Sunday, November 15, 2020

The God of Supply: Sermon on Philippians 4:14-20

Fifteen centuries have crawled by since the day the man lay on the ground. Bishop Caesarius was begging God for a miracle, for a mighty work, for an act of supply. He was the bishop of a prominent city called Arles, today in the south of France. But it wasn't France then yet. Arles was a city on the east bank of the Rhone river, just below its fork, and it had been through quite the ordeal. Four decades earlier, as the Roman Empire died in the west, Arles – a colony once populated by Roman veterans – and its surrounding lands had been gobbled up by a people called the Visigoths. And now it had changed hands again. In the year 507, war had broken out between the Visigoths, on the one hand, and peoples called the Franks and the Burgundians, on the other. And by the end of fall and the onset of winter that year, Arles had come under attack. Its residents and neighbors, along with the Visigothic soldiers garrisoned there, held out against a siege. But winter turned to spring, and spring turned to summer, and the siege was unbroken. It seemed a stalemate unto salvation or starvation.

Cooped up within the city walls, none of the farmers could safely go out to plant their crops. The Burgundians devoured and devastated the countryside as far as eye could see. During the siege, Bishop Caesarius was accused of disloyalty, a riot broke out, he was arrested and released, and then in the fall of 508, after a year of siege, a relief army sent by the Ostrogothic king Theodoric showed up. In a great battle outside the walls, the Ostrogoths defeated the Burgundians and the Franks, killing thousands and capturing thousands more. Arles came more and more under Ostrogothic influence. The siege was broken.

And then they had to life with the aftermath. As Caesarius mentioned in a sermon, “our countryside has been left a wasteland because of the enemy.”1 Many of the local peasants who'd tried to go out and work the land had been killed, while others – along with local soldiers – had been captured by the Franks or the Burgundians and enslaved and carted off into exile. Caesarius devoted himself and the church he led to raising money to ransom them back and bring them home where they belonged, as well as to minister to the grief and hurt of those left behind. But at the same time, Arles' streets were now filled with captive Franks and captive Burgundians – for those besiegers beaten in battle had not simply disappeared in a puff of smoke. In their homeland, they may well have been social elites, but here they were reduced to poverty or the slave market. And Caesarius couldn't stand that either. Despite coming fresh from accusations of treason, he worked to purchase their freedom and keep them alive and well. He did it in spite of them having the wrong religion, in spite of them being enemies of the city, in spite of them being the reason why food was so scarce in the first place. And when Caesarius saw the funds were running out, he gave the order for the churches to pony up their treasures – the gold and silver plates and cups and ornaments. At his behest, men took axes to the insides of the churches, prying off anything made of precious metal so that it could be sold to raise more ransom money to set enemy captives free. As you can imagine, many were furious, especially the priests who saw their churches seemingly ransacked by the bishop's unilateral command. But Caesarius held his course. He was the steward of Jesus Christ in that place. And he'd often ask his critics why treasures given over to the Redeemer shouldn't be used to redeem captives in his name, and save not just bodies but perhaps even souls.2

All the meanwhile, out of the treasure-houses of the church and of his own contributions, Caesarius had bought up stored grain to dole out, day by day, to the poor – baking bread, especially for freed captives who were still destitute and unable to leave for home, and for those locals who'd been brought back from captivity abroad, and for the peasants who'd barely outlasted the siege to begin with. But now... resources were running low. One official challenged the bishop: If Caesarius didn't cut back, he'd run out of grain to make bread for his own table, and he and the church leaders would starve; better then to wean the poor off the bread dole and let them fend for themselves by begging. Because at the rate it was going, Caesarius would run out in the next day or two.

In turmoil, Bishop Caesarius retreated to his private room, his cell – once a monk, always a monk at heart, so he lived simply. And that's where he threw himself to the ground, sprawling out in self-abasement at the foot of God's throne. And Caesarius begged. He begged his God to come to the rescue. He begged his God to provide for those who had no provision – whatever happened to Caesarius, he could tolerate, but don't let the poor starve alone, and don't let them be humiliated beneath their rightful dignity. Caesarius prayed 'til he lost track of time, but he drizzled the floor with his tears. And in that moment, he felt the hand of grace. And the promises of old came back – promises that the God who made each man and woman in his image would certainly supply the needs of the church that had poured itself out sacrificially to invest in their welfare. Caesarius heard the age-old promise ring in his ears, the song of prophets and apostles. And his heart reached out and grabbed it with a tight fist and refused to let it fly away. And in the boldness of faith, Caesarius stood to his feet. He knew what to do.

