Sunday, July 31, 2005

Philippians 2:12-18: Complaint-free zone. A sermon preached in Dromore Cathedral on 24th July at Summer Praise.

Have you noticed the stars recently? I’m not talking about any sort of celebrities, but about the stars in the sky. Normally there’s just too much light in the town from streetlights to look up and see the stars properly, but when I’m out in the country, I like to look up and see them. They are, of course, always there, but during the day it is too bright to see them.

The reason we see them at night is because they stand out. They’re different. It’s very easy to see them, against the backdrop of the dark night. It is in this way, that Paul says we are called to ‘shine like stars’ compared to the ‘crooked and depraved generation’ we live in.

This command comes in the context of Paul declaring the practical outworking of being a Christian. Following on from the early hymn of Christ’s divinity, which we looked at last week, we come to what it means to be a Christian, following in Jesus’ example of humility and obedience.

Just as Jesus was obedient to God, even to the death of the cross, with the future exaltation promised, so Paul calls the Philippians to obey, by continuing to ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.’

Note that it doesn’t say ‘work for your salvation’ – it says instead ‘work out your salvation’ – because our salvation is not something we can work towards, or repay God for; it is a finished act, completed when we trust in Christ, yet we have to work it out, we have to keep going at the process of sanctification – becoming more like Jesus.

But we should also see that it isn’t all our own effort – by ourselves we cannot do anything to please God – but through interaction and partnership between God, and us, he works in us, empowering us to both desire to please God, and the strength to do what is pleasing to him.

Paul then moves on from the general command to the particular, and commands us to ‘do everything without complaining or arguing’. It’s not just what has to be done, but also the spirit in which we do the action, and here we find something that we should all learn from.

It is so easy to have a moan, and it generally makes us feel better, but what does it achieve in terms of our witness to the world? If they see that we are Christians, and go to church, and then complain about someone else at church, or complain about things that have happened to us, then what will the outsider think? They’ll be wondering what difference does believing really make? Those Christians are really no different to the rest of us, and instead, their faith must make them grumpy, and be a burden.

Instead, Paul tells us to ‘do everything without complaining or arguing’ – not just because he doesn’t like complaining or arguing, but because there is a real purpose, and a great effect from this attitude.

The purpose is this: ‘so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault’. This means that, not only do we not do such things, but we are not even to come under suspicion of doing such things – of being above criticism, and of thoroughly wholesome in character and single-minded. But let’s be clear here – Paul isn’t telling us to not complain so that we are saved, but rather, it flows as a result of us being saved, and being children of God.

The effect of this is that the church, the children of God, stand out in ‘a crooked and depraved generation’, shining like stars in the universe. Here we have that picture of the stars shining, distinctive against the black of the night sky. It is obvious to see them.

But our being different is for a reason ‘as you hold out the word of life’. We aren’t different for the sake of being different, but rather, to draw attention to the word of life that we hold on to, and that we hold out to others. And so, as moths are attracted to the light, so we are to be distinctive and attractive to those around us. Perhaps the best picture of this is the lighthouse – which is a beacon of light and of life – as God’s light shines through us when we don’t argue or complain, then those around us notice, and come to see the effects of the gospel.

Remember, those around us who aren’t Christians may have no desire to read the Bible or even come to church. And the only Bible they may ever read is you, as they watch you living your life. But you have the opportunity to show those around you in simple ways what the gospel means, what being a child of God means, through the choices you make, and the attitude you have.

It is also important to remember that this calling is to a radical lifestyle, a completely different attitude to that which the world expects, because we have such a serious message. We are holding out the word of life. The message we have is that of life, and not of death.

I had the privilege this week to be speaking at BB Camp in Wales every night on the ‘I am’ sayings of Jesus, where he says that he is the light of the world, the Good Shepherd, the way, the truth, the life, the bread of life, the true vine, the resurrection and the life, and the gate for the sheep. Every one of these statements about who Jesus is relates to life, overcoming the curse of Eden, whereby sin brings death to us all, but through believing in Jesus, we can have life in him.

The challenge tonight therefore, is this: are you ready to shine like stars? Will you seek to do everything without complaining and arguing, in order to be blameless and pure, and be different for the sake of the gospel?

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