YOU SHINE LIKE STARS
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It’s been great having Helen and Michael intern here this summer. You pick up on phrases the kids are using. Here’s one – “Is that a thing?” Or “___ is actually a thing?” Paul is at the point in his letter to the Philippians where he’s talking about “This is a thing.” Being in Christ. What does it mean to be in Christ? Someone has compared the Christ Hymn in chapter 2 to Paul lifting a curtain. Right before chapter 2 begins Paul talks about what it means for the community of faith to live in Christ – “Only, live your live worthy in the manner of the gospel of Christ.” He goes on to talk about encouragement in Christ, consolation from love, sharing in the spirit, compassion and sympathy. Of leaving aside selfish ambition or conceit, in humility regarding others as better than yourselves, of letting the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.
Then Paul lifts the curtain. The beautiful Christ hymn as it is known – though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name… Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Jesus Christ is Lord. This is a thing. It’s my thing. I know it’s your thing. If you’re here this morning and it’s not your thing but you’re feeling that it should maybe be your thing, take a listen. This is actually a thing and there are ethical implications to this thing. There is effort. As one writer puts it, “the Christian life is not only a mind, it is diligent effort also.” We always begin with who God is and what God has done and is doing and will do, but we have a role to play. So it’s time to get to work.
I was talking to someone not long ago about this series that we’re doing, the things that we’re looking at in Philippians about being in Christ, the unity we’re called to embody, the love we are enabled and called to show. I don’t think these things aren’t happening at Blythwood. I see them all the time. I know you do too. We go over these things to be reminded, to encourage one another to hold fast, to stay the course, to hold the line if you like that kind of imagery. Paul is not telling the Philippian church any of these things to correct or admonish necessarily, but to encourage. He knows them. V12 “Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more in my absence.” Paul knows what they have done. He’s reminding this church that their faithfulness should not depend on whether or not Paul is there. It doesn’t mean they’re not affected by whether or not Paul is there – any more than we’re not affected by each other’s presence or absence. What Paul is saying is that their lives in Christ should not depend on his own personal or apostolic authority, considerable though these were. He’s not saying “Do this for me,” though he likely could have. Again this call to ethics is based on the person of Christ, who emptied himself of all but love. Who showed that self-emptying love is the proper expression of divine status? Who showed that we are most fully human when we give ourselves in self-emptying love?
If you accept this, if you accept Jesus as Lord, if this is indeed actually a thing, then what should we do? We’ve been talking a lot about the how Christ displays the nature of God and what God will enable in us. What exactly do we have to do though? Paul answers in the second half of verse 12 – “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” I say “What is it that we have to do” rather than “What is it that I have to do” because Paul is speaking in the second person plural here. “Y’all work out” is how our southern friends would put it. We do well to pause here and consider the corporate nature of deliverance here, the corporate nature of salvation. I’ve said there is no such thing as Lone Ranger Christianity. That you can argue you can do faith by yourself, hope by yourself, I suppose. You can’t do love on your own. Love needs an object. The community of faith is the locus of God’s delivering work. Heb 10:24-25a “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love, and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together…” This is something we do together. Taking part in a community of faith that is in Christ, however, is more than about simply meeting. It is more than about simply coming together once a week and shaking hands and leaving and see you next week. It is about sharing a life together, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it. Life. Together. It is about resisting the cultural currents of individualism which are all around us. The currents that say it’s all about you and your wants and felt needs and your satisfaction. Living together in community, like living together in a family, can be hard! We are called to do this however, always keeping in mind the one that we saw when the curtain was lifted – the one who emptied himself, the one whom God exalted.
We work out our salvation together.
There is an individual aspect to salvation of course – and the “your own salvation” part of this verse is in the singular. To be in Christ is to have an individual experience of salvation, of deliverance. At the same time, to ask “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Saviour?” circumscribes the work of Christ. It wasn’t just for us as individuals that Christ died and was buried and rose again and was exalted but for the sake of all creation. To be in Christ is to be caught up in God’s great salvation plan, God’ great deliverance plan together. To work out your own salvation in the middle of a community of faith. This can be hard I know. One writer puts it like this – “Anyone who has done the ‘work’ called for by life in community can appreciate the particular verb form here, which suggests ongoing ‘work: ‘continue to work out’, ‘be working out (over time).’” To talk about being saved as a one and done past tense thing is also circumscribing God’s saving and delivering work. The theological term we use is sanctification – being conformed to the image of Christ. It’s a lifelong process and it’s one in which we are called to engage together. It’s not a one and done thing. It’s not simply a matter of “Have you prayed the Jesus prayer and been baptized?” Paul is calling for an ongoing and consistent working out of our salvation that will be brought to completion on that day we look forward to, the day of Christ. This is a thing. It’s actually the thing.