Rising with confidence, Caesarius went back to the official and scolded him for having too little faith in a God of Supply. Then, Caesarius turned to his assistant Messianus and gave another order. Caesarius told him to go to the church granary and sweep it completely empty. Gather up everything, don't let even a single wheat grain be reserved against the uncertainty of the 'morrow. Gather it, grind it, make all the bread we can. And invite all the struggling servants of the church and all the redeemed captives and slaves and would-be beggars and all the poor peasants, to come and eat. And then leave the matter to God. If nature took its course and this was the last of the grain, then the next day they'd all fast together in unison, sharing the suffering with no division between the haves and the have-nots. But privately, Caesarius whispered to another priest: “Tomorrow, God will provide, because he who gives to the poor will never be in need.”3

Meanwhile, Messianus did exactly what Caesarius said. And a day went by. Night fell. Morning approached. And in the hours before dawn, the paupers and captives crowded in the town square, deeply anxious and complaining, terrified of the sunrise of the day of starvation, knowing that the grain reserves had been emptied. But then, in the darkness, came a shout from the side of the river. Three ships sailing down the Rhone. Burgundian ships, bearing the emblems of Kings Gundobad and Sigismund. And as they docked, the captains called for Caesarius. News had reached the Burgundian court of how mercifully Caesarius had treated their captured subjects, helping and welcoming them, refusing to let partisanship make them enemies in his eye. And although King Gundobad was a heretic and a brute who'd murdered his own brother in a church along with its pastor, God was now using him and moving him to pay dividends on Caesarius' investment. The sun had not yet dawned, but the prospects of starvation had become prospects for salvation – for Caesarius was the recipient of three cargo ships loaded to the full with grain enough to go around. “And when those who from lack of faith had feared the danger of famine the day before saw that the Lord never abandoned his servant, they kept thanking God joyfully for assisting them at a time of need.”4 The God of Supply had come through for his servant Caesarius! Caesarius was certainly gratified; and, smiling down from heaven, I imagine so was Paul.

For, centuries earlier, the Apostle Paul had written to a different Roman colony city, one called Philippi in Macedonia, as well you know. It all started when he left Philippi after planting the church there, and he, Silas, and Timothy had left Luke behind to organize it. Paul then had moved on to Thessalonica to evangelize there, and though he may have been there just a month (Acts 17:2), the newborn Philippian church had sent him multiple disbursements of missionary support funds (Philippians 4:16), which no doubt came in handy when the Thessalonian believers needed to post bail (Acts 17:9). After evangelizing in Berea, Paul finally left the province of Macedonia into Achaia, where Athens and Corinth are (Acts 17:10—18:17). And when he made that move into Achaia, “no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except [the Philippians] only” (Philippians 4:15). During his eighteen months of ministry in Corinth, the local converts never gave Paul any financial help, so his own wages as a tent-maker and the Philippians' gifts, brought by Silas and Timothy, funded his ministry there (Acts 18:3-5; 2 Corinthians 11:8-9). Time passed – Paul traveled to Antioch, visited the Galatians, settled for a couple years in Ephesus, and then thought up an idea of taking up a collection for poor Christians in Jerusalem where it all started (Acts 18:18—19:22). And the Philippians, contacted about it by Timothy and Erastus, got involved in that collection, and appointed Luke as their ambassador on the voyage (Acts 20:1-5). “In a severe test of affliction, [the Philippians'] abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part; for they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord,” Paul said (2 Corinthians 8:2-3).

And then Paul's life took some twists and turns that landed him in imperial custody. Eventually, the Philippians heard that the Apostle was under house arrest in Rome. But for nearly two years, as economic persecution in Philippi grew worse, they had no opportunity to send anything – until at last, they could raise funds and send Epaphroditus to carry the gift (Philippians 4:10, 18). It was a pretty penny, enough to let Paul settle up his tab for room and board, enough to set him up well for whatever's to come. “I abound,” the Apostle says; “I have been filled up” (Philippians 4:18). Paul has written this letter, ultimately, to acknowledge their gift and let them know that he considers their support to be a complete and total repayment of his investments in them: “Paid in full!” In a way, this letter is meant to function as their receipt.

Paul wants to emphasize that he doesn't need them to break the bank by sending him more – in fact, he could get by on whatever resources he had (Philippians 4:10-13). “Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble” (Philippians 4:14). That was why they gave: kindness. In spite of having to dig so deep that it put them in trouble like a prisoner was in trouble, the Philippians insisted on helping to bankroll Paul personally as well as his gospel mission – the Philippian church was kind to him. That's what delights Paul, what excites Paul.

On the Philippians' end, it must have seemed like an everyday thing, rather humdrum. Write a check. Stuff a few bucks in an envelope. Slip it into the basket, drop it in the plate, forget about it. We do it all the time. But Paul wants to open their eyes to a new way of looking at what they've been doing this whole time, especially in this last big gift. 

