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The Sign of God's Presence

This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, Aug. 19 at St. Timothy Lutheran Church. The text was Philippians 2:14-18.

“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin' out the scenery, breakin' my mind
Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign?”
(Five Man Electrical Band)

Doesn’t this seem to sum up the beginning of this reading? If we go back a couple of verses, we get a better idea of Paul’s point. “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (vv. 1-13). Paul can give those instructions because it is God who does the work! 

In the first verse, Paul tells the Philippians what to do, that they are to do everything without murmuring or arguing. The emphasis falls on the words “all things,” which is panta in Greek. It is the first word of this verse, emphasizing its importance. 

A great illustration of what murmuring looks like is Amity’s predecessor, Abby. When she was riding in the car, if she saw a cat or a yellow lab, she would start barking. Ray would correct her and her barking ceased. But, she would complain under her breath--hrumph, hrumph. It was like the child who says “I may be sitting down on the outside, but I’m standing up on the inside.”

Paul goes on to give the rationale for his instructions. The Philippians should not murmur or argue so that they may be blameless, innocent, children of God without blemish. Complaining and arguing are the sins that breed disunity, thus blurring the effect of the gospel. This is so the Philippians’ lives would be such a contrast to those of the pagans around them that they would be like shining stars in the darkness. 

Blamelessness and purity do not mean absolute, sinless perfection, but rather wholehearted, unmixed devotion to doing God’s will. This does not happen instantly. We become children of God in baptism, but spiritual growth is a process. As we mature, we better live Christ’s life within us as God’s children.

The word translated “innocent,” implies motives that are unmixed. Christian purity means complete sincerity of thought and character. “Without blemish” does not mean perfection in this life, but describes how God sees the Christian. Isn’t that a relief?

In scripture, “sky” is the sign of God’s presence, which spells trouble for the forces of death and injustice. t also provides beautiful images. When Paul seeks to describe what it means to exist in harmony with God’s righteousness, he gives the readers the promise that those who live in peace will “shine like the stars.”

In moral blackness, the children of God are as stars at midnight. Notice that “you shine” states a present fact. The Philippians are not told to shine but reminded that they already do. The challenge was to let that light shine unhindered. 

In Philippians, the stars are portrayed as an image of protest and defiance. As images of nonviolent resistance—symbolizing the determination of the community to stand firm in the midst of persecution, thereby bringing light to the world. They continue to shine in the darkness bearing witness to the word of life in spite of persecution and opposition.

Stars don’t hide in the heavens, but shine brightly in the darkness, bringing light to the world. In this way, humans are taught to imitate the qualities of the natural world. The stars are always there, unchanging, bringing light to the darkness. 

Another reference in scripture to stars is from the Old Testament Book of Daniel. “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever” (Daniel 12:3). Daniel speaks of a time of great suffering before the end of the age and yet there were those whose light shone brightly.

Stars point to the power of God who brought the world into being. They can be seen throughout the world and exemplify steadfastness and power. Shining stars also relates to the theme of celebration, with the focus of the letter to the Philippians being joy in the midst of suffering

Stars are not as visible as they once were due to increased artificial lighting. While on internship in Petersburg, WV, we noticed our next door neighbors had an observatory in the backyard. In conversation, I learned in the past, they used it all the time, but now with so many lights, it was difficult to see the stars. Now you need to know that Petersburg isn’t much of a city. It is much smaller than Jamestown. We would consider it a town, but even at that, the lights obscured the ability to see the stars. 

It’s great to know what to do and why, but that isn’t enough. Paul tells the Philippians how to do what they should do. They are to hold fast to the “word of life” (v. 16). This means not only the Old Testament scriptures but also Paul’s teaching. By doing so, the Philippian believers bring light to their opponents. The opposition experienced by the Philippians was a sign of the gospel spreading and taking effect in the world. 

Paul writes of boasting, but not out of pride or a sense of self-accomplishment, but because of what God has done through him. He would be able to present to God his beloved Philippians, steadfast in the faith, as proof of his own work, that he did not “run in vain or labor in vain” v. 16, making the sacrifices worth it all.  

Paul tells the Philippians to stand firm in their own suffering, bringing everything back to his relationship with these believers. It is one of mutual encouragement and rejoicing in spite of and through the suffering, they are experiencing. Paul is in prison and though this was likely not his last imprisonment, he could not be sure that death did not await him. And these people that loved him so much were worried about him. Paul takes courage through their faith and it brings him joy. 

