Saturday, July 8, 2017

What! what do you mean no grumbling? (Philippians 2:12-18)




Paul would probably never have seen the white star Alpha Centauri or its blue white companion Beta Centauri. It’s not because they are dim little stars hard to see without a telescope in fact they are amongst the brightest stars in our night sky. Amongst the first to appear in the falling dusk and the last to fade with the coming of dawn.  Rather Paul lived his life in the northern hemisphere and they are a feature in our southern sky. We know these two stars as the pointers.

We value them because they point towards the southern Cross, the constellation that is at the heart of our identity as people of the southern hemisphere and as a nation. You can always find the southern cross by looking for those two bright stars Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri

I think Paul would have loved these stars because they exemplify the image he uses of God’s people living in unity, being like stars shining in the dark sky. Not only do Alpha Centauri and beta Centauri stand out as beacons of light, they point us to the cross. Like our unity, our treating each other with the mind of Christ, our doing everything without grumbling or arguing does as well. 

This winter we are working our way through Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. It’s a thank you letter for the support they had sent him while he is in prison. But more than that it is Paul encouraging the church to stand firm in their faith. To stand firm as they face storms of persecution from without and trouble within. But its more than that Paul encourages them to know the fullness of Joy that is in the Christ regardless of circumstance. While it is a letter written to them there and then it speaks equally to us here and now as we stand firm facing difficulties within and from outside the church on our joyous journey following Jesus.

Again the reading we had from Philippians this morning starts with the word ‘therefore’ it links us back to what Paul had been saying to the Church. He had been speaking of the importance of Christian unity. He had said it was central to our ability to stand firm against persecution and pressure from outside. Then he had turned to speak of achieving Christian unity within the Church by treating one another with the mind of Christ, looking at each other through the cross: with a servant heart and sacrificial love, in a healthy way putting other peoples needs above our own. Now Paul turns to finish talking about unity with some very practical advice that we should do everything without grumbling or arguing. He prefaces that with some directives in verse 12-13 and follows it up with incentives to do it in verse 16-18. 

I want to focus on without grumbling and arguing. But before we do that lets look at the directives Paul gives and then the incentives.

Ok firstly the directives…Paul tells them they should be obedient just as they had been when he was with them, and they should work out their salvation in fear and trembling. These raise questions for us.

The first is who is Paul saying the church should obey. The inference is that it is Paul who was with them but is now absent. But Paul is not saying they should obey him because of his position or status in the Church. Paul's introduced himself in this letter not as the boos but as a servant of Christ. This isn’t a power trip, because that would fly in the face of all Paul was telling the church at Philippi. rather Paul is asking them to obey the gospel he has taught
them. As he had spoken of his affection for the church at Philippi it was because they had responded so quickly and fully to the Gospel, his joy in chains and with opposition in the church was that the gospel was being proclaimed, and the gospel was the center of certainty in his uncertain future. Here his directions to the church are to continue living it out. But that cannot be divorced from Paul himself, he is aware that not only had he proclaimed the gospel to them, as they see Paul living it out he is the example to them of the Christian life. In 1 Corinthians 4: 16 Paul had told “his readers to imitate him and therefore be imitators of Christ.”  People see Christ and know what Christ was like in the way we act and react to others around us. It is a real challenge to Christian leaders and to all of us. People know the love of God because they see it in us. God’s forgiveness because we forgive. Joy because we rejoice.

The second question that Paul’s directives raises is about salvation by grace alone. Paul says we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. However in the next verse (v4) he says God works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his Good purposes. These verses have got caught up in the in’s and outs of large theological debates about the nature of our salvation. Is it the work of God or is it something we have to work for?  The answer I think is to be found in the ins and outs of it. It is God’s work in us that makes us justified before God, that brings the forgiveness of sins that reconciles us with God, makes us God’s children and his people, God works in us to bring that fulfillment. How we work that out in our lives is what we must do with fear and trembling.