On the one hand, Paul describes the gift using temple language: “I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent: an aroma of fragrance, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God” (Philippians 4:18). And those words are ripped right off the pages of the Old Testament. Back in the beginning, Noah offered whole burnt offerings on the altar – totally consuming the victim, transforming meat to smoke for God alone – and we read that “the Lord God smelled an aroma of fragrance” (Genesis 8:21 LXX). Then the Hebrews in the desert were told to “offer up the whole ram on the altar as a whole burnt offering to the Lord for an aroma of fragrance: it is a sacrifice for the Lord” (Exodus 29:18 LXX). “The priests shall lay everything on the altar: it is an offering, a sacrifice, an aroma of fragrance to the Lord” (Leviticus 1:9, 13 LXX), “acceptable for an aroma of fragrance” (Leviticus 17:4 LXX).

And remember: the Philippians, just like Old Testament Israel, lived in a world where literal animal sacrifice took place daily. The forum and streets of a Roman city like Philippi were dotted with altars billowing smoke, the smell of sizzling sacrificial meat, sacrificed by neighbors and friends. This was a common part of the world they lived in, intensely familiar imagery. 

And since God told Israel through Ezekiel, “In an aroma of fragrance I will accept you when I bring you out from the peoples” (Ezekiel 20:41 LXX), it's no surprise that Paul understands the death of Jesus on the cross as the fulfillment of the prophecy: “the Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, an offering and sacrifice for God, into an aroma of fragrance” (Ephesians 5:2) – the same fragrant offering by which God accepts his people, accepts us, once and for all, scented by a sacrificed Savior.

And what Paul is now telling the Philippians is that they have crucified their wallets with Christ, that they have conformed their finances to the slaughtered Lamb of God, that their economic selves have been victimized on a holy altar and been transfigured into smoky savor before the Lord God Almighty. In sending their support to Paul, they've actually been giving it to God himself as a whole burnt offering of thanksgiving – and it pleases God, it smells good to God, it delights the Lord. Their giving has been anything but humdrum and mundane; it has been a sacred ritual. And this is what excites Paul: he loves to see the Philippians' faith become sacrificial, not in the mere modern sense of giving something up, but in a real Old Testament sense. As recipient on earth, Paul gets to play a priestly role, taking these funds they've brought and slaughtering them for the Lord, letting the smoke of silver and gold rise to heaven as he burns it up in the work of the gospel and in living as a servant commissioned by Jesus. And in providing for this, the Philippians have truly made God happy by sacrifice.

On the other hand, Paul also takes a commercial approach to what they've given: “I seek the fruit that increases to your credit; I have received full payment and more” (Philippians 4:17-18). Paul talks about his relationship with the Philippians as “an account of giving and receiving” (Philippians 4:15) – that's an image of a joint bank account, a ledger book they share. The Philippians deposit money, Paul withdraws; Paul deposits spiritual gifts, the Philippians withdraw. What matters here for them isn't the size of the gift but their intention, as shown by the ratio of the gift to the giver's resources. Remember how Jesus wasn't impressed by the rich who made a loud rattle in the alms-box with heavy coins that didn't hurt them, but pointed out a poor widow giving her last pennies as an offering of everything she had to the Lord (Mark 12:41-44).

What excites Paul about the Philippians' gift isn't what he gets out of it, but what they will get out of it: they have a prospect of profit, of earning interest by investing their money in a godly way. They can expect that this gift is the planting of seeds, and that they will eventually harvest the crop of fruit. In God's ledger book, the Philippians – every time they give to Paul as a gospel worker – are buying up heavenly stock. And Paul wants them to salivate over just how good that market will always be doing. Remember how Jesus told the rich young ruler, “Give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:21). Remember, too, Jesus' words to us all: “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:20).

How? Caesarius has some thoughts on that: “Not only are the tithes which we possess not ours but destined for the church, but whatever we have received from God more than we need should be distributed to the poor.”5 “The poor is understood as anyone who needs food or clothing, or the needy servant of God who despises the world and continually serves God. When you exercise mercy toward a beggar, the poor man receives food. When you offer some gift to God's servant, the needy receives fruit, and of this the Apostle says, 'Not that I am eager for the gift, but I am eager for the fruit' [Philippians 4:17].6

So what happens when we give to the church, to the servants of God, and to the poor and the broken? It is a conforming of our economic selves to the cross of Christ. It is a holy sacrifice which, when burnt up, will rise up to heaven on our behalf and please God. It is a purchase of heavenly stock which, if bought by kindness, will earn interest in God's ledger. And for those of us who look around for something to give and don't see much, Caesarius advises that those who can't give money can still donate wisdom and words of comfort: “If you have abundant means to show material kindness, thanks be to God; but if you don't have the means to feed the body, refresh souls with the word of God,” for this is giving “alms for the soul.”7

