Sunday, November 24, 2019
Scripture: Matthew 13:18-23 & Philippians 4:10-23
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon

Recently the church staff has started a new practice of weekly all-staff devotions, and this week’s devotion started with this story that perfectly fit my sermon. So, I’m grateful to the staff for helping write the sermon! Here’s the story.

Two old friends met each other on the street one day. One looked sad — almost on the verge of tears. His friend asked, “What’s going on? Why are you so sad?”

He said, “Let me tell you: three weeks ago, my uncle died and left me $40,000.”

“Well, that’s a lot of money,” the other replied.

“But you see, two weeks ago a cousin I never even knew died and left me $85,000, free and clear.”

“Sounds like you’ve been blessed,” observed his friend.

“You don’t understand!” he interrupted. “Let week my great-aunt passed away. I inherited almost a quarter-million dollars from her.”

Now the man’s friend was really confused. “Then, why do you look so glum?”

“This week — nothing!”

Isn’t it the condition of the human heart not be satisfied with what we have, whether it’s a little or a lot? It’s a problem that is intensified in our world because we consume more advertising than any culture in human history. Experts estimate that the typical American encounters between 4,000 and 10,000 advertisements daily, and as we turn towards the Christmas season, I can only imagine that will intensify. The entire purpose of advertising is to create within us a desire for something we don’t have, whether or not we actually need the thing. Advertising is designed to create discontent within our lives, and if we’re getting bombarded with constant messages of discontent, it’s safe to assume that it is difficult to find contentment.

We’re on our final week in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. In these final verses Paul covers two themes that I find so relevant to us and so pertinent to this being the week of Thanksgiving — contentment and gratitude. The first five verses cover contentment, and the remaining ones convey gratitude. Paul begins, “I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me.” The word “revived” here is a resurrection word. After a long season of silence, the Philippians have brought life to Paul. We have spent a lot of time this fall trying to imagine what it’s like to be in Paul’s position, and it’s worth doing that one more time this morning because this short, four chapter letter doesn’t really give us the bigger picture of what’s going on. It’s been years since Paul has been in Philippi. They helped him in Thessalonica shortly after his first visit to Philippi, but he’s faced a lot of difficulty since then. Things got really messy and difficult in Corinth. He headed to Ephesus, and he caused a riot, landing him in prison. Months have passed, and beyond the help of some friends in town, he has no connection to beloved friends elsewhere. But the Philippians have heard and have kept their promises. At risk of his own life, Epaphroditus has traveled a great distance with a substantial gift for Paul. It must have felt like Easter morning all over again. Revived. After a long winter, the buds are now emerging from the ground, promising new beginning and life. While their gift and presence is a grace to Paul, he wants us to know that his hope is in the One who holds his life, whether things are going well or poorly.

In his words, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need” (Phil. 4:11-12). Contentment. The longer I have been a pastor, the more I am convinced that contentment is one of the greatest spiritual gifts we can receive. To be satisfied that in Christ we have more than enough. To look at our lives and circumstances and to see not only plenty but also so much that we are eager to give away from ourselves for Christ’s purposes. In the divine economy, we always have enough because our loving God provides for us. Perhaps, like Paul, we need to learn the secret of living well whether everything is going great or everything is falling apart.

This section closes with that famous verse 13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” It’s a verse you see show up at sporting events. Tim Tebow used to wear it on his eye black for football games. I remember meditating on that verse while laboring through difficult sets at swim practice. As useful as that verse may be to swimming hard or scoring a touchdown, that application really pales in comparison to all the ways we can apply it to life today. Facing a difficult day at work? I can do all things through Christ. Walking with a friend through a tragedy? I can do all things through Christ. Traveling in the valley of the shadow of death? I can do all things through Christ. Contentment comes in having confidence that, come what may, God is in control. Today is Christ the King Sunday, according to the church calendar. It’s the Sunday before Advent starts, and it’s the annual reminder that Jesus is reigning at the right hand of God. No matter how difficult life gets, we have confidence that Jesus is reigning and will bring that reign to bear in the fullness of time. With that trust, we can live today with a peace and contentment that others just don’t have. Fred Craddock puts it this way, “Being in Christ is adequate for all situations.”[1]

