Sunday, August 2, 2020

Living, Dying, and What They're For: Sermon on Philippians 1:18-26

Waiting for the train. That's where the President of the United States of America was when, from behind, he felt a painful sensation against his shoulder. Throwing up his hands and shouting, “My God, what was that?”, the same burning bored into his back as the second bullet pierced his clothes, nicked his lumbar vertebrae, and came to an abrupt halt behind his pancreas. Amid the frenzy, surrounded by shocked spectators like Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln (who couldn't help but feel something familiar about the scene), the President of the United States collapsed to the floor. It was about 9:30 on a Saturday morning. July 2, 1881.

What sort of a man was James Abram Garfield? An Ohio boy born in a log cabin, whose father died before he was two. Poor and sensitive, he worked on the canals and read all the books he could find. Leaving home in his teen years, he put himself through college, got hired to teach languages, wooed his wife Lucretia over pages of Greek classics, preached on a circuit in local churches, became a lawyer, got elected to state senate, led troops in the Civil War, got elected to Congress. When his toddler son Eddie died in October 1876, Garfield told his pastor how “the hope of the gospel... is so precious in this affliction.”

Nearly four years after Eddie's death, Garfield was nominated as a presidential candidate somewhat against his will and in spite of his protests. He stayed home and off the campaign trail, but won the election – and dreaded it! He wrote in his diary, “I must confront the problem of trying to survive the presidency,” and he'd later complain that being president didn't leave him enough time to study. The Sunday before his inauguration, he received communion in his Ohio church before setting off for Washington. Sworn in on a snowy March Friday, President Garfield could be found in a Washington church two days later. During his presidency, he missed church only when there was sickness in the family, like the month he nursed his wife through a nearly fatal bout with malaria, May 1881. He used to tell his pastor, “When I meet the duties of each day as best I can, I cheerfully await whatever result may come.” ...And then came a madman's bullets that July morning, not quite four months in office.

The shots were not immediately fatal. He had several months to attempt to convalesce under the medical care of the time. In spite of pain and embarrassment, confined to bed, Garfield stayed patient and gentle, and tried to promote good cheer. The president prayed often. Once transferred to a Jersey Shore beach house next to a chapel, he loved to listen to the hymns mingle with the crashing of the waves. When Sundays rolled around, he would remark that the day belonged to the Lord. Informed that his church in Washington was praying for him, 'besieging the mercy seat' for him, he got emotional and declared, “They have been carrying me as a great burden so long, but when I get up, they shall have no cause to regret it.” His pastor, though seldom allowed to visit by the doctors, heard enough of those weeks to be able to say of President Garfield, “His mind dwelt much upon Christ and his work during the terrible trial. … There is not the slightest question of his thorough preparation for death.” Oh yes, the President was fully conscious there was a live possibility of his soon being live no more. To those around him, he repeatedly said, “I know God and trust myself in his hands. I must be prepared for either life or death.” But privately to his wife one night, he added, “I wonder if all this fight against death is worth the little pinch of life I will get anyway.” Still, he fought to live because he knew how his departure would deprive those closest to his heart of his company. That fight did at last close with his departure from the flesh on Monday, September 19, 1881 – two months to the day short of his fiftieth birthday.

The President of the United States had died from his infected wounds nearly eighty days after he was shot. Eulogies, memorial services, and sermons cropped up all over the country. Here in Pennsylvania, one preacher celebrated Garfield's “combination of genuine statesmanship and genuine Christianity,” and said that when “in the prime of life, in the midst of usefulness, with all the materials of activity around him and honors fresh upon him, he was suddenly struck down by an assassin, and he calmly, meekly, almost joyfully submitted to his fate. … 'For me to live is Christ and to die is gain,' and come death how, come death when, come death where it may, this hope remains: 'For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.'” A preacher in Kansas, granting that Garfield was an imperfect man and made mistakes, insisted that “he was far above the average statesman, and that for him to live was Christ, to die was gain. … I would linger over the fact that he lived and died a Christian gentleman.” A preacher in Iowa declared that Garfield “endured as seeing Him who is invisible. … When reminded by his faithful wife that it was his duty to life, he agreed that it was, and said that he would make the best fight for life that he could. Ready to die and even wishing to depart, he did his best to live, as it seemed to him that his work was not yet done. … His mental condition, in this dark hour, was that of Paul when he said..., 'Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life or by death, for to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.'”

Three states. Three preachers. All three – and plenty of others – faced with a personal tragedy gone national, and turned for understanding to these same specific words of an ancient apostle of the Lord. Paul wrote those words late in his two years of house arrest, awaiting the resolution of his legal case in Rome. All indications suggest to Paul that the charges will be dropped, as his accusers need to come to Rome to press the case against him and, thus far, have never shown up. But so long as he's chained to the Praetorian Guard, Paul knows he's still a prisoner, and still has the prospect of the death penalty hanging over his head. He has to take seriously the notion that he could soon be killed.

But Paul knows that the gospel is on trial just as much as he is. Paul has been tormented both inside the church and outside – inside, by the ill-willed evangelists trying to discourage him, as we heard last week; outside, by the persecution that was keeping him cooped up. So Paul turns to the words of another man who was tormented outside and inside – outside, by intense experiences of loss and poverty; inside, by so-called 'comforters' whose accusations tore at and bruised him. That man was Job. In one of Job's speeches, he tells his 'comforters' to “keep silent” (Job 13:5), and says that he'll keep hoping in God (Job 13:15). “This will turn out for my salvation, that the godless shall not come before him. … Behold, I have prepared my case; I know that I shall be in the right” (Job 13:16,18). And Paul quotes Job's words word-for-word, saying, “I will rejoice, for I know that – through your prayers and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ – this will turn out for my salvation (Philippians 1:18b-19). Paul expects to be saved, to be delivered, to be vindicated. But it could look two ways.

On the one hand, Paul could be saved, vindicated, by being released. The Romans could set him free. And then Paul would keep living in this world a while longer. One way Paul could be saved is to live. What does Paul think of that option? He announces, “For me, to live is Christ!” (Philippians 1:21a). Jesus Christ is everything that need be said, everything that can be said, about Paul's life. By this point, having matured from his stellar start to this late point in his Christian walk, Paul has been conformed profoundly to the pattern of Jesus Christ. Now, every moment of his day is suffused with Christ's Lordship. Squeeze Paul, and the grace of Jesus leaks out. Hold Paul up to the light, all you'll see is Christ. When Paul wakes up, he'd tell you it's about Jesus. When Paul eats, he'd tell you it's about Jesus. When Paul talks, you can hear for yourself it's about Jesus. The very definition of life itself, in Paul's heart, has been redrawn. Christ equals Life! Life equals Christ! After all, as he writes in another letter, Christ is “the image of the invisible God … All things were created through him and for him, and he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15-17). Paul takes that thought so seriously that there's nothing you can show Paul, nothing you can tell Paul, and he won't see or hear Christ in it. There's nothing you can put on Paul's tongue that won't make him taste the goodness of Christ. There's nothing you can place within Paul's reach that he won't lift up to Christ as a thank-offering of praise. To Paul, Christ sums up everything that life means, everything that has value about the world.

And so to live, for Paul, just means to keep seeing Christ in every glance, keep hearing Christ in every sound, keep encountering Christ reflected in all things, since all things hold together in Christ. But more than that, if Paul is set free, if Paul is allowed to keep living, then it will mean more months or years of ministry. He will keep proclaiming Christ, will keep ministering Christ to others. Paul explains, “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me” (Philippians 1:22a). And others will be able to taste that fruit and its sweetness – it will be beneficial for other people if Paul gets to live longer. In particular, it would be helpful for the Philippian church, which could really use his continued help. “To remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account,” he tells them (Philippians 1:24). If the Romans release him from custody, he can run right over and build them up, make them a stronger church – he can “continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus because of my coming to you again” (Philippians 1:25-26). That's what it means to live, when to live is Christ. Nearly fifteen centuries after Paul, Martin Luther remarked, “We have no other reason for living on earth than to be of help to others.” That was true for Paul!