Paul refers to his sacrifices for the Philippians in terms of being “poured out as a libation” (v. 17). This would have been understood by both Jewish and Gentile readers. In the Jewish sacrificial system, this sometimes included pouring out water or wine on the altar. In other religions, people would pour wine on an altar or on the ground as a way of honoring their gods. Paul would be glad to have his life poured out in sacrificial service to God or to even lose his life as a sacrifice. Faithful living by the Philippians provided Paul with added reasons to rejoice. He wanted the content and basis of his boast at the end to be that his labors for the Philippians had not been in vain.

Paul wants the Philippians to be glad and rejoice with him, knowing that whether his life is sacrificed or whether he lived on, he would either be at home with the Lord or by continuing his work for the Lord. The Philippians too struggled with persecution. Paul’s approach to life was meant to encourage them.

How we are to live our lives is ethics. This applies not only to how we live with one another but how we live with the rest of creation. Global climate change threatens skies and earth and waters such as Chautauqua Lake. When pollution and industrial blight diminish the beauty of what God has made, then it might truly be the skies themselves that bear prophetic witness against us. Wouldn’t our ancestors be aghast at our ability to turn the sky dark with exhaust, carbon and nuclear mushroom clouds?

In the Lung Association’s 2018 State of the Air report, Chautauqua County’s air quality received an F. One reason is high levels of ozone, which is common on very hot days. Among the reasons for increased ozone is climate change, which is credited for bringing warmer temperatures, making air pollution harder to clean up. New federal policies could dictate what resources will be available in the future. 

And what about those smoky skies out west, with winds that shift and bring smoke to other areas? It has a direct effect on humans. If you have heart or lung disease, asthma, diabetes or a number of other health issues, you have to limit the time you spend outdoors. This is true as well for the very hot days with high ozone. 

Apart from these effects, wildfires also directly impact benefits that people receive from the environment including the provision of food and water, regulation of drought, land degradation and disease, cultural services and recreational benefits. And of course, many people have lost their homes and livelihood as well. 

Looking closer to home, what about our Lake? What are some of the problems it has? Can we just go down the street and go swimming in it any time we like? No, we cannot. 

Sometimes the source of water pollution is in the air. Air pollution makes it way into rivers, lakes or streams. Other pollutants enter our waters by raindrops, snow or fog. They not only harm the water, but the animal and plant life that depend on the water to survive.

Nitrogen is among the things that make its way into the lake. It is a nutrient that plants need to grow, but there can be too much of a good thing. Nitrogen can cause algae to grow very quickly, clogging the waterways and upsetting the balance of the ecosystem. Some algae blooms are toxic. When animals eat it, they eat the toxins as well. Nitrogen compounds in air pollution are partly the cause of these blooms and can contribute to the water becoming more acidic. 

Mercury too is an issue and although it occurs naturally in the environment, it is also released into the atmosphere by people, mainly from burning waste, and especially from burning fossil fuels like coal. I think we are well aware of how harmful mercury can be in the bodies of fish. When other animals, including humans, eat these fish the mercury gets into their bodies too. 

Has the focus on prosperity on earth led us to ignore the harm being done to the skies and waters? The picture looks glum, but there are simple things we can do to reduce air pollution’s effect on water. Reducing the use of fossil fuels can make the biggest impact, but there are other things we can do. We can turn off lights, walk, ride a bike or when possible use public transportation. 

We can also discontinue backyard burning. In cold weather, rather than turning the heat up, put on a sweater. When using air conditioning, set it for a higher temperature to decrease usage.

When driving, plan the most fuel-efficient route using online tools such as Google Maps. Avoid high construction and high traffic areas, if possible. This can help prevent needless idling of the car. 

Be idle-free. Turn off the car while waiting for someone. Park and walk inside of restaurants and pharmacies instead of waiting in the drive-thru. There are many other tips available on the EPA website. 

As children of God, we are called to live lives of faith that are congruent with our words of faith. In The Message, Paul writes “Go out into the world uncorrupted, a breath of fresh air in this squalid and polluted society. Provide people with a glimpse of good living and of the living God” (Philippians 2:15, The Message). 

Amen!

Sources cited:


William Barclay, Daily Study Bible

Crosscut.com

Homer A. Kent, Jr., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon, Volume 11

Nick Lippa, news.wbfo.org

Lutheran Study Bible notes

Susan Miller, The Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary




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