December 03, 2018
The Advent 2C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 3:1-6 from the Lectionary Gospel; Malachai 3:1-4 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Luke 1:68-79 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Philippians 1:3-11 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Psalm: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 122 (Lord’s Day 47)
Author: Scott Hoezee
I love Luke. The man has style. And he displays that style in narrative after narrative in his Gospel and in his sequel, The Book of Acts. Tradition has it Luke was a doctor. He clearly came mighty close to missing his calling. Thankfully, the Spirit used Luke’s considerable literary powers after all to give a great gift to the world: Luke’s two contributions to what we now call the New Testament.
Here in this short lection from Luke 3, the reading devotes significant space to a listing of about seven names of the high ranking folks of that time. Today the list would be headlined by Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell. If it were a narrative taking place in New York, Andrew Cuomo and Bill DeBlasio might get thrown into the mix. These are the big names, Luke is saying. These are the folks you don’t really need Luke to tell you about—you can look them up in Josephus or Gibbon or Wikipedia or any other credible history book of the first century.
But the most significant action in the cosmos was taking place nowhere near any of those high and mighty types.
Oddly, it reminds me of that floating feather that opens and closes the movie Forrest Gump.
The feather is a symbol that sometimes the most important people are those we don’t see, like Forrest Gump himself. Except in this case I picture the feather at first floating over Herod’s palace or Caesar’s Roman mansion only to have a gust of wind take the feather up and up and up and then far from the citadels of civilization. The camera follows the feather until it slowly begins to lilt downward out in the middle of a wilderness wasteland, coming to land at the calloused and filthy foot of a wild ox of a man called John. He’s got wild honey dripping off his scraggly beard and is arrayed in something that could best be described as resembling the fur of some road-kill animal from the side of a highway. He’s got a distant look in his eye, as though at any moment he might lunge forward and begin to spout off whatever fool things came into his head.
Except that Luke tells us that what’s coming into his head is a far cry from any fool thing. The man at whose feet our random Forrest Gump feather landed is the cosmic target for nothing short of “the Word of the Lord.”
Sure, let the big-wigs launch their policy initiatives, levy their taxes, try to keep Rome from going over one fiscal cliff or another. Let Caesar write himself into the history books and let Herod do whatever in the world it was Herod wanted to do. Let the religious folks carry out their sacred duties and keep up the rituals of the ages. But if it’s the climax of salvation you’re looking for—if it’s the Word of God that has become the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ that you seek—then turn away from all that. Go to the desert. Go to the crazy man who has just now lit out on a career of fire-and-brimstone preaching.
Because that, Luke is saying, is where the Salvation Highway of Our God is being constructed. Rome built its roads and highways and bridges, true enough. You could get around the ancient world better than at any point in recorded human history. The roads were grand. Caesar’s wife had begun a “Highway Beautification” initiative. The roads were grand, the travel was easy, the trade routes were prosperous.
But not one of those roads could finally take you anywhere worth going. Oh, traveling on them could help you get around in the world but not one of them could save the world or usher in a New World. For that road, you had to go to the place of death, to the dangerous wilderness where robbers lurked and wild beasts devoured the wayward traveler. You had to go to the place that symbolized everything that was wrong with this world because that was the place—logically enough, if you stop to think about it—from which God launched his final push to defeat the Chaos of evil and usher back in the cosmos of his original good Creation.
In our world today, we still mostly look to all the wrong places for hope: Washington, Wall Street, Hollywood, etc. Luke says, “Nothing doing.” Hope won’t come from those places. Not finally. Not ultimately. Look to the unlikely places. Look to the little white clapboard churches in the middle of nowhere in which sermons are preached full of Jesus and full of grace. Look to the relief worker ministering in Jesus’ name to people in West Africa who lost so much to Ebola some while back. You want change that lasts, transformation that taps into what C.S. Lewis called “the deep magic of the universe,” then those are the places to go.
In Advent, as perhaps at most any time of the year I suppose, it’s so easy for even people in the church to have the wrong focus, to look to the wrong things. Even the manger scene has been imbued with so much glitter that in truth we forget sometimes that Jesus’ birth also took place out in the middle of nowhere at a time when everyone else in the Empire was paying far more attention to the movers and shakers elsewhere than to anything happening out in a barn somewhere.
