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Sunday, September 8, 2019
Scripture: Psalm 133 & Philippians 1:1-11
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon

In 2004, Jess and I packed up our lives and our one-year-old daughter to move to Princeton, New Jersey, and start seminary. We had spent the previous three years in Ann Arbor (Go Blue!) going to school and serving in a small campus ministry on the fringes of the University of Michigan’s central campus. Our campus ministry had a student leadership team, and one of those students was from upstate New York, not far from Albany. Now, when we started seminary, we did not have much to our names, and we were living off of student loans. So, after a summer spent intensively studying Greek, we knew we wanted to take a small break, and we knew it needed to be inexpensive.

As we were leaving Ann Arbor, our student leader from upstate New York mentioned that his family had a “camp,” which is East Coast for “a cottage,” and he told us we could use it if we wanted. So that August, we packed things for the weekend and headed to this property. It was beautifully located in the Adirondack Mountains, on a little lake. But as we entered the camp, we quickly realized that he hadn’t given us the full picture of the building. This family camp was a decades-long, on-going building project for the family as they had time and spare money to work on it. That is, the place was a work zone, with power tools lying around. August in upstate New York means temperatures in the 40s and 50s overnight, so the place had to be heated. The heat came from a wood stove centrally located in the house. Now, if this was just Jess and me, we would have been fine. But we had a one-year-old who was crawling and walking a bit, but who could not be reasoned with. We couldn’t tell her, “Don’t touch the power tools,” or “The stove is hot, so don’t touch it!” What was supposed to be a relaxing weekend away turned into 48 hours of perpetual stress that our child would not survive the weekend. It was a project that began years earlier, but it was nowhere near completion. It’s been 15 years, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the project still is not complete.

We take on many projects by faith, hoping that someday they will be complete. Paul planted churches in this manner, including the church in Philippi, which was his first church on the European continent. He had a habit of starting a church, training its leaders, and moving on to other places to do the same, which meant that he had to trust God and others to see the project to completion. Yet, he trusted that this was not his work alone to do and that its completion was not dependent solely on his dedication, as he writes in verse 6, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

This fall we are spending our time walking through Paul’s brief letter to the Philippians. The sermons will walk through this letter, section by section. There will be a Bible study between the services on it, as well as a group that meets for breakfast on Thursdays, which discusses the sermon texts in preparation for Sunday. It’s a lot of time to focus on just a couple of pages in the Bible, but it’s worth our time. Our hope is that this is your chance to dig into the Bible, whether you’re a lifelong student of the Bible or you’ve never taken the step into the Bible. This is a great opportunity for us to be shaped together by God’s Word, so we truly hope this will be a season of spiritual growth through engaging more deeply with the Bible.

Since we’re going to devote so many Sundays to Philippians, I want to give some time this morning to the original context of this letter. Let’s begin with the city of Philippi itself. What do we know about it? To begin, Alexander the Great’s father, Philip of Macedon, rebuilt the town of Krenides, and renamed it after himself. It grew in wealth both because of the gold mines just outside of town and because of the Via Egnatia, a major Roman road that ran through it. Philippi was only nine miles from the port that connected East and West in the Roman Empire. A few decades before Jesus’ birth, Mark Antony and Octavius defeated Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar, on the plains outside of Philippi, and they settled some of the soldiers there. Within a decade, Caesar Augustus made Philippi a Roman colony, which made it an administrative center for the Empire, its inhabitants were now citizens of Rome, and Latin became the official language. In essence, Philippi had become kind of like New York City is to us today. It had strong economic importance. It was patriotic – very loyal to Rome. It also would have pledged loyalty to the pantheon of deities.[1]

We learn in Acts 16 that the Holy Spirit nudges Paul, Timothy, Silas, and others to cross from Troas (in what is Turkey today) into Macedonia (in what is Europe today). This would be sometime around the year 50 A.D., less than two decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection. This the first time the gospel of Jesus has made its way into the western world. Typically, when Paul entered a new city, he sought out the synagogue to speak to the Jews about Jesus as the Messiah, but it is clear there is only a small Jewish presence in Philippi because there is no synagogue. Instead, Paul finds a small group of women, gathered outside the city walls by the river. They are there because it’s a place of prayer. The women hear Paul’s message, and the Lord opens their hearts. Thus the church in Philippi is born.

It doesn’t take long for Paul to get himself into trouble. A slave girl who earned her master money because she could tell fortunes, sees Paul and proclaims, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation” (Acts 16:17). She follows them around, shouting this, which surely isn’t the best way to keep a low profile as a Jewish minority in a Roman colony, so Paul gets so annoyed, that he casts the spirit of divination out of her, rendering her unable to make money for her master. This gets Paul and Silas tossed into jail, until they are freed by an earthquake. They know they need to move along, so they say a fond farewell to this tiny house church, and make their way next to Thessalonica to the south. Acts records two other visits to Philippi, but Paul is never able to stay for long. It seems like Philippi was not a welcoming place for Paul and the gospel.

