Hear the Word of God: "I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel…"
Helen Keller wrote: "No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars or sailed to an uncharted land or opened a new heaven to the human spirit."
I believe there are many in the church who are pessimists, but today is a day to be an optimist.
Is that just a Pollyanna attitude that comes from a fleeting feeling associated with a new year? As we move into a new year together, I challenge you to look upward and forward with me as we turn to one of the most optimistic books in the Bible, the Book of Philippians.
I recently came across a surprising book title The Power of Negative Thinking! Julie K. Norem is a psychology professor at Wellesley College who wrote the book and says you could "harness the power of negative energy" to reach your goals. The promo for the book went like this:
"Are you tired of always being told to 'look on the bright side'? Are you criticized for imagining worst-case scenarios? Do you wish your optimistic friends would just leave you alone and let you be negative?
"If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be one of the millions of people who have learned to cope with the pressures of modern life by using Defensive Pessimism, a strategy of imagining the worst-case scenario of any situation."
As a pastor, I have seen people with the gift of discouragement, but never knew it was a virtue until I read about this new book! Actually, I have read that there are church consultants who are telling us the church in America is not going to make it unless (fill in the blank here): (1)We speak the language of the culture; (2)We tune into exactly which kind of worship the unbeliever really wants; or (3)We develop the right marketing campaign, program or website, etc. Amazingly, in many of the cases, the solution for the deathbed situation in the church is available for a small consulting fee from said consultant!
You know, there also may be someone here who feels as if he or she is not going to make it, that the journey of discipleship has taken some bad turns. Maybe your are discouraged by your own sins or the situation in which you find yourself or your family. You just can't see through the circumstances to see any approaching victory in your Christian life. We all feel these things from time to time.
This New Year, I am more optimistic than ever about the future of the church of our Lord Jesus, and I am optimistic about your life and mine in the kingdom of God no matter what we might be facing. Now, a misplaced optimism would say I am optimistic because I know you can hang in there and do it, or that our leaders are capable of leaping tall buildings in a single bound. No, I am not optimistic because of you, another leader, myself or any human part of the church. I am optimistic because in 2,000 years of human frailty, Satanic opposition and worldly attack, the promise of our Lord that He would build His church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it is as certain today as ever.
We see this clearly realized in the early church. With an apostle in jail, apparently failing to evangelize and reach the Gentiles, the church's future seemed to be in jeopardy. The truth is that while Paul was in prison, he wrote a letter of thanksgiving to the Church at Philippi about how God was using his situation to advance the kingdom.
From the wonderfully encouraging
The Values of an Optimistic Church (
The Philippian church had given Paul a gift for the other churches, and Paul returned their gift with this letter, in which are remarkable gifts of truth that can change lives.
First, if we were trying to distill Paul's values from this part of his letter in verses 3-11, we could include these six values.
1. Honor the Past (vv. 3-5)
Paul thanked God upon every remembrance of them. Their ministry had produced some great things in the past; they had helped other churches and had been a blessing to the body of Christ. Paul thanked God for them and for the fellowship they enjoyed in the past.
Remembering is a sacred act in the Bible, one commended by God. The Passover was an observance in which Israel was to remember how God had liberated them from an oppressive life of bondage and into freedom. The Lord's Supper is a commandment to remember that Christ is our Passover for us, that in His body and blood we have our freedom and are on the way to our promised land. The Book of Psalms is filled with the command to remember. David, in
Failure to remember what God has done is sinful: "Our fathers in Egypt did not understand Your wonders; they did not remember the multitude of Your mercies, but rebelled by the sea—the Red Sea" (
So it is right, good and glorifying to God to remember on this day. You know God has used your church in powerful ways in the past. I am sure there are people here who have been blessed by this church. I suspect there will be people in heaven because of the past teaching ministry of this congregation. Like Paul, we can look back and remember the great times together. We can be thankful for ministry. We can be thankful for good friends, for godly pastors who have passed through these halls. As you move forward, do not disconnect from the past, but honor the past.
