The Message: Empty is Not Necessarily a Bad Thing, Philippians 2.1-11

Sermon:        Empty is Not Necessarily a Bad Thing
Scripture:     Philippians 2.1-13
Preacher:      Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:       First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:              October 1, 2017, World Communion Sunday

You may listen to the sermon here.

We’ve just come through a tumultuous time in Florida with the onslaught of Hurricane Irma. For the week leading up to the landfall, it seems like everyone put their life on hold and began prepping for what might happen.  Normally sane people began to do insane things like fighting over toilet paper and peanut butter at Publix while others began to brandish weapons at a nearby gas station because someone cut in front of them in line. Lowes and Home Depot became madhouses as folks were stocking up on batteries, water, plywood, and generators.

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A scarcity of supplies and empty shelves soon became the norm.  I cut my study leave short to drive back from north Georgia to secure the house.  When I arrived Tuesday night a week before the storm hit, there were already gas lines as I passed through Astor and Barberville; even though I had been on the road for over eight hours the first thing I did when I got to DeLand is find a gas station with the shortest line and filled up. I immediately left RaceTrac and went to Publix to pick up some supplies and you would have thought it was Toys R Us on Christmas Eve! Water: out. Prepared whole chickens: Out. Vegetables: Going fast.  Milk: scarce. Beer and wine: thinning out. Ice: forget it. Charcoal: Out. In fact, I took a picture of the charcoal aisle at Publix with its linear feet of massive but empty shelves and put it on Instagram only to have CNN pick it up and run it on the news!  Scarcity was leading to desperation and hoarding.

Yet, there are other types of emptiness, too.  There is financial emptiness when we simply do not have or feel we have enough to get by.  We see how everyone else around us is doing and they seem to be doing fine so why can’t I be as well?  It’s not fair! Why should my bank accounts be empty when everyone else’s seem so full?  A feeling of financial emptiness can create resentment towards others in the community. Financial emptiness can cause one to focus on what he or she does not have instead of what they’ve already got. It’s like the old Cheryl Crow song, Soak Up the Sun, where she sings:

I don’t have digital
I don’t have diddly squat
It’s not having what you want
It’s wanting what you’ve got.

Then there is emotional emptiness, too.  It’s an emptiness that feels heavy and dark. It’s an emptiness that feels there is not enough in this whole world to slake its thirst and craving for something but that “something” evades them.  It’s an emptiness that unwittingly sucks the energy from other people around us.  It’s an emptiness that masks itself in sadness, irritability, anger or passive aggressiveness.

There also is relational emptiness. We look around us and it seems like everyone else is a couple.  Everyone else has friends.  Everyone else has a support system. Everyone, that is, except me. This emptiness manifests itself in a person feeling victimized, jealous, hurt, spiteful, or just deeply depressed and isolated.

Finally, there is spiritual emptiness.  Spiritual emptiness is seen in people who love the things and ways of culture for themselves as opposed to gaining life through a community in sacrifice. Spiritual emptiness is seen in our propensity for libertine living because we are searching for something, indeed, Something, to fill this gaping void in our souls. This is an emptiness that causes people to become selfish, greedy, and prideful. This is an emptiness which causes a person to lead a life that’s “all about me” versus “it’s really about us.” It’s an emptiness that abuses people, enslaves people, and wipes out the Imago Dei, the very Image of God, in others and our environment.  This is the emptiness Paul is describing in today’s text.  It’s also an emptiness that Paul points to as possible Easter-moment, a time when rebirth can occur.

This morning we are continuing our study of Philippians with what is thought to be one of the earliest credos or corporate statements of faith in the early Church.  Paul is addressing some unspecified problems going on in the Philippian church and we begin to see what those issues are revolving around in our text today.  We will be reading from The Message Bible and the text is printed in your bulletin wrap for your convenience.  Listen to the Word of the Lord from Philippians 2.1-11.

2.1-4 If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.

5-8 Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!  Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.

9-11 Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father. [1]

It appears there were some in the Philippian church who were in fact spiritually empty because they were too full of themselves.  These church folks were concerned about their understanding of Jesus over and against your understanding of Jesus. They were pushing themselves up the ladder of influence and notoriety to become the power players swaying to shape other Christian’s views and loyalty.  They wanted the power.  They wanted to control and be in charge.  They would accomplish this even to the point of disparaging the founder of their local Church, Paul himself and Paul would not fall for their baiting tactics.

What does Paul do?  Paul describes the spiritual emptiness that must take place to be full of the power and presence of God and he looks to Jesus as the example to do it.  Paul reminds them Jesus had equal status with God but he “set aside the privileges of deity and became human.” And as our text reminds us, “It was a very humbling process.”  The original language describes this setting aside his deity as a total emptying of himself – a pouring out.[2] Imagine a pitcher of water being drained to the dregs.  This is what the Eternal Christ did!  He emptied himself of being God to become fully human which in turn enables you and me to become fully re-engaged in a relationship with God the Father again!

