Sunday, September 6, 2020

Crooked and Twisted: Sermon on Philippians 2:12-16

The people of Rome, packed into the stands, cheered, roared, and yelled at the spectacle in the arena below, as sword clanged against shield, and shield against sword. The gladiators were putting on a fierce show, sweaty and bloodied. And it had the crowd in a tizzy. They cried out for more violence: “Kill him, lash him, whip him, burn him!” Nothing was ever enough for them. The crowds of Rome bayed for blood – the blood of criminals if possible, so they could feel justice was being done, but slaves and others would do nicely, forced to fight for the amusement of the masses. Seneca, the Roman philosopher, described how the crowds would get bored in intermissions and cry out to watch an execution. He admitted that, after spending an afternoon at these games, “I come home more greedy, more ambitions..., more cruel and inhuman.”

And the emperor was a prime example. In March of 59, before the Apostle Paul arrived in Rome, a struggle for power had led to the Emperor Nero ordering the assassination of his own mother Agrippina. He descended ever deeper into depravity. Left without checks and balances on his behavior, and increasingly ignoring Seneca his advisor and tutor, Nero liked to spend his nights carousing, beaten men in the street, stabbing any who resisted him and tossing the bodies into the sewers; he'd rob shops and auction his loot openly in his palace. Nero had affairs with married women and abused younger boys. Much of this was going on during Paul's years of house arrest. In the years after Paul's first release, Nero got worse still. He put on a bridal veil and became the so-called 'wife' of a man named Pythagoras. He's rumored to have lit the fire that burned much of Rome to the ground – a fire he blamed on the unpopular group called Christians, whom he then began persecuting in violence that swept the Apostle Paul finally to his expected departure. The next year, with a sharp kick Nero ended the life of his pregnant wife Poppaea. Nero later made a boy named Sporus into a eunuch and had a 'wedding,' after which he presented Sporus to the public as his 'empress' with whom he engaged in considerable indecency in the public eye. Nero's depravity was notable – but then, he had the power to fulfill his desires, desires many Romans may have shared, whether they admitted it or not.

A few centuries later, a Latin observer of society could still look around himself and remark: “There's no trust, since people grab what they can for themselves. There's no sense of duty, since greed spares neither parents nor family and since lust resorts to poison and the knife. There's no peace and concord, since war rages openly and even private hatreds are made enough for blood. There's no shame, since lust runs loose in man and woman alike, corrupting every act of the body.”

The Philippians of the first century, as enthusiastic imitators of all things Roman, naturally had many of those same traits among themselves. This was the world from which the Philippian Christians had been drawn, and which tempted them daily with familiar habits, familiar pastimes, familiar pleasures and customs. And as Paul, writing from Rome, thinks about the culture that Rome and Philippi share, his mind flashes back to an ancient story from the Bible. The people of God, as the nation of Israel, had been walking around the desert for decades – marked by grumbling and complaining aplenty (Exodus 16). And as one of his final acts for them, the elderly Moses had sung them a song. Moses celebrated God's greatness for all heaven and earth to hear, “a God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he” (Deuteronomy 32:4). But as for the generation that had been roaming the desert all those years, “they have dealt corruptly with him; they are no longer his children because they are blemished; they are a crooked and twisted generation. Do you thus repay the LORD, you foolish and senseless people?” (Deuteronomy 32:5-6). What made Israel so 'crooked and twisted' in the desert was that, in their complaining and carousing, in their impatience and their idolatry, they had mirrored the pagan nations they encountered, they had imbibed and imitated pagan culture, they had practically forgotten God's special call on their lives.

With that as a touchstone, Paul had to admit that the church in Philippi was situated among a people not much different from the ancient Egyptians and Edomites, Midianites and Moabites, Ammonites and Amalekites – all the bad examples that Israel chose to follow. And so the Philippian church, while not themselves so depraved, were nevertheless living “in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation” – Paul's using the same words that Moses used (Philippians 2:15). The culture around the church there was hostile and depraved, was full of bad examples, was a “crooked and twisted generation.” It was bad.

Over seventeen hundred years later, a nation called the United States of America was born. Among its founders was a man named Alexander Hamilton, then still rather young. Just a few years before these people declared their independence from the British Empire, he spent his teen years on the Caribbean island of Saint Croix under the tutelage and sponsorship of a Presbyterian pastor named Hugh Knox. And Rev. Knox, in 1775, published a sermon in which he reflected on these words of the Apostle Paul. And Rev. Knox said:

My brethren, we need not go back to antiquity to justify and illustrate the observation of the Apostle. In every age of the world, God's true church and people 'live in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.' … What faith is nowadays to be put in the promises or professions of men? The very form of religion is in such sovereign contempt that it is deemed highly impolite to introduce even the mention of it into company. How few in Christian countries, comparatively speaking, attend the ordinances of Christ or pay any regard to the public worship of God? What are the lives of that generality but a course of mere extravagance, sensuality, and dissipation... without a single serious thought about the state of their souls or eternity? If we inquire into the source of mirth and pleasantry in most companies, shall we not find the laugh almost perpetually raised either at the expense of religion or at the natural and moral failings and infirmities of our fellow-creatures? … To all this, may I not add that some of the most scandalous and filthy vices are become so common and fashionable in Christian countries that to resist or decline them would be deemed an almost unpardonable singularity. Surely nothing more need be added to prove that the world in which Christians live is a 'crooked and perverse generation'...