 That fear and trembling is not being afraid of God, that we are not going to live up to God’s standards that we are going to be written off and dismissed. Rather it’s because we have been given something so precious, the right to be God’s sons and daughters, we have been given something so amazing, new life with Christ, the Holy Spirit indwelling us, that we are very careful in how we work it out in our lives. A good example was at the parade for the America’s cup on Thursday the guy from team New Zealand who was responsible for the old mug was the only one wearing gloves, he had to work very hard to keep it safe. Doing everything without grumbling and arguing is like that.

Then quickly Paul’s incentives for doing it. In verse 16 Paul tells them that at the day of the Lord he will be able to boast and rejoice because they have kept God’s word. They are the evidence that he has not laboured in vain. Paul you have to remember had the possibility of immanent death hanging over his head and he is looking back and asking questions about was it all worthwhile. The answer for him is if these people show God’s love for one another and live in a manner worthy of the Gospel yes it is. Not only that but his readers then and there and down through he ages will be able to join in the rejoicing of knowing that Joy as well. We will hear well done good and faithful servant enter the rest I have prepared for you. The Americas cup has been in the news this week, because we won it again. It’s interesting listening to the team members speak, they’ve won the prize through innovation, hard work and most of all team work… team work… that is the thing that has got them through, that allowed them to risk and make what grant Dalton called wild west decisions… that is what makes their joy at the end more complete.

Ok let’s move on to look at grumbling and arguing. I was speaking to a college during the week about what I was preaching on this Sunday and he said “oh, I try not to read those parts of the bible”, but my wife keeps reminding of them”. It is difficult to talk about do everything without grumbling or arguing…  I’m going to take a bit of a risk here and start with a piece of humour built around one of the areas in modern churches where there is often conflict resulting in grumbling and arguments… Worship styles…

This is from Tom Kreouter’s book ‘Guiding your Church through Worship Transitions’ and it’s a piece called ‘The Perfect Worship Service’, supposedly written by a church leadership team to their congregation…

“After listening carefully over the past several years, we believe we have finally determined what those who attend our church really want in music. Following are items that come up most frequently whenever the topic is discussed.

·         More fast songs in the opening praise time and more slow songs in the opening praise time.

·         More of those wonderful, lovely old hymns and less of those stupid, dead old hymns.

·         A longer and shorter time of praise at the beginning of the service, and a longer and shorter time at the end.

·         Songs to flow quickly into each other and long periods of time between songs for reflection.

·         More repetition of songs so they can be learned and meditated upon while singing, and less repetition of songs because it gets boring singing the same thing over and over.

·         More of those lovely arrangements with extra instruments and less of those showy arrangements with all those instruments.

·         To sing good old songs more often and to stop singing those same old songs.

·         Songs to be sung in higher and lower keys.

·         The band to play in the middle of the platform where they can be seen, back behind the plants where they won’t be a distraction, louder, softer, faster, slower more often and not at all.

In the end I think it is one of the challenges to our unity that comes from being the church in a time when we have experienced one of the fastest and most significant cultural changes the world has ever seen… a small Part of what Leonard Sweet calls being ‘the church in the perfect storm’.

When Paul says do everything without grumbling and arguments, he is not saying that there will not be conflicts and difficulties and disagreements, that is part of the human condition. Grumbling and arguments in the Greek have more of a sense of things being done out of selfish ambition. The words warped and crooked generation echo the words at the end of the book of Deuteronomy about Israel’s journey from Egypt through the wilderness. God saved them about bought them out of Egypt to be his people. Note that was God’s saving activity, there response was not continued thanksgiving and honour to God but to continue grumbling about God’s provision, God’s leader, instead of living as god would want them to they moved forward with that eye over their shoulder, we want to go back to where we were, this way seems harder. Paul is saying that because of Christ we have been made into God’s new people and we are to live different than that.  We grumble and argue because we want it our way not God’s way. We want to be served but the Christian life calls us to serve, we want to be first, but Jesus said the first shall be last and the last shall be first, we want it our way, our likes, our tastes our ideas, but we are a community who together discerns God’s way forward for us.