So if Paul is set free, that would be salvation or vindication for Paul. But what if Paul isn't set free? What if the trial goes on? And what if it ends with the judge sentencing him to lose his head? What if these experiences set in motion a chain of events that lead to Paul's heart no longer beating, Paul's lungs no longer drawing breath? Paul sees that, too, as an occasion of vindication or salvation. Because at the same time he'd be standing before Caesar's court on earth, tethered to the gospel, he'd also be standing before God's heavenly court. And an earth ruling against Paul on account of the gospel spells a heavenly ruling for Paul on account of the gospel – which means execution is just the prelude to being welcomed into the fellowship of angels and saints in heaven.

And so, Paul explains, just like for him “to live is Christ,” just the same, for him “to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21b). It's not that death is gain because it ends a bad thing, as if this world were an awful place he can't wait to escape. That's not what Paul means. Death is gain, for him, because he expects it to mean getting something better. If Paul is to die, it'll be a martyr's death. But he expects that death to usher him into the personal presence of the Jesus he so wildly yearns for. Now, he sees Christ, hears Christ, touches Christ in things, in the reflections pervasively present throughout the created order. But then, on that day, he'll see Christ himself, not in a reflection but in reality. And he'll be crowned with the reward of Christ's love in a way Paul knows he still can't experience while here in the present world. Paul has been working for years, not for earthly treasures, but storing up treasure in heaven by investing in the gospel. To die means to finally reap the gains, the profits.

When Paul looks toward the ultimate future that he believes will begin at his death, Paul isn't merely guessing what lies beyond that leap into the darkness. No, Paul has certainty, Paul has assurance, Paul has a hope that can never disappoint him. When that train pulls out of the station, Paul knows the tracks continue beyond the rails he can see. Paul knows there's a place to go, and he knows which train he's boarded. Death, in Paul's case, whenever it comes, will mean “to depart” from the realm of flesh and earth “and to be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23b). At the moment of his death, Paul is certain that his consciousness, his personally aware inner self, will be ushered and transported into the presence of the Risen Lord, will behold the glory of the Father in the face of the Son, will lay the eyes of his soul on the beatific vision of Beauty itself, will be awash in immortal joy even as he yet awaits the pitching of the tent of a new creation. That is what will happen when Paul dies. And compared to the mixed-bag of experiences we get here, with aches and pains and sorrows mingled alongside pleasures and joys, the destination Paul has in mind “is far better” (Philippians 1:23b).

Now, from different perspectives, both living and dying can be good outcomes! “Which I shall choose, I can't tell! I am hard pressed between the two,” Paul says (Philippians 1:22b-23a). It's a tough choice! Paul is just glad that Christ is magnified, Christ is glorified, Christ is honored and made much of, in either scenario – “now as always, Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death” (Philippians 1:20b). It's much like the Iowa preacher said of President Garfield: “Ready to die and even wishing to depart, he did his best to live, as it seemed to him that his work was not yet done.” Just like Garfield had a church praying for him, Paul's got one praying for him, too. “I know that through your prayers and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, this will turn out for my salvation” (Philippians 1:19). Because the Philippians are praying, Paul believes God will give them what they ask for, the version of events that helps them, even if it isn't quite what Paul would like, since Paul's burning “desire is to depart and be with Christ, which is far better” (Philippians 1:23b). Paul is convinced that, with the gospel vindicated as having a place in Roman society, he'll be released: “Convinced of this, I know that I will remain” (Philippians 1:25a). Paul was right. Set free for a couple more years of fruitful labor, only then would he be again arrested – this time not in house arrest but in Rome's worst prison, and would finally be beheaded for the sake of Christ. A man who knew him recalled the day Paul was “removed from the world and went into the holy place, having proven himself a striking example of endurance” (1 Clement 5.7).

But Paul writes openly these reflections on life and death – what each of them means to him – because Paul's aim is for his mature way of thinking to become contagious. He wants the Philippians to catch it. And the church, in her wisdom, has preserved this letter for nearly two thousand years in hopes that we might catch it too. So what about us? How do we look at life? What does it mean to live? And how do we look at death? What does it mean to die?

During the past year, indeed the past several years, our congregation has known its fair share of friends who've died, who've taken their departure from the flesh. For some of the younger among us, that might be a parent or grandparent or great-grandparent. For some of the elder among us, that might be a spouse or a sibling, a child or a cousin, a nephew or niece or neighbor. Many of those who have departed our company that way have died, hopefully, in Christ. So, to the extent they were like Paul, they can expect the same things he can. If for Paul 'to die is gain,' then for them to die was also gain. And in that we can rejoice, even amidst the sorrow of parting here. The same will be true for us as we face the prospect of death. We may not be standing on trial for our lives in a Roman court, and we may not be bedridden with an assassin's bullet in our guts, but – whether time or virus or ailment or accident – all of us must face the question. For us, will death mean gain? And if death will mean gain, are we willing to look at it as a gain? Not that we should be careless, for our bodies are a stewardship, but what if we learned to look at the prospect of death through Paul's eyes, and see the gain in it?

Likewise, during the past year, our congregation has known its fair share of friends who have not died, who are remaining here in the flesh. Look around you, and you might just spot one! And you'll see yet another one in the mirror! You are still here in the flesh. You are still alive. Your lungs draw breath. Your heart beats. Maybe your body needs a little help to keep rolling on, but roll on it does. For Paul, 'to live is Christ.' What about for you? Does life mean Christ to you? Sleeping and waking, eating and drinking, laughing and loving – are these day-to-day actions made living parables that preach Christ to your heart? Are you awake to how it's in Christ that everything in life holds together? You can be – and then you can shout, “To live is Christ! To live is Christ!” He's got you here for a reason. Like Luther said, there's no other reason to get another day here than to help others in it. To remain in the flesh means an opportunity for fruitful labor. Now, maybe you wonder how that can be – maybe some of you are practically housebound right now. But there's fruitful labor you can do! You can listen to a neighbor's hurts and joys. You can spend an extra ten minutes praying for your world. You can call a friend. You can write a letter. In all these ways, you can minister Christ to at least one small slice of the world – what more does God ask? So what if we learned to look at life through Paul's eyes, and see the Christ of it all – to love and serve others and, as President Garfield put it, to then “cheerfully await whatever results may come”? Perhaps such fruit, served here and there to the hungry, can bring with it healing for nations like ours.

Of course, none of these grand views of life or death can hold up without a real, living, risen Son of God. Paul told the Corinthians, “if Christ be not raised..., your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). Without Christ, things don't hold together. Without Christ, to live can't be Christ: the basic stuff of life can't be wrapped up in him. Without Christ, to die can't be gain: there's nothing profitable about the vain, bleak destiny that knows no Jesus. Without Christ, no labor is fruitful, for Jesus is the life in the root. Without Christ, departure has no blessed destination, no glory shining forth at the other end of these darkened halls.

But, thanks be to God, 'without Christ' is never the name of the game! With Christ, living can be wrapped up in him! With Christ, labor can be fruitful in abundance! With Christ, dying can be a profitable venture and a welcome at the end of a journey, be it long or short. With Christ, we have an “eager expectation and hope” of vindication, if we but cling to him. So I urge you, brothers and sisters, this very day, to get deeper into Christ, that life and death might be Christ and gain to you! “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again: that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living” (Romans 14:7-9). So in life or in death, let Christ be magnified in your body, amen!

Monday, July 27, 2020

Envy, Rivalry, and Better Intentions: Sermon on Philippians 1:12-18

One Thursday, in the heart of September 1955, the 63-year-old cardinal gazed from his third-story window down at the garden. This wasn't his house. But he was stuck there. Jozsef Mindszenty was a political prisoner in his native land. Flanked by the trees on almost all sides, this manor house in this forest village in southern Hungary was his latest place of confinement – admittedly a lot better than any before it. It was now the tenth anniversary of his appointment to the highest church post in the whole country. Not so long thereafter, in spite of losing elections, the Communists managed to worm their way into power and take over. Mindszenty vowed to be a thorn in their side no less than he'd been to the Nazi collaborators of the Arrow Cross Party a few years before. Mindszenty outspokenly challenged the government's behavior. And so, two days before Christmas in 1948, he'd found his home surrounded by squads of policemen. The day after Christmas, he was formally arrested on phony charges of treason, conspiracy, and espionage. Turning to the clergy before being hauled away, he reminded them, “The world can take a great deal from us, but never our faith in Jesus Christ.”

