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May 20th, 2018

Travel Joy

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Confirmation Sunday

Philippians 2:12-18

Joy Ahead

Tomorrow morning Linda and I will leave home at about 6:00, and we won’t arrive at our son’s home in Hawai’i until about 18 hours later. That includes about 2 hours in cars, 12 hours in airplanes, and 4 hours in airports. It’s not my favorite way to spend a day. But on the other end of the journey, we’ll enjoy our roles as Mimi and Pops to our first grandchild, Arlo, now five months old. We can’t wait. The destination will be worth the journey.

I need to say a few things about our trip. First, “No! We won’t be anywhere near the volcano.” Kailua on Oahu, where our son and his family live, is about as far from Kilauea on the Big Island as Hickory is from Myrtle Beach, and there’s a lot of ocean in between!

Second, “Yes! We just went in February.” We asked the Board of Elders for permission to be away more than usual this year, because in addition to seeing our grandson, 2018 is my mother’s 90th birthday, our 40th wedding anniversary, and our 40th college reunion.

Third, “No! We’re not made of money.” This comment is probably unnecessary for most of you, but some of you are wondering how we can afford two trips to Hawaii in three months. The answer is that it actually costs less for us to go there than most family vacations cost. When we get there, we stay with our son. Our flights are paid for by frequent flier miles because the church uses our credit card for many of its costs. For example, we just put about $35,000 on my credit card this past month for mission trip airplane tickets. Those miles add up quickly, meaning our airfare is virtually free.

Anyway, back to the journey. Our Confirmands take the first major step to spiritual adulthood today. I tell them, “This is the first place you’ll be treated as an adult. After you join the church today, you are just as much a member as your parents are.” This is the beginning of their adult spiritual journey.

This has been a fantastic Confirmation class – my favorite ever. This is the first class in years for whom we never had to assign seats in class. They listened, cooperated, worked hard, and – with only occasional arm-twisting – completed all of their assignments. Special thanks to Pastor Amy for making sure 36 Confirmands checked off 23 requirements (828 checks in all!) to get to this point.

Work out

In today’s Scripture, the Apostle Paul gives three instructions for how to go forward in this journey of following Christ. The first command is in verse 12, “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”

Most of our focus in Confirmation has been about what Christ did for you. The Confirmands’ faith essays put this into their own words. Ann Marie wrote about her dogs Cinder and Smokey, who didn’t do anything to be included in the Crump family. Alyssabelle talked about being born in China. She never knew why her parents gave her to an orphanage, but at 2 ½ years old she was chosen by the Lasecki family in Hickory and she knows “God has big plans” for her. He has big plans for every one of you.

In Confirmation we watched a short video about a man being rescued from a burning crane. The helicopter represents God. The man couldn’t do anything about his situation, but he did have to accept the rescue. He had to hold on to the rescuer. In other words, God does everything but we have to respond. Reagan’s essay expressed it this way:  Our chairs were all turned away from God and a wall separated us. Jesus’ death removed the wall, but we still have to turn our chairs around.

In Philippians 2:12 the Apostle Paul reminds you that in your “adult life” in Christ you have to “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (emphasis added). He tells the Philippians they need to obey God “not only in my presence (coming), but now much more in my absence.” In other words, you need to “work out” whether I’m there or not.

This life you have chosen starts with something God did for you, but it can’t stop with you saying, “I’ve been baptized and confirmed; I’m in and I can quit trying.” The phrase “work out” fits so well. When in your life can you ever stop working out if you want to stay healthy? Pretty much not until you’re almost dead. And you’ll get dead faster if you don’t work out.

I couldn’t help noticing a dramatic contrast on Thursday afternoon. Late in the afternoon I had the privilege of baptizing Mia McGrath. I loved her sweet, innocent, joyful commitment to Jesus. Earlier that same afternoon I had visited one of my Confirmands from twenty years ago. She’s really struggling with some demons that won’t let go. When she was your age she said she believed in Jesus, too, but if she doesn’t come to grips soon with her addictions she’s going to die before her 40th birthday. You have to work out this life of faith.

