Sunday, February 24, 2013

Philippians 3:17-4:1 Lent 2

It’s weird to be a Christian.  Our friends do and say whatever they want, but we can’t.  They swear and use God’s name as if it were any other garbage word used for expressing frustration.  Christians must not talk like that.  They can gossip and talk inappropriately about their relationships with their friends.  They will try to engage us in those conversations.   We can’t.  When our friends are dating, they think nothing of having a sexual relationship with someone they are not married to, and perhaps don’t ever even intend to be married.  Christians can’t do those things.  You have lots of friends who don’t feel that they need to go to church, but you do.  They don’t feel the need to be so good, but you do.  If you act like a Christian, but spend any time at all around unbelievers, you are going to feel weird.  Unless you have some kind of superhuman will power, you will feel the pull to talk like them and act like them.  Maybe you justify yourself by saying that you don’t want to make them feel bad for being so unholy, but I would bet that the larger truth is that you don’t want to feel weird.
The devil tempts us by surrounding us with bad examples.  It’s one of his oldest tricks.  We call it peer pressure.  The Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Christians in the city of Phillippi because he was concerned about the peer pressure that they were facing.  They were surrounded by bad examples of people who lived only for themselves and for the moment.  Paul wanted them to remember his good example, and the good examples of other Christians who live with minds focused on heaven.  According to Paul’s way of looking at it, it isn’t a bad thing at all to be weird in this world.  Hear his words:

17 Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. 18 For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!
Philippians 3:17-4:1

We Are Strangers Here.
Is it worth it?  If you find it hard to resist the peer pressure, you would find friends who know what you are talking about in Philippi.  All their neighbors burned incense to the emperor.  If you wanted to do business in Philippi, you had to burn incense to the emperor, otherwise you couldn’t be a part of the trade union.  Their friends and family sacrificed to idols, and then held feasts dedicated to their gods.  The Christians in Philippi were invited to those feasts, but they couldn’t go.  While the entire the city was feasting on the festival days of their gods, they could not.  They had to be weird because they wanted to obey God.  I don’t think they always thought that it was worth it, though.
When we see the rappers and pop stars, pro athletes, and movie stars of the world saying and doing what they want, they seem to be fairly happy.  MTV has lots of people who live sinful lives and appear to be very happy doing it.  Flip through a Sunset magazine sometime and see what great things the worlds’ people can do—some of them may be Christians, but some are not.  Your friends who don’t feel the need to go to church and don’t watch what they say may not be any worse off than we are.  There really doesn’t seem to be a difference between Christians and unbelievers in that respect.  Some Christians are rich, some are poor, just like the rest of the world.  The only real difference is that we don’t get to do what we want to do.  If we aren’t going to be happier or more successful than the rest of the world, we may be tempted to think that it isn’t worth it.  The devil will tell you that it makes no difference, so you might as well do what you want.

God reminds us through the apostle Paul that we are strangers here because the normal way leads to destruction.  Many of those people who do and say what they want think that they will never have to answer for it.  They think that they will die, and just cease to exist.  It’s no wonder that they do whatever they feel like.  It’s no wonder that they feel the need to have the best car, biggest house, and visit all the best restaurants and beaches.  They live for pleasure, because they have nothing else to live for.
Others just think that God doesn’t care.  They see him as a soft cuddly God who just wants to let things slide and be friends with everyone.  They have no idea that his justice is unyielding.  His rules are never bent.  According to his Law, their lifestyle of doing and saying what they want leads to hell.
We should not want to follow their examples.  We shouldn’t want to be normal.  But that doesn’t make it any easier to be a weird Christian when you are young and you want to be cool.  It doesn’t get any easier to be a Christian and a stranger in the world when you get old either.  Sure, you may lose the ability to enjoy the best things in life, but it is still hard to be a Christian and a stranger in this world.  The rest of the world gets old and depressed because they can’t do the things they used to, because they really don’t have anything left to live for.  But it shouldn’t be that way for Christians, because we have a lot left, even after we die.

When Paul wrote his letter, he was a wise old man who knew how hard it is to live like a stranger in this world.  At one time in his life he had been a popular man who fit in very well with the cool crowd.  He had been a Pharisee, which was one of the coolest things you could do in Israel at that time.  But all of that changed when Jesus called him to be an apostle.  Suddenly the Jews hated him.  They chased him out of almost every town he went to.  Yet, in his life he accomplished much.  He made three great missionary journeys around the Mediterranean world.  Who knows how many sermons he preached, and how many people he baptized.  But he was getting old, and at the time of our letter he was living under house arrest in Rome.  Like old men often do, he spent his time thinking about the things that had happened in his life and the people he had met, and he wrote to them.
It might have been a strangely pleasant surprise for the Philippians to read Paul’s letter.  They might have expected more self-pity from this old man in prison.  They heard about what happened to him, and they had been concerned.  They had even sent a member of their congregation to Rome to help Paul.
Now they read this letter from him, and he doesn’t seem to be feeling sorry for himself at all.  He is actually filled with concern for them!  And he is also filled with joy, because God’s Word is being preached, even though he wasn’t really able to do that very much any more.   Most surprising of all, he was filled with hope.  The apostle at the end of his life, confined to his house, and awaiting trail, is actually full of hope!  How strange, but how wonderful!  He really has something!  He has something we need! 
It isn’t just the strength of Paul’s character, either.  Strength to be strange in this world is a common theme among the servants of God’s kingdom.  Take Jeremiah, who announced that God was not happy with the king of Jerusalem.  When he was threatened with death, he basically said, “Do your worst.”  Take Jesus, who defied King Herod’s death threat and continued on his way to Jerusalem.  They saw something greater than life.  Jesus saw something greater, that by his death he could take our place under the Father’s anger, and rescue us from hell.  Jeremiah, Jesus, and Paul all saw something greater.
Paul explained what this greater thing is.  We can live like strangers and be hopeful in the face of death because we belong to a different world.  The citizens of Philippi could rush around living to please their bellies, the citizens of America can live doing and saying whatever they want. We serve a different Lord.  We really don’t belong here.
That’s actually a reason for hope, because as Paul says we are awaiting a Savior from heaven.  Jesus, who came once to die, is coming back to rescue us from this world and take us to a much better place where we really belong.  If we live our entire lives as weird Christians, its ok because we don’t belong here and we are on our way to a better place.  The rest of the world will get depressed as they get old and say goodbye to all the pleasures of life, but we can look forward to better things and a better life.  The older we get, the closer we are to getting out of here and getting on to better things.

There are really two examples you can follow in the world.  Either do what you want and enjoy life the best you can on your way to destruction in hell.  Good luck with that one.  If I don’t mention it now, someone will tell me later that a hearse doesn’t come with a hitch for a Uhaul trailer.  King Tut’s tomb is full of unused treasure.  Jesus told a parable about a rich man who died and went to hell, where his riches did him no good.  In life too, those who live for their own pleasure aren’t really all that happy.  Suicides and drug abuse are common in the lifestyles of the rich and famous.  On the other hand, we have the example of Christ and his people around you.  Paul, for example, who did the will of God although it may not have been pleasant and it certainly made him strange.  He did have something better to look forward to, though—a better country to live in, and a Savior to take him there to live forever.  It’s really much better to be strangers here, and citizens of heaven.  Amen.