Mindszenty recalled being taken to a secret prison, where he was kept for 39 days. Every day he was beaten. He was kept awake for days at a time, in one case for 84 hours straight. He resisted eating, because he knew they were drugging the food they served there; but slowly he was drugged all the same. All with the goal of getting him to sign confessions of his so-called crimes. He tried to keep his bearings through prayer, through meditation on the Psalms, through remembering the lives of believers who'd been through similar times before. But the drugs and the torture and the psychological manipulation slowly left him feeling abandoned and defenseless; he was hallucinating circles of bright color spinning on the walls; his powers of resistance gradually weakened. He wondered if he might be guilty after all. In February 1949, he was put on trial. The whole thing was rigged, and even his defense attorney was against him. Jozsef Mindszenty was sentenced to life in prison. In September, they transferred him to the penitentiary on Conti Street in Budapest. Now clearer in mind, a confrontation with a high-ranked Communist official led Mindszenty to return to his cell, kneel, and give thanks to the Lord Jesus Christ for counting him worthy of being shamed for Jesus' sake. Mindszenty kept up his life of prayer and felt strengthened by the conviction that people around the world were praying for him.

Meanwhile, the Communists had banned religious education in the schools, had dissolved the monasteries, and in July 1951 pressured the bishops of the country into taking a pledge of allegiance to the Communist regime. The Communists were determined to take over the churches, and they used pawns whom Mindszenty called “peace priests” – clergy who'd been intimidated into collaborating with the government, or corrupt Communist functionaries who'd managed to infiltrate the priesthood. The government manipulated them into churches around the country, raising them up to pursue the state's agendas and minimize the resistance of the faithful.

By 1954, many faithful church leaders had been similarly arrested, and “peace priests” moved into position. That was when Mindszenty's health broke down. He lost nearly half his body weight (down to 97 pounds), and the government couldn't afford the international spectacle of his death. So they'd transferred him to a prison hospital, where they kept him for fourteen months. And, for the sake of his health, they thereafter sent him here – this village, this castle. It may have sometimes been rainy and swarming with mice, but here – with one priest for company, aside from sixteen members of the secret police – there was at least fresh air and sunlight, a far cry from the penitentiary. But he was still a political prisoner, his only offense being the challenging of injustice for the sake of God and church and country. He prayed and waited in hope for the day of freedom. And as he fed anew on the bread of life, he prayed for the faithful to outlast their oppressors.

On days like that, Jozsef Mindszenty couldn't help but think back to the life of the Apostle Paul. Arrested in Jerusalem on phony charges (Acts 21:33), he'd been taken to a hearing before a corrupt governor who kept him jailed for two years in hopes of a bribe (Acts 24). When the new governor asked Paul if he wanted a fresh trial in Jerusalem, Paul had insisted on taking his case straight to the highest court, that of the emperor in Rome (Acts 25:11-12). The trip took quite a while (Acts 27-28), but once in Rome, Paul was allowed to rent an apartment and stay there under house arrest, with a soldier or two to guard him (Acts 28:16). And there he stayed for two years, waiting for a congested court system to reach his case, waiting to see if his accusers would ever even show up to prosecute him at all. Christians near and far contributed toward his upkeep, since he wasn't allowed to work. He remained in light military custody for two years... as Paul the political prisoner.

Late in those years, the Philippian Christians had sent him their pastor Epaphroditus with a sizeable donation to help him pay for his food and board; but the challenging trip to Rome had left Epaphroditus seriously sick. So Paul is in the process of writing a letter to the Philippian church, explaining that – contrary to the worries they feel about Paul – he actually sees God's hand in everything that's happening. Rather than complaining, Paul is rejoicing. His work hasn't been stifled, and the gospel remains unchained!

It might seem like house arrest would prevent Paul from carrying out his mission, but in fact it had become a vessel for his mission. For the responsibility to oversee prisoners brought from the provinces fell not just to any soldiers, but to the Praetorian Guard. Think of them like an ancient Roman Secret Service. They were elite soldiers whose responsibilities included the personal protection of the emperor and his family and property. They were paid several times what an average soldier could expect, they enlisted for shorter terms of sixteen to twenty years in the service, and your family had to be well-connected even to try out to join this elite team. In addition to acting as the emperor's bodyguards, they went around Rome and other places in Italy as secret police, spies, and assassins (not to mention security at sports games); they were feared and dreaded even by senators, since they as a body were accountable only to the emperor himself. Around the time Paul was writing, their commander Sextus Afranius Burrus was dying under suspicious circumstances (some suggested the Emperor Nero poisoned him) and being replaced by two new co-commanders. One, Lucius Faenius Rufus, was popular with the Praetorian Guard, known for doing his duties faithfully, selflessly, without seeking personal profit. The other, Gaius Ofonius Tigellinus, had the opposite reputation, being notoriously regarded as cruel, corrupt, scheming, and depraved.  Two sharp opposites, responsible for joint command of one and the same Praetorian Guard.

During the entirety of his house arrest, members of the Praetorian Guard took four-hour shifts stationed at Paul's apartment. The apostle was physically tethered to the soldiers by chains. It would ordinarily have been an embarrassing thing, to be chained up to soldiers like that. But Paul saw himself as really chained to the gospel, really chained to Jesus – his sufferings were linked to Christ's. And Paul couldn't pass up the opportunity of having, in effect, a captive audience for the gospel. During his years of house arrest in Rome, Paul was free to receive visitors, including local Jewish leaders and others who came to talk with him.  Thus, Luke closes his account in Acts by saying that Paul “welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:30-31). And one or two members of the Praetorian Guard had to be present during every conversation, every impassioned case. As a captive audience for the gospel, Paul had the ears of some of the very men in whose hands the emperor's own safety would rest. And so, shift after shift after shift, day in and day out, Paul's story – which can't be told without celebrating Jesus – was passed throughout the Praetorian Guard and to other Roman administrative bureaucrats who had to deal with Paul's legal case (Philippians 1:13).

And by evangelizing so forthrightly and boldly while under house arrest, Paul inspired others. He lit a holy fire under the rest of the Roman church networks. Where once they'd felt pressured to keep their heads down and fly under the radar, Paul's example galvanized them. His very chains, instead of a sign of shame, became an encouragement, making Roman Christians “much more bold to speak the word without fear” (Philippians 1:14). Evangelism was on the rise. And most of those evangelists (not unlike Faenius Rufus, the incoming praetorian prefect) were concerned with doing good. They knew what was at stake in Paul's case: the liberty of the gospel itself and its status in the Roman world. They had a teamwork mentality. They preached Christ “from good will..., out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel” (Philippians 1:15b-16).

But Paul had to admit that there were others in the Roman church whose evangelistic ministry came from less noble motives. You know, Paul's letter to the Romans a few years earlier probably hadn't satisfied everybody. In fact, with such a wide array of local churches, some people probably resented Paul sticking his nose in what they felt was their business. And now he was chained up as a prisoner, which they saw as unworthy of associating themselves with and which they took as an opportunity to put themselves forward – not so unlike the “peace priests” of Communist Hungary centuries later. So Paul admits that some Roman evangelists are driven by bad motives. Their real aim is to add pressure and weight to Paul's chains, and they guess that their success will make Paul feel irrelevant and distressed. They aren't sincere, but are seeking to be cruel like Tigellinus, “thinking to afflict [Paul] in [his] imprisonment” (Philippians 1:17b).

