MAY 17, 2009

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            I recently read about an airplane pilot on his first solo flight.  For the months of his training he’d always been accompanied by his flight instructor.  He had learned, over time, with the help of his instructor, to handle the plane by himself.  The novice pilot became confident in his abilities.  He believed he had mastered the tricks of the trade.

            On his first solo flight, however, a freak storm came up that tossed around his little plane.  Awareness of his inexperience tightened his throat and he fought to contain the panic rising inside of him.  Out of habit he turned to his instructor for help, but his teacher was no longer beside him.  He would have to get out of this by himself.

            Our section from Philippians today begins with Paul saying ...


            My beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling ...


            Up until now, Paul had been with the Philippians like the flight instructor had been with the pilot.  When the Philippians’ course got rough or they fell into a moral or spiritual tailspin, they could turn to Paul for help.  But now his presence was absent, and soon his absence would be permanent.  Paul was locked in a Roman prison from which he was not going to be released.  Now, the Philippians had to fly the plane on their own.  Now they have a new responsibility.  They are to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.

            Before we go any further, note what Paul says and what he doesn’t say.  Paul says  “work out” your salvation, and not “work for” your salvation.  That’s a big difference.  It is so important that we don’t misrepresent Paul.  We are surrounded by people who are working for their salvation.  They are trying to earn enough points to get into heaven, and they worry about doing enough good things to outweigh the bad things.   They are like the student who is working hard to be accepted to a college, or to gain a scholarship.

            But that’s not how it works, and that’s not what Paul said.  Any of you here married or been married?   If so, do you remember what the officiant said to you at the end of the wedding ceremony?   He or she proclaimed you to be husband and wife.  I’ve done that a number of times.  A number of times I have said,  “By the power vested in me by the church and the State of Nebraska, I pronounce you husband and wife.  May the Lord bless and keep you at the center of his love, now and forevermore.  Amen”  At that moment the couple is married.  It’s a done deal, but they will have to make the most of their marriage.  They will have to work it out.  They will have to work out who sleeps on which side of the bed.  They will have to work out when they will open Christmas presents, on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.  They will have to work out how many children they want.  They will have to work out squabbles over finances and control of the remote.  They will have to work it out.  It’s their responsibility to make the most of their marriage.  No one else can do it for them.  Oh sure, they can request outside help.  They can get counseling if needed, but even the choice to see a counselor is their responsibility.  And working out a marriage is serious business.  If you don’t work it out there are serious consequences, serious financial implications, alimony and child support and the division of property and other assets.

            Paul says something similar here.  The Philippians need to work out their salvation.  Christ has saved them.  That’s a done deal, but they will need to work out what Jesus Christ has worked in.  And they need to take this responsibility seriously, just like one needs to take a marriage seriously.  Paul uses the words, “fear and trembling.”  Work it out with “fear and trembling,” not in the sense of living in fear that you will lose your salvation, but in the sense of not taking this responsibility lightly, of not wasting your life. 

            Alan Redpeth, the Christian writer and preacher, was once an accountant.  He had given his life to God, but like many of us he still had other gods.  He went to church, but his Christianity was just one compartment in his life.  One day he was talking to a friend who said, “You know it is possible to have a saved soul and a wasted life.”  Redpeth tried to brush off his friends words, but the words kept ringing in his ears.  All week the words came back to him like a record that was stuck - “saved soul, wasted life.”  When he commuted to work on the train, the trains wheels churned out, “saved soul, wasted life, saved soul, wasted life.”  Eventually, Redpeth said, “OK, God, I get the message.  I won’t waste what you have done for me.”

            Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.  Take this responsibility seriously.  Don’t waste your life.  Become all you can be in Jesus Christ.   The theological term for this undertaking is “sanctification.”  It has it’s roots in the word “holy” where God in the Book of Leviticus says, “Be holy for I am holy.”  That’s the goal.  We are not just saved from sin, but also saved for a Christlike existence.  A modern day synonym for sanctification might be “spiritual growth.”   Growing in Christ. 

            And Paul says two entities are responsible for this process of sanctification.  First of all, we have responsibility for it.  We are to work out our salvation.  We are to attend to our spiritual growth.

            The good news, however, is we are not alone in this.  Sanctification, spiritual growth, is a shared responsibility.  We have a role to play , but not the only role.  Listen to what else Paul writes,


            Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.


            In other words, God teams with us in the process.  God shares in this new responsibility of ours.