The good news, though, is in verse 13:  “It is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” To follow the “work out” analogy, God is like your personal trainer. A personal trainer won’t do the work for you. You have to do it. But the personal trainer will discern where you are, what you’re capable of, and what goals are achievable for you. The personal trainer will challenge you and hold you accountable for following through.

Knowing that God is your personal trainer will encourage and motivate you along this grown up journey of following Jesus. It’s kind of like the trip Linda and I are taking. I can’t fly the plane. I don’t want to fly the plane. But I have to get myself to the airport, follow the security rules, present my boarding pass and identification, board at the right time, and fasten my seat belt. In the Christian life I have to know what only God can do, and what God will not do for me. I have to keep working out.

Quit griping

When I was twelve years old, I went to a Christian camp for the first time, where I learned the “Seven Bible Manners.” I don’t remember all of them, but I do remember that one of them was “Eat such things as are set before you” (Luke 10:8). I think the camp was just trying to get me to eat camp food.

One of the seven Bible manners was Philippians 2:14, “Do all things without grumbling or complaining.” The church at Philippi wasn’t getting along very well. They were sometimes selfish and not very focused on what mattered to others. The word “complaining” actually means “arguing.” He’s saying that in the grown up journey of the Christian life, you’ve just got to “quit griping.” It doesn’t look like Jesus.

I love what Paul says to the Philippians who are grumbling and complaining:  “Stop it!” His words remind me of what your parents might say when you’re arguing with your brothers and sisters. You might say, “But he started it!” And they answer, “Stop it!” When my kids were your age, if they wouldn’t stop it, I would make them sit in chairs facing each other, about 3 feet apart. I would say, “Sit there until you can get along. I don’t care if it’s one minute or a whole day. When you can stop fussing you can get up.” I don’t know if that was a good parenting technique or not, but I remember they didn’t stay in the chairs very long.

You all (Confirmands) wrote about some of your own struggles in life. Your mom gets a new job and works longer hours. Your grandmother dies. Your friends turn on you. You face bullies. A friend gets brain cancer. Your parents have more children or adopt them and your whole life changes. Your dad has to get a pacemaker. You fall off a dock into cold water, fully clothed, and feel like you might drown. Many of you have already experienced things that are really tough in life.

The Apostle Paul gives three reasons to stop griping. First, to stand out from the world. Paul knows his Bible well, and he knows the stories about the children of Israel grumbling against God and arguing with each other. It got so bad that God made them wander in the desert for forty years before they got to enter the Promised Land. This phrase “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation” is based on these Old Testament stories. The world you are growing up in can make it really hard to do the right thing. One of you wrote about a very complicated situation with social media. I never had to deal with that when I was your age. If you have kids someday, their generation will figure out other ways to be “warped and crooked.” That’s not a reason to go along; it’s a reason to be different.

Second, Paul says you can shine like stars. When you live in a city, even a small city, it’s hard to appreciate this metaphor. When I was your age, as you know, I lived in Pakistan. For part of that time, Pakistan was at war with India. We had to black out our windows at night, meaning no light could penetrate. If the enemy war planes saw light, they would know where to bomb. I remember having nightmares about bombing planes flying over our head. But the good part of the memory is that when there was no artificial light around, the Milky Way Galaxy was so beautiful. Paul says he wants you to shine like lights in that black expanse out there. When you live like the world finding everything wrong with whoever and whatever, you blend into the night.

Third, Paul says if you live different from the world, he “will be able to boast in the day of Christ.” Whenever Paul uses that word “boast,” he’s always talking about boasting in what God has done. He’s not bragging, in other words. He is saying, “I’ll be so proud and pleased when I see Jesus because I had a part in your life.” That’s how I feel about you all. I know you’ve come to love me. What’s not to love, right? I just met with a former Confirmand yesterday who said something really nice – that I’m one of the two most authentic Christians she’s known. I want to be that for you, and I want you to be that for me. I want to be so proud of you when we meet Jesus together!