The highway to salvation and the Word of the Lord come from and to the least likely places you could name, Luke is telling us in this Second Sunday in Advent reading. Ponder what those places may be and then go there. Because that is where you will find life, and life abundant at that.
Please Note: Advent and Christmas 2018 Resources are now available on CEP: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/advent-2018/
The Synoptic gospels all do the same thing with Isaiah 40:3: namely, they take the line “in the desert” and make it the location where the voice is calling out (as opposed to what the NIV of Isaiah 40:3 does, which is make “the desert” the place where the way of the Lord is prepared). It’s the difference between saying “A voice calls out, ‘In the desert, prepare the way of the Lord’” (that’s the original Hebrew) and saying, “A voice calls out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’” (that is how the Greek of the Septuagint rendered it, and apparently that is what the Gospel writers consulted).
Maybe it does not matter which is the more accurate rendering: either way we find ourselves in the wilderness as the place to be when preparing to meet God’s Christ. Either we begin to proclaim this message in the desert or we say that the way of the Lord begins in the desert. Either way or both ways, John’s message brings us to a place that most people prefer not to associate with Advent or Christmas. But maybe this is where the gospel needs proclaiming today. Maybe this is the place where we need to see God inaugurating his saving activity yet today. Where does God need to work and where do we need to proclaim the reality of his saving work? In the desert. That is, in the cancer ward, in the AIDS clinic, in the inner-city slum, on the battlefields of Iraq, on the killing plains of Darfur, on death row and in the prisons of this land. In THOSE places prepare the way of the One who will take all that is crooked and rough in us and will make it straight and smooth and right and full of shalom after all.
Picture, if you will, what it might have looked like on a given day around 30 A.D. had there been at that time some equivalent of the CNN.com website. Along the top banner of the page would be the “Breaking News” of the moment. Perhaps on one particular day it would read “Jewish Zealots Attack Roman Forces: Troops Obliterate Zealots.” Below that would be a picture of King Herod the Tetrarch receiving a delegation from the Caesar in his regal throne room. Off to the right side would be a list of the day’s “Hot Topics,” that might have included news bulletins from Rome, from Asia Minor, and other such globally vital areas. Then would come the “Top Stories” for the day that might have included some political intrigue involving Pontius Pilate, a story involving a new retail market that was selling that year’s must-have toy, and a report on the doings of some of the more famous and beautiful people of the Roman Empire.
The homepage for the largest news network would contain scores of individual stories, others grouped under headings like “Politics,” “Sports,” “Entertainment,” “Health,” and “Justice.” Just possibly, though—way down near the bottom, down farther on the page than most people ever scrolled—there might be a category for “Oddments” that might have a stray story (written by some aspiring cub reporter who had a ways to go in terms of his journalistic skills) about a man named John who was creating a bit of a stir out in the desert wilds beyond the Jordan River. Few would read it. Fewer still—if anyone at all, truth be told—would conclude it rose to the level of “interesting,” at least not compared with all the other news of the day. And no well-functioning adult would tumble to the idea that this little “Oddment” was the most important piece of news on the entire website that day.
Scroll down the page, Luke 3 tells us. Because in our Father’s kingdom, the least and last news story will be the greatest and first story after all.
Author: Stan Mast
A number of years ago I preached a series of sermons on the Minor Prophets entitled “The Gospel in a Minor Key.” Obviously, that was a play on words, but it also reflected the fact that these unusual little prophetic books proclaim the Good News in unexpected, dissonant, almost off-key ways. Our text for this Second Sunday of Advent is a perfect example. Here we have moved from Jeremiah’s quiet little picture of the coming Messiah as a Righteous Branch (or a shoot from a stump ala Isaiah 11:1) to the roaring furnace of a silver refiner or the alkaline churning of a commercial laundromat.
