Jesus’ she said. ‘So’, he said to her, ‘Look Mum, tonight when I ask people to come forward, you don’t have to. Have you got that?’ ‘Yes, dear’ she said.’ Well that night after the call for commitment was made; it was a strange sight seeing the evangelist saying through gritted teeth to the first person down the aisle, ‘Go back to your seat!’ No, what I mean is that we find ourselves messing up, again and again. We do the most foolish things as Christians, say the most hurtful and unhelpful things as Christians and get ourselves into all sorts of trouble, and I need rescuing or saving from those things. Is that just my experience or don’t you often feel like that? I feel quite hopeless at times. Which is what Paul means when he says, work out your salvation with fear and trembling, I don’t think he is talking about the fear of God, though we should have that, but the kind of fear and trembling he describes himself as having when he went to preach at Corinth, that is, feeling quite inadequate for the task, not really being up in one’s own strength. And similarly, there is no way we can become more and more like Jesus simply by gritting our teeth and trying a bit harder. We are up against the world, the flesh and the devil- mighty opponents which should drive anyone to a sense of total inadequacy. Which is why, mercifully Paul adds, v 13, ‘for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.’ We can work out what we believe only because God is at work in us who believe. It is not that we have to do a bit and then God completes the rest. Rather, we give ourselves over 100% to living out the Christian life because God is giving 100% of himself in working in our Christian lives. And he can do this because Jesus has been exalted, and is reigning and working through his people by his Spirit, do you see?
And notice what God does within us, he affects our ‘will’, so we now start wanting things and choosing to do things we previously didn’t; so prayer becomes something natural, reading the Bible and meeting with God’s people things we look forward to. We no longer choose to use God’s name as a curse, but as the content of praise. You can’t bring about any of those changes on your own, God does it as you do it. Which is why Paul talks about to, ‘act’ according to his good purpose, or as it could be rendered, his glory. Christians have some ‘get up and go’ about them because God is getting in and getting going in them. Isn’t that a remarkable thing, that the God of the universe is personally and intimately superintending your life?
Well, that is not quite accurate is it, because it makes it sound too individualistic? Because you see, Paul is speaking to a church, a group of Christians. The ‘you’ here is in the plural. Now I hope to be doing some study in Texas in the Autumn and the folk there do speak a plural ‘you’, they say, ‘Ya’all’. Paul is saying to these Christians and to us, ‘Ya’ll work out this sublime salvation that Jesus has won for you on that cross, defeat of sin, death and the devil, but do it together, because you were never meant to or be able to do it alone.’ In the West today it has to be stressed over and over again that there is no such thing as ‘Lone Ranger Christianity’, but sadly there are too many lone rangers in Hull who feel they need no church fellowship, no commitment, who will flit from one place to another and as long as they have their personal prayer and Bible study they feel they are OK. They are not. If we are going to change and in turn change the society we live in, we can only do it together. ‘Ya’ll hear that?’ So how does that happen?
This brings us to our second heading: stand out- vv14-16, ‘Do everything without complaining or arguing, 15so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe 16as you hold out the word of life--in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labour for nothing.’
It is a relief to know that Christians don’t have to pretend that everything is alright, either in the church or in the world. It is liberating to be able to be honest and realistic about things. Life can be, and often is, tough for a whole variety of reasons.
It can be tough in church when folk don’t get on. There can be a clash of personalities, a conflict of agendas or just having a ‘bad hair day’ - we feel down in the dumps and to be honest we don’t relish the prospect of meeting another believer. So how are Christians going to be different in the way they relate to each other, as God works in them so that they can work out their salvation? Paul tells us, ‘Do everything without complaining or arguing’. What a church that would be! People just getting on with things, not griping or whingeing, or getting bogged down in petty arguments because ‘we want to see a thing done this way’. Going back to the great hymn of chapter 2, Jesus didn’t complain or argue about going to the cross. In eternity the Son didn’t say to the Father ‘No, you go if you want that lot saving!’ He could never say such a thing. It had to be done and he did it. He didn’t feel particularly good about it-it was absolutely dreadful, but he quietly did it- without arguing and complaining. For us British, complaining has become a national pastime- but that should not be so for the Christian and if we find ourselves doing it, we need to repent of it pretty quick. But in a society of complainers and arguers, how do you think a society of non-complainers and non-arguers –the church-will appear? Very different don’t you think? They will stand out.
