The Good Work of God
In the famous French novel, Les Misérables, several story lines are intertwined to form one of the most captivating dramas in modern Western culture. In the British adaptation of this for musical theater, the fulcrum of action is the battle at the barricades. Marius casts his lot with those young revolutionaries who have organized to push back against the social and economic conditions of their day. The French soldiers commissioned to maintain order and suppress such uprisings meet them at the barricade. Underneath this larger cultural and political drama is the love story of Marius and Cossette and, of course, the conversion story of Jean Valjean. Will Marius survive the battle to take Cossette as his bride? Will Jean Valjean escape the search of Javert to live in peace?
This tension between the public, the historic, the cultural drama that shapes the world and the personal, the intimate, the daily drama that shapes our world runs all the way through the biblical narrative. It oscillates from one to the other.
Think of Moses alone on the backside of the wilderness confronted with a bush that would not burn and a voice that could not be ignored. The next act finds him face to face with the most powerful ruler in the world, the Pharaoh of Egypt. He is decrying the conditions in which his people live. He is demanding that things change.
Think of John the baptizing prophet, leading his religious movement on the outskirts of civilization. Hundreds of people left their homes and synagogues to go to his tent revival meetings, listening to his call for moral reform, watching him immerse people in the waters of the Jordan River. But then he turns his attention to the ruler of the realm, a man named Herod. He called him out and called him down. But it was Herod who had the final say: he took John in and took him out.
That same tension between the personal and the public is part of what it means to be human, to be an American, to be a citizen of the world. We grow up, find a job, marry, raise a family, struggling to balance the social, the romantic, the financial, the physical. And pressing upon us all around us are the national issues: politics, investments, trends, movements, demands, opportunities to relief suffering, reform society, address pandemics, and save the planet.
We encounter that same personal/public dynamic on every page of the Bible, in every day in the life of Jesus, and in understanding the life and message of Paul the Apostle. We open Philippians and read its wonderful words: most of them seem to focus on the personal side of life and religion; but underneath it, around it, and through it are larger issues, empire issues, global issues.
Think about this: Paul writes about Timothy and Epaphroditus; but he is writing from jail, incarcerated by some civil authority for disrupting the peace. He urges Euodia and Syntyche to settle their dispute, but he sends greetings from Caesar’s household. He greets the believers with their leaders and assistants; but he is organizing cells of people who believe things and practice things, a movement that will eventually rule the world. He talks about what it means to be “in Christ”—a relationship with God through Christ this is transformational of character and behavior; but he gears it all to a bigger-then-life event that he calls the Day of the Lord Jesus Christ: a global event, a historical event big enough to end the age and launch another.
This is the canvas upon which Paul paints what he sees as the work of God in the world. What indeed is God up to…in your life? in your church? in the world?
Paul says God has begun a good work and God will complete this good work.
It is not often that I resort to the Greek to make a point in a sermon. But here is one case that the Greek language is crucial. The English phrase in you obscures the Greek. Is that word you singular or plural? Is the great Apostle speaking of what God is doing in you as a person, as an individual, as a believer who traces your Christian life from the hour you first believed (to quote the famous gospel song)?
Or is it plural? Is the meaning among all of you? God is doing a good work in your congregation, your community of faith, among all the believers in Philippi or Hendersonville or the United States or perhaps the entire world?
You see immediately the difference it makes. Two roads diverge from this linguistic forest and the one you take makes all the different. Either you take the road to personal and privatized religion, or you take the road to public and global religion.
Our tradition has been quick to take the former, to read this text and others like it to focus on the personal dimension of our Christian faith and practice. We read the gospel story and apply it to us. This is the power of the gospel song. I was sinking deep in sing, far from the peaceful shore…Love lifted me. Love lifted me. When nothing else could help, love lifted me.
The personal testimony is a powerful thing. The unnamed woman Jesus met at the well went back to her village and testified to others of her encounter with Jesus.
I have a collection of books that detail conversion stories: Thomas Merton and The Seven Storey Mountain, Chuck Colson and Born Again, and C. S. Lewis and Surprised by Joy. Two weeks ago, I recounted in a sermon the testimony of the late vampire novelist Anne Rice.
I have a testimony like this: not as dramatic, but every bit as personal and powerful and transformational.
I hope you have a story of your journey with Jesus. I hope you can testify today of something that happened in the year of our lord 2021 or even this past week that pulled you back from despair, pushed you toward a surprising future, or prompted you to get something in your life cleaned up or cleared out. I hope you can stand and say today, Jesus walks with me and talks with me and tells me I am his own!
But the Greek here in Philippians is not in you! It is among us! It is plural.
