Sermon \ Pastor Terry Defoe \ Nov 1, 2015 \ Philippians 1 \ All Saints Day
Our sermon text on this All Saints Sunday is found in the book of Philippians in the New Testament chapter 1, verses 3 to 6. The Apostle Paul says to the Christians at Philippi, and to us here today:
I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (N.I.V.)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
God’s Servants - Past & Present is my theme today as we continue to focus on this year’s month-long stewardship initiative titled “The Lifestyle of Faithful Stewards.” My message this morning is an adaptation of a devotion that’s provided to pastors as part of this stewardship program. I begin my message this morning with a question –– is the Christian life about great beginnings or is it about great endings? What do you think - how would you like to be known and remembered? Would you like to be known as an individual who had a great beginning or one who had a great ending? Wouldn't it be wonderful to have both? When you think about it, that's exactly what the apostle Paul is emphasizing in our text for today - a great beginning to our faith, as well as a great ending. That ending has to do with the transition we make from this life to heaven, following all those who have gone on before us - those we remember on this All Saints Day.
The Apostle Paul speaks of God’s great beginning in the lives of His people when he says,
He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
Our Heavenly Father, the One who sparked faith in our hearts by His Holy Spirit, wants to see that carried on to its natural completion, as we make that glorious transition into heaven to be with Him. In our text this morning, the apostle Paul was writing to a group of Christians he had met many years before. Many years had intervened since his last meeting with them. It’s as if he was saying to them, "Do you remember that great beginning the Lord Jesus made possible for you by Word and Sacrament? Consider how he began your abundant life in Christ, your lifelong journey of walking with Him?"
How about you folks? Do you remember a time when your baptismal faith became very real to you? Perhaps it was on the day of your Confirmation. Maybe it was in a Bible study when God’s word had an especially powerful impact on your life. Maybe it was in a worship service when a particular hymn was sung, or a sermon was preached. Do you recall the words God used to reassure you of your faith? Do you remember the person or circumstance that God used to rekindle your baptismal faith? Do you remember the place and what was going on when God's amazing grace and love washed over you in a new and powerful way?
For some people, when we talk about a renewal of faith, a new beginning in their walk with the Lord, what comes to mind are things other people said to them in the past or things that were done for them. For some, what comes to mind is a reminder of how faith was first sparked in their hearts, when loving parents brought them to Holy Baptism. For some, there’s the renewed realization that a new beginning of faith took place when the pastor poured water over them, and said, "I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." For some, there comes the realization that, with those words, it’s as if the great doors of heaven were opened for you and the Lord said, "You are mine. I have called you by name. I will never leave you or forsake you.”
My point is this. One way or another, because of what the Lord has done for us through word and sacrament, it may have been a long time ago, or it may have been just recently, we Christians experience some very special resting places on our faith journey. It’s as if the apostle Paul is saying to the Christians in Philippi, as well as to us today, “Don't forget those times of great blessing; that's what it's all about.”
Because his work for the Lord was so challenging, often threatening to life and limb, the Apostle Paul struggled with an ongoing desire to leave this vail of tears so that he could be with Christ forever. Guided by the Holy Spirit, however, Paul came to the conclusion that his work for the Lord wasn’t completed. He came to realize that, when the time was right, the Lord would call him home and he could take comfort in that thought. God’s Holy Spirit convinced Paul that he needed to carry on with the critical work that God had given him to do. So the Apostle Paul said to those Christians in Philippi, people he hadn’t seen for so long: “. . . I will remain . . . for your progress and joy in the faith."
The Apostle Paul was concerned about the ongoing spiritual growth of these people, with their increasing maturity as believers, and their progress as servants of the Lord. In Philippians chapter 2, the Apostle Paul encourages these Christians to “. . . work out your salvation with fear and trembling . . .” What God had begun, he would complete – for Paul and for them. The same is true for us on this All Saints Sunday. The faith that God sparked many years ago in our departed love ones now lives on in us. And the faith we have shared with others now lives on in them. That’s the way it is in the Kingdom of God.
Do you remember the account in the Gospel of Luke that tells us about the time Jesus’ disciples bickered among themselves as to who was the greatest among them? That’s when Jesus challenged them -- and us! -- to define greatness in a completely new way. Jesus said that greatness for the Lord’s servants is measured with a very different measuring stick than the one the unbelieving world uses. Jesus said that if you want to be great in God’s Kingdom, you must be servant of all. Now, that’s obviously not what His disciples wanted to hear – or expected to hear. The word "servant" here can also mean “slave.” From the beginning of time, from the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, there has been a desire to be master, to be lord, not to be a servant. Jesus challenged His disciples – and he challenges us, too! – saying that greatness in God’s Kingdom comes about through service to others.
During his ministry, Jesus taught his disciples many important lessons about servanthood. He taught them an especially important lesson on the night we call Maundy Thursday, the evening of his final meal with His disciples. Luke’s Gospel tells us that all 12 disciples were gathered together in an upper room, with Jesus in the midst. Off to the side, hardly noticed, was a wash basin. In that wash basin, as you would expect, was water. That wash basin stood there unattended, unnoticed. It was meant for the washing of feet. In those ancient days, the most common mode of transportation was different from what it is today – most people walked to their destination. That meant that travelers would arrive with dusty and dirty feet.
