(Photo: Sunset over Crozon, Brittany, August 2013)
Sermon for Sunday 28th September 2014.
A few days ago during an early morning time of prayer and Bible reading, I was struck by the stark difference there is in being a Christian here and being a Christian in say Syria, Northern Iraq, Nigeria or many other places at this time. We can sit and read our Bible in peace and safety, not worrying for a moment that we are in any danger – a deranged sword-wielding Jihadist is unlikely to bang on the door. Yet daily we are hearing reports of our brothers and sisters in Christ suffering unimaginable persecution; men are being crucified, women and children are being beheaded and worse. Why? Because they are Christians who live in the path of a great swathe of evil the type of which the world has never before seen.
Of course we do have persecution of sorts here, (though it is so different from what I have just described that the same word hardly seems appropriate). In Ireland the Christian who does not readily agree and go along with societies views on divisive issues such as the life of the unborn child, fair economic policy, marriage or the importance of the family in bringing up children, is scorned and ridiculed. When we gently quote scripture and talk not only of grace and love but right and wrong, eyebrows are raised and eyes roll as if we are some quaint and old-fashioned sideshow.
I don’t know if we will ever suffer persecution here in the same way that our brothers and sisters in Africa and the Middle East are going through right now, but we can be sure that if we stand up for Christ even here then we are going to be increasingly in for rough treatment in the years that lie ahead.
It is with all this in our minds that we turn to the Epistle reading for today. The Apostle Paul is writing to the small group of believers in the Roman city of Philippi. Paul himself is writing the letter from prison and he writes as one who has endured much for the cause of Christ. He writes to a church that has undergone and continues to undergo much in the way of persecution. He knows that they have suffered much and so he seeks to encourage them. In so doing, we are left with these wonderful and Spirit-filled words of truth and beauty, which are a wonderful encouragement to us today, whether we are a Christian in Ireland mocked and gossiped about by her work colleagues for being a follower of Jesus or whether we are a Christian living in Africa or Asia who daily wonders whether this will be their last day on earth.
Paul starts off his encouragement by saying that they must as a Church be united. A church is united when Christ is the focus and the centre of everything that happens and when it is His love that is the driving force behind all that is said and done. When things are done because of selfish ambition or conceit then the church is in trouble. Sadly we see it far too often that people in the church do things for the wrong reasons; to promote their own views, or to get everyone noticing how important or humble or holy they are. When as the church we take our eyes off the Lord Jesus, we start to disintegrate as a body. He must always be the focus of everything that we do, and everything that we do must be done with the aim of giving glory to Him. Paul says that humility is the key ingredient. He says that we must consider others better than ourselves. Let’s just think about this for a moment, how can we genuinely consider others better than ourselves? Well if we are a Christian it is easy – we only need to consider the extent and the stench of our sin and of the enormity of God’s grace to us through the cross of Christ. If we remember that we are forgiven sinners it will soon stop us from strutting around like a Christian Peacock going ‘look at me aren’t I holy’!! As well as being aware of our sin, if we remember that other people, especially those who we dislike and extra-especially those who dislike us, are wonderful creations of God, made by Him in His own image, then we will have a much better perspective on reality and it will help us to be genuinely humble. It is the soil of genuine humility, with everybody looking to Christ, that provides the only environment in which the Church will grow and thrive.
A woman was sitting in the waiting room for her first appointment with a new dentist. She noticed his diploma on the wall, which bore his full name. Suddenly, she remembered that a tall, handsome, dark-haired boy with the same name had been in her high school class so many years ago. Could this be the same guy she wondered? She quickly discarded any such thought when she met the balding, grey-haired man with the deeply-lined face. He’s way too old to have been my classmate, she thought to herself. Still, after he had finished examining her teeth, she asked, “Did you happen to attend Morgan Park High School?” “Yes I did”, he said, smiling with the recollection. “When did you graduate?” she asked. “1980,” he replied. “Why do you ask?” “You were in my class!” she exclaimed. “Really?” he said, looking at her closely. “What did you teach?”[i]
Sometimes we all need a bit of help to be humble, but it is important that we are. Have you ever heard Nicky Gumbel (Vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton and author of the Alpha Course) speak? Compared to most Christians, he could be excused for patting himself on the back a little, but even though God has used Nicky to reach thousands, if not millions of people with the Gospel, he always credits other people and most of all Christ when he speaks – perhaps that is why God is able to use him so effectively – because he is genuinely humble.
The Apostle Paul shows us that the best example of humility is that of Christ Himself. Verses 6 – 11 are thought to be words of an early hymn and if so what a hymn it is! Jesus willingly and out of love for His Father and out of love for us gave up the glory of heaven. As a member of the Trinity He gave up all the power and knowledge that went with His deity. He emptied Himself and was born as a tiny, helpless human baby. As we know, He lived a perfect life, never committing sin (1 Peter 2:22) and He was totally obedient to His Father in heaven. He obediently went to the Cross and to the unimaginable pain and suffering that He bore for us there. Look how the words change going into verse 9; from utter humility, dead on a Roman cross, He is resurrected from the dead, God highly exalts Him from the lowest of the low to the highest of the high. The day will come when every knee will bow to Him, “in heaven and on earth and under the earth” and “every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (v.10,11). This is referring to the Day when Christ shall return, known as the “Second Coming” or the “Day of Judgement”. Talking about such things today will get people rolling their eyes at us, even sadly sometimes amongst people who go to Church. But we make no apologies for Scripture; we are plainly told by Christ in the Gospels (for example in Matthew 24) and in many other places as well (see Acts 1:11, 1 Corinthians 11:26, 1 Thessalonians 5:23, James 5:7-9, Revelation 3:11 etc.), that Christ will return and on that day, people in heaven will bow their knees before Christ and those who are left on earth at the time of His coming will bow their knees to Christ, and those who are ‘under the earth’, (referring to those in hell) will also bow their knees to Christ. Not only will all knees bow (willingly or unwillingly) at the mention of His Name, but every tongue will also (willingly or unwillingly) confess that “Jesus Christ is Lord”.
What about us? Do we confess that Jesus Christ is Lord? Do we bow before Him in humility, worship and wonder? One day everyone who has ever lived will together bow their knees before Him. The question we must ask of ourselves today is – Will I do so willingly or unwillingly?[ii] Let us pray … Amen.
[ii] Question adapted from: Bentley, Michael. “Shining in the Darkness”, Philippians simply explained. Welwyn Commentary Series, Durham. Evangelical Press 1997, p.80