Advent 2, December 6, 2015
Excellence: Doing What Matters Most
Text: Philippians 1:2–11
What do you think of when you hear the word: “Excellent.” Do you think of Mercedes or BMW cars? Tag Heuer or Rolex? Do you think of Wayne’s World? Party Time? (*pause*) Or Mr. Burns?
“Approve what is excellent”— that is one phrase out of the opening of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Paul wants the people in the church back then—and now—to think carefully about what is excellent, about what matters most in the long run. A lot of people are behaving badly these days, in malls and stores for example. At the end of this letter, Paul writes that we are to think about what is honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable. If there is any excellence, anything worthy of praise, we are to think about those things. At the beginning and the end of the letter, then, he says We Are to Approve What Is Excellent—That Is, What Matters Most.
So what is that? What is excellent? What counts as excellence in the long run?
Paul says giving thanks for people in the church is excellent. Paul starts the letter by telling the Philippians how thankful he is for them. He loved the people in that church. They supported him whether he was starting churches or he was in jail. They sent him gifts of money when he needed it. This congregation partnered with Paul in the Gospel, the good news of the salvation Jesus brought to the world. Paul could count on them and could count on their love for him and knew they could count on one another. Paul gave thanks for the people there when he prayed. He thanked God for the Church in Philippi because they were one of God’s gifts to him.
Paul’s words lead me to a question: Did you ever stop to think that we are God’s gifts to one another? The church isn’t like a bowling league or some political organization where we get together because we like the same things. No, God has brought us together around Jesus. He has given us to one another to support each other and encourage one another. (This is what I always talk to folks about when they tell me they don’t have to go to church. You know, the folks who say they can worship God on the golf course. If they really do that, they are not here to encourage and be encouraged.)
What is excellent? What matters most in the long run? What counts? For one, giving thanks for one another in the church because we are God’s gifts for each other.
Paul gives us another excellent thing today. That excellent thing is Confidence. Paul was confident the Philippians would be there at the end. The end of time. When Jesus comes back again. Paul was confident that Jesus would keep them in the faith, in the church, until that great day of resurrection. He says that Jesus began this good work in them, and Jesus will finish it as well. Did you notice why Paul was so confident? It’s all because of Jesus.
Paul was confident back then. Today, we wonder. Each week, churches close because of lack of members. Attendance figures are down across much of the country. In some surveys, the fastest growing group for religious affiliation is “None.” Islam is growing while Christian churches have more and more empty pews. Going to sporting events has become more important than worship. But still, Paul calls for us to be confident that Jesus will bring us to completion on the Last Day. Jesus will do it. He is our confidence. How so? Because of how He began the good work in us.
I’ve read that music is one of the few activities that involves the whole brain. When we listen to music, both sides of the brain go into action. When you hear water in the baptismal font, that is music to our ears in the church. Listen to these wonderful words: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And what happens? We welcome a new member into God’s family, a child of the heavenly Father. Jesus did that. He did it on a cross, where forgiveness was won. He did it leaving behind an empty tomb. Jesus lives again to live in our lives. In Baptism, we are buried with Christ in His death and raised to new life in His resurrection. What a wonderful good work He began in our lives.
In the end, Jesus will bring it to completion. He will hold on to us. He will keep us in the faith. He will come back for us and bring our bodies out of their tombs to live forever in His glorious presence. Paul is confident because Jesus is behind it all.
That fact should be a confidence booster! What matters most? What counts at the end? We are forgiven, and the Holy Spirit is living inside of us. Yes, Jesus will bring this good work to completion on the Last Day!
The third thing that Paul tells us is excellent is “Love.” The apostle Paul prays that the Philippians will abound more and more with love. It’s not that they weren’t loving. They were. Paul just prayed that their love would abound more and more. Now remember, love is not just some feeling you have inside. Love, as the Bible sees it, as a Christian loves, is active. It’s doing things. Love is a verb. And what does it do? Love does what benefits someone else. Love does what God wants done. Love seeks what is excellent, pure, honorable, just, commendable.
What would love look like for us? I think about the Last Day when Jesus comes back. It’s a time of no more tears, no more hunger, no more pain, no more sickness and death, no more loneliness, no more fear. What does God want? What is excellent? When we begin to make those very things happen now that will be brought to completion on the Last Day, that’s love.
No more tears. Love wipes away tears with an embrace, a comforting word, a prayer spoken out loud, a safe place for someone to talk and rest.
No more hunger. Love gives food to those who don’t have meals to eat or money to buy what’s healthy for their family.
No more pain. Love bandages a wound, whether that’s with a bandage or words or simply being there for the person.
No more sickness and death. Love supports research that seeks to heal diseases, and then, when death comes, provides support and meals and whatever is needed to the grieving family.
No more loneliness. Love visits, sends a card, makes a phone call.
No more fear. Love protects even when it may put you in danger.
The Philippians put their love into action for Paul. Lydia was one of the first members of the church there. She offered her home to Paul and those who were with him to stay in. Her love was seen in her hospitality. When Paul and Silas were in Philippi, they were thrown into jail. That night they sang hymns and prayed. An earthquake came, and the doors were opened. The jailer was ready to commit suicide because he thought all the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried out, “Don’t hurt yourself, for we are all here.” That very night the jailer became a believer, as did everyone in his household. Then the jailer’s love flowed as he washed Paul’s wounds. And that church gave money, over and over again. They gave more than they could afford to give to support Paul and his work or when he ended up in prison.
Love matters. Love is excellent. Love counts at the end.
A pastor I know wrote about a demonstration he saw once about how best to use your time. It involved a jar filled with rocks. First the pastor put as many big rocks as he could in the jar. The bigger rocks are what matter most, what will count at the end. Now the jar was not full, so they put in some gravel. Smaller rocks. Things not quite as important, like how many TVs you have or the make of your car or which restaurant you can eat at. The jar still wasn’t full, so they put in sand. Sand is actually tiny rocks. These are things even less important but still part of our everyday lives, like what TV show you watched or what store you went to.
So what’s the point? That we can always fit more things to do into our lives? Nope. The point is this: you need to put in the big rocks first.
Paul calls for us to approve what is excellent. He wants us to fill our lives with the big rocks of thanking God for the gifts we are to one another in the church as partners in the Gospel, of having confidence because Jesus is alive and will bring us with Him in the end, and of having love for others who have so many needs. Yes, put in those big rocks first. Approve what is excellent every day of your lives.