Stand Firm and Here's How!
Philippians 3:17-4:1 – Philippians: Life Together
Palm/Passion Sunday – March 25, 2018 (am)
I. Intro and outline
It was maybe 2003 when we attended the wedding of a neighbor’s daughter. The officiant was actually a gentleman that I had known from college days. Toward the conclusion of the ceremony he made this statement: “Ladies and gentlemen, the bride and groom have asked me to convey a message from their heart to you all. Your advice and counsel are highly valued, and they want to hear every word of insight you may have for them—as soon as, but not before they ask for it!”
Of course, the intent here was to send a not-so-subtle message and coax a smile from all of us. It succeeded, and there is of course some merit in this caution. In matters of advice and counsel, there are times when restraint is warranted—and apparently appreciated! But what if you had advice that was critical for the success of the marriage of these two young confident people? What if you saw marriage as something of inestimable value? What if you had information and counsel that could keep them from shipwreck? What if you loved them dearly, and desperately wanted to smooth the way, to erect the guard rails and shine a light on the rock slides and the dangers of the road? If so, our restraint might be seen as thoughtless or even cruel.
Here in the final verses of Philippians 3–4:1, Paul speaks clear words of counsel and advice to this church, words of caution, reminders of who they are, and what’s important and all under the banner of love. The simplest summary is stated in 4:1:
Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.
Those words “Stand firm thus” are the title of this message, or alternatively, “stand firm, and here’s how!” The text itself is the teaching outline for the message, and it is broken into four ideas or charges from the apostle to this young church:
1. Imitation is not a game (3:17)
2. A clear and present danger (3:18-19)
3. A bright and secure longing (3:20-21)
4. A banner of love (4:10)
As a preaching team we have identified 1:27-28 as the anchoring thread or message in the letter. “Stand firm in one spirit, with one mind, striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, not frightened in anything.” Let’s dive in.
II. Imitation is not a game
Twenty-six years ago now, the most popular sports commercial in the history of the genre went on the air. Sponsored by the Quaker Oats company to promote their product Gatorade, it immediately took off. Any guesses? Yes, “I wanna be like Mike.”
Sometimes I dream
That he is me
You've got to see that's how I dream to be
I dream I move, I dream I groove
If I could Be like Mike
Oh, if I could be like Mike
Be like Mike, be like Mike
Again I try
Just need to fly
For just one day if I could
Be that way
I dream I move
I dream I groove
If I could be like Mike
I wanna be, I wanna be
Oh, if I could be like Mike
Eventually the commercial was taken off the air, not because its popularity waned, but because it turned out that it did not increase sales of Gatorade! Not to disparage Mr. Jordan, but Christian here today, please do not long to be like Mike. Seriously, don’t! We are called to set our sights higher. And keep in mind that it was a commercial! Can you imagine even for a moment that a celebrity or a politician or anybody would be presumptuous enough to actually say those words, “Be like me”? Such men or women are few and far between.
Yet Paul says here, “Brothers, join in imitating me.” He says the same thing in 1 Corinthians 4:16: “I urge you then, be imitators of me.” In 1 Thessalonians 1:6, Paul reminds the Thessalonians, “You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord.” And in 2 Thessalonians 3:7, “For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it.” Perhaps the most illuminating example is 1 Corinthians 11:1: “Be imitators of me as I am of Christ.” Paul can be bold here because he is not holding himself up as something special. His credential is only that of having proven to be a faithful follower and imitator of the Lord Jesus Christ, nothing more and nothing less.
In chapter 4 Paul also urges his hearers to follow his example, but the emphasis is different. They are to put into practice “what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.” But here in 3:17 they are called not so much to affirm his profession, but to follow the example of his proven character.
Let me make three additional observations: This is first of all not some kind of grandiose ego trip for Paul. He is simply living his life in a manner worthy of the gospel, and he is holding up that life as a lamp to guide the feet of those who come after. Second, notice that he is asking them to “join” in the imitation. It is here described as a community project. They, together with their brothers and sisters in Christ, are urged to imitate him together in community. And third, isn’t it interesting that he expands the circle by suggesting that they keep their collective eyes on those who have walked according to the example they have found in him? It is as if Paul were suggesting that they stay close to other faithful men and women, and don’t let them out of their sight. Is that a comforting thought? There is a great old gospel song, “A house is known by the company it keeps.” So, it is with Paul. Can you think of another place in scripture where a person is told to “stay close to my young women,” and later, “stay close to my young men”? I want to pull off the freeway here and take a side path to the little book of Ruth. It is like a jewel sandwiched in between the horror of Judges and the chaos and bitter ambition of 1 Samuel.
You know the story: Ruth, a young Moabite widow who accompanies her Jewish mother-in-law back to Bethlehem hoping to eke out a living gleaning among the harvesters. You will remember how she comes to the kind attention of the owner of one of the fields, Boaz. And you will recall his words to Ruth in 2:8, “Now listen my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. Let your eyes be on the field that they are reaping and go after them.” In 2:22-23 it is Naomi, her mother-in-law, who counsels her, “’It is good my daughter that you go out with his young women, lest in another field you be assaulted.’ So, she kept close to the young women of Boaz.”