These are three great reasons Paul gives for not being a griper. It’s not just about the “power of positive thinking.” It’s about the power of Gospel-thinking. When I realize who God is, when I come to love and trust him, when I look at his character instead of people around me (who will always let me down), I want to be the kind of person in whom people can’t find fault. It’s not that I can be perfect, but I can be real and never give up trying to love God more and love people better.

Choose joy

Paul gives the positive side in contrast with “Quit griping.” Remember, the Apostle Paul is in prison and he thinks it’s a pretty good possibility he’ll be executed. He calls that “being poured out like a drink offering.” There were different kinds of offerings in Paul’s idea, and the “drink offering” might have been a glass of wine that was poured out last. The important thing is that it seemed like it was wasted. If Paul died too soon, it would seem like his life was wasted. But Paul thinks no life given over completely to God is a wasted life, no matter how long it lasts.

Paul says, “No matter what happens, I will be glad and rejoice with all of you. So you too should be glad and rejoice with me” (18). In other words, “choose joy.”

For Mother’s Day, my wife wanted a new set of luggage for our trip that starts tomorrow. I let her pick it out, and it came on Thursday. Since I was getting ready for this sermon, I couldn’t help but notice the brand name, “Travel Joy,” as well as the tag line:  “Life is a journey… just travel with joy!”

That’s Paul’s big exclamation point over this whole part of the letter. There will not only be struggles in life; there will be questions you can’t answer. Some of you wrote about them in your essays. Sydney talked about why God sometimes doesn’t answer prayers. Will wondered why babies get cancer  George asked why we should pray if God has a plan.

Walker’s struggle was pretty intellectual:  Do babies go to heaven if they die? My favorite part was the end of Walker’s essay where he wrote, “But I am just 13 so I really cannot know everything.” Amen, and here’s a news flash. I’m 61 and I’ve been a pastor for thirty years and I still don’t know everything. In fact, I feel like I know less than I thought I knew at 13! That’s because the more you know, the less you think you know.

I know you Confirmands are not thinking about getting married yet, but we have a class for engaged couples in which they read a book called “Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts.” The book has a chapter called “Have you developed the habit of happiness?” The authors say that you can program your mind either to be a happy person or a miserable person. They tell the story of Viktor Frankl, who lived in a German concentration camp when he was 26 years old. His father, mother, sister, and wife were cremated by the Nazis. He was given a few slivers of carrots or peas in broth for daily soup. He was made to stand naked in front of a powerful light as he was falsely accused of many things. In that setting he thought to himself, “They have taken away from me everything I have – except the power to choose my own attitude.”

That’s what Paul is saying. Choose joy! If Victor Frankl can choose his attitude in his situation, so can you in yours! Paul’s readers may have said, “But you don’t understand what I have to deal with!” Paul answers, “Think about where I am. I’m sitting in prison and people are trying to take advantage of it. The Romans might kill me, but so what? I’m going to choose joy. And if I can, so can you.”

Life verse

That’s the grown up journey of faith:  work out, quit griping, and choose joy. I was only a little older than most of you, about 15 years old, when I chose Philippians 2:15-16 as my life verse: “That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God without rebuke in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation among whom ye shine as lights in the world, holding forth the word of life, that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain neither labored in vain” (KJV).

When Linda and I married, we chose another verse for us:  “So let us know, let us press on to know the Lord. His going forth is as certain as the dawn and he will come to us like the rain, like the spring rain watering the earth” (Hosea 6:3, NAS).

I’ve told you lots of things today, but I really only want you to remember one thing. Choose a life verse and hold on to it. I realize how much that verse has directed my life. I’ve always seen myself as trying to shine a bright light in a dark world. That means that bad news doesn’t alter my course – volcanoes, changing values, school shootings, conflicts, disappointments. I learned at age 15 to expect that. The world isn’t supposed to be an easy place or a straight place or a right place.

It’s not my job to fix everything. I can let go of that. It is my job to shine a bright light in a dark world. I got that idea from my life verse. Amen.

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