Delighting in what the Philippians have done by what they've given, Paul finds himself in a bit of a conundrum. In the Roman world, if someone sent you a surprise gift, it was expected that you answer with a matching gift, or maybe an even bigger one. What can Paul send back to them? He can't – but he has a God who can. Since their gift was really a sacrifice to Paul's God, it's Paul's God who will keep up the gift-giving dance: My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19). Caesarius said the same thing: we've made a “heavenly bargain” with the Father.8 “Christ comes as often as a poor man approaches you … Extend a coin to Christ, from whom you desire to receive a kingdom.”9 “If a man is encouraged to give something to the poor, whenever he extends his hands in almsgiving, he receives bracelets given by Christ.”10 And while the chief repayment God gives are heavenly rewards, those treasures we store up in heaven for later, Paul is also announcing the pay-out of earthly dividends, in that God will fill up and supply all the Philippian Christians' present needs – not all their wants, mind you, but all their needs.

That means, first and foremost, the tangible needs they encounter now. Each day they pray for their daily bread, their everyday need, and God will supply it. Remember Caesarius, praying in his room; remember the cargo ships sailing down the river; remember the joy of the God of Supply! And just as God supplies our material needs, so he supplies our less tangible ones: steadfastness in the face of opposition, unity in the face of division, peace in the face of disturbance, comfort in the face of distress. Caesarius pointed out both when he challenged his church that, through generosity, “you can merit earthly and heavenly gifts,” so “why do you cheat yourself of a double blessing through greed?”11

And this blessing never runs out, because God's lavish wealth is an inexhaustible supply. It's every bit as lavish and every bit as inexhaustible as it was when the temple gleamed with glittering gold and the cloud of divine glory choked the halls and overshadowed the priests. For on the day Solomon inaugurated it, “fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple” (2 Chronicles 7:1), and ever since, the temple of sacrifice was known as “the place where [God's] glory dwells” (Psalm 26:8). So too, when the Philippians sent up their sacrifice, were riches of glory opened in their temple.

But these riches are lavish and inexhaustible and gleaming and overshadowing precisely “in Christ Jesus.” For Christ's Body is the gleaming Temple, and Christ's Spirit is “the Spirit of Glory” (1 Peter 4:14), and Christ's merciful heart is the bottomless treasury of God's resources. And that bank vault was broken open when Jesus' heart was pierced with a spear on the cross. Therein the vault was thrown open, and it can never again be sealed or locked. Jesus Christ is risen with his heart forever broken open. It is in the heart of Jesus that the riches of God's glory reside, and it is out of the riches there, encompassing all the universe like Fort Knox encompasses a fleck of gold dust, that Jesus' Father, the God of Supply, could and would pay dividends to the Philippians for their kindly investment and could and would reward their sacrifice with the outpouring of his express pleasure.

Wonderful for the Philippians – and wonderful for us! For we know we're living in an era when we're often on harder times. We're financially pinched. We may become economically oppressed. Need abounds, in here and out there. We know not how long it will take for the virus besieging us to be driven away, nor how long it will take the wastelands of the economy to flower with fruit again. And, of course, we have needs far deeper than money – needs of the body, needs of the heart, needs of the mind, needs of the soul. From day to day and month to month, there are times we face danger and turmoil – but the God of Supply can take care of us. There are times we face labor and pain – but the God of Supply can take care of us. There are times we face sorrow and distress – but the God of Supply can take care of us. There are times we face confusion and ignorance – but the God of Supply can take care of us. There are times we face loneliness and bereavement – but the God of Supply can take care of us. And there are times we must confront the thorns of sin buried beneath our skin – but the God of Supply can take care of us. The God of Supply has not run out of his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.

In light of such a possibility, dare we cheat ourselves of blessings? For to live like Philippians and give like Philippians is to receive like Philippians. Let this be an encouragement for all who give. When you give, you offer a sacrifice that rises up to heaven and fills it with a fragrance pleasing to the Lord your God. When you give, you earn interest that will be your reward to enjoy when everything here has gone to the moths and rust and thieves. And when you give to God in the hands of his church and his ministers and his missionaries and his poor, God will repay dividends to fill up all you need – so let no fear of scarcity hold you back, but step into the shoes of St. Caesarius' confident faith, sweeping out the granary with a willingness to fast to the Lord and an open hand for the provision of a God who doesn't run out. So now “to our God and Father” – to the God of Supply who calls us his sons and daughters, whose riches are in Jesus Christ – to him “be glory forever and ever! Amen” (Philippians 4:20).


1  Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 6.6

2  Life of Caesarius 1.28-33

3  Life of Caesarius 2.8

4  Life of Caesarius 2.9

5  Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 30.2

6  Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 139.4

7  Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 1.8

8  Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 31.5

9  Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 26.5

10  Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 78.3

11  Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 33.1

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