The little story has a fairy tale ending and so the line of David is established through this poor but humble and obedient young woman. In keeping her eyes on the young women of Boaz and his young servants, Ruth would find satisfaction for her hunger, security, rest, peace, and even identity—and strangely, one of the most remarkable things about the story is that she actually followed the advice of those who cared for her. I say remarkable because so very often we will trade away rest, satisfaction, security, and peace for the sake of our precious autonomy—and make no mistake, that is the price of following, of staying close, of striving to imitate, worthy men and women! It will cost us our pride, our autonomy, and our precious idolatrous independence—and too often we are unwilling to make the transaction.
As an aside here, young persons who chafe under the counsel of parents, be careful of who you associate with. It matters who you keep before your eyes. It may very well be a matter of life and death. Hear them well!
Ruth was a stranger in a strange land, but she knew who to trust. And so, it is for the Philippians, they are Paul’s joy and crown, his beloved, his brothers whom he longed for, and he is counting on that reciprocated love to guide them to joyfully imitate his faithful walk proven over and over again. Are we thankful for the faithful walk of people who have lived their life as a lamp to guide our feet down roads that they have already walked?
III. A clear and present danger: (3:18-19)
When I first read this, my initial question was about the ferocity of the language. Paul pulls no punches. He offers no mitigating explanations. The best reason I think for the passionate nature of these words lies in the equally passionate love that Paul has for these people. It is not clear what the issue is. It has been suggested that the phrase “their god is their belly” and “their glory is in their shame” is a reference to a kind of Judaizing tendency to demand fulfillment of Jewish dietary restrictions or rites of circumcision. But the vagueness of the fracture may actually help us to see a few things that we must not miss.
· This is not a new thing. Paul has spoken of it before, and it is not isolated. “Many” have fallen.
· Paul’s anger is rooted in his tears, revealing a purposefully, painfully tender heart.
· There is no paranoia in Paul’s message. He embraces the tears and presumes that his hearers are his brothers and sisters all. They are his joy and crown. He could have allowed himself to be robbed of this comfort but exhibits an irrepressible defiant joy that cannot and will not be dampened by the falling away of some and the enmity of others.
· This life together, this manner of living, is stronger than death, yet ironically it is fragile as well, and as we move together through chapter 4 in the coming weeks we will see just how fragile it can be.
· Maybe the most sobering consideration of all is this: Even in the community of the body of Christ, it is possible to become enemies of the cross, and when brothers and sisters become so, it ought to drive us to tears. For when that happens, they will have landed in the awful place of having tasted true hope and genuine community in the body of Christ and traded it away for a heroic resignation. Their end will be destruction in this world and the next.
IV. A bright and secure longing: (3:20-21)
Now we come to the white-hot source of what matters most for Paul. Paul, the Roman citizen (a fact of great significance as Paul’s story plays out in the book of Acts), uses that citizenship at need, but sees his true priceless citizenship to be in heaven, not in Rome. I was interested to read that this word in the KJV is rendered “conversation.” It struck me as funny, but I looked into the old English usage behind this word. Conversation refers to a manner of living, a close familiarity, or intimate acquaintance. Are we conversant with “heaven”? Do we see ourselves through the lens of scripture as strangers and aliens in this world, because our true home is elsewhere? This is the first thing that Paul wants his hearers to think about.
The second thing he wants them to know is that from the certainty of that “conversation” we can wait for our Savior the Lord Jesus Christ, and we can do it with great heart and a sure hope. That waiting is described in Romans 8 and elsewhere as an ache and a longing. We lead the creation in its groaning. That is part of our job, and we may by God’s grace show the world how to do it well. Anybody here today who groans inwardly, aching for the day when Jesus will return to call us home to new life?
Anybody here pretty sick and tired of their “lowly” bodies? The KJV renders this “our vile bodies” (which, by the way, in old English does not mean ‘evil or disgusting’ but simply ‘of low value’ or ‘lowly’). Dan pointed out two weeks ago that part of pressing on to Christ means that we want to know Him, in His life, his death and in His resurrected body. Jesus Christ is physically absent from this world of water and dirt, but our ultimate reunion is to be with Him in resurrected life, a life that C.S. Lewis describes as more physical, more palpable, more real than life as we experience it now. Can we praise the Lord here?
This is an extraordinary promise. But it is a promise that can have only one sure foundation, that there is a Savior who can—who can speak the world into place, who can sustain it with a word, who can and does subject all things to Himself, and who cares for not only for the world He has made, but also for me! This is an incredible thing to lay hold of, and to the eye of flesh it is simply too good to be true! Yet, we trust and obey because the Holy Spirit works in us to be granted repentance and faith.
