Philippians 3:7-11 – The Ultimate Value

A mosaic of the Apostle Paul in St Isaac’s Cathedral, St. Petersburg, Russia

Christ has shown me that what I once thought was valuable is worthless. Nothing is as wonderful as knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have given up everything else and count it all as garbage. All I want is Christ and to know that I belong to him. I could not make myself acceptable to God by obeying the Law of Moses. God accepted me simply because of my faith in Christ. All I want is to know Christ and the power that raised him to life. I want to suffer and die as he did, so that somehow, I also may be raised to life. (CEV)

As I looked at today’s date, I realized that it was on this day thirty-six years ago that my now dear wife told me, “I love you.” Two months previous, I had told her, “I love you.” She did not reciprocate. Instead, this lovely girl whom I had come to love (it was not love at first sight for either of us, which is a much longer story for another time) flat out retorted back to me, “Well, I don’t love you. Listen, Mr., I’ve heard every line in the book. What’s your angle? What do you want from me?”

For me, I knew I what I had was genuine love and not infatuation because I found myself responding matter-of-factly, “There’s no angle. I love you. If you choose not to love me back, I’ll just keep loving you.” This threw her into a two-month long sort of existential angst in which she explored the depths of her own spirit to see if her best friend was her love, as well.

So, when the love of my life said to me on that day, “I love you,” I knew it came from a place of soul-searching, prayer, trepidation, deliberate resolve, and genuine sincerity. For my wife, to say those words meant she was committed to me. They were not said lightly. It took a lot for those words to be formed.

On that day thirty-six years ago, the both of us had amazing clarity about the direction of our lives. We were going to be together, and no other person would ever have the primary place we each now enjoyed with one another. To me, every other girl seemed like nothing compared to my beloved. And, I will still admit, my feelings have not changed one iota.

I picture the Apostle Paul going through a similar struggle and process of coming to Christ. And once he did commit, no one was ever going to usurp the place of Jesus in his life.

I honestly believe that the primary reason my dear wife and I have been together all this time and still love each other as if it were December 10, 1984 is because of our shared commitment and ultimate value of knowing Christ. For each of us, Jesus is everything. Our lives center around him. The grace of God in Christ shapes all our worldview and animates every action we take.

Together with the Apostle Paul, we want to know Christ and we will take whatever situation is necessary to realize a continual growth in grace with Jesus at our side. Just as the adversity, hardship, and difficulties we have faced together over the decades has caused to bring us even closer together, so facing all of it with Christ in the middle of it has brought us closer to God.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, power and suffering go together. For example, weightlifting causes fibers of the muscles to sustain injury. So, the body repairs those damaged fibers by fusing them, which then increases the mass and size of the muscles. It is through suffering, even trauma, that muscles grow bigger and stronger.

Spiritual power results from undergoing suffering. Through hard circumstances, our spirits experience hurt. Yet, through the process of healing we become stronger, more resilient, and our faith grows. A deeper experience of Christ and a greater intimacy with Jesus results from identifying with him in his suffering. Show me a person with vigorous faith and I will show you a person who has been strengthened through suffering.

When Jesus Christ is our surpassing value, everything else is viewed differently – the past, present, and future take on new meaning. We tell ourselves an alternate story, based in the person and work of Christ. In this Christian season of Advent, we look back to the first advent of Christ’s incarnation; look forward to the second advent of Christ coming again; and, this shapes how we live in the present between the two advents accepting suffering as a gift and embracing fresh power as a means to serve others.

Yes, this is a special day for me. Yet, everyday is a special day when I can enjoy fellowship with my Lord together with my wife.

Almighty and eternal God, so draw my heart to Christ, so guide my mind, so fill my imagination, so control my will, that I may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use me, I pray you, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through the sufferings of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and in the his great resurrection power I pray. Amen.

Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids

We prepare for things we really care about; we anticipate things that are important to us. This was the point of Christ’s parable about ten bridesmaids. (Matthew 25:1-13)

People who really care about hunting make careful preparations for the season and anticipate opening day. Those who care about Green Bay Packers football look forward to game-day, plan for special food to eat, and set aside normal activities to watch them play. And, of course, weddings are events which take lots of preparation because families care about the upcoming marriage. Since I have raised three girls, I can testify first-hand that wedding plans begin in third grade for many females.

