Sermon: Down, Down
If in last week’s sermon I began by alluding to 1960s television with Opportunity Knocks, in this week let us move forward to the 1980s, to the birth of breakfast television and the arrival on our screen of fitness instructors in lurid spandex leotards. If you didn’t go out to work, or if you worked from home, then almost as soon as your cereal had settled in your stomach, an energetic extraverted fitness expert was there to help it all come back through vigorous exercise.
Yes, this morning I bring back to your thoughts the memory of Mr Motivator (or Derrick, to his friends). I can offer prayer afterwards for anyone who finds the recollection too traumatic.
But I do want to talk about motivation today. Not, how do we motivate people to take more physical exercise, but how do we motivate the people of God to live as a Christlike community? How do we become more like a family that bears the resemblance of our heavenly Father and of our elder brother Jesus?
In this most famous of passages in Philippians, Paul gives us three motivations to live our common life as the church in a manner befitting of Jesus Christ.
Firstly, he gives his readers some incentives. I’m sure you have used incentives to motivate people to do something. “If you do that, you’ll get extra pocket money.” “If you don’t do what I want, you’ll lose pocket money.” “If you do this for the company, you could earn a bonus.”
People who observe Christians have to cope with the high degree to which we get involved with things such as community service, and sometimes the uncomfortable fact that Christians do more than average requires an explanation from them. One such explanation that I have heard from some contemporary atheists is that what drives Christians is their fear of burning in hell. As the rock group Crowded House sang in their song ‘Distant Sun’, ‘Like a Christian fearing vengeance from above.’
But nothing could be further from the truth for Christ-followers. We are not motivated by fear of frying, we are motivated by the love of God. The words of the seventeenth century Latin hymn which we know as ‘My God, I love thee not because’ put it well:
My God, I love thee; not because
I hope for heaven thereby,
nor yet because who love thee not
are lost eternally.
Thou, O Lord Jesus, thou didst me
upon the cross embrace;
for me didst bear the nails and spear,
and manifold disgrace,
And griefs and torments numberless,
and sweat of agony;
yea, death itself; and all for me
who was thine enemy.
Then why, O blessed Jesus Christ,
should I not love thee well,
not for the sake of winning heaven,
nor any fear of hell;
not with the hope of gaining aught,
not seeking a reward;
but as thyself hast loved me,
O ever loving Lord!
So would I love thee, dearest Lord,
and in thy praise will sing,
solely because thou art my God
and my most loving King.
And it’s that positive incentive Paul gives the Philippian Christians in verse 1:
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion …
It’s all about their experience of God’s love, of being loved and giving love. If you need an incentive to live the Christlike life in community with your brothers and sisters, it is this. God loves you. He has united you with his Son. You are comforted by his love. You participate in the things of the Spirit. You experience tenderness and compassion.
No Christian needs to be stirred up by terror about eternal consequences. We already know that we are loved with an everlasting love. We can be humbly confident in the love of God for us. It is there in God’s promises. It is there in God’s actions. It is there in our spiritual experience. Let us live as the family of God because his love has drawn us to himself and drawn us to one another in his presence.
But what would that involve? We therefore secondly nevertheless hear of our obligations:
then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (Verses 2-4)
You can sum up the obligations here in two words: ‘unity’ and ‘humility’. Unity comes in the words ‘like-minded … same love … one in spirit and of one mind’. Humility comes in doing ‘nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit’ but ‘in humility valu[ing] others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests’.
These are to be the characteristics of the Christian family: unity and humility. We are to seek unity in our thinking and goals, bound together by love. That means selfish ambition goes – holy ambition is fine, that is, ambition for the glory of God, but we must not be self-seeking. And vain conceit must go too, because our motivations in the Church are not to seek applause for ourselves but for Christ.
The thing about this is, most of us will sign up to unity and humility without hesitation. Voting against unity and humility is for Christians like voting against apple pie. Yet what we have to watch is the small, subtle temptation. I have to win the argument all the time. I do little things that just elevate my reputation in small, almost indiscernible increments. What I claim to be the cause of Christ is really my own personal campaign.
