Now I understand why the Holy Spirit is having us study Philippians together. Philippians is a letter written to an anxious church, a church that is anxious because their pastor, Paul, has left, and he’s now in prison, and they don’t know what will happen to themselves or to him in the future. So now that makes more sense. I didn’t know when I started promoting this series a week before Easter that I wouldn’t be staying on with you. But by the first message, I was beginning to really wrestle with the spirit about whether He was calling me to stay on. Paul spoke about constraints in ministry in the second message, and that has been a passage that I’ve taken to heart many times of the years when I consider constraints in ministry, and so it was necessary that I wrestle with the word and spirit over that passage. In last weeks passage, Paul is wrestling with his own interior struggle - what it better, to remain on which is profitable for you or to depart and be with Christ? Only that for me to live and to die is gain. The last two weeks have been hard because I’ve had to conceal a bit of my struggle from you. But now everything is in the open. And today we come to verse 27, and I have set aside this passage for you, and it is on my heart to share it with you. It is the appeal of the gospel worker for the church he loves, the church he may soon be leaving, the appeal that they may carry one and continue in the gospel of Jesus Christ
Philippians is a book of joy for an anxious church. Theme similar to Ecclesiastes - we also spoke about joy. Joy comes from God, not from our stuff or our circumstance.
But we should be careful here, because it is surely true in our experience that we do find joy in people, things and circumstance. “How sweet to hold a newborn baby and feel the pride and joy he gives.” Holding your loved ones, relaxing after a hard days work. Hamburgers. :)
However, the message of Ecclesiastes does not deny that there are some circumstances from which we might find joy or reason to rejoice, but again, joy is not to be found in the temporal, fleeting, trivial matters, but in things that last, and if we try to extract joy from the breath, we will be left unsatisfied.
The apostle Paul would agree. In the book of Phillippians, in writing to that anxious church, Paul writes about the things that bring him joy. Last week Paul shared his gratitude and the joy that he has found in the Philiipians partnership in the gospel. And today, he will speak of another matter that brings him joy. And again, that which brings him joy is not in temporal, fleeting, trivial matters, but connected to the eternal matter of the gospel of Christ.
What is the gospel? The gospel is the proclamation of good news. The good news of what God has done for us in Christ. That thought our sins have separated us from God and have placed us under God’s just wrath, that God in his love for us sent his son Jesus Christ into the world that we might be reconciled to God, redeemed from our sins, and renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is surely not a temporal, fleeting, or trivial matter, but is the most important, substantial and eternal of matters. As I stated last week, Paul has given his life to the gospel, lives for the gospel, and as we’ll see today, Paul’s Joy-Producing Metric: The Gospel is Advancing. What I mean by metric is that this is the standard of measurement against which he measures the circumstances in his life and that even through the difficulties of life, if the gospel is advancing, Paul finds joy.
We live in apocalyptic times. Or at least, that is the perception. People are concerned that something is happening. Something big. I hear it in all sides of the political aisle. Those on the left are apocalyptically concerned about the existential danger of climate change - Ottawa just declared a climate emergency. They say that we have 12 years to do something about this all or it all explodes. People on the right are apocalyptically concerned about the breakdown of society’s institutions, such as family and the rule of law. People in the middle are apocalyptically concerned about the increasing polarization between the right and the left and the disintegration of dialogue and the rise of totalitarianism on the right or the left. The church is facing apocalyptic-level persecution. As we gathered for worship last week on Easter Sunday, believers in Sri Lanka were crawling out of the ruins of 8 bombings that left over 300 dead and many more wounded at the hands of Islamic radicals. I heard this week a report that Christians are now the more harassed minority group in the world, suffering harassment in 144 countries. So left, right, centre and non-political, the perspective is, that we live in apocalyptic times. If I only heard these things being pushed in the media, I might write it off as click bait from a money-grabbing sensationalistic press. But I hear people in coffee shops speaking about it. Neighbours in conversation saying things like, it just seems like something big is about to happen. Anxiety is epidemic in this apocalyptic age. We’re on edge. Always on edge.
We’re starting today a new series in the book of Philippians. The Philippians were an anxious church. They were anxious not about global warming or internet censorship, but their anxiety stemmed from one particular circumstance, the arrest, detaining and potential execution of their friend and spiritual guide, the apostle Paul, who had started the church about ten years before his current imprisonment. The church at Philippi was desperate to gain any information of what might be the outcome of Paul’s trial, and so they had sent on of their own, Epaphroditus to Paul to aid and assist him and bring back news of Paul’s outlook. Upon coming to Paul, Epaphroditus became deathly ill, delaying his return, and now the Philippians had another thing to worry about, his health and well-being.
