When I was younger, my family spent a lot of time in the summer at our cabin at Dillberry Lake. It was both very relaxing and a great social environment because people would stop and chat with each other on the beach or visit back and forth between cabins. At one social gathering at a neighbor’s cabin, my Dad accidentally let a word slip that he later wished he hadn’t said. That word wasn’t something that would be considered bad by today’s standards, but it was a word that, back in that time, you wouldn’t want a child to repeat. As it happened, our neighbors had a pre-school son who was within earshot. He heard that word and then began to repeat it over and over again, much to my Dad’s utter embarrassment.
Imitation is how children learn. Much of what they see are things that they have never done before. So they tend to imitate what they see, and hear, and they learn to do by doing. And it is not just children who learn by imitation. Young adults often pattern themselves after influential mentors and then perhaps follow them into similar careers. That makes sense because seeing someone who has already gone through the challenging process of preparing for a career can encourage someone else to work hard and do the same. Regardless of our age or stage in life, all of us are impacted by the field of marketing, which is based on the concept of imitation. We see something on our screens that draws us in and moves us to imitate it by buying the featured product. So there is no shortage of things or people to imitate. The challenge we face is sorting through all the imitation opportunities and patterning our lives after things that are important.
One thing that is greatly needed, but not often imitated, is peace, and that is what we are thinking about today. So the question that I am asking you to consider is: Who are you imitating so you can have peace in your inner being?
To help us as we reflect on that question, we are continuing our current series, the Promise of Advent. Last week, we saw how Jesus’ promise to always be with us and to bring us home at the end of time is what brings us hope. This week, to guide our reflections on the pursuit of peace, we will be looking at Philippians 3:17- 4:1, 4-9. If you have a Bible or a Bible app, I invite you to turn there now.
Paul’s Letter to the Christians in Philippi
As you do that, let me share with you some background information that will help you to understand what is going on in our passage. The letter to the Philippian church was written by Paul. The reference to the author being in chains in chapter one indicates that Paul was in prison when he wrote it. While scholars disagree when and where this imprisonment was, it seems to fit with the time when Paul was under house arrest in Rome. Paul is writing primarily to thank the Philippians for the gift that they sent to him, but he also wants to encourage them in their faith in God. Paul’s letter contains one of the most moving passages written about Jesus in chapter 2, a section that is thought to be a quotation of an early Christian hymn. The book of Philippians is sometimes called the Letter of Joy because of its repeated encouragement to rejoice, a fact that seems very profound given that the author was in jail when he wrote it.
To encourage the Christians of Philippi towards peace, Paul emphasizes this principle of imitation. Today’s passage starts off with these words from Paul: Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. (Philippians 3:17) Paul is saying, “You have seen what a life of faith looks like by observing me and my companions when we were with you. Now imitate those who live like we do.” Paul knew that the Christian Church in Philippi was very young and many of the people in that church were new to the faith. So the need for good and godly mentors was very great. Therefore, Paul encouraged the people to seek out mentors to imitate, but he also urged them to be very careful as they chose whom they would follow.
He warned them against choosing a mentor whose mind was set on earthly things because the mentor’s destination will be the follower’s destiny. He writes, For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. (Philippians 3:18-19) Think about where the people you look up to are headed. Is that where you want to end up? If it isn’t, then don’t follow them.
And here is why doing so would be such a tragic choice! An infinitely better destiny has already been prepared in advance for you by Jesus. This is why God the Son came into this world and wrapped himself in human flesh, becoming fully human in order to save us from a destiny of destruction that was carved out for us ever since our first parents disobeyed God. From that moment on, every human being came into this world as a natural-born enemy of God hell-bent on going our own way regardless of the damage that results in our lives or in the lives of others. None of us like to think of ourselves in this way, but the proof of our sinful nature is found in the woeful track record we all leave behind and the specter of death that we are all headed towards. Death, sin and brokenness were never part of God’s original plan, and yet they are here, at humanity’s invitation, not God’s.
God could have given up on humanity and all creation, thrown us on the trash heap of eternity and decided to start over. But he didn’t. You see, the God described for us in the Bible is a divine community of love, one God, and yet three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who have always existed together, loving each other with choosing, unconditional, infinite, self-giving love. “God is love,” the Bible tells us. It is because God is love that God the Father chose to create, speaking all things into existence through God the Son, even as God the Holy Spirit hovered over the primordial ocean depths. God created, not because he needed love, he created so that he could have more to love. And that did not change when humanity and all creation fell into chaos and corruption at the first human sin.
Just as God first chose to create because of love, God then chose to redeem because of love. It was for this mission that Jesus came at his first arrival, or Advent. How the infinite, all-powerful God the Son could become a helpless baby born into poverty in a manger is a mystery too immense for us to fully understand. And yet it happened. Growing up, the God-human Jesus lived an ordinary human life like we do, except that he did not sin. He did this so that we could have his wholesomeness, goodness and purity in our lives. And then, when the time was just right, according to circumstances that were set in place by his heavenly Father, Jesus went to the cross and suffered the punishment that we deserve in order to win for us what we do not deserve, the forgiveness of all our sins. After paying the full cost of forgiveness for all sins of all people throughout all time, Jesus then gave up his life and died.
But Jesus’ life did not end there, and this is what makes his actions on our behalf so sweet, for on the third day that followed Jesus rose from the dead. He is alive and he is with us right now. And as good as that is, we still are not experiencing the fullness of life that Jesus has for us. To use a modern day analogy, it would be as if Jesus went online and paid for the redemption and renewal of all things, but the package hasn’t arrived yet. All we have is the promise from Jesus that the package will come.
