Sunday 25 March 2012

Work out your salvation (Philippians 2:12-18)

The Jeremy Lin problem

About a month ago, the New York Times published an op-ed piece entitled, “The Jeremy Lin Problem”. In case you don’t know who this is referring to, Jeremy Shu-How Lin is a 23-year old Asian-American basketball player who went unnoticed for most of his career up until February this year when he started leading the New Yorks in a string of wins, sparking the interest of sports fans within the United States and worldwide, in a phenomenon that has now widely come to be known as “Linsanity”. He is a graduate from Harvard University with a degree in economics (which explains why he is such a hit with the Tiger Mums). Unlike many basketball personalities, Jeremy does not use coarse language on or off the court but comes across in interviews as courteous, polite and is often heard commending his team-mates rather than putting them down.

Yet according to columnist David Brooks, Jeremy Lin has an anomaly; by which he is not talking about Jeremy’s ethnicity, education or athletic ability. You see, Jeremy Lin is a Christian, and the article suggests that his biggest anomaly - Jeremy’s greatest problem - is this: “He’s a religious person in professional sports”. David writes:

“The modern sports hero is competitive and ambitious. (Let’s say he’s a man, though these traits apply to female athletes as well). He is theatrical. He puts himself on display...This is what we go to sporting events to see. This sporting ethos pervades modern life and shapes how we think about business, academic and political competition.

But there’s no use denying — though many do deny it — that this ethos violates the religious ethos on many levels. The religious ethos is about redemption, self-abnegation and surrender to God.”

Notice how this doesn’t just apply to basketball and sports: “The sporting ethos... shapes how we think about business, academic and political competition.” The conflict that is described here applies to you as a student, as a businessman. It affects the way someone runs for political office (or treasurer of ABACUS). In any and every situation where you will need to prove yourself and deliver on a set of goals, this article is saying that your belief in God is going to trip you up and hold you back. Trusting in Jesus is incompatible with achievement in the workplace, or so the article suggests.

Our passage today begins with humility but ends with glory. Paul, who wrote this letter to the Christians at Philippi, focuses on the obedience, the sacrifice, the humility of Jesus Christ but from that centre of Christian faith, he urges us to work out our salvation; in other words, to strive. Right at the end, he points to the athlete and to the hard-working farmer as illustrations of what it means to live to God’s glory. It is a tension that the bible insists is authentic and essential for every believer. We need both - to trust Jesus for our salvation and to work out our salvation.

We will approach this passage under three headings:

1. Be faithful: God is present
2. Be confident: God is working
3. Be all in: God is rejoicing

Be faithful: God is present

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.
Philippians 2:12-13

Paul begins by telling his readers, This is something you already know. In fact, it’s what you have always been doing. Paul begins with their obedience, in the first instance, to him as their senior pastor. Paul looks back at the history he has had with these Christians and he smiles. “I thank God every time I remember you”(Philippians 1:3). While the NIV has “my dear friends” in verse 12, a better translation would be “loved ones.” This is the ultimate bromance. Here is a deep affection, a real connection, a partnership in the gospel.

Now, when Paul talks about obedience, he isn’t dealing with a church who is going, “Who does this guy think he is - telling us what to do?” No, he says You have always obeyed. But now, it is even more important that you continue in your obedience in my absence. Why? Because their ultimate obedience isn’t to Paul but towards God. “Not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence,” adding these words, with fear and trembling.

Obedience has a bad rap today. It is seen as foolish. It is considered dangerous. Our modern understanding of democracy and freedom encourages us to question any authority that sets itself up against popular opinion, to rebel against any power that suppresses the voice of the people. So when we read Paul’s words encouraging Christians to obey God with fear and trembling, it is possible that some of us imagine a harsh dictator oppressing his citizens using force and coercion. Yet what we need to realise is that Paul has just been describing Jesus Christ, exalted by God to the highest place as Lord and Judge because of his obedience - an obedience which verse 8 says, flows from humility and led to indignity, to a shameful death on the cross. His obedience is rooted in a loving relationship with God the Father. His obedience is empowered through a humble dependence on the Spirit of God. And Paul says, ours is the same.

That’s the why of obedience: we obey Jesus, who himself was obedient unto death. But now Paul deals with the questions of how and when. How are you obedient to God? When do you display your obedience to Jesus Christ?

The answer is not just when you’re in church. Not just when your leaders are around to give you a pat on the back for helping set up the sound system, for teaching the kids at Sunday school. If that is what you’ve been doing so far, Paul is saying, That’s good. Well done. But... But it is even more vital that you continue in obedience when there’s no one watching. “But now much more in my absence,” he writes.