Paul was writing from jail in Rome, probably, to a small struggling band of believers in Philippi. God was saying through Paul that God is at work in their faith community, in their little church, among them in their network of home gatherings, through them as they gather weekly to eat the fellowship meal, to read the letters of Paul as they were copied and distributed throughout the network of churches, to recount the stories of Jesus, and to care for people in the stress and strain of life.
But most of all, he was writing to people who had quit saying Caesar is Lord and had begun saying Jesus is Lord.
These were communities of people who had been baptized into an alternative way of being people, of being community, of being citizens—not of the empire, but of heaven, not in obedience to the governor or the emperor but to the crucified One, to the Risen Lord, to Jesus who is coming again to complete the work of transforming the world.
It is easy to domesticate this sweet little letter to the Philippians, to reduce it to a devotional track about peace of mind and mending friendships and being a cheerful giver; and all of those things are here. We will read them, one by one, and meditate on them and seek to practice them in obedience to the command of Jesus.
But it is this wide-angle lens that puts things in perspective.
A few years ago, I read the book Factfullness.
Factfulness is a word coined by the author Hans Rosling to signal his laser focus on gathering data. He was a Swedish physician who spent his life as a global health specialist. He died in 2017 just after launching a non-profit center called the Gapminder Foundation. They are committed to gathering the data about the social and economic conditions of the world.
And the results will surprise, even shock you. Tracking the date from 1800 to today—220 years—we learn that legal slavery has decreased dramatically, from 193 countries to three! Only 4% of children die before their fifth birthday compared to 44% in 1880.
Since 1940 deaths from disaster have decreased from 971,000 per year to 72,000 per year. Deaths by plane crash have decreased from 2160 per billion passengers to 1 per billion passengers.
Since 1970, the share of people in the world undernourished has decreased from 28% to 11%. We are living in one of the most peaceful periods in modern history with only one battle death per 100,000 population per year.
The decline in trauma and tragedy is only half the story; the other half is triumph and success. The number of countries where women have won the right to vote has increased from one in 1893 to 193 in 2017. The percentage of earth’s land surface protected as parks and reserves has increased from .03% in 1900 to 14.7% in 2016.
Since 1980, the percent of people with internet access has increased from 0% to 48%. The percent of one-year-old children who received at least one immunization has gone from 22% to 88%. Over the last 25 years, the share of people with some access to electricity has gone from 72% to 85%, and the share of people with water from a protected source has gone from 58% to 88%.
There are problems in the world and in the United States. Some today are warning of a decline in democratic societies and of a rise in totalitarian regimes. I do not discount this, and we must always to vigilant and prepared and engaged in the struggle for justice, for life, for peace.
This wide angle look at the world pushes us to take a wide angle look at our faith, at the Christian community.
It tells us first that God is at work around his Christian community, in spite of the Christian community, sometimes around the resistance of the Christian community.
Sixty years ago, it was the Christian communities in the South that stood in the doorway and said to the Civil Rights marchers, No way! In our day, too many Christian communities have sat in their sanctuaries and say to the Public Health Officials, No way!!
Sometimes, God must go around us!
But God also is working among us, throughout the world: to declare Jesus risen from the dead, to pledge our allegiance not only to the global community but also to our heavenly citizenship.
Just yesterday, the people of South Africa laid to rest the Noble Prize-winning preacher who led the way against segregation and corruption. He was a citizen of the world; he was a citizen of heaven. He was buried in the cheapest pine box on the market. People sang the songs of Zion. God worked through him and through those who marched with him and prayed with him and sang with hm. God, raise up more people like Desmond Tutu!
God is working among you, Providence Baptist Church. I know you have despaired. I know you look around sometimes and want to cry. The church used to be full: of people and children and visitors and those seeking the Lord. Do not be dismayed.
In a minute we are going to sing a great hymn. God make you joyful everyone, let nothing you dismay! We sang it last Sunday at the Saint Simons Presbyterian Church. I said to myself, what a wonderful song…for Providence. It picks us the twin themes of this wonderful little letter: consolation and joy. I have edited the title and first line to make this clear to us, many centuries after it was written: God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen has become God Make You Joyful, Everyone!
God who began a good work among you 20 years ago will complete that good work: in us and among us and around us and through us. God has brought us to this place and to this time, the year of our lord two thousand twenty-two. What God has in store for us, among us, through us, around us is the wondrous mystery of life. Let us celebrate, in the words of the great old prayer of Francis.
Lord make us an instrument of Your peace
Where there is hatred let us give love.
Where there is injury, let us grant pardon.
Where there is doubt, let us practice faith.
Where there is despair, let us live with hope.
Where there is darkness, let us light the way.
Where there is sadness, let us sing for joy.