Paul describes their motives with three Greek words. The first is a common one, and it means 'envy.' They've been envious of Paul's prominence and want to overturn it, take it away, steal his status for themselves. The second word can be rendered 'rivalry' or 'strife,' and it could be used to describe political partisanship, used to describe factionalism. It's a competitive motive. Envy has driven them to see Paul as an opponent, an enemy. And instead of working toward harmony, they're implicitly stoking division by not lining up as one team with him (Philippians 1:15a). The third word is more interesting still. My Bible says that they “proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition” (Philippians 1:17a). If thou speakest the King's English, thine might call it “contention.” But it's actually a word from Greek political discussions. When Aristotle uses it, it often gets translated as “election intrigue.” It carries the idea of a politician going door-to-door to promote himself, making whatever promises he has to in order to win your support, not because he wants to make the world better, but because he wants to take a step up in social privileges. It's the word for “the self-seeking pursuit of political office,” and treating it like a transaction: they'll buy support with whatever will sell. In church circles, evangelism sells, so these envious opponents of Paul are trying to buy support and promote themselves that way. If something else would get the job done better, they'd be doing that instead.

Now, Paul has nothing good to say about their motives. Envy, rivalry, 'election intrigue' – these things are toxic. Paul uses some of these words elsewhere to name some pretty rough sins (e.g., Romans 1:29). And as one of Paul's early readers (St. John Chrysostom) remarked on this passage, “not only won't they receive a reward, but also they will be subject to vengeance and punishment” for those sinful motives. But Paul is astonished and delighted to see that God is so sovereign, God is so clever, God is so wise and faithful and amazing, that God is using even the evil intentions of his would-be adversaries – and using it to spread the gospel! Their goal is to weigh Paul down and demoralize him – but Paul can survey that field and say, “Well, so what? In every way, whether in pretense or in truth, whether from bad motives or good motives, Christ is proclaimed – and in that I rejoice!” (Philippians 1:18). Paul may be annoyed at one level, but at a deeper level he sees the bigger picture, and that picture lifts him up more than some of the details weigh him down! Like Joseph in Egypt, he can say to them, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive” (Genesis 50:20). Even Paul's self-appointed opponents are being used to bring life in Christ to people who otherwise might not have heard! And so Paul can celebrate even in his imprisonment: “What has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel,” to move it forward like a conquering army pressing on and taking more territory, step by step (Philippians 1:12). Paul sees victory ahead where it really counts!

Today, we know we live in a country of mixed motives. Two years ago, one political scientist (Gwyneth McClendon) wrote that 'envy' and 'strife' are two major “antisocial status motivations” that are especially “likely to spill over into politics.”  (You will see them functioning as active temptations among all political camps and parties.)  And certainly the same kind of mercenary canvassing that Aristotle and Paul both mentioned is a pervasive feature of political campaigning today – people saying whatever will sell, so they can take the next step up the ladder. Sadly, I've seen churches that look like what Paul saw: some proclaiming Christ out of love and good will, but others doing what they do out of envy and rivalry and self-seeking ambitions, trying to displace God's appointed leaders, trying to jockey for prominence and dominance. 

Whether in secular politics or church politics, the problem of bad intentions – of impure motives – is something Paul warns against.  (In our personal lives, too, we're likely to deal with people who don't always act with the purest motives towards us, or some whose motives are difficult to untangle and map out clearly.  You will meet people who act as they do toward you because of love and good will.  You will also meet people whose actions toward you are driven by envy, or geared toward producing discord and rivalry and strife, or seeking to sell you whatever they think you'll buy so that they can achieve their ambitions and aims.  This problem is perpetually relevant.)  

Certainly, God (speaking through Paul) calls us to scrutinize our own hearts first of all, to be certain that we are keeping ourselves pure in our motives until the day of Christ should come (Philippians 1:10), as we heard last week.  But when it comes to others, Paul reminds us that the same God who could use people's envy of Paul and somehow spin that into a real evangelistic ministry in spite of the evangelists' intentions is the very same God who today can intend for blessing what people around us mean as a curse. God can use a politician's selfish heart and make it promote the real welfare of the commonwealth! God can take the most inglorious passions of the populace and use them to 'accidentally' make a positive difference! This God put Paul through years of imprisonment just to position him with a captive audience he could never have otherwise reached: the Praetorian Guard and others with access to the higher authorities of the worldly empire.  This God transformed Jozsef Mindszenty's imprisonment into an international platform that outlasted a lifetime.  And this God is the same today as yesterday, and so shall be forever – Christ crucified, Christ risen, Christ coming again!  Not only does this God work all things together for your ultimate good (Romans 8:28), but even better than that this God works all things together for the gospel's good advance.  So in this God we trust.

It certainly didn't look like house arrest could be helpful to Paul's mission. But it was. It really did help the gospel advance – spreading into the mouths of more evangelizing Christians as well as the ears of more Roman soldiers and officials. These past months, plenty has happened to us, and during the period of shutdown, lockdown, quarantine, whatever you wish to call it, you may have felt not unlike the Apostle Paul, not unlike Cardinal Mindszenty like a prisoner, like you were cooped up under house arrest. It pales next to the real thing, and yet even this small taste may well have been quite aggravating. But for all that aggravation, from what Paul says, we can pray and hope that somehow – in ways we just don't see clearly yet – all we've gone through will prove to have “really served to advance the gospel,” when the story is fully told.  We don't know how.  But in a God wise to do such things, we trust.  So go on and be “bold to speak the word” – let the gospel march!

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Approve the Excellent: Sermon on Philippians 1:9-11

October 1942 – Karol Józef Wojtyła, age 21, lies face-down on the floor of his apartment in Kraków, absorbed in prayer, as he and God go 'round and 'round. Karol has thrown himself on God's mercy. Karol is wrestling to discern between two paths in life he might take. He's been wrestling for months and months, like Jacob with strangers in the night. Karol just needs to know what he was made for, what kind of life would be best not just for him but for the world. It's been three years since his land was invaded from one end by Germany; the other end, by Russia. Kraków fell under Nazi rule. In the months following that dread day, Karol had joined some friends to read classic Polish literature together, and Karol had started writing plays. They were determined to resist the wave of barbarity, not by taking up arms and doing violence, but by preserving culture itself, the last bastion against barbarism. Last August, six months after Karol found his father dead, he'd joined an illegal theater company, dedicated to staging secret productions – all with the knowledge that, if caught, it meant the firing squad. Karol was charismatic, a gifted actor, born to play lead, and it was what he'd always wanted to do. And with the fate of culture at stake, it was clearly good of him to act. But was it what was best? Day after day, he hurled himself into prayer, grappled with the growing sense of another call. And this autumn day, Karol rose from prayer, left his apartment, made his way to the bishop's house, applied to the clandestine seminary.

Five months passed, during which Karol tried to remain fully engaged in the Rhapsodic Theater while carrying out his night-shift job hauling lime at the chemical plant and doing his assigned philosophy studies. It was too much of a load. He couldn't keep riding both trains. And so after finishing one more play in March 1943, Karol walked up to his director Mieczysław Kotlarczyk and asked not to be cast any longer. He could no longer act; he was going to be a priest. Well, the whole company was shocked! And the director spent days trying to talk Karol out of quitting, talk him into sticking with acting, until finally they brought in an old college friend to spearhead an intervention, a night-long debate with Karol about what Karol should do. They told Karol not to squander the talents God gave him, that he must multiply what he's been given to steward. They told him not to shut himself off from the world, that light wasn't made to be hidden under a bushel. Karol listened patiently, but he had already spent months and months discerning his vocation. He'd tested and found what path was best; he could not be swayed into thinking it would be better for him to be an actor than a priest. And so his time with the theater company drew to an end.

Did Karol make the right call in his discernment? Did he really take the better path, in his case – the one where he could do more good – even at a time when culture was threatened by the occupation? Well, he studied in secret throughout the war until the Nazis were defeated – though soon Poland would be under a Communist thumb. In November 1946, Karol was ordained a priest. He served a village church first, and then a city parish. In September 1958, he was made a bishop; then, in January 1964, an archbishop. And in October 1978, Karol Wojtyła, who could have been an actor, found his new final role: Pope John Paul II. In addition to the service he rendered to global Christianity, his influence led to the fall of dictatorships and, ultimately, to the collapse of Communism and the close of the Cold War. When he died in 2005, his funeral was the largest ever held in the history of the human race, attended by millions. Could he have done good for the world as an actor fighting for culture? Sure. Could he have been a fine playwright? No doubt. But with the wisdom of discernment, he took the road in life that was not just 'good enough,' but that was most excellent. God called him to nothing less.