These jarring images remind us that Advent is not about preparing for a “merry little Christmas.” Advent is about warning, about judgment, about repentance, about a refiner’s fire and a launderer’s rough hands. That is the Gospel in such a minor key that I suspect most preachers will skip this reading and move on to, say, the Gospel reading. Except, wait a minute, the Gospel reading from Luke 3 is precisely about John the Baptist, the loud voice in the wilderness who prepared the way for the Lord with ferocious calls to repentance. The major challenge of Advent Two is how to preach good news from such hard texts.
The answer lies in discerning the hard background that led God to speak in such jarring ways. That background is summed up in the question at the beginning of this passage, a question that the Lectionary has unfortunately cut off. Our passage should really be 2:17 to 3:5, because it begins with a complaint from God, a question from Israel (one of the dozens of questions that form the structure of this little book), God’s response to that question, and then the main prophecy. The question was, “Where is the God of justice?” Israel had asked that question so many times that God was weary of it.
Why would Israel repeat that question ad nauseum? Because it seemed that God favored the wicked while the righteous suffered, which produced a prolonged religious malaise. A little historical background will help us understand why Israel was so down. Though they had returned from Exile in about 537, rebuilt the Temple in 516 under Zerubbabel, experienced a religious revival under Ezra in 458 and rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem in 445 under Nehemiah, Israel had not returned to her former glory, as the prophets had promised.
No longer trusting God’s justice and doubting his covenant love, these post-exilic Jews began to lose hope. Their worship degenerated into a listless perpetuation of mere form, and they no longer took the law seriously: tithes were ignored, the Sabbath was broken, intermarriage with pagans was common, and the priests were corrupt. Worst of all God had not returned to his Temple with the kind of majesty and power that would exalt his Kingdom in the sight of the nations. He has left that temple in Ezekiel 10:1-22 and 11:22-25. Israel was just a small province in the backwaters of the Persian Empire, a pale shadow of the mighty Kingdom she had been under David. That seemed all wrong to Israel, so they incessantly whined, “Where is the God of justice?”
Somewhere toward the end of the period described above, God spoke through Malachi. Our text is God’s major answer to that recurring question. “See, I will send my messenger (Hebrew, malachi, the name of the book), who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple, the messenger of the covenant whom you desire will come, says Yahweh Almighty.” Where is God? He is right there, “see him.” God speaks directly to his disheartened people; indeed, the first-person singular is found in 47 of the 55 verses of Malachi. Israel is getting a more direct answer than they ever expected. It is an answer that will stun them, as it should us.
But, before we get to the shock of the prophecy, we need to wrestle with these opening words. To whom does God refer in verse 1? Who is the messenger who will prepare the way for the Lord? The lectionary’s choice of Luke 3 for the Gospel reading suggests that it is John the Baptist. Who is the messenger of the covenant who will come into the Temple as the Lord? The Lectionary pairs this part of the prophecy with the presentation of Jesus in the Temple in Luke 2. That, of course, would happen over four centuries later. So, the word “suddenly” cannot mean “immediately.” It must mean unexpectedly, in the blink of an eye, when you have given up all hope. That is a shocking message for ancient Israel.
Even more shocking perhaps is the message in verses 2-5. When the forerunner and the Messiah finally come, they will bring judgment and justice, but it will be visited upon Israel. You cry out for God’s justice, but when it comes, “Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?” He will come, not to comfort, but to cleanse, “for he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.” The Lord will focus his attention not on your enemies, but on you.
That message was addressed to ancient Israel, but if the Lectionary is right in applying these words to John the Baptist and Jesus Christ, then they must also apply to us. Jesus did not come only to comfort, but also to cleanse. Though he brought the forgiveness of sin, he also wants to rid us of those forgiven sins. As we look back at his first coming and ahead to his second coming in this season of Advent, we must ask where Jesus wants to purify us.
Verses 3 and 4 point to worship, while verse 5 focus on obedience of the Torah. Like a refiner of silver and gold, the messenger of the covenant who is the Lord himself will purify the Levites, who led Israel in worship. Once the priests are pure, “the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable again, as in days gone by, as in former years.” Israel had become lackadaisical about worship, presenting offerings that were flawed, led by priests who were corrupt. Only pure offerings and priests are acceptable to God’s holiness.