And what a package that will be. Jesus is going to show up one day and say, “Surprise! I’m here!” and he will give to everyone who looks to him in faith new resurrection bodies that will never get sick, never grow old and never die. The world and everything around us will also be restored and renewed. All evil will be banished, death will be defeated, all wrongs will be overturned and made right, and God’s shalom peace and wellness will be everywhere as all things, including us, will be filled with life like we have never been before.
Jesus’ Presence Gives Us Peace in the Midst of Turmoil
God chose to create because of love, God chose to redeem because of love, and God also chose to be with us because of love. This is the other great significance of Jesus coming into the world. He came to be with us. One of the names for Jesus is Emmanuel, which means “God-with-us”. And this is the promise that gives us peace, even when there is turmoil all around us. God tells us through Paul: Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. (Philippians 4:5) Let’s ponder this for a moment. Paul is in chains in Rome because he appealed to Caesar when his enemies wanted to kill him. If anyone could be justified for being angry and vindictive, it would be Paul. Yet he writes, “Let your gentleness be evident to all.”
How is this possible? It is because Paul knew the Lord was near. He knew that the God of love who created him and all things, the God who saved him from a life of self-righteous destruction, the God who saved him for an eternity of rich, full, abundant life with him, that God was with Paul in prison in Rome. Jesus’ death and resurrection destroyed the sin barrier between God and humanity. Therefore, Jesus was with Paul as he wrote from jail in Rome, just as he had been all the times when Paul had been unjustly accused, and wrongfully imprisoned, and attacked, beaten and stoned, and just as he would be when he ushered Paul from this life into the next when hope became reality, and faith became sight, and love bloomed into a fullness that was beyond anything Paul could ever ask or imagine.
Paul knew that his life was in the hands of a God who loved him and all things with a choosing, infinite, unconditional, self-giving love. And that was enough for Paul to drop that tendency we all have to guard his own life and he let Jesus do that guarding for him. It was from a place of lived experience that Paul could write: Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)
What Does This Mean For Us?
So what does this mean for us? In an article in the Harvard Business Review titled “The Best Strategy for Reducing Stress”, author Peter Bregman tells a story about his friend Rob who was sitting on a boat in the Bahamas, sipping a cold drink and listening to the waves lap against the side of the boat. For most people, this would be a very relaxing situation, but it wasn’t for Rob. That was because there was a gap between what Rob had expected to happen, and what was actually happening. You see, Rob was a real estate developer who had thought that he would keep working even while he lounged on a boat in the Bahamas. But in order to do that, Rob needed his cell phone to work, and it wasn’t.
When these kinds of things happen, Bregman writes, there are only two things that we can do. We either change reality or we change our expectations. That’s good advice from a human perspective and Rob’s situation resolved itself when he realized that all the cell service in the Bahamas was out and there was nothing he could do. So he changed his expectations and accepted things as they were.
But Jesus is inviting us to live day-by-day according to a third option, where we trust that he has already brought about a new reality, in which we are citizens of heaven and the circumstances of this world do not matter anymore in terms of where we will end up at the end of time. We will be with Jesus and he will be with us to a degree of fullness that our life with him now can only foreshadow. We know whose we are and we know where we are going. This world’s brokenness with all its upheaval and sorrow has no claim on us. Jesus has transformed us into heavenly people living in an earthly world.
So we give up our expectations to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We know that regardless of what happens, God is able to turn all things into something good. Even the ultimate evil, death, has been transformed by Jesus into a process whereby we are purged of all our sin and ushered into eternity to wait with him for the day when he restores and redeems all things.
When we surrender our expectations to Jesus and live by the new reality he has given us, then God is fully able to use us for his purposes in this world. For though the circumstances of this world no longer matter to our eternal destiny, they do matter for the eternal destiny of others. Having shed our puny human expectations, we experience the peace from God that surpasses all understanding and we become more open to guidance from the Holy Spirit. Under his direction, and with the gifts, resources and abilities God has given us, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are able to make an eternal difference, through us, in the lives of others, drawing them into the fullness of a forever life with the God who loves them.
So then the question of peace is distilled down to this: Do you believe that God is love? Do you believe that God loves you so much that he has already rescued you through his Son, Jesus? Do you believe that Jesus loves you so much that he already has prepared a place for you in the new heaven and earth to come? Do you believe that God is powerful enough to handle all of your cares and concerns and that he loves you enough to make all things work out for your good? Then create the firm intention to not worry and instead give all of your cares and concerns to God in prayer. And you will experience a peace from God that surpasses all understanding. Not only that, but you will also be more open to the opportunities he puts before you to be part of his redemptive work, and you will see and experience things that you would not otherwise.
We read the words of the Bible and the events we encounter there sometimes look so different from our experiences in this life that they seem like they are from a fantasy world like Narnia. But they are not. The Promise of Advent is that God stepped into this world and became one of us to bring us peace, shalom peace from God, peace that surpasses all understanding. Peace that God gives to broken, sinful human beings like us because Jesus tore down the barrier of sin between God and humans and to be God-with-us.
And because God is with us, then anything is possible. It really is possible for us to live with peace that surpasses all understanding, because Jesus came and he is coming again.
Therefore, I am leaving with you today a two-fold challenge. First, identify someone who lives with peace from God and imitate them. Find out what sorts of attitudes and practices they use to live with that peace and see if some of those things will also work for you. Second, be the kind of person you would want others to imitate to gain peace. How do we do that? Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7) Amen.
(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley BC on December 5, 2021. For more info, please go to wglc.org.)