Over 1900 years before Karol Wojtyła moved to Rome as its bishop, the Apostle Paul was imprisoned there in house arrest, and was writing words of wisdom to the Philippians. Paul told them about his prayers for them, his hopes and dreams for them – how grateful he was to be in the gospel business with them, how joyful their dedication made him, how confident he was of their bright future, and how he yearns for them affectionately, holding them in his heart (Philippians 1:3-8). And he wants to see them grow even more. He wants the love he has for them to be reflected in more and more love for each other, so that their “love may abound more and more.” He wants them to get deeper knowledge of God, to get a firmer grip on God's truths. He wants them to live with insight, practical discernment skills to live moral lives and make good choices (Philippians 1:9).

That's what's necessary, the Apostle says, “so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:10-11). That phrase – 'approve what is excellent' – it means to figure out what matters the most, to pick out what's best, to find the best way to go about things, to test and determine the real value of something. Paul doesn't want the Philippians to settle for going through the motions. He does not want them to lead a life of 'good-enough.' And he does not want them to clap and cheer for what doesn't really deserve it, for what's mixed with flaws and drawbacks, with could-have-beens and should-have-beens. No, Paul's message to the Philippians – and to us – is that we need love, we need deeper knowledge, we need wise insight and discernment, because we have to “approve what is excellent.” Only by approving things that are excellent can we be most fully ready for “the day of Christ,” the time when Jesus returns.

Now, how do we do that? How can we gauge the value of something? Paul offers here a few hints. First, all this discernment is to make sure we're kept “pure” on the day of Christ. And when Paul talks here about being pure, he means something that can outlast the test of sunlight, something that can be fully exposed without a problem. In other words, he means that there are no hidden motives lurking around. The opposite of this word would be hypocrisy, insincerity, inauthenticity, pretense. When Jesus comes back and shines his spotlight on our hearts, he wants to find that we've acted out of pure motives in what we've chosen, what we've approved, what we've endorsed. Why are we approving that, why are we applauding that, why are we taking that course? Is it out of fear? Is it out of a ploy for power? Is it out of anger and resentment? Or does this approval come from a sincere will for the good, a true desire to be conformed to Jesus? Trying to scrutinize our motives, and to see what will let us keep them pure, is one way to put value to the test. Now, that's harder than it may sound sometimes. We know that the psalmist reminds us, “Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults!” (Psalm 19:12). We know that the sage tells us, “All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the spirit” (Proverbs 16:2). “Who can say, 'I have made my heart pure, I am clean from my sin'?” (Proverbs 20:9). We have remarkable powers of self-justification. Careful examination of conscience is needed, in light of abundant love and growing depths of knowledge and insight. There's no other way to securely safeguard the purity of our hearts – the purity Jesus wants to see on his day.

Second, this discernment is to make sure we're kept “blameless” on the day of Christ. Now, to be blameless is, of course, not to be stained or blemished in God's sight, to have kept our conduct above-board. But it has the added connotation here of behavior that doesn't cause other people to stumble, behavior that doesn't drive other people away from Jesus. This is why we can't afford to approve of sinful ways of living. Sin is not excellent. Sin is not healthy. And if we approve of sin in the world – if we applaud it, endorse it, shrug it off – then our failure to witness to a better way, our failure to keep the behavioral witness of the church intact, will keep letting the world trip all over itself, 'til it fall into the ditch that has no bottom. Just the same, we can't afford to approve of sinful ways of living for ourselves, ways that stand out of harmony with the hope we proclaim. For that's an even worse witness to the world, an even greater cause of stumbling. No, as we discern what to do, we need to ask ourselves whether this will be a path that steers us clear of blame, that keeps us from tripping people up, as we journey to the day of Christ. If we do this, endorse this, will that path get us there blamelessly? Be like the psalmist who vowed to “ponder the way that is blameless” (Psalm 101:2) – and take it.

Third, this discernment is to make sure that the day of Christ will find us “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” The third test of value is fruitfulness – what is most fruitful, in growing fruit for God's glory and praise? Which option says the most about how great God is? Which option yields the biggest gospel harvest for Jesus? Which option produces the most benefit? That's the point that Karol Wojtyła had most to wrestle with – where God had equipped him to do the most good. But in the end, he discerned he could best invest his talent in the priesthood – could plant his seed there and see the most plump fruits grow, to God's glory, more so than in acting. For others whom God has made differently, it may be the other way around: they'll grow more fruit in other fields.

Purity, blamelessness, fruitfulness – three core tests for value in what we approve, what we applaud, what we endorse, how we choose to live day by day. All anchored in the Christ who acted only out of purest motives, the Christ whose every way was blameless, the Christ through whom all the fruit of righteousness grows. How does that look? Paul wants us to apply this in our personal lives. He wants each of us, as individual people, to endorse and enact excellence, as revealed by these tests. To do that, we'll have to get to know God better and sharpen our discernment. How can we do that? Well, we start by spending time in scripture. Paul elsewhere speaks of those who seek to “approve what is excellent because you are instructed from the law,” that is, from scripture (Romans 2:18). Getting deeper into the Bible is meant to reshape how you see God, how you see the world, how you see yourself. It's meant to be the master story in your head and heart and hands. Really getting into scripture is one key way to sharpen your discernment, because scripture is meant to “train [you] in righteousness” and “equip [you] for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). And then, just like Karol Wojtyła did, we sharpen our discernment further by spending time in prayer. Prayer is the arena where God invites us to grapple in his presence with our questions and his answers – or, sometimes, our answers and his questions! But in this arena, Karol eventually found what he later called “interior illumination” about what was excellent – and so, in time, can we. But then, we also sharpen our discernment even further by spending time in worship with the church. Not made to go it alone, we were made to worship according to rhythms. The patterns of worship, of ordered exposure to God as an intact body, shape and grow us. Things become clearer in light of it. In these ways, we grow in love, in knowledge, and in discerning insight, so we can approve what's really excellent.

But what goes for our personal-life decisions also goes for our political lives – and we all have those. And here we sometimes get tripped up. What do we endorse, not just with our votes, but with our advocacy and attitude? Both sides of the aisle – make no mistake about it – will pressure and tempt us to endorse anti-gospel options. And from whatever corner it comes, once we've adopted a partisan way of thinking, we will seek to justify our political choices by making them out to be better than they really are. We will aim to present as 'excellent' what does not really deserve our endorsement, our stamp of Christian approval. So, for instance, we endorse an idea or a politician – we start out by admitting it's the 'lesser of two evils,' but over time we get defensive and start trusting them uncritically, giving three cheers where at most two or one is deserved. Or we behave politically in certain ways (or see our chosen heroes do it), and when called out on sin, we say we're just responding in kind to the partisans on the other side. Or we tell ourselves that the status quo is fine, because deep down we're afraid that change is too hard, too risky, too inconvenient. Brothers and sisters, we get tripped up here! How well do our political attitudes and actions pass the three tests of value. Number one, is it pure – does it come from pure and genuine motives? We tell ourselves it does, but if we're bent on retaliation or blinded by partisanship and prejudice, then it doesn't. Number two, is it blameless – does it lead people to stumble into sin? It very well may. Many in the younger generation have sworn off the church after seeing their elders compromise their professed standards, to justify in their side what they condemned in the other. And number three, does it fill the world with fruit that glorifies God? When Jesus comes back, what kind of endorsements would we want him to catch us giving? Approve the excellent. Love God and neighbor abundantly.