In other words: Are you the same person on and off the court? If here in the Chinese Church with your brothers and sisters around, you are a gracious person, a loving brother, a caring sister, a helpful servant - would I see the same person on Monday morning, when you are in the office, when you are stuck in traffic, when you are revising for your exams at the Central Library, when you are at home with mum and dad, when clocks have switched over and you’ve had one hour less sleep. It is even more important for us as Christians to be obedient in the absence of authority because ultimately, we answer to God’s authority mediated through Jesus Christ. This is faithfulness. This is true obedience.

It is unfortunate when the topic of God’s authority is brought up only to justify rebelling against a human authority - like oppressive governments, dictators and the like. The bible teaches us as Christians to submit to authority; that there is no authority except that which God has established; and that he who rebels against authority, rebels against God (Romans 13:1-2). Some even find excuses within the bible to justify rebelling against church authority, citing passages like 1 Corinthians 4:4 (“It is the Lord who judges me”) while ignoring 1 Corinthians 5:12 (“Are you not to judge those inside?”), dealing with church discipline. Again, these troublemakers are not the ones Paul has in mind. Rather, Paul says of his friends in Philippi, You have always obeyed. Now do so even more in my absence.

The immediate context is authority over God’s church and accountability amongst God’s people. Paul as the founding pastor writes from prison, in chains. That is the reason for his absence. He is confident that he will be released soon (Philippians 1:25-26), but until then, he writes to this small congregation in the city of Philippi, encouraging them to remain faithful in the gospel.

How does that translate here in the Chinese Church? Two years ago, we had two senior pastors. Two years on, we have none. And it is tempting to put off our responsibilities as the Chinese Church until the next one is found. It is tempting to put off mission, prayer, devotion, evangelism, membership until a pastor is here, because really, some of us might think, That’s his responsibility. That is his job. Notwithstanding the importance the bible places on clear leadership within God’s church, especially with regards to the teaching of scripture, with regards to the accountability over people’s spiritual lives, isn’t this text saying to all of us - whether we are leaders or not - How are we being faithful to Jesus now? When Jesus returns on that final day and asks you for an accounting for your life, I sincerely hope you aren’t planning on giving the excuse, “Well, it’s not my fault. We didn’t have a pastor. That’s his job.”

Paul is telling us, Be faithful today. Learn obedience now. God is your sovereign judge. That phrase “with fear and trembling” recurs in the Old Testament describing man’s response to God’s final judgement (see Exodus 15:16). Most notable however is Psalm 2, where it is speaking not just of God’s enemies (though it does includes them as “the kings of the earth”), but calls them his servants; those who “serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:11). Psalm 2 is the same psalm spoken by God at Jesus’ baptism and at his transfiguration, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.” It recognises Jesus’ authority as God’s chosen King, the Christ. Meaning, for Christians today, our obedience to Jesus is not simply motivated by the final day of judgement - in dread and fear - but rather more so because of Jesus’ death on the cross, where he was exalted as the Christ. Christians therefore serve Jesus in love tempered with obedience, in joy sustained by reverence. Serve the LORD, the Psalmist says, with fear and rejoice with trembling.

Which is why, Paul doesn’t say Watch out for judgement! Rather, what he says next is Work out your salvation!

Be confident: God is working

Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act (literally, to work) according to his good purpose.
Philippians 2:12b-13

Have you ever had someone say to you, “Try your best and God will do the rest”? When you are at a crossroads in your life and you can’t decide which path to take; when you feel like giving up on a long and difficult situation that never seems to improve; when you are stressed out about facing a huge challenge - an assignment, an exam, an interview - it is such an encouragement to know that God is always in control. That you should just do what you can, try your best and God will take care of the rest.

Having said that, I don’t think that’s what Paul is saying. I think he’s saying something even more profound, and much more encouraging.

On the one hand, Paul says Continue to work out your salvation. Keep working at it. Don’t give up, that’s what it means. Give it all you’ve got. Two very important things to notice about what Paul is saying: (1) It’s continual; and (2) It’s personal.

Firstly, it’s continual. This needs to happen every day. Continue to work out your salvation. Whether you became a Christian twenty minutes ago or twenty years ago, Today, this needs to happen. Right now, work out your salvation. And tomorrow, when you get up, continue working out your salvation. The term for this is sanctification. It is a daily, continual, process of growth, renewal and relationship with Jesus Christ. Secondly, it’s personal. Your own salvation. I can’t do this for you. Your parents can’t do this for you. When it comes to prayer, reading the bible, giving, serving; especially when it comes to repenting of your sins and trusting in Jesus - you work out your own salvation.

