Sermon 11-05-17: “To Live Is Christ”


Just in time for Thanksgiving, today begins a 4-part sermon series on Paul’s letter to the Philippians—a letter bursting with joy and gratitude. Paul’s tone should surprise us: After all, he’s writing this letter from prison, facing trial and execution for his faith. Moreover, his missionary work—his vocation to reach the Gentiles with the gospel—appears to be seriously hampered. How is Paul able to be so happy?

Sermon Text: Philippians 1:12-26

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It’s November, which means—as far as I’m concerned—it’s almost Christmas. I love this time of year. This year, during the Thanksgiving/Advent/Christmas season I’m planning on re-watching one of the greatest movies ever made: I’m referring, of course, to It’s a Wonderful Life. Most of you have seen this holiday classic. It is so good; it’s so deep; it’s so rich.

You remember the basics of the story: George Bailey is an ambitious young man who has dreams of leaving Bedford Falls, the small town he grew up in; seeing the world; going to college; being a world-renown architect or engineer; building things. Accomplishing things. Being successful; being rich. Living the American dream. But through a series of unfortunate events and circumstances beyond his control, he ends up stuck in Bedford Falls, running his late father’s Building and Loan, watching his friends and even his little brother achieve the kind of success that he himself always wanted to achieve—as if being married to Donna Reed wasn’t enough for him! What was his problem?

Regardless, toward the end of the movie, his incompetent uncle loses $8,000 of the Building and Loan’s money, and the police suspect that George stole it, and pretty soon he’s going to be arrested. His life is in ruins, or so he thinks. So he contemplates suicide until an angel intervenes to save his life. The angel shows George one example after another of how much better his fellow townspeople’s lives are as a result of George’s life. George sees that every unlucky break, every setback, every disappointment, every perceived failure in his life played a role in blessing the lives of others. It was almost like someone was behind the scenes of George’s life, pulling strings, coordinating events, making things work out in a particular way. And although the movie doesn’t come right out and say it, we Christians can watch this movie and know that Someone was doing these things. While things weren’t going according to George’s plans, they were going  exactly according to Someone else’s plan. This is how God works in our world, for those of us who believe in his Son Jesus.

More than anything, this is what today’s scripture is all about.

I’ve called this new, four-part sermon series on Paul’s letter to the Philippians, “Reasons to Be Thankful.” Philippians is all about gratitude and joy. Why am I offering this series? Because I want to prepare us for Thanksgiving, for one thing. I also want to prepare us for making a financial commitment on Stewardship Sunday, which Luther will tell you more about next week. More than anything, I want you and me to be as happy in the Lord as Paul himself is. And you may say, “I’m not Paul!” And that’s right. You’re not. His life was much more difficult, filled with much more suffering, much more pain, much more loss, than our lives are! And yet his life, as is clear from this letter, is characterized by great joy. That’s what I want in my life. Don’t you?

Most scholars believe that Paul is writing this letter from prison in Rome. You may recall that toward the end of the Book of Acts, Paul has been arrested for preaching a religion that wasn’t on the “approved” list of religions for the Roman Empire. Judaism was bad enough, the Romans thought, but they tolerated it; this weird “sect” of Judaism known as Christianity, however, was something else entirely. So the Romans arrest Paul. But Paul, who is a Roman citizen, “appeals to Caesar.”[1] Legally, therefore, he’s entitled to an audience before the emperor himself in Rome. So the Romans ship him off to Rome. And Luke, the author of Acts, tells us at the end of that book that Paul would spend two years under house arrest in Rome. This isn’t like “house arrest” as we might know it today. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, Paul literally had a Roman soldier chained to him. They worked in four hour shifts. Think about that: For those two years, Paul had no privacy. He couldn’t even go to the bathroom without this soldier chained to him.

On the other hand, what’s it like if you’re a Roman soldier chained to the most persuasive evangelist that the world has ever known?[2] That’s right: Paul is able to convert these soldiers to Christianity. In fact, the last sentence of Acts reads, “He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.”[3]

So Paul wrote this letter, most scholars believe, during this two-year period, not long before he was beheaded by the emperor Nero, during a time of great persecution of Christians.