Of course, Jesus is both spotless sacrifice and sinless priest. Only through him can our worship be acceptable to God. But as we come to God through Christ, we must present ourselves, both people and priests, as living sacrifices, giving our best to him. Is there a message here for the casual way we worship today?
Verse 5, which the Lectionary inexplicably excises from our reading for today, says that the now invisible Lord “will come near to you for judgment.” He will judge your disobedience of the Torah. The list of condemned sins here is common in the Old Testament: sorcery, adultery, and perjury, and then a whole list of social justice sins, ranging from not paying your employees enough to oppressing widows and orphans to depriving aliens of justice.
Talk about throwing shade over our celebration of Christ’s birth! In a day of widespread sorcery, where people use the Lord’s name to manipulate the powers of darkness; in a day where adultery is so common that it is seen as entertainment; in a day where lying under oath and lying in the media has destroyed the public trust; in such a day, these words of Malachi are a bombshell.
And when you think of the huge gap between the salaries of CEO’s and the salaries of their employees, and the movement by some politicians to balance the budget by taking away welfare benefits from mothers and children, and the way some leaders want to deal with illegal aliens, these words will make many of our church members very uncomfortable. In fact, if you dare to tell them how Jesus has come to purify those who commit such sins, you may become very uncomfortable.
Preaching this text will not make you popular; it will make you faithful. And it is a word of hope in the end. The invisible God who seems to pay no attention to the wickedness in this world will come one day, even as he did come one day, to clean things up. He used his own blood to wipe away the guilt of our sins. He will use his Spirit to cleanse us of the presence of our sins.
That is not a pleasant prospect, but it is precisely what we keep asking for. “Where is the God of justice?” Now we know—up there on the cross and down here in the fire.
Thank God for speaking the truth to us. As Walter Kaiser put it: “the day of the Lord would [not] be some kind of magic cure-all. It would not be that at all; it would be a terrifying day with tragic consequences for all who were not morally and spiritually prepared.” The work of preparation referred to in Malachi 3:1 is “levelling the road and straightening out the path,” metaphors for the necessary preparatory spiritual work of repentance and faith. That’s what this Second Sunday of Advent is all about.
As a way of preparing your church to hear this text, you could play over your sound system that part of Handel’s “Messiah” that sings this text. The thunderous bass and the furious pace of that piece will prepare your people viscerally to hear the Word of the Lord. Even those who hate classical music will feel the threat and promise of this Gospel in a Minor Key.
It might be difficult to find a jeweler who can demonstrate how silver and gold are refined, but you could show videos of iron smelting to capture the sense of this text about the refiner’s fire. Or, more simply (and less frightening), you could have several brands of detergent on a table and talk about which one cleans best. Used in conjunction with the old gospel hymn, this could be a powerful entry into the Gospel here. “What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus! What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus!”
Author: Scott Hoezee
Someone once said that visits always bring pleasure because even if the arrival of a certain visitor didn’t make you happy, his departure will! The comedic pianist Victor Borge also touched on this topic when he once noted that the mythic figure of Santa Claus has the right idea: you should visit people just once a year. And, of course, a long-standing staple of other comedians is that long list of jokes about receiving a visit from your mother-in-law!
Sometimes whether we view a visit as welcome or unwelcome depends on who the visitor is: there are some people you always enjoy seeing and others whose visit you could do without frankly. But other times our assessment of a given visit is colored not by the visitor but by our situation. For instance, think back to when you were in elementary school. Suppose one day after school you were told by your mother that the principal just called and would be stopping by that evening after supper. How would you react?
Well, if you knew that you were in trouble because of something that happened at school that day, this visit would make you very anxious very fast. But if you knew that you recently entered a national competition on behalf of your school, you might become very excited at the thought that perhaps you had won, and the principal was coming over to make the big announcement in person. In both scenarios, the visitor would be the same person. But your situation would determine whether this person’s visit would be lovely or ugly.
By now, however, you may be wondering why I’m talking about this seeing as the Lectionary passage from Luke 1 (replacing the usual Psalm for Advent 2) never once mentions the word “visit.” But that’s true of only the English translation. In the original Greek of Zechariah’s song, a very interesting word meaning “to visit” crops up twice, first in verse 68 and then again in verse 78. Zechariah is singing about a divine visit of momentous proportion–a visit his son, John, will prepare the world to receive in the right way. The Greek word he uses is loaded with grace. This same word was used at other times to describe the way someone might visit a lonely person or a widow in distress. This is a healing kind of visit, in other words. This is a type of visit motivated by an awareness that someone is hurting, and so you want to see if you can help.