Yet, the letter Paul writes to the Philippians reveals a deep connection between Paul and this small church. They are partners in the gospel. They share financially in Paul’s ministry. Theirs is a connection that appears forged in struggle, and it seems that made them stronger together. Between five and ten years after Paul has made his initial stop in Philippi, Paul is compelled to write them the letter we now know as Philippians. (The dating of the letter depends upon where Paul is when he writes to them. The earlier date depends upon an imprisonment in Ephesus, which is not mentioned in the Bible but which seems likely. The later date assumes Paul is imprisoned in Rome when he writes.) I prefer the earlier dating on this one, so I’m just going to go with Ephesus to keep us from getting confused. Paul writes several other letters in this era, including Colossians, Philemon, and perhaps Ephesians.

So, I know that’s quite a lot of background into this short letter, but I have one more thing to share before I get a little deeper into our text. It was in our weekly email, but I encourage you to bring a Bible with you every week this fall. We plan to dig deeply into this short letter. Using your own Bible will give you space to make notes. It will transfer what you’ve read here to your home. I’d encourage you to read this short letter several times in the coming weeks. You can even try it out loud. Paul wrote this letter to be heard, so read it to yourself, and let these words wash over you as the Spirit speaks to you in new ways. For now, please take out your Bibles and turn to Philippians 1.

We may call Philippians a “book of the Bible,” but it is actually a letter. Letter writing was quite common in Paul’s day, and Paul’s letters follow the common format of letters of his time – salutation, body, and farewell. So, take a look at a Bible near you. Philippians 1:1 is a salutation, beginning with the author of the letter, Paul, and his traveling companion Timothy, and a description of themselves, as merely “servants of Christ Jesus.” Typically, the author of a letter would add far more biographical details, particularly important titles, but Paul’s identity is known both by his audience and is wrapped up in being first and foremost a servant of Jesus. The titles don’t matter here. Verse 2 continues with a greeting to the saints in the city, which is pretty standard in Paul’s letters.

Next Paul moves into thanksgiving, which again is pretty typical of Paul’s writing, but Paul likes to use that section as an introduction to themes on his mind. Particularly in his prayers at the beginning of his letters, we see what amounts to a thesis statement. Do you want to know what Philippians is about? Focus on the prayer. It’s a lens through which we can see almost everything.

Paul’s thanksgiving and prayer in verses 3-11 cover the past, present, and future. You’ve already heard all the background on Philippi and on the church’s founding. I’m blown away by the tight connection there is between Paul and this church because he has not been able to spend much time there. He had significant stints in Ephesus, Rome, and Corinth, but not a long one in Philippi, which means the comfort and encouragement they received from each other happened through envoys, letters, and gifts. So, Paul begins with thanksgiving for past faithfulness, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Just as my family had no idea we were walking into a never-ending construction project in upstate New York, so the Philippians may be wondering what God is doing with them. Where is this headed? And Paul says that God is faithful to complete this work. It will happen.

Then Paul turns to the present, “It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.” As we’ll see later in the letter, the Philippians have sent one of their own to deliver a financial gift to Paul. Their partnership in the gospel went beyond prayers to tangible expressions of love and care. In a society without cashier’s checks or credit cards, you could imagine the danger of carrying money long distances. They risked with their love for Paul, and they did so even when others may have wondered how things would ultimately go for someone who so often found himself in chains. As Paul would write to another of his churches, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor 13:7).

Finally, Paul turns to the future. Even though he is in prison, he has hopes for what is to come for them all. God’s not done with any of them yet, so Paul wants to encourage and instruct them. Now keep in mind that “Paul is using letters to teach his churches not just what to think, but how to think.”[2] Faithfulness is not rule-keeping. It is discernment in a sea of doubt. It is swimming against the currents of what is socially acceptable. And so Paul sets up the rest of his letter, “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”

Love. Joy. Fulfillment. We’re going to hear these themes a lot in the coming weeks. We’re going to see how they’re rooted in the person and work of Jesus. We’re going to see the ways they work themselves out even in difficult circumstances. We’re going to learn what it means to live as a people who have eyes to see what God is doing in the world and who want to be a part of that work. I really hope you find a lot of joy in studying this letter with us. And I hope that you’ll take the time to dwell in Philippians on your own and with others. It’s worth the effort.

Finally, since we’re spending so much time in a letter, we thought it would be a fun experience for the church to do some personal letter writing through this series. We communicate in so many ways today, but letter writing is really becoming a lost art. I don’t know about you, but I really enjoy when someone takes the time to write me and mail it. It’s just different than an email or Facebook post. So, consider doing some letter writing. In September, we’d love you to write letters of encouragement. Whom do you know who needs a letter like that? In October, write a letter about your personal faith. That could be something for yourself or a loved one. Or maybe someone shaped your faith, and you want to thank them. In November, let’s write letters of gratitude to others. And as we wrap up, we’d love for you to write a letter to the church about your hopes for our future. We’d love your feedback on the letters, and we’d love to receive your final letter. Maybe we’ll see the Spirit at work among us in this. I think we will.

Friends, the God who began a good work in you is faithful to complete it. You can count on that. I can’t wait to journey with you through Philippians.

[1] Craddock, Fred. Philippians, 12.

[2] Wright, N.T. Paul: A Biography. 274.