Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 6, 2015
Philippians 1:3-11 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions
Of the four lectionary readings for this Second Sunday of Advent, this passage from Philippians gives the lightest and least obvious perspective on Advent. I say, least obvious, because apart from the two references to “the day of Christ,” there’s no clear Advent character to Paul’s words. These two references occur in an otherwise standard greeting in a Pauline epistle. On the other hand, these references to Christ’s coming in the midst of an otherwise unremarkable greeting may say something about how we ought to observe Advent in the midst of our everyday lives.
When I say that this is the lightest of the four readings, I mean that it has the most upbeat mood. Malachi 4 is filled with warnings about the coming of The Messenger who will prepare the way. “Who can endure the day of his coming? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.” Luke 3 shows us that Messenger, John the Baptist, preparing the way by calling folks to repentance. And while the reading from “the Psalms” is Zechariah’s “Benedictus” in Luke 1, the old man’s ode to joy is thick with Old Testament prophecy and theological concepts. Preaching on any of those texts will get us into heavy stuff. The coming of the day of the Lord is almost threatening or at least filled with so much meaning that it is nearly overwhelming. The Day of the Lord feels like a giant thunderstorm looming off on the horizon. While that cloud may eventually “burst with blessings on our heads” (as in the hymn, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way”), it still looks ominous from a distance.
Instead of blazing fire and harsh soap, an old man spouting prophecy and a wild man shouting in the wilderness, our reading from Philippians 1 gives us a much lighter image of Advent, the image of harvest. I pick that up from verses 10 and 11, where “the day of Christ” is followed by “filled with the fruit of righteousness….” Paul looks toward that day of Christ’s coming as the day when the fruit is ripe and ready for the harvest. While it’s true that we could take the phrase about “completion until the day of Christ Jesus” in verse 6 as an image drawn from the building trades, it could also refer to the completion of the farmer’s work, when the fruit of his labor is ready to be harvested.
The preparation and anticipation of Advent is often done with a mood of introspection and even penitence. If my reading of Philippians 1 is right, Advent can also be a time of celebration, of downright jubilation. That is the mood here in our reading. There’s thanksgiving and joy, love and peace. It makes me think of Thanksgiving Day with a table sagging under the fruits of the harvest, or the annual Christmas feast with family gathered around the table in boisterous good cheer, or the Cornucopia filled with fruit and vegetables and grain on the Communion Table at my last church during the holidays. This text and its image of harvest will elevate our celebration of Advent far above the world’s “have yourself a merry little Christmas.” Overflowing with thanksgiving and joy and confidence and love, we look forward to the coming of the Lord of the harvest who will gather in the full fruit he planted at his first coming (John 12:24).
Whenever Paul thinks of his congregation in Philippi, he bursts into prayer with the positive spirit that permeates this text, because he is so sure of the harvest on the day of Christ Jesus. His prayer could have been different. It often is for us. We pray with anxiety or sorrow or despair, because we aren’t sure that God will bring good out of our dark time. Advent is a call to believe that the God who has been working in our lives from the first day until now, from the first Coming of the Christ right up to this moment in our lives, will keep working until the day of Christ’s Second Coming.
Yes, hard times may come. Paul is not only in prison as he writes this letter; he also has enemies right there in his beloved church. But Paul is confident that the God who entered into partnership with his people will not let go of them until he completes his work of salvation. (Yes, I know that Paul is talking about the partnership between this church and himself, but behind that human koinovia is the deeper covenant between a loving God and his sinful people.) Looking back at God’s covenant faithfulness and ahead to the coming of Christ, Paul is confident that God will complete his work in his church. So, on that great and terrible day of the Lord, there will be great joy because the harvest is full. Thus, we can pray with thanksgiving and joy and confidence today, even with a thundercloud looming overhead.
As he was with the Thessalonians, Paul is effusive in his expressions of love for the Philippians. Of all the expressions of affection scattered throughout the letters of this allegedly stern apostle, verse 7 is perhaps the tenderest. “I have you in my heart.” The next verse tells us the theological basis for his tender love. It isn’t just that there is a human bond between them. It is, even more, that Christ’s own love for the Philippians has filled Paul. “God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.” “Affection” there is the Greek splangchna, innards or, more graphically, intestines. Picking up on the universal human experience of being moved in our guts by fear or sorrow or love, the Greeks saw the intestines as the seat of affection. Christ loves us not just with his head, but with his inmost being. And, says Paul, that’s how I love you all– with Christ’s own love. As one older commentator put it, “My heart throbs with the heart of Christ.”
Paul does give a very human reason for such divine love; “for whether I am in chains or defending or confirming the Gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me.” In other words, they were not fair weather friends. Whether Paul was out and about preaching the Gospel on street corners (one meaning of apologia and bebaiosis), or he was in court defending himself and thus the gospel (the other, more technical meaning of those two Greek words), or he was just languishing in his jail cell—no matter what his circumstances, Paul knew he could count on his friends in Philippi. Their koinonia did not depend on circumstances, because they were all sunkoinonoi, sharers in God grace. They were held together not by happy circumstances or by their shared goodness, but by the grace of God that held them close in spite of their sin or circumstances.