It’s important to be aware of the fact that the washing of feet was normally assigned to the low man on the servant totem pole. To put it in our terms, the servant with the least seniority was the one assigned to the wash basin as the guests arrived. He or she would kneel down and humbly wash their feet. That night, with the 12 disciples gathered there, and with Jesus in the midst, the basin, as I say, was unattended. The basin stood alone – until Jesus Himself got up and took it and knelt down and, one by one, washed the disciples’ feet. It was a very awkward – and very significant – moment. The disciples recognized the One with the basin. They knew where He came from. They now knew, as Peter had said, that he was the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. Finally Peter spoke up, as if to voice the awkwardness and the embarrassment of the group, and said something like, "Lord, You can't do this. Of all the people in the room, you shouldn't be doing this!"
But, at that moment, the Lord was teaching his disciples about a newer, grander, and more blessed way of life. He was getting them ready for what was going to happen less than 24 hours later. As He hung on the cross, and as they watched Him suffer, that same thought must have come back to them. "Lord, this isn't right. You're not supposed to be doing this. I'm the one who should be there. I'm the one who should be suffering, not You." In the days and years that followed, God’s people learned that, by means of Jesus’ cross, and the empty tomb that followed, Jesus is giving us more than an example; He’s giving us new life. New life is ours as we look to Him and recognize the blessings of His service, of His ransom, of His deliverance. We come to rejoice in that cross - that very special point in God’s plan of salvation. That most special event, our salvation through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, is what enables us to live “the lifestyle of faithful stewards.”
A quick glance at a map reveals that there are two large bodies of water in the Holy Land. The one to the north is filled up by the streams that run down from the mountains from the melting snow and the rains that come in their season. If you stand along the banks of that northern body of water – it’s called the Sea of Galilee – and if you look and listen, you'll hear children splashing in the water, fishermen pulling in their catch, and birds flying overhead and diving down to get their fresh fish. Flowers are growing along the bank of the lake. It's a place of life, of celebration, a place of giving and receiving. Then the waters that collect in that lake make their way southward down the Jordan River. They head south until they finally come to a collecting place. If you stand on the bank of that body of water, however, you won't hear any children splashing. There won't be any flowers growing along the shore. There are no birds flying overhead dipping down for fresh fish and no fishermen on the lake. Do you know what that place is called? It's called the Dead Sea. It's one of those places that receives water, receives the gifts, receives the blessings, and then hoards and holds on to them. There's no escape, there's no outlet, and the waters turn stagnant, putrid, and unable to support life.
God is constantly pouring out His blessings on His people – on you and me. Richly, abundantly, day after day. Consider the blessings all of us have received from God – both physical and spiritual blessings. Consider, first of all, your spiritual blessings - a Savior who died for you, sins forgiven, hope and meaning and peace. A place in heaven reserved just for you. And material blessings, too. Your family, your health, all the abilities you possess, the gifts, the ability to earn an income, everything God has poured out for you and your family. We receive these blessings, and, like the Sea of Galilee, we share them with others. We don’t keep them just for ourselves.
The Apostle Paul says, in his second letter to the Corinthians, chapter 9, verse 8:
God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.
And those blessings – both material and spiritual blessings – keep coming, day after day, year after year. God blesses us richly, graciously, with time, and love, with gifts and abilities so that we can continue to be His servants, channels of His love. When we recognize anew what He has done – and continues to do for us – being His servants takes on a whole new meaning and importance. As Christians, we truly are servants of Jesus Christ. Servants for Jesus’ sake. And our service, like that of all those who have come before us, like that of those Christian saints we remember this day, is joyful. It’s satisfying. It brings meaning and a sense of fulfillment to our lives. We truly are living “the lifestyle of faithful stewards.”
When God's people come together, it's not unusual to hear the worship leader say: "Go in peace. Serve the Lord." And the congregation responds: "Thanks be to God!" So, let me ask you, why does that phrase, "Thanks be to God," belong there? The first part, “Go in peace," means we're remembering our salvation. We are thankful for a healthy relationship with God, for the fact that we've left our sins at the foot of the cross. Our Savior has forgiven them, and our relationship with God is now fully restored. Because these things are true, we can leave the divine service with peace, peace from God and peace with God. That's a grand thing. That kind of peace enables us to live “the lifestyle of faithful stewards.” When you think about it, not everyone can serve the Lord. Only those who have peace with God can serve Him according to His will, and are able to be His channels and His vessels.
On this All Saints Sunday, we remember and give thanks for those Christians who have gone on before us. We remember, and give thanks for their service. It was saints now departed who were used by God to speak God’s word to us. It was saints now departed who showed us the way. Those saints were servants of the Lord before us. They passed the baton of faith on to us. And we are now doing the same for the generations that follow us. May God continue to remind us this of the many incredible blessings that come to His servants by Word and Sacrament, and remind us of the joy we have in serving Him, living “the lifestyle of faithful stewards.”
And now, may the peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in this same Christ Jesus. Amen.
Let’s pray - DEAR HEAVENLY FATHER - We thank you for sparking faith in us, sparking it in us through Your Word and the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. We thank you for your call to serve you and others, in Jesus’ name. We thank you for all the faithful servants who have gone on before us. Remind us that you have a place in heaven set aside for us as well. In Jesus’ most holy and precious name we pray. Amen.