Work it out, says Paul. Keep working it out on an ongoing basis. Work it out together. Work it out in fear and trembling. Now you may be thinking “What is all this fear stuff about?” Fear God and so on. What kind of God wants us to fear him? What about the whole “perfect love casts out fear” thing? How do we reconcile these thing? If we’re thinking of God as some kind of authority figure who rules by fear of what He may do to us if we make a wrong move, we are putting an all too human aspect on God. We’re creating him in our image, as it were. To talk of fearing God is to talk of being in awe of God. To talk of fearing God is to talk of holding God in reverence. It is to come before God with humility, recognizing our own insignificance in the face of the divine. This is not to denigrate ourselves at all, because at the same time we come before God knowing that we are his beloved children.
Like children we are called to come before God recognizing our need for God. Jesus famously said “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Little children recognize their need for help. We saw this all over camp a couple of weeks ago. Many of you will know “Jesus Loves Me” of course. Classic Sunday school tune. Classic children’s moment tune. Little ones to him belong, the song goes. They are weak but He is strong. The thing is this song is not simply about children. It’s about us! It’s about coming before God with the admission that we are weak. That we don’t approach God because of any righteousness of our own. How far would this go in addressing the self-righteousness of the church, the self-righteousness of the world? We’ll be talking more about that next week.
Coming before God in fear and trembling means coming before him in recognition of our utter dependence on God – in utter dependence on God’s grace and mercy. We need to be getting this right. Paul writes to the Corinthians and tells them “I came to you in weakness (back to the song) and in fear and in much trembling.” It didn’t mean that Paul was nervous or that he was unsure of himself or fearful of looking foolish or whatever other consequences one might be fearful of in that situation. It means that he depended on God and desired to know nothing but Christ and him crucified. The one who was obedient even unto death. In the 2nd letter to the Corinthians Paul writes of Titus “And his heart goes out all the more to you, as he remembers the obedience of all of you, and how you welcomed him with fear and trembling.” Not that they were afraid of Titus in the midst of the disputes they were having, but that they displayed a knowledge in their hearts of their dependence on and need and a seeking of God.
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. Live your life in a posture of dependence on God. What does this look like? Well quite practically it may mean getting down on our knees and asking God for mercy every day. Spending time in thanks to God for grace. It will make us merciful people who are willing to extend the same grace we have been shown. This life of following Christ is meant to be borne out in what we do. Someone has said when it comes to Christianity – “Religion is grace, ethics is gratitude.” The gratitude that we have for God’s grace is borne out in our action. And so we see God working in us and through us. I see God working in and through you, you see the same I hope. It is then that we identity with the beautiful words of the Psalmist – “I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in God.”
Continue to be obedient as Christ was obedient. Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling. I don’t say these things because they’re not happening any more than Paul does. We hear them to be reminded. To be encouraged. Remembering that the imperative is based on the indicative. To be In Christ means that “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” To work for God’s good pleasure or for God’s good will. What is God’s big will? To bring all things back to Himself. Karl Barth is very good on this – “The reason why we should be Christians in fear and trembling and not otherwise is, that as we put ourselves entirely into the power of God, that as such we recognize that all grace, that everything – the willing and the accomplishing, the beginning and the end, the faith and the revelation, the questions and the answers, seeking and the finding, comes from God and is reality only in God. Everything here that really happens at all, has God as its Subject… Man cannot put his salvation into practice except as he recognizes: it is God…!”
What a wonderful truth! Let our deliverance be worked out, being made known in tangible ways because it is God who is at work within us. The same God who raised Christ who remained humble and obedient unto death, and who has exalted Christ to the highest place because the highest thing was always the result of going low. When we go low, God brings us high!
V 14 “Do all things without murmuring or arguing…” This word for murmuring is found in the account of the people of Israel post-Exodus, grumbling in the desert. Very onomatopoeic these words, same thing in Greek. They faced hardship, they faced opposition, the Israelites did. Paul exhorts his friends to be blameless and innocent children of God without blemish. Not based on our own moral rectitude mind you, but based on our own realization of our need for God. This will allay selfish ambition, conceit, looking to our own interests as our motivation.
In this way we shine like stars in the world. It’s a world in which we face opposition and a lot of messaging that runs counter to what Paul is talking about. I’ll always remember Eden Ralph’s scripture at her baptism. John 13:16. When she sent it to me first I thought maybe she made a typo and meant John 3:16. But no she meant what she said. “Very truly I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.” This is not a message you hear a lot, she said on Easter morning. No it’s not. Do you see what God is doing among us? We pray that Eden, that all of us, will hold fast to this message.
“It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labour in vain.” Hold fast. Hold on to the word of life (very John like there!). The word can also mean “hold out” as in offer, like one would offer a cup. This is good. We do both. We hold fast and we offer the word of life to others like a cup and say “Taste and see that the Lord is good” in what we do, what we say. We offer it by showing how deliverance is being worked by God in and through us. I like to say we’re not selling anything here. We’re not driven by numbers or budgets. Let us be driven rather by our willingness to take these words of Paul to heart – to work out together what salvation, what deliverance looks like, to come before God in fear and trembling, acknowledging our utter and complete dependence on Him, so that we may shine in this world like stars. May these things continue to be true for our family of faith brothers and sisters.