These attestations of love can serve as an Advent call to koinovia. During the holidays we spend a lot of time at parties sharing the good cheer of the season with folks we often don’t like very much. This overabundance of false camaraderie is often balanced by our disappointment at family and church gatherings, as our expectations of affection from those closest to us are dashed on the rocks of old wounds, inbuilt personality differences, and family dynamics. Let us call for a real love fest, an agape feast, based on the grace of God to us and in us. Sometimes we can barely tolerate our fellow church members because we have so little in common with them. Paul shows us how to love people regardless of outward circumstances; we must see them as sunkoinovoi in the grace of God. They need grace as much as we do. As we look forward to the coming harvest, may the fruit of love ripen in our interactions with fellow sharers-in-the-grace-of-God.
After all this outpouring of positivity, it’s a bit surprising to hear Paul end our reading with a prayer for change. Well, actually not change as much as a continuation of what these Philippians are already doing. It’s a harvest prayer, a prayer that the fruit already growing in them may grow “more and more… until the day of Christ, [when they will be] filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.” It’s not surprising that Paul would pray that love would grow, since that is the first (some say main) fruit of the Spirit. More surprising is his linkage of love with knowledge. He prays not just for love, but love with knowledge—not a full heart with an empty head, or an empty heart with a full head, but both heart and head full. In I Corinthians 13, Paul warns that knowledge without love is worth nothing. Now here he says that love with knowledge isn’t a good thing either. It can lead to foolish decisions or to well-intentioned actions that actually do harm. Neither the heartless Tin Man nor the brainless Scarecrow will do.
Only if we grow in a love that knows God and sees deeply into complex issues will we be able to “discern what is best and be pure and blameless….” Paul is writing to a community that is prone to disunity and faultfinding. It was difficult to tell who is right and what is best, because there were so many versions of the story, so many different ways of looking at things, so many shades of gray. Living by some hard and fast rule, abiding by a set of regulations isn’t going to make the fruit of the Spirit grow. What we need most of all is love abounding with knowledge of God and the deep wisdom the Spirit gives. Then the harvest will be full on the day of Christ.
Let’s use this second Sunday of Advent as a time to call people to spiritual growth, using the specific terms Paul uses here. Pray for yourself and for others that the fruit of the Spirit will grow here: love, joy, peace, wisdom, purity, righteousness. But let’s preach this not so much as a call to action, but more as a call to prayer, and, even more, as a call to Christ. Paul says that “the fruit of righteousness… comes through Jesus Christ….” Jesus said it long ago. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a person remains in me and I in him, that person will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) This text in Philippians gives us the opportunity to turn this Advent season into an “altar call.” Christ is coming for us on that Day. Let us come to him on this day.
Because of this image of harvest, we can issue such a call to commitment as a joyous invitation to sit down at the table of grace, sagging with the fruit of righteousness given by Christ and grown in us. With love and joy, let us call saints and sinners alike to come to the Christ who is coming to us.
Here’s an old hymn that captures what I’ve been trying to say.
Come, you thankful people, come, raise the song of harvest home;
All is safely gathered in ere the winter storms begin;
God our Maker, does provide for our needs to be supplied;
Come, with all his people come, raise the song of harvest home.
Even so, Lord, quickly come to our final harvest home;
Gather all your people in, free from sorrow, free from sin—
There, forever purified, in your presence to abide;
Come, with all your angels come, raise the glorious harvest home.
The use of the Greek word eucharisto in verse 3 (translated “I thank”) suggests the Eucharist. What a good day this would be to celebrate the Lord’s Supper! A table with a light supper set in our midst is a foretaste of the lavish heavenly banquet. It is a table focused on the Christ who came to be our righteousness and who told us to celebrate his death until he comes again. It can be a table that calls us to give thanks with all joy for the love that will hold us until the day of Christ. Let it be a table that calls to eat and drink Christ, that is, to take Christ into ourselves again and again until he comes to take us home.
One of my pastors recently wrote a piece reflecting on her first year anniversary in our church. Expressing her love for her new church, she also says that she regrets not knowing our 1800 members better. “I thought I’d be further along,” she wrote, speaking for many of us. She takes some solace from Lewis Smedes, the great Reformed theologian. In his late-in-life memoir, My God and I, Smedes expressed disappointment that growing older had not brought him closer to God the way he thought it would. After many years of faithful service and spiritual growth, Smedes faced his death with a sense of incompleteness. Don’t we all? That makes Paul’s words in verse 6 all the sweeter; “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Even if it’s hard to believe now, God will continue working in us “until the day of Christ,” when we will finally be “filled with the fruit of righteousness.”
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