It says somethings about how we handle conflict. In the Alpha marriage Course they recommend that conflicts and points of tension be dealt with sitting together on the couch with the issue out in the open on the table in front of the couple not on the couch between them. Grumbling normally means the problem is not out in the open to be dealt with. When we deal with a conflict as a church we have it out in front of us and we are all together on the pews to deal with it. Our primary commitment is to the fact that we are one in Christ, we have been won by Christ, Christian ethics come out of our theology. We are determined to preserve that costly unity. We are going to continue loving each other with that problem and conflict, through its resolution and afterwards as well., even if we can’t get it sorted and we have to trust it over to God. Sometimes that takes a lot of time, some outside help.

One of the best chapters I read when I was at knox was in a book I can’t remember the tile of by an author I can’t remember. But the chapter was called learning to fight like Christians.  In it the author said in all conflict there are rules of engagement, like the Geneva convention in wars, in boxing there are rules, even in UFC, which some people have likened to legalised prison violence there are rules, in rugby there are rules. So it when Christians deal with conflict. In that chapter he went through some of those which I found useful. Listen to the other side and different views. Respect what is said. Don’t speak over and shout down, start by showing enough love to be able to reflect the other persons opinion and view point and feelings before you go on. Remember the common ground, the cross and common goal, unity. The flip side of Paul talking of the fullness of joy at he day of the lord is  you know if we can’t get along here and now, what does that say about eternity.

Let me just finish by saying that sadly the Churches witness is dimmer than it should be. On a big scale we find ourselves divided into denominations and different groupings. Yes there are some important theological issues at stake, a lot of it is also history and geography.  The world is waiting to see us truly love one another. The church is an amazing global family, made up of some many people from diverse cultures, generations, socio-economic backgrounds and the bright shining light for the world is if in Christ we can work out not how to simply live with tolerance but genuine love for each other. On a local level we are a microcosm of that and we seem to be good at rubbing each other up the wrong way, we are good at grumbling and arguing.  Paul's call is that we work at truly loving each other, forgiving each other and being unified, and reconciled you know what that is the beacon of light for a broken and hurting world that will point them to the power of the Cross. That is at the heart of  our witness and our joy.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

the Sovereign Providence of God over house and city, field and family (Psalm 127)



Housing, Security, work and family… These are the areas of human concern and endeavour that Psalm 127 addresses. AS Leslie Allen says the psalm tells us that “God is the immanent Lord of the home, the city, the field and the family."

These areas have changed since the time this psalm was written.  Housing concerns are more about affordability than simply construction, we have a whole generation wondering if they will ever be able to own a house amidst sky rocketing property values.   Security; is not simply a matter of an armed guard on the city wall staring at the horizon or into the dark night, but of Policemen, customs agents and those people in intelligence who stare at the new digital horizon and the dark recesses of the Internet. Work, for most is not hands on toiling to grow the food we eat, but to make ends meet, in our increasingly complex and costly society. Family; Psalm 127 reflects a male dominated agrarian society where to have many sons was a real blessing, they would work hard, carry on one’s legacy and were able to speak in the city gates to defend land rights and family honour, we are happy to change our reading to children and reflect the great joy and equal value of daughters, and in our changing society family sizes are shrinking and people choosing to be single or couples choosing to not have kids are a growing phenomenon. Housing, security, work and family are still central areas of human concern and Psalm 127 is as relevant to us today as it was to its original readers.

Psalm 127 is unusual in its title it is said to be of Solomon, not of David. It is wisdom literature not simply prayer and praise. EM Blaicklock says it is written from the perspective of a person mature in years looking back at the reality of life, with the possibility of failure and success.

