Last week, in the wake of the Sutherland Springs shooting, more than a few tweets called into question the effectiveness of prayer. What good is prayer when these kinds of massacres become routine? After all, the victims were already praying when they were shot. What good is faith if God doesn’t seem to intervene? This sermon is, I hope, a Christian response to these kinds of questions.
Sermon Text: Philippians 2:1-11
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Last Sunday, around the time that we were gathered here at 11:00 for worship, some of our brothers and sisters in Christ were gathered at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, when a gunman, armed with a Ruger military style rifle, walked into the church and fired his weapon. Within minutes, 26 of our brothers and sisters, ranging in age from 5 to 72, including eight children, were dead. Another child, by the way, named Carlin Brite Holcombe, hadn’t yet been born when he and his mother, Crystal Holcombe, were killed.
They were not so different from us… Small town, like Hampton. In church worshiping, singing hymns. Praying. The pastor of the church and some of his family happened to be out of town that day. A guest preacher was filling in. This guest preacher and his family died. But one of the poignant details that stood out to me was this: the pastor’s 14-year-old daughter—who didn’t go out of town with her father—chose to go to church. Because, after all, that’s what Christians do on Sundays; that’s what her mother and father raised her to do; that’s what she wanted to do; because she loved Jesus, and people who love Jesus go to worship on Sunday. So that’s where she was when she was killed.
A day or two after the shooting, we Americans were arguing, as we always do in the wake of these tragedies, about gun control on the one hand and second amendment rights on the other—and I promise I have no interest in discussing these questions. But it was in this political context that Michael McKean, a talented actor and comedian whom I admire, tweeted a controversial message. He was apparently disappointed that so many politicians, including President Trump, urged Americans to pray for the victims of Sutherland Springs—while taking no further action. So he tweeted, “They were in church. They had the prayers shot right out of them. Maybe try something else.”
They had the prayers shot right out of them. A lot of people found these words insensitive, to say the least. He later retracted it, saying he didn’t at all mean to attack people’s faith.
But… You couldn’t help but read between the lines of Mr. McKean’s tweet: “What good is prayer? These were praying people, after all, in the buckle of the Bible belt. What good did prayer do for them?” Later, a headline of an otherwise well-written and heartbreaking story in the New York Times read: “A Family Was Praying in a Texas Church. Then 8 Were Dead.”
Again, one subtle message here is, “What good is prayer—when a family of eight praying people are dead in an instant?”
Maybe I’m being overly sensitive here, but I am a pastor. The last thing Americans need is even less incentive to pray. Even less incentive to trust in God, to trust in his goodness, to trust in his power. And in last week’s sermon, I told you about Paul—who was praying that God would set him free from prison so he could continue his ministry of planting churches and spreading the gospel among the Gentiles. That was his fervent prayer. Do you know how God answered that prayer? God told him “no”—probably not in an audible voice, but God’s answer was clear to Paul was led to the scaffold for his execution.
Did prayer work for Paul—even though he was killed? Of course it did! After all, prayer isn’t mostly about asking God to give us things—even perfectly good things like safety, protection, health, and long life—for ourselves or for people we love. If we take the Lord’s Prayer as our model, prayer is mostly about praising and glorifying God, seeking God’s will, and asking for the power to accomplish God’s will for us. Even when we pray, “Deliver us from evil,” we’re not mostly praying for protection from evil people or from Satan; we’re praying that no matter what evil people do to us, no matter what the devil does to us, they will not have the power to keep us from glorifying God and doing God’s will.
We should fear God and our own sin far more than we fear what evil people can do to us, or what the devil can do to us!
So… in the wake of Sutherland Springs, did God let his children down? Did God fail them? Did God disappoint them? These were praying people, after all.
