Sermon on Philippians 2:14-16, 17th Sunday after Pentecost 2020 (A), "Children of God"

 

            Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Our verses today from Paul’s prison letter to the Philippians echo Moses’ farewell speech to the children of Israel. Both Moses and Paul were at the end of their life and ministry. Moses had spoken God’s law one last time to Israel. Then he warns that if they forsake God’s commandments and turn back to other gods, they would no longer be God’s children because they’re blemished—a crooked and twisted generation. Paul echoes these words in his letter to his beloved Philippians: “Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.”

            Paul calls children of God to grow into who you are Christ Jesus. God’s children grow, because He made us. We don’t grow by our human willpower or choice but because we are born by His power and Spirit. God’s children grow holy and without blemish because this is where the road toward God leads. The road away from God leads away from being a child of God, just as the children of Israel experienced. Blamelessness and innocence are signs of spiritual maturity in the children of God.

            While on deployment, I used this analogy with some of my Soldiers. When I first joined the Army, my…son was eager to put on my boots and jacket, and of course he looked funny in the oversized uniform, and it would be hard to do anything. But imagine if he wore it every day…in ten or more years, he would grow into the uniform, and it would fit him. Our baptismal identity in Christ is like that. In baptism…we’re “clothed with Christ” and we daily “put on Christ” and strip away sin and it’s desires… It’s a breathtakingly big gift to be given this New Identity in Christ… like an oversized uniform. But instead of making it harder to do things—this is God’s very word of life to do all things in Christ! God supplies His Holy Spirit to grow up into Christ, and little by little we’re transformed into God’s workmanship! The uniform helps us grows up inside it!

            Created by God to grow, we are headed toward blamelessness and innocence in Christ Jesus. This power doesn’t come from your first birth, your sinful human nature. Children of God are born from above—Christ lives in you. Put on Christ, and hold on to His word of life, and He will grow you up into your new identity in Christ.

Wearing a uniform can draw enemy fire. It did for Paul. The Good News about Jesus got Paul locked up in prison. He lived in an upside-down world where you could be jailed for spreading Good News and talking about your faith. We’re just as upside-down today. For almost 4,000 years, from Moses to Paul to us, it’s been the same story. We live amid a crooked and twisted generation. Believers can’t hide. Baptized into Christ Jesus and shining as lights in this generation draws attention. Though it’s still minimal in our country, people’s businesses, careers and reputations have started to come under attack because of their faith. Religious freedom is enshrined in our Constitution, but there are attempts to dislodge it or roll it back.

But beyond the risk to ourselves, the greater danger for children of God is to hide our identity or throw it away, to fit in with the world. Moses warned Israel that they were turning back down the road away from God and toward worthless idols and fake gods. Paul’s Philippians needed to stand strong in their new identity, moving toward God, and not turn back with the crooked and twisted generation around them. We face the same struggle. When the world’s upside down, we get harassed and mocked for not standing on our heads too. For not turning down the same path away from God, that leads away from being His children. Only by facing Him and continually drawing near to His light, will we be confident and strong in our identity, and reflect Jesus’ shining light to the world.

            Paul’s command in these verses, about how we are to grow up into blamelessness and innocence is to live without grumbling and questioning. It’s childish but hard to give up. Complaining and arguing wears everyone down and stinks up the air. It’s not the aroma of Christ to a perishing world but the fragrance of death (2 Cor. 2:14-16). People can “smell the difference” if they see us working joyfully and without complaining and arguing, or vice versa, if we do everything with a sour and difficult attitude. It’s a joy to be around a person who doesn’t complain (Lord forgive me and silence my grumbling, ungrateful tongue!), and it’s a misery to always hear complaining.

            It’s amazing how a little eye-opening to your blessings and learning to be thankful, can change grumbling into gratitude, and complaining into contentment. Lord, give us words of praise and thanksgiving, whenever we are tempted to complain or question your goodness! Give us a joyful spirit to be the aroma of Christ to those around us who are perishing, so that they may see your difference in us. Grow me up inside your uniform, to become fully who I am in Christ.