That’s verse 12, speaking from our perspective. We work out our salvation with fear and trembling before God. The flipside though comes in verse 13. Here we find God’s perspective. For it is God who works in you. So on the one hand, yes, you need to work it out. You need to do the math. But actually God is the one working through you. Meaning this: It’s not 1% you and 99% God. That’s not what Paul is saying. Paul is not saying, “Try your best, God will take care of the rest.” Rather he is saying, God is the working God who enables you to join him in his work. It is 100% you. It is 100% God.

Where do I get this? From the second half of verse 13, “To will and to act according to his good purpose.” Whose will and whose actions is Paul describing? It’s yours. It’s not talking about God’s work, God’s will. Paul is saying your will and your actions are all determined by God. Try to wrap your heads around this: As you work out your salvation through your daily actions and decisions, the bible says that God is ultimately the one working, not just alongside you, but through you. He wills your will. He works your work. It is 100% you. It is 100% God.

What difference does this make? If you are in that situation of uncertainty and you are praying for direction. If you are in that situation of difficulty and you are praying for wisdom. If you are in that situation of helpless and you cry out to God for salvation. God help me. Please give me a sign. Please make a way. If you are stuck in difficulty, uncertainty and helplessness, I’ve got to tell you, that advice of “trying your best and letting God do the rest” will only work short-term. Now I understand why we give this advice - I’ve said the same thing to some of you in the past. But it really only works in the short-term at best, and in the long term, it may lead to even greater depression and disappointment.

Why do I say this? Because ultimately, the “1% me and 99% God” formula still draws attention to what I can do about that situation and what God expects me to do in that situation. It may just be 1%. It may just be that one thing. But when you’re stuck in depression and uncertainty and helplessness, that 1% is going to be the one thing that weighs you down. You are going to place all your eggs in that one basket. You are going to place all your chips on that one hand. You are going to spend all your energy and time finding that one key to success, that one magic prayer, that one special person and either it’s going to all work out beautifully, reducing God to a genie in a lamp who grants all your wishes because you said the right words, you came to church, because you did something right; or more likely what’s going to happen is you’re going to be disappointed with God and question your faith in him. What’s the alternative? The bible points us to a working God who work is seen in us and through us. And what Paul is saying to us as Christians is, “Join him”.

It boils down to our confidence in a sovereign, gracious God. Do you realise what Paul is implying when he says, God is the one who works “to will and to act”? He is saying, it’s not just what I do in terms of my actions, it’s not just how I do in terms of my performance, but even at the level of what I think in terms of my motivations - Why I’m doing that job, why I’m in that relationship, what I expect to get out of coming to church today. That is how sovereign and in control God is. And what that does is two things: Firstly, it frees me from second-guessing myself. Should I do this or that, does God want me to go this way or that way? - not that we should not pray over our choices - but rather it encourages me take risks for the sake of the gospel and to work out my salvation every day, How can I work on my holiness today? How can I work on my generosity today? It means I will fail. It means it is going to hurt. But that’s OK because God is in control. The bible says I can keep going back to God in repentance, asking him for forgiveness, knowing that Jesus Christ covers me with his righteousness. Secondly, it motivates me to press on with absolute confidence that my life is going somewhere. Katergazomai, translated here as working out, means to produce something, even to finish something. It means God wants my life to be fruitful, to display concrete evidences of Jesus work through my actions, words and thoughts. Earlier in the letter, Paul writes this:

Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ.
Philippians 1:6

When you look at Christian, you should a big sign that says, “Work in progress”. When you look at Christ, you see blueprint, the plans of what that finished work will look like. And God guarantees us that the construction will be completed on schedule.

Let me ask put it this way: Where is your life headed? What do you hope to do with your one life such that when you look back at it, there will be no regrets? In other words, what’s the plan? Get married? Be a successful entrepreneur? Win X-Factor? Some of us hear that question and get excited - Yeah, I’m going to do this and to be that. Some of us get depressed - I have been there, done that.