Consider Jesus’ own words in the Sermon on the Mount: He tells us not to be anxious, “saying, ‘What shall we eat? or ‘What shall we drink?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” So he promises that his Father will give us everything we need if we seek first his kingdom, yet Jesus himself later warns that all of his disciples will be persecuted and many will be killed on account of their faith in him—as Paul would later be killed. These were people who were seeking first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness—and they were struck down dead; not unlike Stephen, the church’s first martyr; not unlike the apostle James, son of Zebedee, whose martyrdom was recorded in Acts 12; not unlike the apostle Peter, who, as Jesus indicates in John 21, will be crucified because of his faith in Christ; not unlike our 26 brothers and sisters in Sutherland Springs were seeking first God’s kingdom and his righteousness when they were struck down dead. I don’t know if they were killed simply because they were Christians—probably not—but they were killed being obedient to the Lord by being in church on the Lord’s Day, the way all Christians ought to be. So they were seeking God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and they were killed in the process.
So how can God tell us, on the one hand, that we’ll have everything we need in Christ if we’re faithful to him, but at the same we may be killed as a result of our faithfulness?
Our problem is what we think we need versus what God knows we need. We think we need comfort. We think we need health, prosperity, safety, and long life. God may or may not bless us with those gifts, but he knows that’s not what we need. We need one thing: to have the faith, to have the courage, to have the grace, to have the strength that we need to “do God’s will and be eternally and supremely happy in him.”
That’s a prayer that God says “yes” to every time! That’s a promise that God fulfills no matter what we’re facing, even death! And so God answered that prayer and fulfilled that promise and did not disappoint in any way our 26 brothers and sisters in Christ who died in Sutherland Springs one week ago!
They’re not disappointed in the Lord right now! And neither is 86-year-old Joe Holcombe, who lost every single member of his family—all his children, all his grandchildren. He told the New York Times, “We know where they are now… All of our family members, they’re all Christian. And it won’t be long until we’re with them.”
How can these victims be disappointed when they’re in heaven right now with the Lord? And how can surviving friends and families who believe in Jesus be disappointed knowing that they’re in heaven, and that their separation from their loved ones is only temporary?
Brothers and sisters, if we are in Christ our treasure is not on this earth. It is waiting for us in heaven, “where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
Devin Patrick Kelley did not touch that treasure. He couldn’t if he tried! Thank God! So by all means, we pray this morning for the family and friends of these victims because they have lost—if only temporarily—some important people in their lives. But these 26 victims lost nothing. They gained everything! What does Paul say in Philippians 1? “To live is Christ and to die is”—what? Gain. To die is gain.
Brothers and sisters, do you believe that? If you believe that, will you say Amen?
I’m not surprised that in the last week, many skeptics have questioned the value of prayer and faith in God. “Why didn’t God do anything to keep these victims safe. I am sure, after all. But of course he did do something! God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, suffered and died on a cross to ensure that even this gunman’s bullet could not separate these 26 victims from him and his love.
So this reflection that I’ve offered here on the events of last Sunday—am I crazy? Do my words seem crazy? I’m sure the world thinks so. Because from the world’s perspective, the very worst thing that can happen to us is dying. So from the world’s perspective we need to do everything we can to preserve our lives for as long as we can. In fact, one reason we celebrate our veterans today is because they have one of the few jobs in our country—obviously law enforcement and firefighters share this responsibility, too—they have one of the few jobs in which we ask them to risk their lives—to potentially lay down their lives if necessary—to protect us. And many have and many will. But every single one of the men and women who stood up and were recognized in this service accepted the possibility that their country would ask them to give what Lincoln called the “last full measure of devotion.” And for that alone they deserve our undying respect, gratitude, and praise.
Just yesterday I was at Bobby Dodd Stadium for the Georgia Tech game and on the field at halftime, about four dozen new enlistees into the armed forces were being given the “oath of enlistment: “I [state your name] do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”
The young men and women taking this oath were in the prime of their life: For each one of them, most of their life was in front of them—potentially. At 18, 19, 20—they’re just getting started in their lives. And yet each one of them was saying, in so many words, “I’m prepared to sacrifice this life that’s in front of me, if I have to, for the sake of my calling.” And it’s very possible that a few of those young would do just that. I hope not! But it’s possible.