Hugh Knox lived in the late eighteenth century. We live in the early twenty-first, but is our surrounding culture any less crooked and twisted today? As we live through what countless commentators assess as the collapse of civil society itself, racial prejudice in multiple directions has surged into the open, propagated even by the Smithsonian. Just this year, the nation was horrified by an outright lynching in Georgia after a posse hunted a man down, hurled racial slurs at him, and shot him to death. Meanwhile, some elite schools around the country have experimented again with segregating children by race. And an influential prize-winning journalist today is infamous for once having called members of a different racial group “barbaric devils.” This is a crooked and twisted generation. The riots that have seized our nation again this year – not for the first time – have brought with them a rising tide of church vandalism: we've seen statues of Mary beheaded, graffiti spray-painted on cathedrals, church arsons. Violent street battles between political extremists from both sides have led to a rising casualty count. And National Public Radio recently profiled, with glowing praise, a just-published book seriously titled In Defense of Looting. This is a crooked and twisted generation.

Meanwhile, among Americans under the age of forty, a national survey found that 46% admitted to having used pornography just in the days before they asked the question. Prior to the pandemic, a number of libraries in the country had begun what they called Drag Queen Story Hour, which had even begun expanding to elementary schools. We've seen news reports about couples pledging to raise their child as neither a boy nor a girl but as 'gender-neutral.' We've seen an increasing proportion of entertainment media choosing to highlight cast and characters of varying sexual lifestyles, and also media centered on the sexualization of younger and younger children. This is a crooked and twisted generation. In a few days, a new film will release that purports to be a comedy about abortion. Polling conducted last year indicated that 61% of Americans support legalized abortion in all or most cases, and while the abortion rate is declining, that still means that over 600,000 children made in God's image are intentionally killed in the womb every year. This is a crooked and twisted generation.

Setting homicides in utero aside, America sees over 16,000 other murders yearly. What wonder that the USA has been ensnared in one war after another for all but 21 years of our history as a nation. Meanwhile, the poor are downtrodden and oppressed in countless ways, as the rush toward renewing evictions has shown and as the prevalence of scams targeting the elderly reveals. And our nation's political life is certainly no healthier. For perhaps the first time, both major parties have nominated candidates who've been accused, credibly or not, of sexual assault; and as our division ripens, 62% of Americans – including a majority of people from both major parties – now censor themselves out of fear that other people would react poorly if they actually shared their political views honestly. This is a crooked and twisted generation.

The mystery is why that seems to shock us! Paul tells us that first-century Philippi was a crooked and twisted generation. Hugh Knox admits that seventeenth-century America was a crooked and twisted generation. If that's true “in every age of the world,” it shouldn't shock us that twenty-first-century America is a crooked and twisted generation. But what should horrify us is the prospect of the church becoming a mirror of the darkness. That's what was of deepest concern to Paul. When Paul looked back at the Song of Moses, he saw that Israel's biggest trouble was having themselves become a “crooked and twisted generation,” being disinherited children through being “blemished” (Deuteronomy 32:5). And so his urgent plea for the Philippian Christians was to be the opposite – for them to be “blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish,” even though they were surrounded by “a crooked and twisted generation” (Philippians 2:15). The worst thing would be for the church to do as the desert generation did – become blemished and lose that family resemblance and even status.

That prospect should be our biggest concern today. We know of clergy scandals – not only cover-ups that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church, but also numerous megachurch pastors brought down in our lifetime by sexual misconduct, including one of Billy Graham's grandsons. In the past months, the president of one of our country's biggest Christian universities was let go, not after his atrocious and abusive treatment of others, but after credible claims of sexual misconduct came to light, including the possibility that he awarded his wife's other partners with lucrative business deals. The church in America often remains de facto segregated. We would struggle to say that even the professing evangelical church is free of committing or condoning the habits that have brought our nation to where it is – socially, sexually, economically, rhetorically, politically, you name it. And we can also be found committing the precise sin that brought Israel's desert generation down: bickering. To our ears, as used to it as we are, it seems out of place in that litany, doesn't it? And yet it's Paul's great worry for the Philippians. The way for them to be blameless and innocent is to “do all things without grumbling or disputing” (Philippians 2:14), in other words, without the bickering that was beginning to take over the church. We certainly see that in some churches today, even here in Lancaster County. And what Paul wants us to know is that, if we give in to church bickering and church grumbling, that right there is already blemishing us, that right there is already twisting us into the crooked shape of the world, as much as all the rest. For all these things were included in Paul's reminder to “take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Ephesians 5:11). So what should the church be like instead?