Do you realise what you have here in these verses? It’s a guarantee. God will finish his  perfect work in you and through you. It’s a guarantee the bible wants you to take out and to look at every single day of your life - Every action that I take, every thought in my heart - is being used by God to change me, to mould me, to transform me to be like Jesus. If we are honest, some of those actions we’d like to take back. Some of those thoughts we deeply regret. But if God is God, and Jesus Christ is Lord, it is especially those difficult circumstances in our lives that God uses for his glory. 100% means the good years and the bad years. 100% means the times of plenty and the times of want. All of it is under God’s control. Nothing falls outside of his plan. If you have this confidence, you can look back on your life, see something really painful or difficult and you can honestly say, “I messed up,” or “Oh wow, that was really awful”, but you are able to do so without bitterness, without regret, but instead with thankfulness in your hearts and renewed trust in the grace of God. That’s the guarantee God gives us through the cross. Jesus takes all our sin, all our shame. He gives us all his joy, all his reward.

Paul is urging us: Work it out. Keep on going. Why? Because God is 100% for you in Jesus Christ. God is 100% in you, working out your salvation in Jesus Christ.

Be all in: God is rejoicing

One of my all-time favourite movies is Toh San which is Cantonese for “The god of gamblers”, starring Chow Yuen Fatt. The final scene is a real cliche: Toh San, the hero sits across the table from his arch-nemesis, Chan Kam-Sing in a high-stakes game of five-stud poker and says, “Don’t waste any more time. Let's say we go all in - 26 Million!” (Mo sai si kan. Zhou wai Sai - Yee chin lok pat man!) What’s he doing? He is going all in. Toh San bets everything he has on one hand!

In these final verses, Paul says, “I’m all in!” He does so with no regrets. No hesitation. What is more, he does so with joy. I am glad and rejoice and with all you. Paul writes:

But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.
Philippians 2:17-18

What would it take, I wonder, for you to go all in? To place everything you have on the line. To sacrifice everything you have spent your lives working towards. To risk losing it all in one go. What would it take for you to that - responsibly and willingly? We’ve looked at two possibilities so far. We looked at faithfulness: that knowledge that God owns all things and blesses us with all things. And we looked at confidence: that guarantee that God gives us through the cross. So for some, maybe what we need is to be faithful with the gifts God gives us; they are not our own; they are to be used for his kingdom. For others, it is the reminder that God is worth the investment, his guarantee is that he will bring every work to completion. His plan will never fail.

So, we’ve seen two motivations, two reasons to invest our lives fully in God. What Paul does here is give us a third: It is joy. Paul has put his life on the line. That’s what he means by the drink offering being poured out alongside the sacrifice. It’s a picture from the Old Testament temple. The sacrifice was the bull, the goat, the main thing that was offered up to God on the altar by the priest. The drink offering was the side event, almost like a toast (Yaaaamseng!) By analogy Paul is saying this: his life isn’t the most precious thing he has to offer. The most precious thing he wants he already has. It’s Jesus.

Or take this as another example. Next week, many of us will be celebrating M and L’s wedding. It’s going to be in a beautiful college here in Cambridge, there’s going to be amazing food, people are going to get all dressed up. Let’s face it, it’s going to be an elaborate, beautiful, joyful and frankly, quite costly thing to have, all on just one single day. But the two people who are paying for it all, who are bearing most of the cost - not just the money, but also the time, the effort, the preparation and the stress - for them, it is nothing compared to the most precious thing they will receive on that day - the promise to faithfully love one another in marriage as husband and wife before God. There is no comparison. The cost is real. The cost is significant. But they gladly spent it - they go all in - with fullness of joy because the most precious thing they want, they already have.

Paul says, “I am glad and I rejoice with all of you. So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.” He’s saying you have that reason to go all in. If you have Jesus Christ, you have found that joy. Through Jesus Christ, God is working in your life to bring you into that joy - For it is God who is works in you to will and to act according to his good pleasure.

The Jesus Christ problem

According to the New York Times, Jeremy Lin has a big problem. He can either be religious as a Christian or he can pursue his joy in sports as an athlete. But according to columnist, David Brooks, he can’t do both. They are in conflict with one another.

And let me tell you, David Brooks is right but at the same time, profoundly wrong. It is a problem not for Jeremy Lin but for Jesus Christ. You see, how can Jesus bring glory to God and bear the punishment of God? How can Jesus save others and not himself? How can Jesus be absolute judge of the universe and at the same time be handed over to the judgement of men?

Through the cross. Don’t you see? Jesus Christ is able to do both and he did accomplish both through the cross. Mercy and wrath. Love and justice. Glory and ignominy. Life and death. They meet at the cross where Jesus Christ was crowned and crucified.

Go to the cross. Give your all to him. And receive from Jesus Christ full forgiveness, full restoration, fullness of life and fullness of joy.

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