            I think about a sailboat.  Trudy and I were on a sailboat in the Caribbean a few years ago, and we raced another sailboat.  It was one of the excursions on the cruise ship, and we signed up for it, and boy did we need to work on that sailboat.  It was not all fun and games.  A sailor is not passive.  He or she has a role to play.  He or she hoists the sails and steers the rudder, but the sailor is dependent on the wind.  If the wind doesn’t blow, a sailor is dead in the water.  When the wind blows, on the other hand, amazing things can happen. 

            That’s the process of sanctification.   We have a role to play in our spiritual growth.  There are spiritual disciplines we can adopt.  We can pray, worship, study, meditate, fast, join a small group, but ultimately sanctification, but we are not alone in this process.  We are sailors on the sea of life and God supplies the wind.  That leads me to three things I want to say about the sanctification.

            First of all, sanctification for the person in Christ is normative not optional.  Sanctification is God’s will for our lives.  God’s plan is that God’s image in us, which was marred by the Fall, will be restored in all its beauty and glory.   In 1 Thessalonians 4:3 Paul writes, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification.”  The author of Hebrews writes, “Pursue peace with everyone and holiness ... (Hebrews 12:14).”  Remember the goal of sanctification, that we are to be holy as God is holy.  This is not optional, it is normative.

            Second, sanctification is a life-long process not an event. 

            I’m sure that sometime in your life you have traveled with children, and if you have traveled with children, what’s the first question they ask?  “Are we there yet?”  That’s one of the tough things about sanctification.  It doesn’t happen overnight, or in a week, or month or a year or in a decade.  It’s an ongoing process.

            That’s tough for us because we want instant gratification.  It’s sort of like those people who impatiently wait for the elevator.  They become so impatient that they keep pressing the button repeatedly.  Have you seen that?  Maybe you’ve done that yourself, continually pressing the button waiting for the elevator to arrive.  Somehow these folk think that by pressing the button repeatedly that the elevator is going to say to itself, “Wow, that guy on the fourth floor is in a big hurry.  I better skip all the other floors and head right down to the fourth floor to pick him up.”

            No matter how impatient we may become, do not give up on the process of sanctification.  Are we there yet?  Not yet.  Not today.  Not tomorrow.  Just hang in there.  Don’t give up on God. Don’t give up on yourself.  Don’t give up on the process.

            Third, sanctification is as much for others as it is for us.

            There is a real danger in pursuing spiritual growth.  In pursuing spiritual growth we can get off track and spiritual growth can become individualistic and even narcissistic.  The “church lady” on Saturday Night Live saw herself as very holy, but she wasn’t.   The scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ day thought as themselves as very holy, but they couldn’t love anybody.  The New Testament never defines spirituality or sanctification in solely individualistic or narcissistic terms.  It’s defined in terms of community.

            For example, look at verse 14.


            Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that we may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish ...


            In other words, as we mature in Christ this is what we will find: no murmuring, no arguing.  Bitterness and resentment will be replaced by a community of servanthood.

            Unfortunately, I’ve known people, I’ve known churches, who are growing more cantankerous, and yet they think of themselves as holy people. 

            The tangible sign of authentic spiritual growth, in a single word, is love.  There is a huge difference between being sanctified and being sanctimonious.  People sometimes get them mixed up.  The by product of sanctification is loving people.

            I think of a man who, in many ways, would not do well in a contest for high piety.  He has deep wounds that still affect him in many ways.  He virtually had no father growing up.  HIs mother was a difficult person.  She married five different men.  None of the marriages lasted very long.  She had little time for her son and failed to give him much encouragement.

            Then his mother developed a degenerative muscular disease and gradually lost almost every physical capability.  None of her children would have anything to do with her, and not one of her former husbands even acknowledged what she was going through.

            This man, her son, however, decided to love.  He took her into his home and cared for her.  He fed her by hand.  Combed her hair.  Cleaned up her messes. 

            When she died, sixteen people came to her funeral.  Not even all of her kids came.  But this man was there, and on a little tape recorder he played a tape of his mom singing a Christmas carol.  He talked about how she loved Christmas and how when he was a kid he used to play the guitar and she would sing with him.

            He didn’t love her perfectly, not by a long shot.  But he loved her when loving was the hardest.  He loved her when no one else would love, and he remembered her with kind words.  That’s what sanctification looks like.

            Who else loves like that?  God loves like that.  God loves us when we are the hardest to love.  Be holy as God is holy.  That’s our responsibility.  Thankfully, we don’t have to do this alone.  It’s God’s destiny for us.  God intends to sanctify us so we can love as God loves.