As Paul's brain plays hopscotch through the Old Testament, mulling over the Philippians' problem, he jumps from Deuteronomy and lands on the prophecies of Daniel. An angel sent from God explains about a future time when the people of God would be in serious trouble. But “at that time, your people shall be delivered – everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake – some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever” (Daniel 12:1-3). In saying that, the angel was looking ahead to the end – and we already live in the dawn of the end. So did Paul and the Philippians. So Paul took the angel's words, about those who are wise getting to shine, and he hands them to the church. The church may be surrounded by the darkness of a crooked and twisted generation, but that's all the more reason to stay bright! “In the midst of a crooked and twisted generation..., you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life” (Philippians 2:15-16).

Look up at the night sky – especially if you can find a far enough field to escape the light pollution that takes the beauty away from us – and you'll see the blackness of space consumed by shimmering seas of enchanting light. Those are the skies that smiled down on Paul and on Daniel. Paul implores the church to keep its light intact – to keep clenching the word of life, the gospel of salvation, the wisdom of hope. The song Moses sang was, Moses said, “no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land...” (Deuteronomy 32:47). Our song is an even higher song. The gospel is no empty word, but our very life, and by this word we will live, not just long in an earthly land, but eternally in a new creation, if we endure to the end. And this good news of Christ, this word of life, must be clenched firmly and tightly and joyfully in how we live.

Paul commands us to cultivate light in the church – to intentionally let ourselves be formed by the word of life. A star doesn't have to do much to keep being bright. It just has to keep burning its fuel – the uncontrolled thermonuclear fusion at its heart will keep unleashing energy. And the 'word of life,' God's word spoken into us, is the explosive power at the heart of the church, and at the heart of each disciple. That's why the Apostle Paul calls us to be “blameless and innocent” – we cannot afford to be dimmed by bickering or the other ways of imitating the world. We must intentionally let the word of life form us, as individuals and as a church body. We must intentionally cultivate life. A star is formed through gravitational collapse, the clouds of gas and dust falling in on themselves in space; and it's this gravitational containment that lets the process of nuclear fusion continue. And by letting the word of life draw us together around the crucified and risen Christ, the same thing – a spiritual 'gravitational containment' – lets the explosive power in our heart shed more and more light.

For it's only by keeping our light bright that we can catch the attention of the world. The darker the rest of the field of vision, the more a star stands out – hence why we drive out beyond the light pollution to catch our best glimpses of God's handiwork above. If first-century Philippi and twenty-first-century America both look like a “crooked and twisted generation,” well, Paul's audiences then and now have more and more chances to stand out – provided we stick together, provided we keep burning the right fuel, provided we don't trade brightness for dimness and darkness. In other words: provided we steer clear of bickering, grumbling, disputing, and other pagan imitations, and so live as “blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish.”

Part of the problem sometimes has been that, as very 'mission-minded' evangelicals, we've been so determined to plunge into the world, to disperse our way through its back alleys, that we haven't seriously let the word of life form us – we haven't stuck together in thick community, but contented ourselves thinly with occasional moments of 'fellowship.' We haven't kept much brightness. The more light pollution we've had around us from living in a 'culturally Christian' bubble, the less we've noticed our dimness. But as the light pollution clears, it will be plain which stars have fizzled already, which stars have dimmed to imperceptibility, gone dim and dark.

Only by being bright can we truly brighten the darkened world below. Only by holding fast the word of life can we also hold out the word of life. It's easy to point at the darkness and yell. It's harder work to offer light. But that's why we're here, in this hour, on this hill: to be light and offer light. In Daniel's prophecy, the ones with the promise to one day “shine like the stars forever” are those who “turn many to righteousness” by sharing the light of their wisdom (Daniel 12:3). Our wisdom is the word of life. Only by letting it fuel us can we shine, and only as we shine ourselves can we offer our light to the world.

Doing this is how we, in Paul's words, can “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in [us] both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). God is active in our midst through the word of life – his is the explosive power in our heart, his is the generation of the light – but our job is to be in awe of his active presence in our midst, his saving presence through Jesus Christ, and to work out in practice what it means to be saved, what it means to be enlightened by heavenly light, what it means to be filled with light and power. And that outworking means to keep ourselves blameless, innocent, unblemished, and bright. It means to stay uncrooked and untwisted, but to offer the brilliant word of life to a generation that is crooked and is twisted, without letting ourselves be made crooked and twisted. For as Paul writes elsewhere, “At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord: walk as children of light, for the fruit of light is found in all that's good and right and true” (Ephesians 5:8-10).

May we keep ourselves blameless and without blemish. May we be innocent children of God. May we shine like the stars forever, in the midst of a nation and among neighbors who need the wisdom of the gospel and the hope we've found. May the gravity of God keep us together, and may the word of life fuel our bright living, that we may stand out brightly against the backdrop. And as we preserve our life together uncrooked and untwisted, may others receive the light we give off, the word of life we hold out, and be turned to the righteousness we find in Jesus Christ. In his name we make this our prayer. Amen.

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