Lastly, what goes for our personal lives and political lives goes for our ecclesial life – that is, the church. As a church, we as a body are responsible to discern what is church excellence in our time and place. Where are we best called to act? What is worth most from the church? Sometimes, churches can easily get sidetracked into majoring in jobs that aren't our excellence. In some places, church becomes a social club, geared primarily to serving people's desire for company. In other places, church becomes an advocacy machine, churning out position papers on every conceivable subject, throwing itself into activism. In yet other places, church becomes a charity, devoted to the practical needs of the neighborhood. All these reflect parts of what the church is. The church should be social, the church should speak out, the church should be charitable... but these things draw their power from what is unique to the church. And that is our calling to save the world through worship and witness, which empowers and gives meaning to our work and unifies it in a common mission. I've seen churches waste too many resources on things that fall so short of church excellence. Let us place prime focus on being and doing what only the church – and, in particular, this church – can excel at. What this church does, let it be pure. What this church does, let it be blameless. What this church does, let it fill this mountain with the fruit of righteousness that grows only through Jesus, so that God our Father would be glorified and praised!

For the day of Christ is coming. By our calendars, it may be long. By our calendars, it may be near. As people, as citizens, as a church, as the day of Christ approaches, chase what has worth – approve what is excellent!

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Partnership in the Gospel: Homily on Philippians 1:1-8

Paul's chains rattled as he shifted in place. He looked across the room at Timothy, pausing to remember. Paul was sandwiched – chained to – a pair of guards, who tried their best to tune him out, but who didn't seem to be doing a very good job of it. “Remember, Timothy?” asked the apostle. Timothy looked over at the parchment in the hands of the scribe – they'd just barely started the second sentence – and knew this might take a while. But it was Paul, after all. So they remembered. They remembered that march into Philippi for the very first time, getting the lay of the land in a city with no synagogue. They remembered finding the place of prayer by the river, and sharing the good news with Lydia and the other Jewish women gathered there. And they recalled the season of ministry that came next – having taken up a place in Lydia's house, how daily they used to go out and mingle in the marketplace, walk the streets, strike up conversations with people and point to good news. Here and there, someone would take an interest, enough to take that leap, to take that dunk in the river in the Holy Name. And then they'd tell that person to meet them at Lydia's place the next Sunday morning – and they could meet the others, and begin celebrating together the Jesus who'd become their Savior and their Lord.

Of course, it was a challenge most times to get all this done, with a python-spirit in a slave-girl screaming behind them, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation!” It was not the most helpful advertisement, given the source – designed to confuse and bewilder rather than impress. They dodged her when they could, but eventually Paul had gotten so fed up that he exorcised Apollo from the girl's soul, set her free – and, from the slave-owners' perspective, broke their most valued asset. No wonder they'd hauled Paul and Silas to court – just Paul and Silas, as Timothy and Luke, the team's newest member at the time, had been evangelizing elsewhere in town, helped by the fledgling members of the church just planted. Well, Paul and Silas were accused of causing a disturbance, of being unpatriotic, of being subversives – so, after a hasty beating by hot-headed Roman patriots deeply offended by anything that sounded un-Roman, they were thrown into jail while their case was considered.

Of course, it was all for the best – that's how the warden and his family found salvation, and how the gospel began to work on the prisoners caught up in Paul and Silas' hymns! In the dead of night, after the earthquake, the warden had taken them to his house, had listened attentively to good news, had gotten him and his house baptized, had shared a meal with them. In the morning, when the magistrates ordered their release, they secured a public apology to hold up the new church's reputation, and visited with the whole church at Lydia's before leaving town. They'd left Luke behind to help. Paul remembered how eager the church had been, even after seeing the bruises and cuts all over him and Silas – eagerness to take up the baton and run with it. The warden promptly shared the gospel with those prisoners, announcing the meaning of all those beautiful hymns. Lydia kept sharing good news with other merchants. The rest found ways to carry on the mission, even as Paul had been whisked off to Amphipolis, Apollonia, and Thessalonica (Acts 16:11-40).

Ever since, the church had run with that baton. They'd been evangelizing and baptizing and discipling, and it had grown them over the past nine years from a single cluster meeting in Lydia's house to a whole network of churches in houses all over Philippi, each with a pastor and his assistants, the overseers and their deacons (Philippians 1:1). And these churches had been praying for their neighbors, praying for their church, praying for Paul's continued work daily throughout the years. They'd been taking up regular collections and sending messengers to bring the proceeds to Paul wherever he was on mission – more than Paul needed, since he'd learned contentment, but an undeniable help and a fragrant offering to God (Philippians 4:15-18). The road had not been easy – they met with plenty of local hostility, and were suffering much like Paul was – but in the midst of that, they'd sent their leading pastor to go help Paul in Rome and carry their latest gift! And so when Paul looked back on all this, from the very start of his mission there to the present day, Paul was joyful, even while under Roman house arrest. He thanked God every time he thought of the Philippian churches, he prayed for them every time he prayed, he missed them like family, loved them affectionately in Christ, was confident of the consistent growth he saw in them (Philippians 1:3-4, 6-8). And why all that? Because they had established with him a full-fledged “partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Philippians 1:5)

And that's the key phrase right there. What did it mean to Paul for them to have a “partnership in the gospel”? On the one hand, it meant that they were co-owners, co-recipients, co-sharers of something. They had been given the gift – yes, the gift – of being able to suffer for Jesus, “engaged in the same conflict you saw I had and now hear that I still have” (Philippians 1:29-30). When the crockpot of suffering for Jesus was hauled to the table, they brought their plates to the line, same as Paul. They accepted a portion, doled out from the same pot, of those very flavors. But the same fellowship-meal line was the line for grace, an even bigger pot! And having accepted their spoonfuls of suffering, they all shared in the grace that God poured over: “You are all partakers with me of grace” (Philippians 1:7), Paul mentions. They all eat from the same pots. They eat together. They aren't concerned to customize their dishes to their own tastes. They all want what Paul's having. And they want to eat it together, pain and grace alike. They want to go through it together. Our Christian lives are not about pursuing our own paths, focusing on our own spiritual stomachs. Our Christian lives are about the experiences we share, the things we participate in together, the sustenance we draw from a common pot.

The language Paul's using here – 'partnership' – suggests the picture, though, of a business partnership. That's the picture Paul presents. He says that all the Philippian churches have formed a business partnership with him, in the gospel business, the Jesus business. In the Roman world, a business partnership was a contract between a group of people, who all had to trust each other and all had to contribute somehow. There could be no heritable membership, nothing automatic; a partner had to be welcomed in by the whole partnership to join. But once in, each partner contributed, each partner kept faith. And for Paul, the gospel had become a family business for the Philippians and him. Each contributed prayers, each contributed their own witness, each contributed as able to the financial support of the work Paul did and the work Philippi's local church leaders did. And as a church network, they'd gone above and beyond in lending Epaphroditus to shore up Paul's work-from-home gospel ministry in Rome. It was a business partnership in the gospel business, and they kept the faith. And the Apostle Paul was mighty pleased, was downright tickled pink, to be in business with the likes of them.

Would he say the same about us, I wonder? What would it take for us to meet the measure of the Philippian standard? We, as a church, are called to participate in such a business partnership in the gospel business – we have affiliate franchises in other churches, but here in our neck of the woods, it falls to us to go into the gospel business, the good news business. And I wonder if sometimes we aren't so bogged down by the bad news of the world that we lose sight of the hope we're called to deliver. Or perhaps sometimes we try to be free-riders – either hoard the product to ourselves, or hold back the investments we could be making, not just of funding but (more importantly) of prayer and encouragement and labor! But when it comes to a partnership in the gospel, each of us would have to contribute, each of us would have to keep faith, each of us would have to set our heart on bringing a profit of hearts to Jesus – and not just the hearts of individuals, but the hearts of communities and cultures. When we were baptized, we signed a contract to do just that. What would a church like that look like, a church of fully engaged business partners in the gospel, sharing our resources and abilities to the enterprise, each totally invested in the gospel and in its delivery throughout our neighborhood? Over the following months – as we reflect on Paul's letter to the Philippians, a letter from a political prisoner to a deeply politicized city – we'll consider how to pursue the good news business in a chaotic and politicized culture. Because even when the world is as it is, the good news of Jesus is in business.