In society Christians will find things tough because as Paul says we are in the midst of a ‘crooked and depraved generation’ -that description fits the world I am living in pretty well to a ‘t’. So in that society, the society in which non-arguers and non-complainers are living to a different set of values with a different power will stand out and ‘shine like stars’ says Paul. A sky full of stars doesn’t mean all that much to us living in a city, mainly because we can’t see them anyway and we have street lights. But in a world with no such lighting when there is such a thing as ‘pitch black’ - so dark you are not be able to see your own hand if you held it out 6 inches from your face- stars become quite important. Stars can provide just enough light to help you see where you are. They provide markers by which you can navigate to where you want to go. In other words, they can help you not get lost but find your way. Now we sadly live in a society which has lost its way. This shows itself in a number of ways, not least by the absurd contradictions we have standing side by side. So on the one hand you will have tabloid newspapers crying out against the sexploitation of children, how the fashion industry is making bras and bikinis for toddlers, where pictures adorn shops with children wearing adult make up and the obvious effect this is going to have on paedophilia. And yet, you will open the inside page and see a picture of a semi nude woman designed to excite and somehow this is not seen as sexploitation or having any effect on shaping the psyche of the public towards such things. There are no moral fixed points to which people can point and say, ‘This is the direction we should be going in’. Well, there are actually. For a start, such a society should be able to go to a church as a potential car buyer might go to a car showroom and say, ‘I like what I see, I want that.’ Rightly we may look at ourselves and feel we ain’t all that much. But an outsider should and can often see us differently. I remember my friend Peter Lewis who is the minister of Cornerstone Church in Nottingham, once relating the story of a woman who later became a Christian, comment that when she first walked into that church, ‘It was like being enveloped in a blanket of love.’ Which he said was quite amazing because at that particular time his church was going through quite a rough patch with some members being at each others throats. Yet, that is what this woman experienced. And I thank God that over the last few months newcomers to St John’s have said pretty much the same thing to me, ‘There is so much love in this place.’ Friends, that is God working in us to will and to act according to his good pleasure as well as us plugging away at working out our salvation feeling our own inadequacy. So yes, by our lives we show there is a better way.
But not only by our lives, but by our lips, v16 ‘as you hold out the word of life.’ If we don’t explain why things are happening people will just say, ‘Christians are just nice people.’ It is as we hold on to the ‘word of life’, that is the Gospel, and hold it out that people are saved and lives are changed and societies transformed. Christianity is not about offering a new lifestyle but a new beginning. It is about becoming connected to the One who made us and died to save us. In other words, Christianity is first and foremost a rescue religion, so the followers of Christ, like their Master, are to be in the rescue business. Perhaps those of you who are new to St John’s may wonder why we place so much stress on sharing the Christian message and have special events and courses to that end as well as encouraging our members to make and take every opportunity to tell others of the Lord Jesus. Well, it is for this reason- God wants as many people as possible from all ages and walks of life to come to know him and enjoy him and to escape the prospect of a dark and painful eternity in the place Jesus called hell. There is no more important message than this. It was Paul’s passion and so we want it to be ours.
Which brings us to the final thing God wants to say to us this morning: be all out, that is all out for Christ, v 17, ‘But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. 18So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.’ Paul is in prison and as far as he knows it might be the end of the road for him, he could be about to be sacrificed in death for his faith. Now there is a word which an earlier generation of Christians, of, dare I say it Roy and Margaret Carlton’s era, which is not so common today, it is the word, ‘sacrifice’. That word has by and large been replaced by another word, ‘fulfilment’, which is a totally different concept. That is so self-centred whereas sacrifice is other-centred; it is like Christ in fact isn’t it? A few years ago a well known Christian speaker was giving a talk on Mission at a University Christian Union and afterwards a young girl came up to him and said, ‘I have a bit of a thing about Muslims. So I am going to go to Algeria for a holiday to see if I enjoy it.’ And the speaker said to her, and the whole CU, ‘Well, if the Muslims have to wait to see if we find evangelism fun then they’ve had it!’ He was right of course. People don’t go out to our troops in Afghanistan and ask: ‘Do you enjoy it?’ No, they and their families are making sacrifices on a daily basis and some of them will make the ultimate sacrifice. But they do it because, as I understand many of them, they see it as their duty; it is part and parcel of what it means to be a service man or woman. Sacrifice for the sake of those who do not know the Lord Jesus is part and parcel of what it means to be a Christian. It is our duty. But not only a duty, but actually a delight, Paul can talk about ‘rejoicing’. Why? because although we do not know how things are going to turn out in Afghanistan we do know how things are going to turn out for us- Christ is victorious, we are on the winning side, so we are to be all out for Him. Let us pray.
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