I chose the reading from Matthew for that same reason today. It’s Jesus’ interpretation of the Parable of the Sower. There are two things I want us to notice briefly. First of all, some of the seed falls among the thorns, and when those seeds sprout they get choked out by the clutter around them. Jesus’ interprets the thorns as the “cares of the world and the lure of wealth” (Matt. 13:22). In other words, discontentment. It chokes out the potential life we have. Second, have you ever noticed how generous the sower is in the parable? When I plant a garden, I carefully put every plant where I believe it has the best chance to grow and be fruitful. This sower is chucking seeds everywhere — the path, the rocky ground, among the thorns, and on fertile soil. This sower is hopeful — hopeful that these plants can grow in unexpected places. God is that sower, and God is that generous with us. We learn contentment when we put our trust in God’s provision. In other words, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

Today is the Sunday before Thanksgiving, so it’s fitting that our text is actually thank you note from Paul to the Philippians. They have been taking a financial collection that Paul is bringing to the poor in Jerusalem. Of all the churches Paul has started, the church in Philippi has been the most steadfast in their support. They aren’t a wealthy church, like the one in Corinth, yet, like Paul, it seems that the Philippians have learned the secret of living with plenty or little. They are content and open-handed. So, verses 15-18 really are like the thank you letter that I send on behalf of the Session when the church receives your pledge. It says “thanks,” of course, but it’s also an acknowledgement — a receipt — that we have received what was intended. In Paul’s case, he wants them to know that Epaphroditus has delivered the entire collection to Paul. He  connects that gift to worship. Like a fragrant offering given to please God and to say “thanks,” this giving of money to the ministry sends up a beautiful aroma, pleasing to God.

Like contentment, I am convinced that gratitude is a spiritual gift to be nurtured in the Christian life. Grateful people are people I want to be around. Grateful people have learned satisfaction. Grateful people have contagious lives. Grateful people know contentment and have learned generosity. In this week of Thanksgiving, I hope you take some time for gratitude. Why not take thirty minutes this week to write down a list of all your blessings? Why not take that list and offer it to God in prayer, a pleasing sacrifice from your life? Why not recognize how ridiculously blessed each of us is, whether we have a little or a lot. In Christ, we have everything we need, right?

We have given 13 weeks to this short letter this fall, which is exactly one quarter of the year. That’s a lot of time for four chapters, but I pray that you’ve found a richness in feasting on this letter. I know I haven’t run out of things to say about it, although I am ready to turn my attention to Advent, preparing the way for Christ to come into the world. Before we put this text to rest for a time, I want to review three themes that are constant in this letter — joy, love, and fulfillment. First, joy. Many have noted that this is Paul’s most joyful writing. It’s a word he uses throughout the letter, a fact I find notable because he’s writing from prison. His circumstances are hard. Life isn’t working the way he planned, and yet he is joyful. Why? Because he’s learned contentment. He knows that joy is different from happiness. Happiness is conditioned on circumstances. Joy is something deeper, something inside of us that is a gift from God and that no one can steal from us. I hope you find that joy as part of your life.

Second, love. The partnership between Paul and the Philippians is solid and beautiful. Clearly there is love between them, but it is a love that goes way deeper than emotion. It is a love not conditioned on circumstances or closeness. No, it is a love rooted in Christ that covers great distance and that is strong no matter what happens. It’s the kind of love I hope we are learning as a church. It’s the kind of love I see when you quietly send notes of encouragement to others going through hard times. It’s the kind of love that welcomes others regardless of their background. When our greatest purpose is serving Jesus, we’ll see that love and partnership pervade our lives.

Finally, fulfillment. In a world loaded with dissatisfaction, it is only in Christ that we find our purpose and fulfillment. Today we mark that Jesus is reigning and will, in the fullness of time, come to reign fully over all the creation. Our hearts will always be restless until they find their peace in Christ, the One who loves, forgives, heals, and reigns. This week and in the weeks to come, I pray that we can all find our satisfaction in the peace of Christ and from that sense of peace, I pray that joy and generosity would flow out of our lives to others so that they would know how good God is today, tomorrow, and forever.

[1] Craddock, Fred. Philippians. 76.