I propose we launch just such a business partnership, as it were – a partnership in the good news business, right here, right now. I propose we each recognize ourselves as having more to invest than we realize. And I suggest that the benefits we'll receive, our treasure stored up in heaven, will have a rate of return on investment that more than justifies it all. For Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again with crowns in hand. And until then, we proclaim these truths in one other form of gospel partnership – that of dinner partners, fellow-diners at the Table of the Lord. Paul says elsewhere, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a partnership in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a partnership in the body of Christ? … Are not those who eat the sacrifices participants,” partners, “in the altar?” (1 Corinthians 10:16, 18). We are partners indeed – every time we sit down to this meal, every time we receive Christ in the flesh and blood, every time our plates are filled from the same holy altar, every time we pile high the brokenness and bloodshed of Jesus, smothered with grace. We are called to deliver life-changing good news. Let's begin by remembering how it tastes.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Our Banner: Sermon on Exodus 17 for Fourth-of-July Weekend

It was daybreak on a September Wednesday, and Frank was feeling anxious. He paced on the deck of the boat, wondering if the war had just been decided, but unable to see through the fog. Three weeks ago that day, the British army had set fire to Washington City, burning down the Capitol building and Presidential Mansion alike. And now they threatened to do the same to Baltimore. Frank, age 35, and John, age 26, had last week boarded the HMS Tonnant, an 80-gun ship-of-the-line for the British Royal Navy, to negotiate a prisoner release; but as they'd overheard the British officers discussing attack plans, they were being held on their own boat, tethered to a bigger British ship, until the close of the siege. It started Tuesday morning, around 6:30, the launch of twenty-three hours of bombardment with mortar guns, all aimed toward Fort McHenry. Throughout the day, as Frank and John paced the deck of their boat sequestered across the mouth of the Patapsco River, they watched. Tuesday's daylight dimmed as shrapnel tattered the fort's flag in the twilight. A thunderstorm soaked harbor, fort, and city. Past nightfall, fiery cascade and thunderbolt alike lit up the beleaguered stars and stripes. Then followed a sleepless night – too loud, too anxious. What sign would morning bring?

Then, the first signs of daybreak, shortly after mortar fire and cannon gave way to silence. Cloud and mist obscured the horizon, but Frank strained anxiously through his spyglass, looking toward the fort. Just past six that Wednesday morning in September 1814, he saw the outline of a flag over the fort. But which flag? Was it the Union Jack or the Stars and Stripes? The answer meant all. And a morning breeze stirred the flag, exposing... broad stripes, bright stars, glory to God! Looking around, Frank saw the Royal Navy start to pull back. His ship was cut loose, finally free to move toward shore. In awe, he felt as if his heart were speaking from inside his chest. He stared at the flag again. And in silent joy, he reached for pen and paper and started jotting down a poem: “Oh say, can you see through...” – no – “...by the dawn's early light...”

We know that poem by Frank – Francis Scott Key – as our national anthem, hailing “the star-spangled banner.” The years went by. And the time came that our nation was troubled. In late March 1861, one of our county's newspapers published a poem calling for our ancestors here to “stand firm by our banner – the stars and the stripes! … / Rank and file we will march with our banner unfurled / o'er the Union unbroken – the pride of the world.” Two weeks later, a Civil War had begun. Within two weeks of the declaration of war between the states, houses all over this county were flying the flag they called “the beautiful emblem of the Union for which our fathers fought and died.” The county papers reported on “children carry[ing] the American flag to and from school.” By April 29, reflecting on the Battle of Fort Sumter that started it all, our county papers declared that rebels firing on “that glorious flag” was the one great insult no “loyal American” could “endure.” The day after that, our newspaper reprinted Francis Scott Key's famed anthem in full. Two years and two months went by, and at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, a young Union colonel saw a rebel soldier try to steal his regiment's flag. He shot the rebel to save that flag. Grabbing it, he held it up in the air, yelling for his troops to “rally 'round the flag, boys!” Col. Jeffords was promptly stabbed, fatally, by a Confederate bayonet – but the flag was saved. The next year, in April 1864, our county paper printed Caroline Mason's poem National Jubilee, calling on our people to:

...fling out the bright banner, the Red, White, and Blue!
The glad day is dawning for me and for you;
For Freedom her pinion at length has unfurled,
And Peace stands a-tiptoe to gladden the world!...
Oh, red are the fields where the foemen have trod,
And white are the faces laid under the sod;
But blue are the skies from whose portals of light
Is dawning the day-star that gladdens our night.
Then down with Rebellion and Tyranny too,
And up with the banner to Liberty true:
The triple-hued banner, the time-honored banner,
The glory-hung banner, the Red, White, and Blue.

It's safe to say that, among our people here, the American flag – our nation's banner – was invested with great significance and emotional power. But they knew that there were other banners one could fight and die for. And they knew one couldn't ultimately honor two rival banners. These days, around town, I occasionally see a pick-up truck flying two opposing flags, American and Confederate. I wouldn't recommend doing that in the 1860s around here! Our local papers, celebrating the capture of a fort, rejoiced when “the rebel banner” was taken down and “displaced by the Stars and Stripes.” They denounced people who fought under what we called “the unholy banner of treason.” In 1864, our papers printed a letter from a local army captain, William Spencer McCaskey (the school is named for his brother), where he says that “the Stars and Stripes have steadily advanced while the emblem of treason has as steadily receded.” Two banners could not mark the same ground.

In the middle of the war, at Thanksgiving 1863, a Philadelphia pastor, Rev. Edwin Wilson Hutter, who used to edit one of Lancaster's newspapers, celebrated what he viewed as “our beautiful flag with its gorgeous heraldry of Stars and Stripes,” and hoped it would “stand secure, challenging the wonder and admiration of the world, the centre of attraction to all the downtrodden and oppressed of the earth.” But he pointed beyond this national banner to another banner. Rev. Hutter pointed back thousands of years, to the desert sands. “With Moses,” he said, “we may erect an altar and inscribe upon it Jehovah-Nissi – 'the Lord my Banner.'” In that, Rev. Hutter was speaking the same as Rev. Samuel Cooke, who in 1777 stood up at the second anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and, on that battlefield, preached that “we may gratefully on this day of remembrance, with Moses of old, bow before the altar of our God and offer the sacrifice of praise to Jehovah-Nissi, 'the Lord our Banner,' who was a present help in that day of trouble.”

With Cooke and Hutter, let's venture back to the sands of the Sinai Peninsula, and camp our tents among God's people at Rephidim. Rephidim was a valley in southwestern Sinai, maybe eight miles from the holy mountain they hadn't yet reached. It was a warm desert day in May when the people, camping there, discovered no water to drink (Exodus 17:1). So they argued with Moses, grumbling that he was a bad leader, even a murderous leader, for rescuing them from slavery only to kill them with thirst (Exodus 17:2-3). Moses cried out to God, who told him to go to a certain rock and hit it with “the staff with which you struck the Nile” (Exodus 17:4-5) – and so water seeped out of the rock, quenching Israel's thirst (Exodus 17:6).

But Israel wasn't really all that far from an oasis. And, this being the start of summer when the southern parts of Sinai were more pleasant than the north, a band of desert nomads called the Amalekites had wandered south for the summer. They were plenty territorial, jealous to keep all water supplies to themselves. And they attacked Israel, going after the rear and flank to prey on Israel's sick and elderly (Exodus 17:8; Deuteronomy 25:17-18). Amalek had no respect for the God Israel represented. They only saw weak people they could oppress. That was their way: the Amalekites had managed to domesticate camels, and could ride them swiftly to rush in, kill, and withdraw (cf. Judges 7:12). Israel didn't start this fight. But it was under attack, in danger, and needed to stand up for the most vulnerable members of its society.

So Moses undoubtedly spoke with God again. And then he told Joshua to figure out which Israelites actually had weapons – really, only what had washed up when the Egyptians drowned in the sea – and organize them. They'd never been an army before – all these men, born into slavery and only lately set free. And Moses would climb a nearby hill or mountain, overlooking the battle, and lift up the “staff of God” like a flagpole (Exodus 17:9-10). In calling it “the staff of God,” Moses pointed back to his encounter at the burning bush, when God had proven his presence by making the staff miraculous (Exodus 4:20). Through that staff, plagues had been unleashed, the sea had parted, water came from rock – God's presence and power worked through it.

