Suffering and Humility
Sept. 27 Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
A common accusation aimed at world religions, not just Christianity, is that believers are trying to escape reality and the suffering our world brings. We believe in heaven merely to avoid the painful reality of death, we are told, for we just want a way to make ourselves feel better. Religion is the opiate of the people, Mao said. This of course is based not on belief but on disbelief, for the Bible makes no such claim. We may look forward to life after death, but there is no escape from the suffering and trials of this life. We live in a broken world and pay the price daily for sin and evil, whether we are to blame for it or not. If anything, most world religions seek to help us endure and overcome the trials of life with courage and the support of our fellow believers. We seek to embrace our lives as they are and search for meaning and purpose. Our culture on the other hand is where we hear about ways to escape from suffering, through drugs, sex, alcohol, consumerism, mindless entertainments, etc. In the New Testament in particular, we are encouraged to face suffering honestly and with integrity, and even embrace suffering if it is for a worthy cause.
Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is boldly counter-cultural today. We are reading from Chapter 2 today. Paul writes:
If therefore there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (Phi 2:1-4 NAS)
We are to be unified and humble, something we know is very difficult to achieve. Not humiliated, or seeking to humiliate others, but humble in the sense of putting others first and not considering ourselves to be smarter or better than our sisters and brothers. We seek to find a way forward together by listening and making compromises, not by forcing what we want on other people. We seek to hear the voice of the Spirit guiding us, not trying to make our voices heard over others. Don’t be afraid to ask yourself if you might be wrong and that other person is right after all! We don’t do all this just because it is the nice thing to do, but because in doing so we follow the example of Jesus, who gave His life in such a way on our behalf. Jesus was given this task by God, this task that led to the cross, and Jesus was obedient. The Bible tells us this wasn’t easy for Him, He suffered greatly, but He suffered for a purpose. That too is our highest calling, to know God and His ways and be obedient, no matter the cost. Paul continues:
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phi 2:5-8 NAS)
In our society today, as it was then, such a sacrifice has little place. Few can follow such a path. But by doing so with a purpose, here in obedience to the will of God, it brought the greatest of honor to Jesus. Certainly, gaining honor was not the reason for making such a sacrifice, He did it on our behalf according to the will of God, not His own. But now Jesus is honored, as Paul writes:
Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phi 2:9-11 NAS)
Jesus was exalted because of His obedience and humility. He did what needed to be done to advance the Kingdom of God, not counting the cost to Himself. Notice that Paul says that Jesus is Lord, but that He did it all to the glory of God, as we too should in all that we do. Are we seeking God’s glory, or our own? Certainly, we will never do anything to rival Jesus’ sacrifice for us, but what can we do to the glory of God, that will make a difference here? Paul continues:
So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or disputing; that you may prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may have cause to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain. But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all. And you too, I urge you, rejoice in the same way and share your joy with me. (Phi 2:12-18 NAS)
What does “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” mean to you? Is Paul saying that we are working towards our salvation, as if we can earn by our own efforts? Of course not! However, we do work towards greater levels of holiness and seek new things to do for the glory of God. Even if we are not aware of it, God is working through us. Our salvation is obtained solely through Jesus, but there will be different rewards in Heaven based on what we have done to advance the Kingdom, although just what they are is vague in Scripture, and we will have to wait and find out when we get there. Certainly, we all would like to receive a little glory for what we do for God, but for now we focus solely on what we can do to glorify Him. Paul concludes Philippians 2 with:
But I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you shortly, so that I also may be encouraged when I learn of your condition. For I have no one else of kindred spirit who will genuinely be concerned for your welfare. For they all seek after their own interests, not those of Christ Jesus. But you know of his proven worth that he served with me in the furtherance of the gospel like a child serving his father. Therefore I hope to send him immediately, as soon as I see how things go with me; and I trust in the Lord that I myself also shall be coming shortly. But I thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger and minister to my need; because he was longing for you all and was distressed because you had heard that he was sick. For indeed he was sick to the point of death, but God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. Therefore I have sent him all the more eagerly in order that when you see him again you may rejoice and I may be less concerned about you. Therefore receive him in the Lord with all joy, and hold men like him in high regard; because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was deficient in your service to me. (Phi 2:19-30 NAS)
Mostly business here, but I would like to point out that Paul notes that his colleague “completes” what the Philippians cannot do. Yes, each of us want to do what we can for God, but we also want to find ways to complete what we may not be able to do, working together. We must always be open to what others have to offer, and not become solely focused on our own efforts. If we cannot do something ourselves, we seek to help others who can. This too brings glory to God.
All of us at some point in our lives have thought or wished we were invincible, that we could somehow avoid the suffering others go through; that we would never lose loved ones, that bad things wouldn’t happen to us, that we would get everything our hearts desire. But that is not the way our world is. Looking forward to a time when that will be the reality, though, once Jesus returns, is not a path of avoidance, but a source of strength now and our reality later. We can look forward to Christ’s eternal reign in victory even while we are living with suffering and loss. Our faith allows us to continue our lives with faith and hope even amid hardship. We do what we can to glorify God and advance His kingdom. Paul teaches us to stay focused on Jesus and to have a sense of purpose along the way, to let God use our lives, both our good and bad experiences, to prepare us and our world for the day Jesus returns. We work to save as many as we can, as we work to proclaim Jesus with our voices and our actions. We build this beloved community to be a foretaste of what heaven will be like, where love and unity prevails. We may have conflict at times, but may we also provide a sacred space for love and grace in Christ’s name. Amen.