            It’s too easy, even under the best of circumstances, to grumble. It seems there’s always something to complain about. On the other hand, some people in life legitimately face crushing difficulties and yet with relentless endurance, they go forward without grumbling or complaining. They are blameless and innocent children of God. That looks a long way from here. But in various ways I’ve seen that light glimmer and shine out among you all. I’ve seen many of you carry burdens with admirable courage and determination. Some faithfully carried their burdens to their graves and laid down to rest peacefully in the arms of Jesus. When I see this Spirit of Christ in you, we both know it is not by your own strength, or without plenty of prayers and admitting your weaknesses—but the light of Christ genuinely shines as you grow up into Him. Turn over the complaining and questioning in repentance to Him and take up His free gift of a joyful trust in God.

Paul knew such sanctification was possible for the children of God. God has made us to grow up as His children. We simply live into that identity, growing up in that uniform. It couldn’t grow unless it was first given by Christ Jesus. First God is in you to “will and to work according to His good pleasure” as Phil. 2:13 states. We don’t in fact “need” to grumble or question anything—we can turn it over to Him and freely live out the joyful trust that God has a purpose and a plan, even if it’s hidden. His grace is sufficient to carry us through.

That’s why Paul says children of God will shine out like lights in the world because we “hold fast to the word of life”. The Word of Life, the Good News of Jesus Christ, is the power of our new identity. The world, crooked and twisted, doesn’t have this new life and hope. People still living in the darkness of sin can’t fathom a life of struggle lived as a life of hope. They see our struggles and our crosses, which are all too real, and sometimes great burdens. People in a world upside-down, can’t fathom how we can be “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” (2 Cor. 4:8-10). This new life, this relentless endurance and trust in God, in the middle of all hardships, shines out like a light in this dark world. It witnesses to the upside-down world of life and hope in Christ Jesus. Of power that’s not from us but from God’s grace.

            Moses had to call God’s people back to the covenant again and again. They were prone to wander. Paul had a lively congregation at Philippi, who were still strong in their identity, but they needed the same warning, that we still need to hear as well today. Whatever you fear, your own guilt, your own potential failure, your death, your illness, your financial security, your relationships—whatever would cause you to freeze in your tracks and start complaining and questioning—surrender it over to God. Move forward one step at a time, trading complaints for prayers, and arguments for thanksgiving. This new identity is yours in Christ Jesus. Grow into it, as you are clothed in Christ. Face Christ and keep moving toward Him. God’s got it under control. Your fear and trembling—God’s got it under control. Your guilt and sorrow—no sooner do you surrender them to your Savior, than they are forgiven and you are renewed and set free. No powers on earth, death or sickness or failure can separate you from God’s love, so go confidently in the victory of Christ Jesus. Walk as children of light, shining in this dark world. His light will shine out to others.

            Paul was proud of his Philippian children of God. He trusted that at the end of his life, which was drawing near, he would be satisfied that his life and labor were not in vain. Not an empty, useless exercise, but that God had powerfully worked good through the gospel in them. With the same hope, I trust and pray that my ministry and labor is not in vain. Not with any credit it to my own cleverness or ability or anything in me, but confident that God’s Word of life can and will powerfully change you. God’s Word never returns void and it opens hearts and ears creating the very faith that we need to receive and believe the Gospel. I know that if I have spoken God’s Word of Life to you, that it will bear fruit, and that my labor is not in vain.

            I also know it’s God’s work that you grow up into innocent and blameless children of God that shine like lights; not any self-purification. God began the good work in you, and it’s growing inside you to completion, as you fill out that identity and become the His pleasing child. God first gave you birth as a child of God and declared you righteous in Christ Jesus. Now you are growing up in holiness so His light shines out from you. He made us innocent by His blood shed on the cross, and presents us blameless before God, washed in the waters of baptism. He gathers you to stand forgiven and loved in His holy assembly, the church. He makes you worthy by repentance and faith to receive His body and blood in the sacrament. All our life begins, continues, and returns to Him, and His goodness and His gifts in Christ Jesus. Oh how blessed to be children of God! In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

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