Sunday, February 09, 2014

Sermon: Philippians 1: 12-30 To Die Is Gain

I’m not quite at the stage yet, but I notice that some of you are wearing spectacles. While some people wear specs without lenses (perhaps to look smarter or cooler), if you actually need them, you can ‘see’ the benefit straight away. Whether it’s to follow the small print in the prayer book and help your reading; or to see things that are far away; or for driving, you know that they’re key to be able to see clearly. Before you put them on, things are all blurry, but with the specs, you can see better.

There’s a word that we encounter for the first time in reading tonight as we work our way through Paul’s letter to the Philippians. It’s a most strange word when you think about it, coming from the pen of a prisoner. It’s the word ‘rejoice’. Verse 18 has it twice (and we’ll see it crop up again later in the letter). Paul the prisoner is trying to gee up the Christians on the outside to rejoice.

You see, the Christians in Philippi were probably thinking that it was a terrible pity that Paul, the greatest apostle, was thrown in prison. Surely his career as a church planter is now over. He’ll be sitting in the prison, unable to help the efforts. But Paul wants them to put on their gospel glasses to see what’s really happening.

As he writes this bit of the letter, we discover that the things that look like disasters and disappointments are transformed by the goggles of the gospel. I wonder if you’ve ever had a setback - something goes wrong; how do you respond?

Paul invites us to put on the gospel goggles - or indeed, to have corrective eyesight - to see things as God sees them.

The first is found in verses 12-18. Paul is in prison. Surely that means that the mission has ended? He has lost his freedom, no longer can he travel around the Roman Empire planting churches and preaching about Jesus.

But look at what he says in verse 12: ‘I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.’ Put Paul in prison, and he can’t travel, but that doesn’t mean he has been silenced. It’s just that his audience has changed.

This morning in church we had Colin from Crosslinks who said that mission isn’t just something that happens across the world. It’s also something that happens in our world - where we are. So Paul, here is a model of that. He actually has a captive audience.

Paul was being guarded closely. He may have had a soldier chained to him on one side or both sides. And as he’s sitting chained up, he tells his guards about Jesus. He tells the first pair. Then they go off duty and he tells the next pair. They change and on and on he goes. So much, in fact, that he can say that ‘it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard...’

Others may see the problems, but Paul sees the opportunity. How else would the soldiers have come to hear about Jesus? And, as he goes on to say, it’s not just Paul that is continuing to speak. The other Christians in Rome are also becoming more bold. They’re speaking out about Jesus.

Now, it’s true, as he says, that some are trying to stir up more trouble for him. They’re only talking about Jesus in order to make things worse for Paul - from envy and rivalry. Does he care? The important thing is that ‘whether in pretence or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and I rejoice.’ It looked bleak, Paul had been arrested. But as Paul sees how things are turning out, he looks with his gospel goggles and sees the name of Christ being proclaimed more than before. Are there ways in which we could speak out about Jesus, even when it looks the opposite?

Paul’s gospel glasses give him a new perspective on death, as we see in verses 19-26. The way that many people (even some Christians) look at death is that this world is where all the action is and death is the end. That death brings loss, and so we want to fend it off for as long as possible with health regimes and plastic surgery and fashion and all sorts of things.

But look at verse 21. Paul couldn’t say this without having his vision altered by the gospel goggles. ‘For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.’ To live is to experience Christ as we love him and serve him - fruitful labour as Paul mentions.

Yet to die is - for the Christian - gain. You don’t lose anything, it is only gain, as you are no longer bound by the pains of the world; by the frailty of our bodies; by the sins and temptations that continue to war against us. Death is but the doorway through which we enter Christ’s eternal kingdom. It is ‘far better’. It’s not quite what we expect to hear, is it?

Mark Ashton was the minister of a church in Cambridge when he was diagnosed with cancer. As he went through the treatment it became apparent that he could not be helped. He wrote a little book called ‘On My Way To Heaven.’ In the last days of his life, he was seriously ill. His family and friends were gathered around, to hear him say ‘Soon Home.’ He knew he was going home

But notice that Paul doesn’t say that we should all just decide to die as soon as we can. Rather, it’s not in his hands, but in God’s, to decide and decree his lifespan. Until Jesus comes or calls, he will continue to live for Christ, for the encouragement of the Philippians.

Resolved to live, Paul looks forward to coming to see the Philippians again. Until that day, though, he encourages them to ‘stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.’ This is the third remarkable thing he sees through his gospel goggles, and the theme that will continue through to the next part of the letter. You see, we are not saved to be individuals, pursuing our own agendas and doing things our own way. Instead, we are called into the body of Christ, in one spirit with one mind. The image Paul uses of side by side is the Roman army, where the shields interlocked, every soldier protecting each other together.

We’re called to stand together, protect one another, and help one another, especially because of verse 29. You see, it’s not just a privilege to believe in Christ, but also suffer for him. How vital it is, then, to help and care for each other, supporting one another in the hard times.

It’s very different to the ‘every man for himself’ attitude of so many. It’s distinctly Christian as we follow the pattern of Jesus and his apostle.

The very things that make it look like God is not in control, the things that would make you want to give up - imprisonment, death, suffering. Paul invites us to look at these (and all the other things that come our way) through our gospel goggles. See how God is still in control, and how even these weaknesses can be used as strengths. Who are the people God has put beside you to hear the good news? How can you play your part as we stand together in suffering? Will you change the way you view death?

This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall, Brookeborough on Sunday 9th February 2014.

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