God is visiting this world with a deep-seated desire to help. But are we ready to receive this visit in the right way? Because no matter how well-motivated a given visit may be, the person receiving it needs to be in the right frame of mind. Now on one level, perhaps much of this seems desperately mundane. But think about it: of all the time during December that you spend preparing to pay visits to other people or to receive visits when guests come into your home, when was the last time you thought of Jesus himself as a kind of visitor from the outside? We devote long hours during Advent to preparing for the visits of others: we bake cookies, wash the sheets on the guest bed, purchase presents for those out-of-town grandchildren who will be coming for a visit. But how much thought or time or energy do we devote to that one Visitor, without whom there would be no holiday in the first place?
But perhaps this still seems off-the-mark to you. You might point out, for instance, that the reason we don’t think of Jesus as a visitor is because he is a resident in our hearts all the time. When your wife comes home from work each evening or when your children get off the school bus, you don’t see them as visitors because they live in that house. So also with our Lord: for those of us who believe in him all the time anyway, it’s difficult to view Jesus on a par with Aunt Millie from California who visits just once a year.
And true enough there is something to that line of thought. Nevertheless, I want to suggest that seeing Jesus as a kind of holy Visitor might help us cut through the layers of familiar holiday routine so that we can get back to the core of Advent. Because too often we forget the biblical idea that the incarnation of God’s only Son was a kind of invasion of this world.
Those of you who remember the language of the King James Version of the Bible know that you could often read verses about God’s “visiting the iniquity” of evil people and of God’s “visiting the transgressions of the wicked with punishment.” When Jesus paid his ultimate visit to this world, that dual meaning of “visit” was very much on display: depending on who a given person was and how he or she received Jesus, the Lord’s visit could result in either great joy or great sorrow.
Yet over the centuries even the church has allowed the message of Advent to become mostly about joy at the expense of any talk of judgment. In Zechariah’s song there is a lot of talk about salvation but there is also some talk about punishment for God’s enemies. We may sing “Joy the world, the Lord is come,” but we need to face up to the fact that there are any number of people in this world who actually find no joy at all in the Christian message. They hate it. And they don’t want this Jesus to be called their “Lord” in any sense.
That’s why all four gospels talk about John the Baptist and his fiery message of repentance. Two of the four gospels do not mention Jesus’ birth at all. But Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all recognized that no gospel would be complete without John the Baptist. A gospel may skip Christmas but it may not skip John. Why? Because as Zechariah knew already when John was just eight days old, John was going to be the necessary advance man to get the world ready to receive Jesus.
If Jesus was the one who would plant the mustard seed of the kingdom into the soil of this world, then John was to be the one who did the hard work of plowing the soil to get ready for that planting. John would be the one who would sink down his plow blade into human hearts that were the spiritual equivalent of a parched field whose dirt had long ago hardened into something resembling concrete. If Jesus was God’s divine Visitor to this world, then John was the one who was sent to prepare the way.
Because God knew and John the Baptist knew that as with my analogy earlier about a visit from the school principal, so with the visit of God’s Son: how the visit would be received would very much depend on people’s situation. If they were eager to hear the good news that God’s tender mercies were available to forgive their sins, then they’d be glad to hear just that message from the lips of Jesus. But if people didn’t think they had a problem with sin, then the visit of God’s Son would be merely annoying and a waste of their time.
What the world, and sadly also the Church, too often tries to celebrate is the arrival of God’s Son in our world yet without letting John the Baptist come first. None of us wants any Christmas guests to show up at our homes before we’ve prepared for the visit by cleaning, baking, and decorating. Yet we seem quite willing at times to let Jesus visit us without first letting John the Baptist clean house for us as God sent him to do.