What are the antidotes? Perhaps some of it comes in Paul’s exhortations to ‘value others above ourselves’. It isn’t that we don’t value ourselves at all – one of the lessons of dealing with my parents’ frailty has been the hard one that I have done all I can but I can’t do it all, and if I try to do it all I will become ill and no good to anyone. So I must value myself to a certain extent, but I mustn’t put myself on a pedestal.
The great thing about valuing others above ourselves is that unity and humility flow as a result. If with a good heart I seek someone else’s well-being, then I will become more united with them. If I do this truly, then by necessity I value them from a posture of humility, because this is an act of service.
Yet what we need to remember above all is that these things don’t just happen automatically. We need to be utterly deliberate in our intentions and actions of valuing others. It must be a conscious decision that we act out. As the American preacher Vance Havner once said,
The vision must be followed by the venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps – we must step up the stairs.
Imagine what the effect might be if we did, though. Just as it was said of the early disciples, ‘See how these Christians love one another’, wouldn’t it be wonderful if that were what people said of us in this community?
Thirdly, finally and supremely, we are motivated by the story of Jesus. Now you would expect Jesus to trump everything. He is our example. We are to imitate him, are we not – daunting as that may sound?
But Jesus is not a vague set of principles and laws. Jesus is a person, indeed the Second Person of the eternal Trinity, who became human. He has a story, a narrative, and that is what is compelling for us: his story. He actually lived the things he calls us to do as his family. He has modelled it all for us.
And of course ‘story’ is an engaging and persuasive medium for us humans. You don’t generally communicate truth, goodness and beauty to children by getting them to recite a list of laws in the same way that they learn their times tables by rote. You tell them stories. Many adults find the same is true. It’s why novels, TV shows and films are such strong parts of our culture. The story is magnetic, captivating and convincing. Somewhere embedded in the story are the values of the author.
Nowhere is this truer than in the story of Jesus. And Paul gives his readers a miniature summary of Jesus’ story (verses 5-11), telling of how he who came from the highest heaven put aside all his status to become a servant and obey his Father, even to the humiliation of the Cross. Yet God vindicated that humility by raising him and exalting him, so that one day every being in the universe will recognise him as Lord. When Debbie did her jury duty at the coroner’s court in the summer, everyone had to stand when the coroner himself came into the court or left; similarly, when the name of Jesus is announced at the end of time, all will not stand but bow as an act of homage. That is how far the Father has vindicated his Son for his humility and obedience.
The great thing about what Paul does is that he carries the story of Jesus beyond what the Philippians know. They know Jesus was incarnate, they know about his humble life and death, they know that God raised him from the dead, but they don’t know the climax of the story where the tables are so completely turned that the Humbled One receives the humble praise of all creation. Will not the Judge of the earth do right? Why, yes he will.
As Paul tells the whole arc of the Jesus story, going beyond what we know in the Gospels to the resolution of all the conflict and tension, he gives us an incredible motivation to live as the family of God. Is it that Jesus is our example in how to live in the power of the Spirit? Yes – but it is more here. Paul gives us more than a model for living. He says more than, ‘Copy Jesus’. If that were all he gave us, we might not have much more than a dull moral lecture.
However, the full story of Jesus motivates us to live as a united, humble family. How? By showing us how God ultimately treats those who live in humble obedience. He vindicates them. He exalts them.
Oh, to be sure, all creation will not bow down at the sound of our names – we are not entitled to worship as Jesus is. But our God is the God of the great reversal. Not only does he call us to values that turn upside down the assumptions of the world, he then confirms that upside down way as the true grain of the universe in final judgement. For judgement to God is not simply the punishment of the wicked, it is vindication, too. And those who are willing to live the humble life of service, seeking to build up the family of God by valuing others above themselves are those who will be vindicated by God at the end of all things. These are the people who can expect to hear the words all Christians covet: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’ It’s the story of Jesus as told here by Paul that gives them that hope, and the motivation to live for it.
Do we want, then, to live as the family of God? Are we willing to put in the effort under the leading of the Holy Spirit? Let us find incentive in the love of God to fulfil our obligations to unity and humility. And let us be motivated by the vision given to us in the story of Jesus, as we go through our travails, for God is the master storyteller, and although he gives us freedom to improvise our characters, we know he has planned justification for his humble people.