If anyone had reason to be on edge, it would be the apostle Paul. He after all was the one in chains, the one awaiting word on whether his sentence would come back, live or die. While he awaits word of his execution, Paul writes a letter to the Philippians, and it’s a perplexing letter. Instead of asking for prayer for his condition, Paul prays for the Philippians in their condition. Instead of being a letter ridden with anxiety, it is an epistle of joy. 16 times in four short chapter Paul speaks of joy, or rejoicing. Philippians: the epistle of joy in the face of apocalypse.
These themes are introduced to us in the first 11 verses of chapter 11, which includes Paul’s thankful, joyful prayer for the Philippian church.
When I was growing up there was a saying, I don’t hear much anymore. You are what you eat. What a ridiculous saying. That’s why we don’t here it much anymore - it’s like our entire generation woke up and said, Nah, that’s not true. “If i eat this chocolate bunny …” yeah, no. It doesn’t make sense - I think it said to try to make us eat more healthy food, but who wants to how up and me a head of lettuce?
Maybe we’ve lost something when we threw out that idiom however. Maybe there was wisdom in the saying, it's just that I heard it wrong all those years. Maybe the idiom was never supposed to be taken literally at all (yeah, of course, you don’t really turn into a chocolate bunny.” What I mean is, maybe the idiom wasn’t about food at all. It wasn’t about what we consume with our mouths, but with our minds. If it’s not about food, but about our thoughts, then the saying has a bit more staying power. You are what you think about. You are what you let into your thoughts. You are the media and philosophies you consume.
This seems to be the Apostle Paul’s concern in this verse that I want to centre our thoughts on this morning, that our thoughts shape us, we are what we eat:
Phil. 4:8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Last week, we finished a series in the book of Ecclesiastes, and at the end of that book, we saw a description of God’s communication to us through the Biblical writers as thoughtful, careful, delightful and true. That’s a great framework for all of our communication. And it is my prayer this morning as we reflect on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. For there is nothing more excellent or worthy of praise than the resurrection, and for that reason, it is good and proper for us to “think about these things”. But my prayer here this morning is not only to communicate information, but that the Holy Spirit might grant us illumination, that will turn our hearts to celebration.
I want to tell you about a book I’m reading. This book had been on my radar for a while. I had heard it referenced on a number of podcasts I listen to, a couple of blogs that I read. People were highly recommending it - that not strange, but what was strange was who was recommending it. People on the left. People on the right. Pastors. Academics. I saw an interview with the author sitting down with pastor Tim Keller, and a review by the Gospel Coalition. Russel Moore of the Southern Baptists called it “the most important book in years.”
The book is called “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathon Haidt. Haidt, a social psychologist at the NYU-Sterm School of Business, is interested in how people think. More specifically, Haidt, a ethnically Jewish, politically left-leaning, and religiously atheist democrat, was interested in why people on the right politically were so irrational. The book is centred around the question of why people on the left and people on the right talk past one another, misrepresent one another, and think that each other irrational. It’s a pretty amazing book. Haidt’s major conclusion after undertaking major anthropological studies across continents, age groups and social classes, is that people think differently - process facts differently, reason differently, and argue differently, not because they are irrational, but because thinking is first and primarily an expression of one’s deeper moral inclination - what Haidt called intuition. How the heart is inclined influences what the mind accepts as rational. The reason Haidt’s book is so influential is that it basically argues against the way that we in the West have been thinking about thinking. Since the enlightenment, we’ve come to think that we are primarily rational creatures - like computers. Data comes in, is processed by reason, and adjustments to our thinking are made. Haidt proves that is not the case. Haidt provides scores of evidence that one’s moral inclination precedes reason, that we use reason not to come to justify the beliefs we are morally inclined to accept. How the heart is inclined influences what the mind accepts as rational.
I was thinking of Haidt’s book as I reflected on this last passage in this book of all books, Ecclesiastes. For Solomon, or since Solomon is referred to in the third person here some people think a later compiler of Solomon’s writings, in any case, this final passage also speaks to our thinking, and the relationship between our thinking and our moral inclinations
“Resolved, I will live so, as I wish I had done when I come to die.”
These words were penned by nineteen-year-old Jonathan Edwards, who in 1722, kept a diary and wrote seventy guidelines which he called “Resolutions”. In his article, “The Resolutions of Jonathan Edwards”, Dr. Stephen Nichols writes that Jonathan Edwards resolved to live a life that counts, not through legalistic grit and determination, but with God’s help and grace in accordance to His will.
Edwards’ seventy resolutions deal with various topics and themes. One such theme is the reality of his death and living before God with an eternal perspective. In his youth, Edwards knew all too well about the brevity of life. His life and preaching demonstrated that he took seriously that life is a breath, a mist, “that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (Jas. 4:14). Just as life in Edward’s 18th century was frail and fragile, life continues to be frail and fragile today.
One theme that Solomon has addressed in Ecclesiastes is the sober reality of death. The brevity of life is a reality we just as soon forget, escape from, ignore and not talk about. In his sermon “The Bad Days are Better”, pastor Dan spoke of how a sober look at the reality of death actually helps us to put life into proper perspective and order.