For many people what constitutes a “good Christmas” is just getting through the holidays with minimal conflict. This isn’t the time for confrontation–it’s tough to sing the average Christmas carol through clenched teeth. Yet John the Baptist exists as the gospel’s necessary Advent pre-cursor precisely to confront us, to bring us into conflict with our own selves, to clench our teeth a bit so that we just maybe can repent, can change our lives and center ourselves on the holiness of God that invaded the world when Jesus visited this planet.
Commentators note that beautiful as Zechariah’s song is, in a way it provides a kind of pause–almost an interruption–in the narrative flow of Luke. After all, just look what comes next in chapter 2: the most famous version of the Christmas story! This is what we are all so eager to get to this month–indeed, the Christmas season keeps getting longer as retailers and even we ourselves begin decking things out for Christmas well before Thanksgiving even arrives. We can’t wait to jump into Luke 2 to see again that manger, that baby, those shepherds, and the angels dancing in the night sky.
But Luke forces us to pause. Just before Zechariah’s song, everyone was asking a question we too seldom ask in Advent: What’s going on here? What does this all really mean? Zechariah’s song is, in part, an answer to that question as Zechariah weaves together a rich tapestry of biblical images, including God’s covenant with Abraham, the exodus from Egypt, the stories of King David as well as rich imagery like the rising sun from heaven and the path of peace. The story told in Luke 2 is beautiful, vital, and worthy of our celebration. But we won’t be ready for the visit of that Christ Child until we take a cue from Luke and so pause, take time for a few deep and reflective breaths, and so ponder the message John the Baptist must bring to us first.
Author: Doug Bratt
This second Sunday of the month of December seems like an appropriate time to explore Philippians 1:3-11. Its theme of thanksgiving is, after all, consistent with the Thanksgiving holiday that Americans recently celebrated. What’s more, this Sunday is also near the beginning of the Advent season in which we look forward to “the day of Jesus Christ” (6).
It’s good for preachers and teachers to remind both our hearers and us that Paul embeds all of this thanksgiving in a letter. Christians have, after all, always been at least a bit tempted to shrink epistles like Philippians to theological treatises. So it’s good to remind each other and ourselves that while Philippians contains genuine truths about the faith, it is first of all part of Paul’s communication with the Philippian saints that gives us a window into his loving relationship with them.
It shouldn’t surprise us that the apostle who’s so deeply fond of the Philippians to whom he writes spends much of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson talking about prayer. He, in fact, both begins and ends this lesson with reference to prayer. What’s more, verses 3-6 are basically an extended description of the apostle’s prayers for the Philippian saints.
This emphasis on prayer may offer those who proclaim Philippians 1 an avenue into exploring it with their hearers. We might begin by inviting people to consider the people to whom they feel closest. What characterizes that kind of closeness? For Christians it almost certainly includes prayer.
Philippians 1’s preachers and teachers might then invite their hearers to think about what kind of prayers they offer for the people to whom they feel close. Nearly all of us will admit that we pray both our thanks for them and for our concerns about them.
Those who proclaim Philippians 1 might then go on to note that Paul is little different in that way. He thanks God “every time” (3) he remembers the Philippian saints. The apostle especially thanks God for their “partnership in the gospel” (5). He doesn’t feel the need to tell any of his readers the precise shape that long-standing partnership has taken. Yet we might imagine that it included monetary support, fellow missionaries or perhaps even material provisions for him while he’s in prison.
Paul adds that he can thank God for the Philippians’ partnership with him because he knows that God will carry their work to “completion” (6). So it’s not just that the Philippians and he have done and are going good work for the Lord together. The apostle is also fully confident God will finish that gospel work, even if the Philippians must, with God’s help, do it without the apostle’s help. God will accomplish God’s plans and purposes, even if Paul doesn’t survive to carry them out.
Fred Craddock, to whose commentary on Philippians (John Knox Press, 1985) I owe much for this Starter, says Paul’s expression of affection for his Philippian partners in the gospel is stronger than that expressed in any of his other letters, except perhaps Romans 9:1-5. Philippians, after all, shows that God has created a space in his heart for these Christian brothers and sisters even though many miles and Paul’s chains separate them. He loves and longs for them with nothing less than the love of Jesus Christ (8). The Philippian saints, after all, “share in God’s grace with” the apostle (7).