Christ Jesus emptied himself of Divine privileges in order that our fallen humanity could regain ours. Christ humbled himself so that you and I could be lifted up. God became a bona fide human being like you and me so as to completely relate with what we feel, think, believe, and experience in order to redeem those feelings, thoughts, and experiences we have.

Church, God emptied himself so that you and I, indeed, this whole wonderful creation, could become full of God.  Jesus emptied himself so that we could become filled. Yet, there is one thing necessary before this can happen.  We must follow the Christ’s example.

Each one of us must pour our inner self out in order to become full of Holy Spirit and Christ. We are being called to pour out our self-importance.  We are being called to kill our overfed egos.  We are being called to empty out any sense of entitlement from deep within us and refill ourselves with love for God and neighbor.  We are called to set aside any privileges we think we have or are owed and run straight to the back of the line and push and encourage others to go first.  It’s only when we are empty of ourselves, wish dreams, lusts, drives for power and success that we become available vessels of love and grace for the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ.

Beloved, Jesus emptied himself, poured himself out for you and for me.  The question for you and I is what exactly each of us need to pour out in our own lives that is getting in the way and displacing the infilling of the Holy Spirit of Christ in our hearts and souls.  What is occupying our spirits and souls that is displacing room for Jesus?

This morning is Worldwide Communion Sunday, a day when Christians around the world from all traditions empty themselves of their dogma and traditions and become truly one in Christ and one with the whole Church.  As you prepare to receive the meal, be asking our Lord what you need to purge in our life – feelings, behaviors, or experiences – that are getting in the way of your infilling of the Holy Spirit.  Come to the Table empty.  Leave the Table full of Christ. Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] The Message, (Colorado Springs: NavPress).

[2] The Greek term Paul uses is kenosis.

The Message: Who Do We Work For?, Philippians 1.1-8

Sermon:           Who Do We Work For?
Scripture:        Philippians 1.1-8
Preacher:        Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:         First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:                 September 17, 2017

You may listen to the Sermon by clicking here.

One of my favorite paintings is the one of the Apostle Paul by Dutch painter Rembrandt. Paul is sitting in his cell and the room is lit by soft candlelight. He is pushed back slightly from his desk slouched over a bit while his right hand, dangling at his side, holds a pen.  His white hair frames a kind but beleaguered face that is full of lines of wisdom and sadness.  Hanging behind him in the corner is a small sword. I love this picture because it shows Paul as a vulnerable and real human being as opposed to the fiery Apostle that went around stirring everyone up.

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It’s a picture of an old man whose face shows the wear and tear of what a life in ministry can produce. Paul, at an age where he cannot do much more, is pictured writing his love letters to the churches he helped establish.[1]
This morning, we are going to begin a series of messages that will take us through one of the most loving and tender books in the Bible as we tarry in Paul’s letter to the Church in Philippi. This is a church located just miles from the Aegean Sea in today’s Greece.  Located on the ancient Egnation Way that connected Italy in the west to modern-day Istanbul on the east, it was a merchant town of about 10,000 people located about 800 miles due east of Rome.

Paul is presumably writing from his jail cell in Rome while he waits to face the Caesar about the charges leveled against him. He writes the church in Philippi for several reasons.

First, the Philippian church was a generous church. They were the only church in the day that sent Paul gifts to support his ministry. Not only did they send financial gifts, but they sent a member of the church to Rome to help care for Paul’s needs whose name was Epaphroditus. Paul’s letter to the Philippians was a thank you letter for the gifts and for sending their friend to him.

A second reason for the letter was to address an issue that may have been burning below the surface in the Philippian church and that issue dealt with the tension between unity in Christ and divisiveness in the church.

Can you imagine that happening in a church?

We are not exactly certain what the divisiveness was but many conjectures that it was a result of some unhealthy preaching and teaching that was going on that was contradicting Paul’s views of who Jesus is.

A third possible reason for this loving letter is that Paul senses there are those in the church who are actively working against him and the letter is his way of reminding the Philippians how special they are to him and his ministry.[2]  Let’s listen to the opening verses of Philippians from verses 1 – 8. Hear the Word of the Lord!

Philippians 1:1-8

1.1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,

To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: 2Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

3I thank my God every time I remember you, 4constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.

7It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. [3]

In the midst of our digital age, our culture has lost its ability to write well; we write in snippets with a cultural shorthand as opposed to sitting down and writing a well thought out letter.  It takes time to write a thoughtful letter and its time most of us fail to invest in. Even handwriting is being excluded from many students in elementary education as the students are taught to type instead! In Paul’s day, however, he had all the time he needed to write and writing a letter followed certain forms.  Today we are looking at the very opening of Paul’s letter.

The letter opens with who the writer is along with his or her title.  Next, the recipient of the letter is mentioned and then it concludes with a greeting of some sort.  Paul follows this form perfectly but he adds a spiritual twist to it.