Pastor, it is the same way for you. You can move into the future by honoring the past. God has used you to bless the saints in your ministry in your previous charges. You can be thankful, for all things have worked together for you to come to this place in your life, and it would not have occurred without all of the joys, sorrows, people, places and events of what has gone before.
You know, as a pastor who was only the 12th pastor in 163 years of history, there was a lot of past to honor! Recently I returned to a centenary celebration of that church's sanctuary. It was a great time for us all, and I have learned it is important for people to feel that what has gone before is not lost. It has meaning.
In a way, Paul began his letter by honoring the past. However, we cannot live in the past. To do so is to erect a mausoleum and live among the dead. Paul lifts their eyes to the glorious present and future in versee 6, and this is a second value of the optimistic church or Christian:
2. Build for the Future (v. 6)
Verse 6 is one of the greatest verses in the Bible. Paul begins by speaking of "Being confident of this…" God had done some great things in the past, but there were great things to come. The Christian life is dynamic, alive and moving through history to reach each and every new generation that comes along. Likewise, God is not finished with you yet. You honor the past, but now God is calling you into a future with Him. The reign of the Lord Jesus guarantees He will see you through.
This is the heart that says with Paul, as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message: "I'm not saying that I have this all together that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out to me. Friends, don't get me wrong. By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I've got my eye on the goal where God is beckoning us onward to Jesus. I'm off and running and I'm not turning back."
Now a third value is in verse: "you all are partakers with me of grace" (Phil. 1:7).
3. Glory in Grace (v. 7)
The central theme of the writings of Paul is what God has done in Christ through the divine truth of grace. God has done what we cannot do through sending His Son to live the life we cannot live and die a death for our sins. He offers eternal life to all who call upon Him by faith. This is grace and Paul will say in
4. Abound in Love and Knowledge of Jesus (vv. 8-9)
In these verses, Paul shows that his own heart is for loving the saints with the "compassion of Christ Jesus." Then Paul says his prayer is that the love of the saints may overflow increasingly with "knowledge and full insight" to help you to determine what is best.
My family and I vacationed in California a few years ago. One thing we did was go up through the Carmel Valley, into the Sierra Mountains on a hike. As we went, we went with hearts filled with joy at being with each other, with souls filled with the beauty of creation—but we also had a map! God wants you to go forward with love. God wants you, dear pastor, to love these people through the compassionate heart of their Savior. He wants all of us to follow Him in love wed to knowledge and insight of His Word.
Now, look at verse 10: "to help you determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless." The fifth value is this:
5. Keep Your Eyes on the Eternal (v.10)
God wants you to remember you are on a journey—a journey of faith in Christ—which is going somewhere, to the new promised land, the very abode of almighty God. Some of us will get there when we pass from this life, others when Christ comes again, and all of us will see that great Day of Resurrection.
Preach it, pastor. Encourage each other, people of God. If you are here this morning, please remember the Word of God is telling us the Day of Christ is coming. How will you appear before His throne, pure and blameless except through the righteousness of Christ?
Moreover, I think Paul is dealing here with the Christian life. He is saying to remember we are on a journey. As we are filled with love and God's Word that gives knowledge and insight, we will begin living for eternity today. Finally, we read this in verse 11: "Having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God."
6. Practice His Praise (v. 11)
Paul said all of our lives is moving toward praise. The values of this optimistic believer is that life is lived as an act of worship. Our worship services will be filled with expectation and wonder if we come to see we really are practicing our praise for heaven!
So, these are the values:
1. Honor the past.
2. Build for the future.
3. Glory in grace.
4. Abound in knowledge and love of Jesus.
5. Keep your eyes on the eternal.
6. Practice your praise.
As you, like Paul, begin to enact these, cling to these vital values of the Christian life; it will transform your lives and your fellowship, but also lead you to some insights and some affirmations. Now look and see what is emerging here and tell me if this is not an optimistic Christian!