 It is what is called a proverbial psalm. It brings two proverbs together to help us reflect on God and life. The first is in verses 1-2 and reflects on home, community and work, the second in verse 3-5 focuses on family.

Both are what are called conditional proverbs, there outcome is conditional on the same thing. The first deals with the curse of human futility, all our endeavours and achievements amount to nothing unless they are in the will of LORD.  The second deals with the blessing of human fertility, which is seen as a result of the will of God and the blessing of God.

 One commentator suggested this Psalm was read to new fathers as it balanced the joys of having children with the challenge of having children. But we use this psalm basically in two ways. The first proverb is most often used,  by Christians, after we have made decisions and worked out our plan of action and we stop to ask God’s blessing because unless the LORD is on board then it is all in vain. The second is used most often in discussions on family values. Our focus can be the success of our plan or our family and we can miss that the focus of the Psalm is on the LORD.

This is a psalm of ascent, a psalm used as pilgrims come to Jerusalem for one of the three great festivals of the Jewish Faith. It is used as the people come to the temple to worship, they were said to recite one of the fourteen psalms of ascent on each of the fourteen steps up to the temple to prepare themselves to worship God. In this psalm they stop and realise the providence and the sovereignty of God in all areas of life.

It humbles us, we realise that for all our endeavours, our cleverness, our inventiveness, our planning, our having a family that it is all dependant on God. God is sovereign and it is his providence that enables our homes our cities, community and work to thrive and prosper. In the fickleness of history, the rise and fall of empire, economy and fortunes, we are dependant not on our own abilities but on God’s grace.

It causes us to give thanks, to see what God has done for us. While the blessing of God is seen in families and in particular sons, it does not stop the widow or the orphan or childless couple from joining their thanks to this. God did not chose to bless them like this and their lives have been hard because if it they can give thanks that God is also the God who cares for the widow and the orphan. They can give thanks and have hope because they two live their lives out with the sovereign providence of God.

The third thing this Psalm invites us to do is to trust in God. To realise that the whole of our lives are in God’s hands. In the sermon of on the mount Jesus invites us not to be anxious and worry about tomorrow, not to loose sleep over our needs because God knows our needs even before we ask So we should put first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added to us. It is not that we focus on our work but on good works that glorify and honour God. The Psalm does not discourage human effort and work or success and prosperity, neither does it give a formula for success but invites us to stretch out our hands in trust and submission and ascribe praise to God for the success we do enjoy.

At the centre of this psalm is a verse about the Lord giving sleep to those he loves. It provides a positive ending to the proverb that has been about the futility of toiling outside of God’s will.  I’m sure if you’ve been parents it is a great promise when you turn to think of family,  the sleeplessness and concerns that never seem to go away when it comes to families even though they are a blessing from God. I had a friend in Rotorua whose business partner had six daughters and he said it was only the first thirty years that were sleepless. We can trust in God’s sovereignty and God’s providence. In Jesus Christ we have the greatest example of that, God’s love and grace shown to us, that in Jesus life death and resurrection we can have the central concern of life, relationship with God put right and our sins forgiven. We know his love and we can trust that his plans for us are for good not for harm, and rest in that on our pilgrim journey.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Have the Mind of Christ: Humble Sacrificial Service (Philippians 2:1-11)


I love this old stone structure out on the water’s edge in Ambury Farm Park. It looks like it belongs at some desolate spot on the coast of Ireland or Scotland rather than just over there at the end of Mangere. I think it must have originally been a sheep pen or barn, but now it serves as a shelter for the public. The supports for the roof at each end of the structure form a cross, so when you are in the sheep pen and looking out, you look at the world through a cross…



…You can look down the Manukau towards the dark distant hills of the Awhitu peninsula on the southern side and Puponga point and the Waitakere’s to the north. …



…You can turn around and look back across the fields and suburban houses to Mount Mangere. Either way you see it all through a cross of wood. In the sheep pen it frames how you view and comprehend the world around you.