Letters in antiquity were generally sent under the name of one person but this is the one letter of Paul’s where he includes Timothy as an equal colleague.  Not only that, he indicates that their title is “servants of Christ.” They were servants of Christ but the original texts describe them as “slaves for Christ.”  There is no doubt as to whom they work and labor for in their ministry.  It’s not for the Philippian church any more than it was for the Ephesian church; as leaders of the flock, Paul and Timothy were conscripted by Jesus for a purpose. Who do they work for? Jesus. Who do they work with?  The church.

Sadly today, we have subconsciously turned that around in our thinking.  Today, who do the pastors work for?  The members of the Church.  Who do they work with? Hopefully, Jesus. This is something pastors of all Christian traditions must face daily. It is so easy to confuse the demands of church busy-ness with the edict of Christ to go, tell, baptize and make disciples of the nations, or at least, in the neighborhood.  When pastors and their congregations forget who works for whom, ministry becomes compromised.

One of my favorite writers is Welsh poet, R. S. Thomas. His words are full of grit and hardship wafting up from the mores and dales of his native land in Wales.  Here is part of a poem called, The Minister.

…The (Church) choose their pastors as they chose their horses
For hard work. But the last one died
Sooner than they expected; nothing sinister,
You understand, but just the natural
Breaking of the heart beneath a load
Unfit for horses. ‘Ay, he’s a good ‘un,’
Job Davies had said, and Job was a master
Hand at choosing a nag or a pastor.

And Job was right, but he forgot,
They all forgot that even a pastor
Is a man first and a minister after,
Although he wears the sober armour
Of God, and wields the fiery tongue
Of God, and listens to the voice
Of God, the voice no others listen to;
The voice that is the well-kept secret
Of man, like Santa Claus,
Or where baby came from;
The secret waiting to be told
When we are older and can stand the truth.[4]

“Patrick and Michael, slaves of Jesus Christ, to all the saints, i.e. holy ones, in the church of DeLand!” Like Paul, Michael’s call, my call, is to be the slave and servant of Christ with you, the members of this incredible church First Presbyterian Church. As a result, we will not always say or do what you want us to say or do as we are slaves of Christ and not of the congregation.  Our preaching may pinch at times because we cannot help it; the Gospel, Jesus, demands a response and change from those who encounter it.  The temptation is for pastors and preachers to cave into congregational peer pressure so we don’t offend the big givers or make people mad.  Yes, there is a place for tact but tact cannot invalidate or contradict whom we work for: Jesus.

One example of this is how I have chosen to respond to the whole Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage.  There were members of the church who left because I did not stand up and condemn the Supreme Court’s ruling. “You’re not taking a Christian stand!” I was told. It is during moments like this Michael and I are forced to remember, we are slaves and servants of Christ and not of influential congregational members. The people who left did so because they were not able to see I was a slave of Christ.

In my attempts to be true as a servant of Christ with the people in the church, I have equally offended all sides of this issue. You see, one of the ordination vows Michael and I made was to promise to work for the unity of the church. When I was told to preach against gay marriage, I was being asked to split a congregation; you see, we have several gay members and visitors and if I condemn them, how does that advance the Kingdom of Grace?  On the other hand, when asked to perform a gay wedding, I replied to the sweet couple that frankly, I could not do it because it would split the congregation. Ironically, it is the same reason I use for both sides of the issue! I am, Michael is, a slave and servant of Christ and we are working with you in making ministry happen. Our goal is to mobilize each of us in this room to be active, vibrant movers and shakers in the Kingdom of Heaven in and through this place. This is a theme Paul develops in his letter to the Philippians.

Beloved, who do you work for? You see, not only is Michael and I slaves and servants of Jesus Christ, but all who call upon that wonderful Name becomes a slave and servant of Jesus Christ. That simple reality requires all of us to ponder and decide where our ultimate allegiance is; is it to Christian fundamentalism or liberalism? Is it a board or to the Body of Christ?  Is it to my class, Bible study, opinion or political affiliation? Or is it to Jesus? Our allegiance is not to a cause; our allegiance is to the God-Who-Comes-Down in the person of the Nazarene.  Beloved, we are all bondservants of the Christ to be in ministry with others. Who do you work for, beloved?

I close with another poem by R.S. Thomas. It’s entitled The Country Clergy. Let the words wash over you like a warm washcloth on your face helping you to wake up.  It reads…

I see them working in old rectories
By the sun’s light, by candlelight,
Venerable men, their black cloth
A little dusty, a little green
With holy mildew. And yet their skulls,
Ripening over so many prayers,
Toppled into the same grave
With oafs and yokels. The left no books,
Memorial to their lonely thought
In grey parishes; rather they wrote
On men’s hearts and in the minds
Of young children sublime words
Too soon forgotten.  God in his time
Or out of time will correct this.[5]

Who do you work for, beloved? Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] See Acts 16.

[2] See Craddock.

[3] The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[4] R. S. Thomas. Collected Poems 1945-1990 (London: Phoenix, 1993), 42-43.

[5] Ibid., 82