The Affirmation of an Optimistic Church
1. The pain of our past is being transformed into the power for our ministry (v. 12).
I absolutely cherish this passage: "I want you to know that what has happened to me actually has helped to spread the gospel." The beatings, false trials, and imprisonment were not stopping the gospel, but advancing it! This is the truth of God's sovereignty, and it is for this reason I am so optimistic.
This says that whatever has come into my life, I know My God is causing all things to work together for the good for those who are His. This reminds me that if God is for us, who can be against us?
In my own life, this truth liberated and freed me. I was orphaned as a child after having endured no small amount of abuse and heartache. I later ran from the pain and my misunderstanding of it; but when I learned about the glory of God, the God who is sovereign in love, I learned the very things that had sought to destroy me had become the things that led me to see my need of a Savior. It is not that I embrace my pain in a sadomasochistic way, but I am now at peace with it. God has used it to advance His gospel. I am told the University of North Carolina Charlotte Department of Psychology is researching a phenomenon called Post-Traumatic Growth Syndrome. Apparently the same incidents that can cause trauma, as in the Nazi bombings of London, can cause superhuman-like courage and new spiritual resiliency among certain survivors.
Christianity has taught this from its inception. God is doing that with each of us and with all of us. What have you gone through as a church that was painful? What have you gone through in your own life that was filled with pain or heartache or injustice? May you learn this affirmation of Paul's and be given growth and resiliency in the Spirit!
2. The predicament of our present is being translated into a testimony for outreach (vv. 13-14).
Paul is saying that all the events that led to his bondage led to his ministry. One who is not given to seeing God's ways might think the church to be sunk. It looked sunk in the Garden of Eden, but God gave a promise in
You might have thought the kingdom of God was sunk when a mad king in Egypt issued a diabolical edict to kill all the little boys of the Hebrews, but God's faithfulness and His covenant promise were working through the predicament to bring the promise.
Maybe you thought when a mean ambitious ruler named Haman conceived a plot to exterminate the Jews, the divinely chosen carriers of God's Messiah, that would be the end. However, in the Book of Esther, an optimistic book if ever there were one, God was working out the promise in the predicament. In the end of that divine historical irony, Esther saved the day, Haman hanged on his own gallows, and the promise persevered.
The predicament of Jesus' birth might have signaled to the angels that it was all over. A new madman in a long line of diabolically directed beasts of the earth and sea, Herod, sought to kill Jesus. Yet there was providence in the predicament, and our little Lord was saved.
Tell me this: What do you see at the cross but the same phenomenon? The predicament is the King of glory is being mocked between two criminals. Jesus the righteous, the King of shalom, is nailed to a Roman cross outside the Holy City, which had turned against Him. Surely, here, finally, the predicament will prove the glass is half empty and draining rapidly! Here the plan unravels, and the Son of God fails! Still, believers in Christ, in the predicament came the promise! Early the next morning, on the first day of the week, right on time, just as it was foretold, the predicament of a grave, of a cold body of God, shivered from the first beam of power, and that God-man who was dead rose up again, the immovable seal of the most powerful nation in the history of the world was broken, and Jesus arose!
Because of this, my dear friends, because the central message of the cross of Jesus Christ is woven into the very life of Paul, he's able to say the things that happened to him did so to advance the gospel.
I had a parishioner, Miss Mary Jo, who is a very godly woman, a woman of prayer. She once fell and broke her leg and was rushed to the hospital. The physicians carefully brought healing to her; by the time I found out, she was resting in a room. I walked in to see her. There was another person in the room with her, a teenage girl who also had broken a bone. A curtain separated the two of them. Miss Mary Jo looked at me, and the first thing out of her mouth was, "Well, now I know why God allowed that fall, and I know why I am here." I said, "Well, why?" She said, "Because that girl over there doesn't know the Lord. Now Pastor, I've already talked to her, and I hav ebeen waiting on you to finish it up!" She could see through her predicament to the providential hand of God.