Some folks show up to things late and unprepared because they simply do not value the event enough to be ready for it. Casual hunters and fair-weather football fans go home when it gets too cold because they are not adequately prepared for the conditions. Quickie weddings happen in Las Vegas when two people are not prepared to have a marriage for a lifetime. People drop out of impromptu events when there is no fun or gets too hard. However, if they really care about it, they prepare for it, have patience through it, and persevere in it when things get tough.

The true test of authentic commitment comes when things are not easy and it takes blood, sweat, and tears to see something through. A Christian is one who professes Christ as Lord and Savior, and backs the words up with a resolve to live into their baptism; to avail themselves of Holy Communion; to plan and prepare for both personal and public worship; and to make it their aim to love God, one another, and neighbor.

There are few human events more freighted with emotion and preparation than weddings. Parents invest a lot of time, energy, resources, and love to have a meaningful wedding for their kids. There is also the potential for disaster at a wedding. Since I have done my share of weddings, I can tell you that a lot of things go sideways in the preparation process and even at the wedding itself. I have seen bridesmaids pass out, grooms forget the ring, and families fight like cats and dogs in the narthex just as the bride is ready to come down the aisle. All kinds of crazy stuff can happen with a wedding. 

At my own wedding, the bridesmaids were literally sown into their dresses by the seamstress just hours before the wedding; one of my groomsman did not show up because, I later found out, he was in jail; and, we were married on the hottest and most humid day of the year – 100 degrees – which did not go so well for a bunch of women trying to have their best ever hair day.

Yet, we got married anyway. The wedding happened because it was important to us. I think it is interesting that Jesus chose to tell a parable using a wedding to tell us what the kingdom of God is like. Weddings in Christ’s day were just as prone to mishap, maybe even more so, than weddings today.

In ancient Israel, a couple would become engaged but not set a wedding date. The groom took the time to busily prepare a home for himself and his bride to live. It might take days, or weeks, or months, even years. It is this imagery that Jesus picked up to communicate his point of being prepared for things we care about. 

No one knew when the groom would be finished with preparations. (Note: Jesus the bridegroom is busy making preparations for a great wedding feast at the end of the age when he will come back and take us to be with him forever, John 14:1-4). When the groom was ready, he left the home he had prepared and went to the bride’s house. Then, the two of them, along with their wedding party, would have a grand procession through the streets of the town, almost always after dark, and then back to the home of the groom. So, oil lamps were important to have ready and on standby.

Ten Bridesmaids by Dinah Rau, 20

Here is the parable of the bridesmaid’s setting: The groom has left his house and begun his trek through town. He might come right away, and he might not, depending on what route he takes. The bridesmaids (or virgins) have their oil lamps ready. Five of them have plenty of oil, and five of them do not. The groom took a circuitous route, so the virgins fell asleep waiting. At midnight, the groom finally showed up at the bride’s house. Five virgins were ready and five were not ready. 

The five bridesmaids without enough oil went to find or buy some more, while the five virgins with plenty of oil joined the celebration. The procession returned to the groom’s house, posthaste, before the five bridesmaids who were not part of the procession finally caught up to them at the house. They knocked on the door and expected to get in. But the door was shut and was not going to be opened. The marriage happened without them.

Bottom line of the story: The five foolish bridesmaids were not ready because they did not care enough to be prepared. This, at face value, might seem harsh. Yet, in Christ’s time, not having the oil needed for the lamps would be akin, in our day, to half the bridesmaids showing up at the wedding at the last minute in jeans and t-shirts without having done their hair and expecting to stand up with the bride. No bride or groom and their family in our culture is going to roll with that kind of behavior because it is deeply offensive.

As in all of Christ’s parables, the characters represent the people listening. The five wise and five foolish bridesmaids point to the various characters who were following Jesus. Those folks consisted of both faithful disciples of Jesus, as well as wedding crashers who were not there because they valued and respected Jesus.

Jesus told us to keep watch, because we do not know the day or the hour when he will return. So, the big question for every professing believer in Jesus is: Are you prepared?  We are to maintain constant vigilance, being always alert for Jesus to show up. It is one thing to profess Christ; it is quite another thing to live each day doing God’s will and being prepared for Jesus to return. In short, Jesus wants more than fair-weather Christians. 

We cannot assume someone else will give us oil, or simply rely on another person to have everything we need to live the Christian life. Each one of us must listen and learn from God’s Word for ourselves; cultivate a life of prayer; serve the church and the world in ways God has called us to, without relying on someone else to do the work I should be doing. 

