Each year I have come to the Senior Recognition Sunday and watched the eyes of parents as they celebrated this pivotal moment in the life of their son or daughter. But, in those same moments I also caught the hint of sadness in their eyes found in acknowledging the babe they once held in their arms was now ready to head off into the world. This week I come with a different appreciation of that moment because one of those high seniors is my own.
Over the years I have heard a seeming endless stream of baccalaureate sermons and graduation speeches. Most seem to waffle somewhere between the ridiculous and the profound. It seems the speakers have each wanted to take their shot at saying something, anything, that the graduates might remember. Our focal passage this morning seems to carry that same sense of urgency. Beth read the passage earlier in our service. You can find it printed on the front page of our worship guide. What we hear is that Paul wanted to both challenge and encourage the church in Philippi. He had helped to start them and he had come to place where he was not sure he would get to see them again. When you read through Acts and read just beneath the surface of the other letters of Paul found in the New Testament, it would be my best guess that the church at Philippi was his favorite church. This is one of the churches that emerged from his following his Macedonian call. This is the church that starts with Lydia and those praying along the riverside. It is where he was imprisoned and God shook the earth and broken open the doors of the prison. It is where the jailer and his family responded to the worship witness of Paul and Silas and came to Christ. I tell you this because I want you to know when Paul challenges this church it is born in the deep love and affection he has for them. He knows that they are at a pivotal moment in their journey.
So our focal passage begins in verse 12; 12Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, Paul reminds them that they have chosen to claim a faith that has sustained them and guided them in good days and difficult ones; in days when he was there to encourage them and the days when they were on their own. He challenges them with words that are hard to hear; continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, In Baptist life we are quick to talk about the eternal nature of salvation – and it is true. But here, Paul wants them to understand that the redemption does not stop at the moment of faith, it is a continuing journey of choosing to give yourself –your joys and your failures – to God. With fear and trembling we continue to come before God to acknowledge that we sometimes blow it (OK often blow it) and need God’s forgiveness – a fresh taste of his love and grace. He wanted them to keep listening for the voice of God and to seek God’s stirring in their lives. Many of you we have recognized this morning will be leaving this city and leaving this church to find your way into your next season of life. It is our hope that we will have helped you to discover and strengthen your foundation of faith. As you go, I encourage you to continue work at your faith – to continue to claim the power of redemption – to keep seeking God’s way. The temptation to his the snooze button will be strong when you are on your own. You will have to choose to continue to work out your salvation.
This afternoon I am doing Classen School of Advanced Studies Baccalaureate Service. In doing some of my homework for the event, I ran across what has become one of my favorite graduation speech quotes. It comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson. He offered: “What lies behind you and what lies in front of you, pales in comparison to what lies inside of you.” We hear this theme when Paul finishes his sentence. He says, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. This phrase has always stopped me in my tracks. Paul wanted them to understand that God was at work in them and through them. What lies inside is more than the accumulation of our knowledge or the breathing expression of our dreams. God is at work in you and me. God wants to speak to us and through us. He is at work in our lives with an amazing purpose.
Listen to the second half of our passage that starts in verse 14, 14Do everything without complaining or arguing, 15so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe 16as you hold (on to) the word of life. Paul wanted them to get past the petty stuff we do, like complaining, bickering, and arguing so that we would stand out in contrast to those around us –so that we would be the kind of children of God we were intended to be. Complaints and argument begins the moment when we feel we are more right than others. It is all about us. Paul reminds them of this by claiming verbiage that would have immediately taken the hearers of the letter to Israel’s murmuring and grumbling against God in the desert in the Exodus story. There were words that would have struck them deeply. Paul wanted them to understand that these kinds of self focused moments took them away from where God wanted them to be. Instead, Paul tells them that God’s desire was for them to shine like stars in the universe. I think I came to understand this picture one night when I was driving in West Texas somewhere between Nowhere and Notthereyet. The road was empty, the surroundings were remarkably still, and the sky had never seemed so big in my life. There were no street lights – or even other car lights – on the horizon – only the stars in this big black sky. The stars shined so bright. Each was unmistakable from the others. Together they lit the sky. God’s purpose is at work in our lives – redeeming and renewing us – so that we might be like the stars – shining in the darkness of broken lives and shattered spirits. We are suppose to shine so bright we can point others the way.
But Paul understood that they could not shine like stars on their own. He tells them that they are to shine 16as you hold (on to) the word of life or maybe better understood as you hold onto "the message that brings life." If they were to fulfill God’s desire they had to be tuned into God’s voice so that they could hear God speak. In my early teen years, in an era long before Ipods, I had a cool little AM/FM radio. Football and basketball games in our area always seem to land on AM stations. You could not just punch in their station numbers you would have to fiddle with the dial, to get through the static and carefully tune into the channel. I think sometimes all the things going on in our lives are like that old AM static. We have to figure how to tune out the static and tune into the message that brings life. The question is not whether God is speaking to us, but whether we have positioned our lives to hear.
Paul wanted the church in Philippi to succeed – to shine like stars in the universe because they were the living reflection of his ministry. He tells them that he wants this for them not only for their sake but also in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing. 17But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. 18So you too should be glad and rejoice with me. He wanted to know that his life and ministry made a difference in their lives. He had been faithful to hear God speak and his willingness to be faithful when he heard God speak and call him to Macedonia. He longed for his favorite church to listen for God’s voice and respond.