Verses 3-5’s prayer of thanksgiving as well as verses 7-8’s expression of Paul’s deep love for the Philippians reminds those who proclaim them of the appropriateness of stating our own gratitude to and love for those who support us. It might prompt those who proclaim Philippians to look for ways to say just how those who hear them have been a source of both joy for and partnership with them. They might even find ways, honestly of course, to publicly thank God for their partners in the gospel ministry.
Yet though Paul feels such deep gratitude for and deep joy over the Philippians, he still feels the need to add prayers of intercession for them in verses 9-11. Those saints are certainly remarkable adopted children of God. Yet the apostle suggests the Philippians can still grow more and more in their Christ-likeness.
I’m grateful to N.T. Wright’s commentary on Philippians 1 (Westminster John Knox, 2002) for insights into the Philippian growth for which Paul prays to God. Paul prays, first, that the Philippians’ love will “abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight” (9). It may feel like an unusual request because we generally link love more closely to feelings than wisdom. The apostle, by contrast, ties what we sometimes call “heart” and “mind” closely together. True love, he suggests, is based on an understanding of God and God’s world, as well as God’s ways and purposes.
Secondly, Paul prays that the Philippians’ wise love will make them morally wise. As Wright points out, the Philippians’ culture was no less morally muddy than the 21st century’s. So the apostle prays that God will equip those to whom he writes to both know the difference between what pleases and angers God and live in Christ-like ways. That will allow them to live with genuine joy right up until the day Jesus returns for either them as individuals or for God’s whole beloved world (10b).
Paul, finally, prays in verse 11 that God will fill the Philippians to overflowing with “the fruits of righteousness.” Wright notes that that’s a major emphasis of Paul’s. “Fruits of righteousness” can refer to either God’s own faithfulness or even God’s people’s status as God’s beloved children. In this case, says Wright, “righteousness” seems to refer more to the behavior that arises from God’s faithfulness and Christians’ status as adopted members of God’s family. It’s the kind of lifestyle that’s fully dedicated “to the glory and praise of God” (11).
Paul’s intercessory prayers for the Philippian saints may allow those who proclaim them to reflect on the shape of their own prayers for those whom they love in the Lord. Do we, for example, join him in praying that those we teach and to whom we preach will grow more and more in wise love? Or do we, as I tend to do, mostly pray that God will meet their physical and emotional needs?
An examination of our own prayer lives may then also provide a means by which those who preach and teach Philippians 1 can invite hearers to do similar self-examination. We might ask them to reflect on the shape of their prayers for those they love. Do they pray that loved ones will know the difference between what pleases and displeases the Lord? Or do our hearers mostly pray, with us, that their loved ones will travel safely and have happy holidays?
Paul offers these prayers, of course, in the shadow of “the day of Christ Jesus” (6) to which he also refers as “the day of Christ” (10). Many scholars point to the urgency he felt as he offered those prayers that stems from his strong suspicion, if not assumption, that Jesus would return within his Philippian readers and his lifetime.
It may be fair to assume that many 21st century Christians’ prayers have lost some of that urgency. After all, few of us seem to expect (or perhaps even hope) that Jesus will return for God’s world before he returns for us individually. The urgency of our prayers for our loved ones’ “spiritual” well-being may even be shrunk by our assumption that they’ll always have tomorrow to grow in their wise love and faithful living. Reclamation of Advent’s emphasis on longing for Jesus’ second coming may, in fact, strengthen the urgency of our prayers for all those whom God loves.
Even within Islam, anticipation of the Judgment Day can intensify the prayers of the faithful. In her marvelous book, Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali tells the story of the way that Riyadh, Saudi Arabia experienced and interpreted a 1978 lunar eclipse. She calls it a “dark shadow moving slowly across the face of the moon in the darkening blue sky.”
This remarkable sight sent Ali’s neighbors scrambling. One knocked on her family’s door to ask if they were safe on this Day of Judgment. Mosques all over the city sent up their calls to prayer simultaneously. People prayed in the streets. Neighbors asked each other to pardon their misdeeds and children, whose prayers they assumed were most effective, to pray for them.