The battle began, and “whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed” (Exodus 17:11). The Amalekites were stronger, faster, maybe had more soldiers – they had every military advantage. So without God's help flowing through the raised-up staff, the Amalekites were clear winners. But when that staff was held up, the army Joshua led overcame all odds – for they had God. Moses just needed to keep that staff held high, high as he could, and let the glory shine down on the battlefield.

At first, Moses could hold it up with a single hand (Exodus 17:9,11). Later, he needed both hands. But then, even that wasn't enough. Moses was strong for his age, but to keep that position all day, he can't do it alone. So his helpers Aaron and Hur found a solution. They sat Moses on a low stone, and they each cupped their hands under one of Moses' elbows. They would share the weight of Moses' hands, so that the prophet could keep the staff of God like a proud flagpole flying high. And it worked! Moses' “hands were steady until the going down of the sun, and Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the sword” (Exodus 17:12-13). The victory went to Israel, because God stepped in to fight the holy war, not in their place, but with them.

What the Amalekites hadn't perhaps seen clearly was that, by attacking even the most vulnerable Israelite, the most seemingly expendable Israelite, they were raising a hand and shaking a fist at the throne of the God of the Universe, who had chosen the Israelite nation as his people. Amalek's hand was against the Lord's throne, and so Moses declared that “the LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” (Exodus 17:16) – down through centuries to come, God would keep working out the consequences of that encounter until he would “utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven” (Exodus 17:14), an effort in which Israel was ordered to cooperate (Deuteronomy 25:19). That war was waged through Gideon (Judges 6-7), through Saul (1 Samuel 15:7), through Samuel (1 Samuel 15:32-33), through David (1 Samuel 30:17-18; 2 Samuel 8:11-12), through Simeonite settlers (1 Chronicles 4:42-43), and finally through Mordecai and Esther (Esther 9:24-25). Can't say I've ever met an Amalekite that I know of. Blotted out.

But in the middle of that promised curse against Amalek, Moses does something interesting – and this is what Revs. Cooke and Hutter were looking back to and trying to apply to their own times. “Moses built an altar and called the name of it, 'Jehovah-Nissi': the LORD is My Banner” (Exodus 17:15). Just like armies in the War of 1812 and the Civil War and today would bring banners – flags – to the battlefield, armies back then would often fight under some sign lifted up on a pole, some standard or banner with an insignia, a symbol that represented who and what they fought for. And that uplifted banner was their rallying point, the thing that let them know where they were, where to turn, where to defend. Whether the Amalekites held up a pole, a banner, the Bible doesn't tell us. But Moses lifted up his staff. And the LORD God, working through it, acted as their banner, their flag, their standard. Not content with a symbol, they had the Presence and Power of the Almighty. And he – 'twas he – won the battle. That's what the commemorative altar meant. Rally 'round the Lord, soldiers!

What other nations said of their flags, their banners, Moses redirected to God. You and I have lived our lives seeing the American flag in many places. Maybe you've got one flying in front of your house. Maybe you saw one lifted high yesterday. Moses invites us to take everything that banner has taught us, and bring it to God. And we do that by bringing it to Jesus. For where Moses named an altar, Isaiah made a prophecy. And in his prophecy, Isaiah looked forward to a day when the Messiah, the Christ, would “stand as a banner to the people, for the nations shall seek him” (Isaiah 11:10), as his Father would “set up a banner for the nations and will assemble the outcasts of Israel” to the same banner (Isaiah 11:12) – Jesus Christ, our God-given Banner, sent to draw and save “all the downtrodden and oppressed of the earth.”

See, a banner picks out the army you're fighting for or against. The appearance of a banner on the field forces a choice. When you see the banner raised, you either are part of that army or you aren't. You cannot be loyal to two rival banners. In the Civil War, when one advanced, the other receded – Capt. McCaskey taught us that. And so it is here. Jesus reminds us that we can't “serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24 = Luke 16:13). You can't fight for two rival banners, can't fly both flags. A choice has to be made. Jesus declared, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30 = Luke 11:23). If we spend our time rallying around his rivals for our time, effort, and devotion, then we aren't rallying around Jesus. And if we don't rally around our LORD Jesus, we scatter, we fracture – and we stand against him. A choice must be made.

Jesus Christ is the banner we ought to rally around, no matter what nation we're from. That means not flocking to the banner of Mammon or the banner of any other force in our lives that sets itself up as a god to be valued as central and defining. But it also means rallying around Jesus, actively rallying around Jesus. At Rephidim, only when the staff was lifted high could the battle be successful, because power flowed to Joshua's soldiers. And in the Rephidim of our lives, only when Jesus is lifted high can our day-to-day battles be successful, because the power of the Holy Spirit flows to us, to Jesus' soldiers.

In the Civil War, our local newspapers recorded, American flags flew from house after house, store after store. The national banner had a place in the home and in the workplace. If the Lord Jesus is our banner, may the same be true of him! May the Lord Jesus be the banner flying over your home! May the Lord Jesus be the banner flying over your work! And in the Civil War, our local newspapers recorded, children even carried their own American flags to and from the schools. If the Lord Jesus is our banner, may we likewise carry him where we go in life – to the school, to the restaurant, to the park, to the cabin.

For a banner is raised over territory taken. Francis Scott Key dreaded the prospect of seeing the Union Jack fly over Fort McHenry. Union soldiers gloried in seeing the Confederate banner come down and the Stars and Stripes go up over forts they retook. The war began when Major Anderson was forced to take down the Union flag from Fort Sumter, and in the hours before the Lincoln assassination, the same man was privileged to raise the exact same flag over Fort Sumter – a fort securely reclaimed. The banner is raised over territory taken – or, in that case, re-taken, reclaimed.

And just so, wherever the church goes as the church, wherever we march in Jesus' name, wherever we go to “vanquish all the hosts of night / in Jesus' conquering name,” there Jesus Christ, our LORD and God, is manifested as the Rightful Owner of all. And surely there are “hosts of night” to vanquish in the land today! But “we wrestle not against flesh and blood” – the news may make that hard to remember, but we really don't – “but,” for the sake of the downtrodden and oppressed, we fight “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12).

Where the banners of division now fly, let us march and raise our banner, the Prince of Peace! Where the flags of hatred now fly, let us march and raise our banner, the Lord of Love! Where the banners of death hold sway, let us march and raise our banner, the Resurrection and the Life! Wherever we go, let us raise Jesus Christ our Banner over territory reclaimed, not in a fight against flesh and blood, but against darkness and death, against Satan and sin. If we must lay down our lives for this Banner as Col. Harrison Jeffords did at Gettysburg for his, so be it – after all, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

But the battle raises questions,” perhaps you say. “Is there hope? What if we live and die for a losing cause? What if the darkness gets a foothold? What if the Amalekites advance?” Francis Scott Key knew your worry. He listened to the attack, saw the sparks, paced in anxiety, stared longingly into the mists for a sign of the outcome. But the star-spangled banner was still there. And just the same, our Banner – Jesus Christ – still waves over his Church! The night of this world may be long and dark indeed. The Church is undoubtedly under attack. But fear no Amalekite speed. All the red glares of the rockets, those “fiery darts of the wicked” (Ephesians 6:16), and all the bombs bursting in air, only give proof through the night. Proof of what? What do they prove, though the long night of this age? You know the song! That our Banner is still there!

Everything devil, flesh, and world can muster only highlights the enduring presence of our Banner. And though the night is long, “a glad day is dawning for me and for you” – “the night is far gone; the day is at hand – so then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12). “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together (as is the habit of some) but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25). “Declare among the nations and proclaim, set up a banner and proclaim, conceal it not” (Jeremiah 50:2) that Jesus Christ – crucified, risen, ascended, enthroned, coming again with glory – he is victory eternal! Already by faith we know what sign morning will bring! Rally 'round this Banner with sacrifices of praise to Jesus our 'Jehovah-Nissi,' now and forever! Amen.