…It is a great metaphor for what Paul tells the Church at Philippi in our reading this morning. That the key to being a united body, is to have the mind of Christ, who was willing to empty himself and become a servant obedient unto death even death on a cross. It is like Paul is saying that in the sheep pen we call the church, we should look at each other through the cross of Christ.



This winter we are working our way through Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. A letter he has written to give thanks for the Church’s support for him while he is in Prison. He takes the opportunity to encourage and instruct the church as they face similar persecution and trouble. He tells them to stand firm, and live a life worthy of the gospel. It’s not just encouragement to hang tough in the face of life’s storms; to simply survive with gritted teeth and clenched fists. Paul uses the word joy sixteen times in his letter and encourages the church to know the fullness of joy that the Christian faith offers, regardless of the circumstances.  Paul’s words to the church then and there are equally helpful for us here and now as we stand firm on our own joyous journey following Jesus.



The passage we had read to us today starts with the word therefore which connects it to what has gone before. We need to look at that to give us context.  Paul had shared his situation with the Philippians that he was facing persecution from outside the church, he was in prison in Rome, and he was also facing opposition from those in the church. But in both these situations he could give thanks because while he was in chains the gospel was unchained and was being fruitfully proclaimed and while his future seemed uncertain, as it was in the hands of the roman Emperor, in reality it was certain, weather he lived or died, his future was in the hand’s of Christ.



As we looked as last week, Paul then turned to tell the church at Philippi to live in a manner worthy of the Gospel, to be good citizens of the Kingdom of God, as they faced the same kind of persecution and trouble Paul did.  in the face of persecution, they were to stand firm in unity, strive together without fear for the gospel. Now in the reading from this morning he turns to tell them about how to live a life worthy of the gospel as they face internal troubles. He does it three ways, firstly he tells them that our unity is an outcome of God’s salvation work. Then he tells them that unity needs human effort to be work out. Finally, he pulls those two things together in calling Jesus followers to have the mind of Christ, which he reveals in a wonderfully deep, rich  poem, or song about Jesus incarnation and death and his exaltation by God to the highest place of honour and praise.



Firstly, Paul tells us that Christian unity is the work of the triune God. The whole of the God head has been at work in for our salvation and bringing us together. We have been united in Christ through his life, death and resurrection.  It is because of that that we are God’s Children, and have been made brothers and sisters. This is the outworking of God the Father’s great love for us. God has poured out his Holy Spirit on all believers, we share the same Holy Spirit. The reality of that, the encouragement, comfort tenderness and compassion that results from that should be seen in our love for one another. Christian love and unity is so important because it shows the reality of the gospel. As Jesus said in John 13:34-35

‘A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’

It makes sense that the outworking of God’s love for us should be our love not only for God but also for one another. It makes sense that the godhead working in unison, in perfect unity should result in our unity.



Paul gives us a glimpse into his mind as a mature disciple of Christ when he says that to see such a unity be worked out in the church would make his joy complete. His heart and desires are aligned with God’s heart and God’s desire. He wants the church to be like-minded, to see unity as such an important central focus, have the same love, the love God has for us, that we would be of the same spirit and mind, that our soul and our thoughts might be attuned to that unity.



Now we shouldn’t mix unity with uniformity, when Paul says that we should be of one mind and like minded he is not saying we all should think alike, like the same things, be bland and monotonous because we are the same. We are all individuals made unique one off’s, we all have our own cultures and traditions, tastes and opinions, skills and abilities, likes and dislikes, faults and foibles…  and that individuality is a gift from God. It is more that we are like an orchestra, we bring our different voices and tones and ways of making noise and music, our vibrating strings or skins, or reads and mouth pieces in so many different configurations together to make the music of the gospel in unison and harmony.  Like with a orchestra that takes great human effort.