Why did he write it? Because these Philippians loved Paul, they supported his ministry financially, and they were worried about him. After all, he’s facing trial and possible execution in Rome. Meanwhile, what has become of Paul’s ministry? How is Paul handling what, by all appearances, is a major setback in his life and career? Is he depressed? Disappointed? Discouraged? Who could blame him if he were?

So Paul writes in verse 12, “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel…” He begins by saying, “I want you to know,” because what he’s about to say isn’t something that would be obvious to them; it would be surprising. They’re expecting Paul, perhaps, to complain about his circumstances, which have seemingly derailed his life’s mission, but instead Paul says that what’s happened to him has actually helped to fulfill his life’s mission—in three surprising ways.

First, as I said a moment ago, he says the gospel is being preached “throughout the whole imperial guard.” The imperial guard was a highly trained and elite unit of soldiers who worked for Caesar himself. They were Caesar’s men. And Paul is preaching the gospel to them; they’re being converted; and then they’re going and preaching and converting others. How do we know? Turn to Philippians 4, verse 22, the next to last verse in the letter, you can see: “All the saints greet you,” Paul writes, “especially those of Caesar’s household.” Especially those of Caesar’s household. How have members of Caesar’s household become Christians? Through the evangelistic work of these soldiers who work for Caesar. Isn’t that amazing?

So that’s one really good result of Paul’s imprisonment. Paul describes another in verse 14: “And most of the brothers”—that is, Christians who live in Rome—“having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.” They’ve seen Paul’s example, his courage, his fearlessness at sharing the gospel no matter what it costs; they’ve seen how he’s laid his life on the line for Jesus; and they’re now inspired to do the same. So that’s another really good result of Paul’s being in prison.

In verses 15 to 18, Paul says that some of the people in the church are preaching Christ “from envy and rivalry” and out of “selfish ambition.” Scholars don’t know much about who these people were. The Philippians obviously knew. But they were likely people who believed that Paul was preaching an inferior version of the gospel and God was judging Paul by putting him in prison. Or maybe they’re jealous of Paul because of the way that other Christians admire him—and they want to be admired in the same way. They want people to think as highly of them as they think of Paul. Either way, these opponents of Paul are still out there preaching Christ, regardless of their impure motives, and the message is still getting out. For Paul, that’s all the matters right now.

I hate the prosperity gospel, and I have serious theological reservations with televangelists like Benny Hinn, and Creflo Dollar, and Paul Crouch—who appear to preach the gospel in part to line their pockets—but in spite of their many deficiencies, I believe the Holy Spirit can use even them to reach people for Christ. I think that’s what Paul means here. The gospel itself has a power that doesn’t depend on the people who are proclaiming it; the Holy Spirit works through it to bring people to saving faith. So as Paul says in verse 12, even these people, as impure as their motives may be, are “advancing the gospel”—not because of who they are, but who God is.

Now, this sermon series is called “Reasons to Be Thankful.” As we apply this scripture to our lives, what reasons do we have to be thankful?

Most of the time in our lives, we find ourselves in situations over which we have little control—just like Paul. Have you noticed how little control you have in your life? We can’t control our boss; we can’t control our spouse; we can’t control our children—especially as they get older; they become their own people pretty quickly. We can’t control our families—we can’t make them act a certain way, or treat us a certain way. We can’t control our friends. We can’t control people we work with. We can’t control church members. We can’t control whether we get sick or not. Maybe we had some control years earlier if we had made better lifestyle choices, but by the time we get sick, there’s not much we can do about it. Then sometimes we inherit diseases from our parents, and we have no control over that!

We can’t control the economy. We can’t control the weather. We can’t control other drivers. We can’t control the behavior of criminals and terrorists.

Given that we have so little control in the world, what do we do? Just accept fate? Feel resentment that circumstances beyond our control have conspired to put us here, in our present circumstances?

By the way, I’ve noticed on prime-time TV shows, characters rarely ever talk about God doing anything in their lives. But they will describe “the universe” in God-like terms. I guess they won’t offend anyone doing that. So, for example, two characters will fall in love, and one of them will say something like, “The universe is giving us a sign; we’re meant to be together.” And I’m like the universe? What kind of superstitious nonsense is that? We don’t believe in “the universe” doing anything! But we do believe in the Creator of universe working all things for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose.[4]

When we find ourselves in circumstances beyond our control, we can rejoice that God is in control. When we find that our lives aren’t going according to our plans, we can rejoice that our lives are going exactly according to God’s plan.