By faith, you, too, my dear friend, must acknowledge the Lord's sovereign hand: In your own life, in our nation, at this time in the life of your church. Our nation is in hard times. Our creed has cracked, and our code is crumbling. When the church gets a headline in the paper, you can count on it being a bad one; but my dear friend, revival has had a way of showing up in the worst of times. When we come to see we have no solution, we come to see we are locked up in a generation that desperately needs the gospel, we come to see we were born for such a time as this!
Ministry in such times is hard, I know. Recently, many of us who are chaplains wrestled with how to respond to potential threats to First Amendment rights to preach the gospel concerning human sexuality given that the administration has imposed a same-sex marriage agenda onto the military. I think about it, and it is enough to take away your enthusiasm for chaplain ministry. Then I see a soldier in need. I hear of a marine family who has lost a loved one. I read about a guardsman from the Midwest who risked his life to save others in a grenade attack in Afghanistan, and I say, "They need Christ. Oh God, let me minister to them!" I remain optimistic that until I am thrown in prison or thrown out of the Army Reserve, I will preach the whole counsel of God for the sake of those who need to hear it. When I begin to focus on Christ and others, and forget self and my own questions, I get excited again about ministry. I can leave the rest to God. I begin to say, "This is a glorious time to be alive and to minister Jesus to those who need Him!"
Dear pastor and people of God, what a glorious time in your lives! God has worked all things together for such a time as this. Whatever predicaments you may face—in your church, in your life—say with Paul, "This is working out for the advance of the gospel."
Now, the gospel part of this message is not just be optimistic, but be a follower of the One who has greater plans for you than you have for yourself.
We will call his name Toby. Toby had Down syndrome, and Toby had a dream. Toby wanted to be in the Special Olympics and try to run a 50-yard dash. Toby was near 30 years of age, very overweight and had asthma, but he had a dream. He knew he could do it. So, these special needs people lined up on that sunny day at a football field, the gun sounded, and off they went! You probably would not have recruited any of them for your track team, but you know what? They were giving it their all. Toby was so heavy and had such problems breathing. He was way behind and finally just fell. There, flat-faced in the grass, his tears now mixing with the sod, his big body heaved with disappointment.
Then, out of the corner of everyone's eyes came his dad. You see, Toby's daddy had a dream that was greater than his son's dream. He wanted that race for Toby more than Toby wanted that race. He only wanted him to finish, not to compete or necessarily to win. He wanted his boy to have a victory. He was more sure it would happen than Toby. So he ran out, picked up that big boy and started running with him thrown over his shoulder. He started hollering to his boy, "You are going to make it Toby! You will make it all the way, son!" Toby got into it, as well, and started hoping and hollering! "Yeah, Dad! We gonna make it!"
We are Toby. We will be victorious not because of a powerful, ingenious pastor or hard-working congregation, but a loving Savior who is unwilling that any should be lost. He will see victory. He will see that you are kept, that your lampstand will be in place when He comes again. He wants it more than you. He promises He will turn your heartaches to rejoicing. He is strongest in your weakness. Of that, I am optimistic and sure. His sovereign grace and His unstoppable kingdom leave me no other option to believe. Do you believe that?
Let us pray…Almighty God and heavenly Father, as You gave Your one and only Son, Jesus Christ, to become the atonement for our sins, the righteousness that we must have to stand before You, and as You raised Him from the dead, everything has changed. You are working all things, now, toward Your own glorious aim. Nothing can stop the advancement of Your kingdom! By Your Spirit and Your Word, transform and renew our minds in this glorious gospel truth that we may rest in your wonderful gospel promises and so learn to live, not oblivious to suffering, unaware of tragedy, unmindful of the snares of sin, inattentive to the pain of others, but with an optimism based on faith in the finished work of Christ and in Your redemptive plan for Your heaven and earth. In Jesus' name I pray. Amen.