We know that “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die;” (Ecc.3:1-2). We are all going to die yet none of us know the day and hour when death shall overtake us. Though life is hebel - a vapor - a breath - Scripture actually teaches us that the fleeting, transient, breathiness of life can actually teach us how to live with eternity in view.
In Ecclesiastes 11:7-12:8, Solomon deals with the reality of death and the afterlife in such a way to help prepare us, I believe, for eternity. From the context, it seems to me that the main idea of this passage is the call to live life in light of eternity.
one thing I’m learning about the way Solomon thinks and presents his outlook on life, is that he leans more pessimistic (or possibly realist). This has been a challenge for me, because I am an optimist by nature. When I make an argument, I find it more natural to outline all of the positive points first, and then speak to the critical objections. Solomon does the opposite, and I’m finding it very effective. What Solomon does, is he’ll lay out a thesis statement, and then state all the problems with it first, but by the end, he’ll convince you that what he originally said is the only viable way forward, through all the trouble that may be. This isn’t a bad way to think. If you’re an optimist, and you think life is going to be all rosy, when you slam into the reality of life, you may be likely to give up. But if you’re a pessimist, or at least a realist, and you’ve gone into an endeavour with a realistic understand of all that can go wrong, then when you hit a wall, you’d more likely perhaps to be more like, “yep, I knew I’d hit you sometime.”
So let’s make a ledger this morning, a pros and cons list, and debate Solomon’s proposal: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might” - Now you might paraphrase this to suit your own needs: “Why should I work hard?”, “Why get myself out of bed this morning?”
How do you respond to the difficult perplexities of life? What do I mean by the difficult perplexities of life? Well, Ecclesiastes has been full of them: In the previous chapters Solomon has taken us on a tour of our dissatisfaction with our possessions and our inability to derive lasting happiness from the things that we own, the seemingly absurd proposition that days of adversity and death are as much from God’s hands as days of merriment, the reality of our human condition so that none of us are absolutely righteous or wise, and the frustration of having to submit to authorities over us with whom we disagree. However, Perhaps the most bewildering and discouraging reality we face in life is addressed in 8:14:
Eccl. 8:14 There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity.
How do you respond when you are faced with injustice or adversity or silence from God? or any of the other miriad of ways that God’s ways confuse us, disappoint us, perplex us?
In chapter 8:15-9:10, Solomon gives his answer. This is the heart of the positive instruction in the book. This is the absolute climax of Solomon’s argument, his thesis of how we are to respond to the hebel of life. He’s alluded to this answer a number of times already in the book, but here he unpacks it for us. And you might be surprised by his answer. His answer is not to give up, or to walk out, or to suffer anxiety, or to try to change the difficult perplexities of life. No. Here is his answer:
15 And I [therefore] commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.
I commend joy. Three words. I commend joy. How are we to respond to the difficult perplexities of life? Solomon carefully weighs all the options and comes out with this: I commend joy.
My message this morning is, “When those above you are idiots.” We all live under authority. Parents, bosses, government, church leadership - there is no such thing as a society without any measure of authority. Authority is one of the restraining factors in this world that keep us from drifting into chaos. We all live under authority, and that means we all have experienced both the blessing and curse of authority. Authority is a blessing when it leads to prosperity and safety. But there will be times when you will face the unfortunate reality that the ones to whom you are required to submit make decisions that are foolish, arrogant, harmful or downright wrong in your eyes.
And this, “in your eyes” is important. Because whether or not the people above you are actually idiots, there are days when you think that they are because they are not listening to you. You never think the people above you are idiots when they listen to you - only when they are not listening to you do they magically transform into idiots.
Your perspective on power and wisdom changes when you are the one in power. Remember being a kid and thinking that your parents knew everything? Then you become a parent and you’re like - ok, when is all of this knowledge supposed to kick in? Or you’re the boss and you realize that you actually have no idea what you are doing?
This perspective is what makes Ecclesiastes 8 very interesting, because Solomon is writes a chapter basically around the theme - what to do when your boss is an idiot … and Solomon’s the boss! He is the king! and this is not a democracy - he has absolute power. However, he also knows he doesn’t have absolute wisdom, or absolute righteousness. Yet neither did his advisors. And neither do you. So power without wisdom - somebody is going to get hurt, and somebody does. Look at the key verse in the section: Ecc 8:9 All this I observed while applying my heart to all that is done under the sun, when man had power over man to his hurt.
Now, because we do not truly believe in our hearts that the day of adversity is as much from God’s hand as the day of prosperity, we believe that there has to be some way to game the system, and if we somehow play the game of life in just the right way, God will reward us with prosperity and long life. Or we bargain with God - God save me and I’ll be a good person. Or we berate God - God, I’ve been a good person, why are you doing this to me? Spirituality becomes a transaction. If I pray right and live right and present myself in the correct way, God will honour that and bless me with life and success.