There was a Christian rock pioneer in the ’70s named Phil Keaggy. And he had a song called “Disappointment.” And it’s about how God transforms every “disappointment” into “his appointment.” I love that! Sure, Paul could have been disappointed that his plans didn’t work out; that he was in prison; that he was in chains. But disappointment is “his appointment”: Paul saw another plan at work—a better plan. God “appointed” him to go to his chains.

Brothers and sisters, follow Paul’s example! When you’re disappointed, instead of getting angry; instead of getting bitter; instead of getting resentful, stop and tell yourself, “God has something else in store for me—something better for me—as a result of this change in my plans.” I heard a preacher say that we get depressed when we “listen to ourselves” instead “talking to ourselves.” Do you see his point? We listen to ourselves, “Oh, woe is me! I can’t believe this is happening to me. I can’t believe what these other people have done to me! This is the end of the world. I just want to curl up into a ball and die!”

Stop listening to yourself and start talking to yourself. Remind yourself of what God’s Word says! Ultimately, you’re not in control of what’s happening to you! And other people aren’t ultimately in control of what’s happening to you. But God is in control! He’s got a purpose He’s got a plan. Tell yourself that! Believe that! And if you feel like blaming God for the circumstances you find yourself in, that’s more spiritually healthy than blaming others or blaming yourself! God can take it! But over time… in hindsight… you may begin to see how God has used your setback, your disappointment, for your own good, for the good of others, and for the good of God’s kingdom.

But hold on a minute… Maybe you’re thinking, “Pastor Brent is talking about God transforming our disappointments into something good, but we know that Paul’s imprisonment in Rome would ultimately lead to his death. Despite the hope expressed in verse 26 that Paul would come and visit the Philippians again, he never had a chance. He never got out of prison. He was executed. So how did Paul’s ‘disappointment’ work out for him?”

It worked out beautifully well. It worked out better than Paul could have imagined. It far surpassed any of Paul’s own plans. Why do I say that? Because Paul went to heaven. Because for him, living is Christ and dying is gain! Because he got to depart and be with Christ, which, as he says in verse 23 is “far better” than being here.

But as long as he is here, “To live is Christ,” he says. Every moment of life in this world is an opportunity to know Christ, to glorify Christ, to live for Christ, to grow closer to Christ! So the question we have to ask ourselves is this: “Is Christ enough for us?” Is Christ enough?

Because you can always have Christ! You can’t necessarily have the man or woman of your dreams! You can’t necessarily have fame or popularity. You can’t necessarily have the dream body that you want to have. You can’t necessarily go to the college of your dreams. You can’t necessarily have a lot of money. You can’t necessarily have the dream job, the dream house, the dream car, the dream retirement. But you can have Christ! Is he enough for you?

People talk and joke about “living the dream.” No one can actually do it, at least in a worldly sense, and those who try end up messing it up badly—look at the tabloids in the check-out aisle. Look how miserable all the celebrities are.

Yet we all—every single one of us in this room—has an opportunity to “live the dream” so long as we define that dream as knowing and loving and enjoying and glorifying and serving our Lord Jesus Christ, and living with him forever—and getting heaven as part of the deal. Is that not enough of a dream for us?

Brothers and sisters, if that’s our dream, that dream will come true!

1. Acts 25:1-12

2. Many New Testament scholars, like N.T. Wright, believe that Paul was writing from Ephesus. But Gordon Fee has persuaded me that the preponderance of evidence points to the traditional setting: Rome, as described as the end of Acts.

3. Acts 28:30-31 ESV

4. Romans 8:28

One thought on “Sermon 11-05-17: “To Live Is Christ””

  1. Great sermon! (As an aside, I agree with you that Paul is writing from Rome, and that at the end of the two years, he was murdered by Nero. Some say that because Paul said he expected to visit again, then inerrancy of scripture means he got out, went there, then went to Span, then was imprisoned again, then murdered by Nero. Sorry, can’t buy all that! Inerrancy just means that scripture recorded what Paul actually thought, not that what he thought was correct. See Nathan’s initial response to David’s suggestion of building the temple.)

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