Brothers and sisters, I share this with you because our Lord asks us to enlist in his army, to fight side by side with one another—not face to face but side by side! If you skip ahead in your scripture to chapter 2, verse 25, Paul refers to Epaphroditus as “my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier.” Isn’t that great! Our war, as always, is a spiritual war—not ultimately against flesh and blood, as Paul says elsewhere, but against spiritual forces of evil. And when we enlist in the Lord’s army, we do so knowing that it might kill us—and indeed it does kill thousands of Christians each year all around the world. If we stay in America, we will likely remain physically safe. But we do accept the possibility that the Lord might ask us to lay down our lives for his sake—and we are to do so gladly. I’ve told you before that Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod asks their confirmands, when they go through confirmation: “Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?”
Are their beloved 12- and 13-year-old children are supposed to answer, “Yes… I’d rather suffer all, indeed I’d rather die, than to fall away from my Christian faith.” How would we answer that question?
But even if we don’t die physically in this war, our Lord commands us die spiritually. Paul himself says in 1 Corinthians 15, “I die daily.” And Jesus makes this same point when he beckons us to “take up our cross daily” and follow him. A cross is an instrument of torture and death. Yet this is what we’re called to do: we are called to die spiritually every day out of allegiance to Christ.
And what are dying to every day? Paul tells us two things in verse 3: “selfish ambition” and “conceit.” Notice: Paul isn’t saying that having ambition is wrong. But toward what is our ambition directed: toward God’s glory or our own? Even in church, we can appear to have ambition for pleasing, loving, and glorifying God but at the same time we want desperately for other people to notice what we’re doing! “Do you see me? Do you what I did for God’s kingdom just now? Do you see how selfless I was? Do you appreciate me?” So in our effort to glorify God, we end up glorifying ourselves.
And this pursuit of our own glory is found right here in the next word that Paul uses: It’s translated conceit, but the Greek word underneath is a compound word, kenodoxia, that literally means “empty glory.” It describes our human condition: We want desperately to have glory for ourselves, but we don’t deserve it; we’re not worthy of it; and pursuing it makes us miserable. But we do it anyway. This goes back to the first sin in human history, when Adam and Eve were tempted by Satan to do what? He says, “To become like God.” And who deserves all the glory in this world? God. But since we try to be like God, we think we need the glory—and that’s what often motivates our actions. And this pursuit of our own glory harms us. It harms our families. It harms our workplaces. It harms our country. It even harms our church.
Put this pursuit of your own glory to death, Paul says. And live your life for the glory of the One who truly deserves all our glory—infinitely more glory than even our nation deserves. So if the United States is worth dying for, to say the least, our Lord Jesus Christ is worth dying for. And although he likely won’t call us to die physically, he is calling us to die spiritually every day.
Are we doing it? Are we learning to treasure God above all earthly treasures?
In the past week, I received an email from a former church member of HUMC who moved to another state. She asked how we Christians are supposed to make sense of an act of evil like we saw last Sunday. She said, “I go to Joseph in Genesis 50: Describing the evil that his brothers did to him, he told them, ‘You meant it for harm, but God meant it for good.’” And this is what I talked about last week: God’s power to transform evil into good. Anyway, this person continues: “So Genesis 50 helps me stay balanced, but… this didn’t happen to me personally, it happened to them. Could I still find peace if it were my child who had been shot in front of my eyes?”
My first response is, God does not promise to give us grace to face hypothetical suffering, he gives us grace to face real suffering. So our sister shouldn’t be surprised that she doesn’t feel peace about the prospect of losing a child like that—because she hasn’t lost a child like that. If she did, she would have the grace she needs to remain faithful, just like she has the grace to face whatever suffering she’s had in her life so far.
My second response is, God does not promise to give us grace a moment before we need it. I’m sure the survivors of the attacks last Sunday and their loved ones are finding in themselves reservoirs of strength and courage that they didn’t know they had before—because they didn’t have it before. They have it now—by God’s grace.
Speaking for myself, when I hear about events like Sutherland Springs, it’s not that it makes me afraid of being dead: Because I believe, along with Paul, that to die is gain; to die means eternal life. But it does make me afraid of dying—if you know what I mean. How horrifying to die like that. But again, God promises us grace to handle the moment of our death. We don’t have the grace now, but we will when the time comes.