For those whom Jesus is the most important person in their lives, you will see preparations to serve him every day. It is my personal practice to rise each morning by 5:00am. I light a candle and spend some quiet unhindered time reading Scripture, reflecting on it, and praying. Throughout the day I pause to intentionally connect with God in prayer and worship (Yes, even a Pastor must do this!). 

I get up early in the morning regardless of how I feel. I engage in spiritual disciplines even when it does not strike my fancy. I go to work and do what it takes to get myself in a position to be a blessing to others, despite the times when I am less than 100%. I do it because God has called me, and I care about that.

Let us come back to Christ’s message of the parable: We prepare for things we really care about, and we anticipate things that are important to us. For the first three hundred years of the church, believers in Jesus met in cramped places with few resources other than the Holy Spirit of God. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine, everything literally changed overnight.  Emperor Constantine built St. Peter’s Basilica and instituted state-funded support for bishops. Suddenly, Christianity was cool. At this point, the church began a moral and spiritual slide into worldliness and decadence. 

It seems throughout the history of Christianity that the church flourishes most when it is under some sort of persecution or adversity. And when it is not, it flounders and lapses into worldliness. Sometimes, the primary values and goals of Christians are ensuring that we get our way through politicians, as if our hope is ultimately tied to political elections. Instead, our goal must be to live for Jesus, no matter the circumstances. In fact, the church’s faith grows more genuine when it is proven through great trials.

The return of Jesus is a future reality which needs to be constantly on our spiritual radars. Jesus wants us to watch and pray, to be prepared, because it could be today that the bridegroom shows up at our house!

Philippians 2:1-13 – Pass It On

Welcome, friends! Click the video below and let us participate together in the life of our God…

You may also view this video at TimEhrhardtYouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NLw1vnnbHWE&t=60s

And, let us sing the oldie but goody Christian chorus…

May the Lord bless you, protect you, sustain you, and guard you;
May the Lord shine upon you with favor, and surround you with love and kindness;
May the Lord look upon you with divine approval, and give you the peace of a tranquil heart and life. Amen.

Pass It On

I am the youngest of five children, and because of that reality I had to follow my siblings in school with many of the same teachers they had. I heard these statements more than once: “Why can’t you be more like your sister?” (the studious valedictorian) and “Why aren’t you like your brother?” (the nice quiet one).  I sometimes had this icky feeling in school that I somehow fell short because I wasn’t like them. 

The task of the Christian is to imitate Christ – not impersonate Jesus by being someone we are not. God created each of us uniquely and has sovereignly gathered us together as the church. So, we need to strive to be the best individual person possible in imitating Jesus by means of who we are, learning to work together, appreciating one another as we seek to follow Christ. 

The Apostle Paul wrote the New Testament letter to the Philippian Church because the fellowship had broken down into some rancorous in-fighting. This left the believers disillusioned. So, Paul passed on four imitations of Christ (not impersonations) to help them (and us) experience the unity God desires for his people.  

1. We are to imitate Christ through passing on the right values (Philippians 2:1-2).   

Shared values, not smooth sailing, keeps a group of people together. Paul appealed to lived experience. If anyone has experienced encouragement, comfort, fellowship, tenderness, or compassion, then we need to recognize it, remember it, and then pass it on to others. Those values happened because God granted blessings to us through other people. In other words, we owe to others what God has done through others for us.   

These common valued experiences occur as we participate in the life of our triune God. They come from the perfect relational dynamic that endlessly occurs within God himself as Father, Son, and Spirt. As we spend time with God and are filled with the divine life, these relational values spill-over in our human interactions.   

Passing on encouragement and compassion is not a function of willpower in trying to impersonate Jesus; it is a matter of spending time with God – because people tend to imitate those they hang around. If we spend time with people who typically complain, we will end up constantly cranky. If we hang out with people who continually pray, we will find ourselves reflexively praying about everything. If we are around chronically negative people, we will become constantly unhappy. If we make it a regular practice to hang out with Jesus, we discover that we are imitating him in our relationships through encouragement, love, comfort, and compassion. 

The word “joy” pops up a lot in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, yet it is never an exhortation to be joyful but rather an exhortation to unity. The by-product of unity is joy. Joy and happiness are the direct result of unity, and unity comes from embracing the shared common values Paul expressed. 

