09.24.2017 Preaching Text: “[Whether] I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents.” (Philippians 1:27-28)
In case you’re wondering, the sermon title has nothing to do with how I plan to spend my retirement. Honest.
It’s more an attempt to get your attention. Admittedly taken to an extreme, this could be a description of how we think life ought to be for those us living the Christian life.
Which is to say we all try to live a good life. We’re honest, hard-working, church-going folk. And we’re responsible law-abiding citizens as well.
The hidden assumption might be that we therefore are entitled to a carefree life. God should and will take care of us. Right?
So why do we see so much suffering in our readings this morning? Why are those who seek God placed out in the wilderness to face hunger and thirst, as in our Exodus reading?
Or why is Paul, who dedicated a good portion of his adult life to spreading the message of Christ’s salvation, facing the possibility of a cruel death in our Philippians reading?
You can open almost any page of the Bible and, with your eyes closed, randomly point anywhere on the page and likely find an example of a faithful person suffering.
Why should this be so? Shouldn’t we be afforded a life of daytime TV and bonbons, if that’s our wish, or the equivalent of our own choosing?
We may demur in this, of course, denying that we expect God to always do our bidding. Intellectually at least we know God isn’t our “cosmic bellhop.” But what about those times when life takes a sudden turn and we find ourselves asking, “Why did God allow this to happen?” It’s not an uncommon question.
This applies not just to those moments when we lose a loved one or our health, to cite but two examples. There are those times when we suffer simply because of what we believe.
Such is the case with Paul. He’s in a Roman jail awaiting his fate. Will he be condemned to death or not? His crime is that he’s a Christian. It’s what he believes and stands for that’s the problem.
Living in a different time and place, this may seem a distant concern. For though the U.S. government isn’t likely to execute us for our Christian beliefs, that’s not to say we’ll never be persecuted in other ways for what we believe.
The biblical narrative is very clear, as we know. There’s the “world” and there’s the “kingdom of God,” the things of the “flesh” and the things of the “Spirit.” There are, in short, two separate spheres of life, two very different ways of understanding and experiencing life. And, as is implied, the life based in the Spirit can be a problem.
Take, for example, the current state of religious affairs within contemporary Western culture.
I met this past week with the town administrator to discuss the future of our Memorial Garden. I shared with him my impression of how friendly the cemetery commission seemed when first approached in late 1988 about building the Garden.
The original agreement reads as a kind of “gentlemen’s agreement,” each party appearing to genuinely like and respect each other.
Fast-forwarding 25 years, the opposite seems true. Today there seems a kind of adversarial attitude towards us that betrays a deepening and ever-hardening separation of church and state. Distrust and antagonism have replaced what was once a considerate, congenial relationship.
This is but one of any number of examples we might cite. But you get the point. In our increasingly secular society being a church person has its challenges. Just try talking religion at your next neighborhood get-together or public gathering. Or even your next family reunion! It could get awkward.
This is not, of course, an entirely new phenomenon. If, as the New Testament asserts, Jesus was the earthly embodiment of our loving God, why did he have to suffer and end up on a cross, a punishment reserved for only the most heinous of criminals?
At root, the whole problem boils down to one simple fact. It’s rightly been said that the problem with “natural man” is that he faces a “supernatural” ending. That means this life is not all there is. In a very real sense, as Christians, we are preparing daily for the world to come, the heavenly transcendent world, one markedly different from the one we currently inhabit.
This means that a good many of the attitudes and behaviors we assume to be perfectly normal here on earth are incompatible with heavenly ones. As Christians, therefore, we must shift our priorities.
Once the Israelites were released from Egyptian captivity, they confront a wholly new way of life, one born of a freedom. No longer bound by slavery, yet no longer afforded the relative comforts of Egypt, they must come to grips with their newfound freedom. It is both unsettling and disturbing.
When we are baptized as Christians, we embark on a new way of life. Each day we are “sanctified,” meaning we grow in the Spirit. This necessarily involves letting go of certain attitudes and behaviors in order to embrace new and better ones. And that means change.
Change, as we know, isn’t always fun, even when we know it’s necessary and good. It involves the loss of the familiar, and often produces uncertainty if not anxiety. Add to this the potential resistance from family, friends, and neighbors, and we too may be tempted to give up or go back. Staying the course takes both determination and courage. But most of all it takes faith, faith in that which is not yet seen, that which is yet to be.
Which is the reason God has given us one another, the church. Each of us has embarked on an adventure which produces great joys and inward peace, but which also involves many twists and turns, challenges and setbacks.
In those times of adversity, we have each other. We have the shared truth of God’s story. And we have the inviolate promise of God that our future is assured. Amen.