So Paul turns to give the church some very practical advice on what that means in terms of the human effort required to make unity work. Paul says “We should not do anything out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather in Humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” In first century culture status was very important and hospitality and preference to others were given to receive social advancement in return, and Paul says this is not the way Christians interact. Paul himself had given them an example of not out of selfish ambition when in the previous chapter he shared his response of people whose motive for preaching the gospel had been out of some jealousy and dislike for Paul. Paul's response was to give praise and thanks that the gospel was being proclaimed, he wasn’t concerned about their agenda or seeking to defend his status as an Apostle rather could rejoice that the gospel was the important thing.



When Paul says in humility put others interests before our own. And this is possibly best understood If we go back to our orchestra illustration it means that each member of the orchestra is willing to not play or be so prominent so that other members can bring their contribution. The violin players willing to play soft or not at all so the horn section can play its part, or the flutes.



 I am aware that for some people, putting other before ourselves comes from feelings of low self-worth or phycological drivers like wanting to be liked all the time or needed. Equally that can be a block for developing Christian Unity, as it can easily become unchristian trampling upon.  Humility is knowing who we are and our true value and not then demanding our own rights and status but being willing to put others first. In fact the example given in this passage of humility is Jesus himself.  That leads us to how Paul brings this all together by saying when it come to the way we relate to each other we are to have the mind of Christ.




‘The story of the cross” says Alec Motyer, ‘is told in all the four gospels. The meaning of the cross is the preoccupying theme of the epistles.” This passage in Philippians is the most studied and discussed in the whole book because of the deep Christology in the wonderful poem or hymn that Paul shares to expound the mind of Christ. It gives us the mindset of the crucified one. We don’t have time in this sermon to delve in to those depth and explore them fully, rather we want to look at how they apply to how we should think and act towards each other.



In a recent interview Prince Harry talked of why he enjoyed his time in the army. He said suddenly instead of being Prince Harry, with all the pomp and ceremony that went along with it, he was just plain old Harry. He laid aside all that went with royalty so he could serve. In fact now he is more comfortable with being royalty because he can use it for the good of others in his charity work. Rather than time in the army Paul focuses on Jesus incarnation and crucifixion as emptying and serving.   In verse 6 Paul tells us that Jesus was in very nature God, but did not consider that equality with God something to be used to his own advantage, rather in verse 7 it tells us he emptied himself of that and took on the form of a servant being made in human likeness. It is the incarnation, but it is the attitude of being willing to lay aside status and position, prestige and personal comfort and safety, to come alongside and be with and part of. More than that to serve.



Paul tells us Jesus took on the role of a servant and was obedient even unto death, death on a cross. It was a total commitment of obedience to God and an all-in commitment for the very good of others. That is the attitude needed for Christian unity. At the heart, it is sacrificial love.



The story does not end at the cross Paul goes on to talk of Jesus resurrection and ascension into heaven and his exaltation to the right hand of the father, and a coming time when all will proclaim Jesus as Lord and every knee will bow. That lifting up that exhorting to a high place that is in God’s hands and God’s timing, it’s not ours to impose or demand.



In other parts of the New Testament we see this attitude worked out in real life situations. For example  in Corinthians the services used to start with a meal and the rich people would sit down to eat and worship and those who were servant couldn’t get there till they had finished their days work, they often missed out on the fellowship and the food. In James, we see people of power and prestige being offered the best seats while the poor are told to stand at the back. This may have seemed right in first century society, but in the church we were to change and address those  situations with the mind of Christ…


Christian unity is the work of the triune God, father son and Holy Spirit, but to for that unity to work it needs human effort, that in our relationships with each other we have the mind of Christ, like with that wonderful old worldly structure, that sheep pen shelter at Ambury farm park. We look at each other through the cross. That holds us together, that provides the strength to make the sheep pen a shelter in the storms of life, that is what it means together to live in a manner worthy of the gospel, because it is a life that reflects the mind of Christ himself.