V. Under the banner of love: (4:1)
So, how does Paul really feel about this people? First, they are brothers, who he loves and longs for. Second, they are his joy and crown. Finally, they are his beloved. And his summary word for them? To ‘stand firm thus in the Lord.’ I want to dwell on this affection from the heart as I begin to wrap up this morning.
VI. Slip-sliding away
You may be asking yourself the unspoken question implicit in the text today. It is this: If it takes work and attention to ‘stand firm thus’ then it must indeed be possible to slip-slide away. How does that happen? I think we find the answer in the obverse of the text outline. We will fail to stand in these ways:
· by following the wrong persons, to retreat into our own autonomy
· by loving the wrong things
· by failing to protect one another from the clear and present danger that surrounds us
· by failing to cultivating what ought to be the rolling boil of our affections for one another, to knowingly allow those affections to cool, by ignoring God’s word
· by failing to keep our eyes on the Lord Jesus Christ, to willfully look almost anywhere else for the satisfaction of our souls
You have heard the phrase, “We live in an uncertain world.” Forrest Gump famously puts it this way: “life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get.” The real truth is that though we may not know what piece of candy comes next, we know that the last one in the box contains a death sentence! We also know that if life were a box of doughnuts, there would be a few French crullers in there somewhere and we would all be disappointed! Fact is, there is little about life that is in the end uncertain. Hard things seem to find us all, and for now, on this earth death throws its shadow over everyone. But it has not always been so, and according to scripture its days are numbered. And in the meantime, we are called to follow Jesus and not take our eyes off of Him. We are called to protect one another from the clear and present dangers that surround us. We are called to remind each other of what it looks like to wait, and even to groan by faith for a certain and truly great redemption, and we are also called to do all of this while cultivating a relentless and unstoppable love for each other, because after all, we are our brother’s keeper!
In the bulletin are the words of Philippians 4:1, and I would like to challenge us with an exercise, and it will for some be truly difficult (and I think it will require you to stand up and do what I say!). I would like for the left side of the room to look at the other side right in the eye and pronounce 4:1 to them. It is in your bulletin. Follow my lead . . . Good, now I would like the right-hand side to do the same thing. For those in the balcony and in the middle, pick a side and join the exercise.
Now, I know what some of you are thinking, how can I speak these words to someone I may have never met, and maybe I have been asked to speak these words to someone I have never liked? Consider this: there are people in this room who have never been told that they are someone’s brothers and sisters, who have never been told that they are beloved, who have forgotten a love that holds them as someone’s joy and crown (and it is one thing to know it, and to read it, but quite another to hear it!). When I say that “we are our brother’s keeper,” I am suggesting that to a degree we are collectively shepherds of each other’s souls. We have this false dichotomy where we see some as shepherds and others as sheep, when the fact is that we are to care for one another. And from my perspective, it is the sheep who time and again come to the rescue of the shepherds in this place. And for that I praise the Lord.
I want to see if I can circle back to the opening remarks about this day, Palm Sunday. We know the story, the fulfillment of Zechariah 9:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
A donkey and her foal are commandeered, the cloaks and palm branches are placed, the people proclaim, and Jesus enters the city in triumph! But the priests and scribes are not pleased. This entry is described in each of the four gospels, and the details are similar in each. What is different in the accounts is the conversation between Jesus and the priests in Jerusalem. In the Matthew 21 account, the priests plead with Jesus to tell the kids to keep quiet:
“But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ they were indignant, and they said to him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Yes; have you never read, “‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?’”
In the Luke account, the priests plead with Jesus to calm the people, and Jesus speaks words that cause me to tremble:
“As he was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives—the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’ And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.’” (Luke 19:37-40)
The reason those words hit me like a 2x4 to the throat is that Jesus is referring back to 1 Kings 1 (no need to turn there, just listen for a minute). David from his deathbed wants to make it clear that the path of royal succession will be through Solomon and none other. He commands that the high priest Zadok, the prophet Nathan, Benaiah, his royal bodyguard, the Pelethites, the Cherethites, in all the authority and visual pomp and circumstance they can muster, usher Solomon out of the city to the Kidron Valley where Solomon is anointed king by the high priest. Then he is mounted on David’s donkey, and amid great fanfare [led] back into the city. The people whose heart is tied to David erupt in a rejoicing that stretches our imagination. In fact, the text says this:
“So Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, and the Cherethites and the Pelethites went down and had Solomon ride on King David's mule and brought him to Gihon. There Zadok the priest took the horn of oil from the tent and anointed Solomon. Then they blew the trumpet, and all the people said, ‘Long live King Solomon!’ And all the people went up after him, playing on pipes, and rejoicing with great joy, so that the earth was split by their noise” (1 Kings 1:38-40, emphasis added)
Now, do Jesus words cause us to tremble? Is our job clear? Christian adults here, our job is to proclaim and lead the creation in proclaiming, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.” And if we fail, the children shall lead us, and if they are not taught so, then the earth itself will split and the cold dead stones themselves will erupt. Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a great Savior the Lord Jesus Christ, and we proclaim our once and present and future King. We are to stand firm thus, my beloved!