2. We are to imitate Christ through passing on the right service (Philippians 2:3-4).   

Humility is the remedy for dissension and disunity. Strife comes from stubbornly guarding our own opinions. Humility, however, considers others better than oneself. We are to do nothing out of selfishness or vain conceit. Instead, we are to imitate Jesus – to take up our crosses and follow him through dying to things which create disunity. Trying to impersonate Jesus results in lording over people and circumstances. It leads to division. However, imitating Jesus results in being like him in his humility and gentleness. It brings unity and peace.   

Nik Wallenda is a Christian and a high wire artist. In 2012 he walked a tightrope across Niagara Falls; and, in 2013 he became the first person to high wire walk across the Grand Canyon. Nearly a combined billion people saw those two incredible feats. After every tight rope walk for the crowds, Nik Wallenda engages in a simple spiritual discipline: he walks where the throngs of people just stood and watched him, and quietly picks up their trash.  

Wallenda says about this practice, “My purpose is simply to help clean up after myself. The huge crowd left a great deal of trash behind, and I feel compelled to pitch in. Besides, after the inordinate amount of attention I sought and received, I need to keep myself grounded. Three hours of cleaning up debris is good for my soul. Humility does not come naturally to me. So, if I must force myself into situations that are humbling, so be it …. I know that I need to get down on my hands and knees like everyone else. I do it because it is a way to keep from tripping. As a follower of Jesus, I see him washing the feet of others. I do it because if I don’t serve others, I’ll be serving nothing but my ego.” 

3. We are to imitate Christ by passing on the right attitude (Philippians 2:5-11).   

The Apostle Paul bluntly stated that our attitude is to be the same as Jesus: laying down life for the benefit of others. Impersonating Jesus leads to a martyr complex that wants others see our good works. However, imitating Christ’s attitude is to serve without being concerned who sees it or who gets the credit. It is an attitude of passing on what we have received from God. 

In the way of Jesus, the way up is down; the way to gain is by giving; the way to life is through death; the way to praise God is humble service for others. When my grandson was in one of his many hospital stays in the epilepsy ward, I watched him (3 years old at the time and without any prompting) make his way from room to room encouraging other patients and serving them. In the room where a ten year old girl had just had brain surgery with no hair and unattractive bandages, I overheard him say, “Oh, I like your new hat; it looks great on you!”  Making his way to the next room of a twelve-year-old boy who was near death, he said, “Would you like a drink?  I can get a drink for you!”   

I saw parents in the epilepsy ward who were as different from one another as you could imagine. Yet, we all shared a common purpose which gave us a common attitude. We all wanted these kids to be seizure free, and we were doing whatever it took to help each other realize that dream. 

Jesus humbled himself and became a man, being obedient to death on a cross, because his purpose was for humanity to be sin-free. Christ did whatever it took to make that happen.  If a small little boy can be used of God, then how much can you and I adopt the attitude of Jesus and do whatever it takes to see that people realize freedom in Jesus Christ!? 

4. We are to imitate Christ through passing on the right commitments (Philippians 2:12-13).   

The Christian life is meant to be lived together with other believers. We can try to impersonate Jesus, which will result in trying to impress the wrong crowd. However, when we imitate Christ, we commit ourselves to the people God has placed in our lives. Just as it was not our choice which family we were born into, so it is not our choice which spiritual family we are born again into. The church is not a voluntary society, any more than a family is. The church belongs to Jesus and we are neither to just fluidly move in and out of it as if it were a hobby that we toy with once-in-a-while, nor treat it as a spectator sport just watching what happens and playing arm-chair quarterback on Monday morning. 

Paul exhorted the believers to work out their salvation with fear and trembling. That means we are to live-out our collective salvation together in being mindful of each other. In other words, unity takes a lot of work – work which requires imitating Christ through a shared commitment to one another. 

The promise we have is that when we do this kind of good work that it is God who acts to bend everything to his good purposes. This is a wonderful promise, one we need to take to heart with a good dose of godly reverence and awe. 

Conclusion 

My oldest sister was the valedictorian of her class. I did not follow in her steps. My brother was the kind of kid that teachers envied to have in their classes. I think my teachers wondered if we were from the same family. My other sister was friends with all her teachers, and they all enjoyed her. I just remember getting a lot of sighs and eye-rolling from my teachers. I often struggled with my identity as a kid.   

I found my identity in Christ. I discovered I did not have to be like anyone else. God used me for who I am right where I was, learning to imitate Jesus. We need not be worried or discouraged about how far short we fall in comparison to others. Instead, we are to be concerned about how God wants to fulfill all his good promises in Christ through us – because at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God.  We are to pass on to others every good thing we have in Jesus Christ.