Sermon: Shine Like Stars

I invite you to open your Bibles with me to the book of Philippians. Philippians 2:12-28. Philippians is in the New Testament – Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians. Philippians 2:12-18. This fall we are working our way through Paul’s letter to the church in the Roman colony of Philippi. He is writing from prison with the possibility of death by martyrdom in front of him, but he writes with love for the church and with joy in Christ. We pick up the letter right after Paul has spoken a hymn to Christ holding forth gospel, including Christ’s humility. Philippians 2:12-18, but before we hear God’s work, please take a moment to pray with me. 

Father, in your light we see light. May your Word be a light to our path today. Send your Spirit to illumine us as we read and fill our vision with our Lord Jesus Christ, the light of the world. In his name, we pray. Amen. 

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. 

Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world. It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you – and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. 

Say these words after me: 

Do all things without murmuring and arguing, 

so that you may be blameless and innocent, 

children of God without blemish 

in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, 

in which you shine like stars in the world.

Let’s do that one more time: 

Do all things without murmuring and arguing, 

so that you may be blameless and innocent, 

children of God without blemish 

in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, 

in which you shine like stars in the world.

Isn’t that beautiful. in which you shine like stars in the world. Paul holds forth a hope for us, that we might be able to shine like stars. 

Imagine the darkest sky you have ever seen. Perhaps you were camping or in the woods, somewhere out of the city where the noise and the ambient light fades. And you look up in the sky and see star after star after star. On one level, the sky is darker than ever before, outside the city. But in another sense, it is brighter than you have ever seen as it is filled with tiny pinpricks of light. 

in which you shine like stars in the world  – This is Paul’s picture of our life as the church in the midst of the world. In a vast sea of darkness, tiny pinpricks of light, shining forth Christ. Like a city on a hill, a candle on a lamp stand. If you have been here at Bethel before, perhaps the image of shining your light seems familiar. If you can, join with me, for these are the words of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. No one, after lighting a lamp, puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, so it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven. 

Or as we hear in Philippians, in which you shine like stars in the world. The picture is of the stars shine against the black sky. Stars were used by ancient people to guide their way. We, as the church, are called to light up the night sky, guiding people to the hope, purpose, healing, and joy found in Jesus Christ. Friends, we should not be surprised or dismayed when times are dark. Jesus promised they would come. Paul echoes this again and again, saying that we are to shine like stars in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation. This was the world of the early church as much as our own. There have certainly been times when the dark seems much darker than before, but the call to shine remains the same for us. Against the dark canvas of the night – when injustice runs rampant and consistently cuts down the lives of those who do not look like me, when lies become mainstream and slander seems a national past time, when isolation grips and squeeze week after week, it is here when things seem darkest that a sky filled with pinpricks of light seems so bright. Don’t complain that the dark is getting dark, but let the light shine brighter. It is when it is darkest that the world needs us to hold forth the light of Christ most clearly.  

But how do we do that? What does it look like for us to shine like stars in the world?

Say it again after me: 

Do all things without murmuring and arguing, 

so that you may be blameless and innocent, 

children of God without blemish 

in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, 

in which you shine like stars in the world.

How do we do this? Do all things without murmuring or arguing. How do we shine like stars in the world? It starts with character. 

Murmuring calls up the picture of the Israelites in the wilderness murmuring against Moses. God sends Ten Plagues against Egypt, breaking the power of Pharaoh and leads them out of Egypt, but when they get to the Red Sea, they complain, they murmur. God provides bread falling from the sky every morning for forty years, all they have to do is go out the door of their tent and pick it up, but they complain. They murmur. God provided and cared for them again and again, but they were filled with a bitter and murmuring spirit. You ever known someone who finds a way to complain no matter what happens? How easy is it to be around them? Do you ever look at them and think, ‘Oh yes, I want to be more like that. I wonder what is different about them that makes them so ornery. I want to know because I just want more of that in my life.’ Probably not. Or consider arguing. Someone who is always looking for a fight, who cannot do anything without challenging you til the cows come home. Likely there is someone’s name or face running through your mind right now. Do you want more of that in your life? Does that show forth the love and grace of Jesus? We might joke about people ‘bickering like a married couple,’ but is that really what we want? Contrast that with the person who acts without murmuring or arguing. Probably someone comes to you mind when I talk about serving without complaint or grumbling, humbly putting others ahead of themselves. Which do you think shines like stars in the world? 

Do all things without murmuring and arguing. Our character, our attitudes and actions toward one another, not only affects our own lives, but it affects our witness. How we live can either obscure or make plain the message of Jesus. Our character and actions cannot be a substitute for sharing the gospel, but they do change how open people are to listening to the gospel. 

Younger generations (particularly those people not in the church) are longing to see how what we say we believe plays out in how we live. They want to see our walk before they will listen to our talk. Do we care about justice for the oppressed? Do we care for the poor and for God’s creation? Do we kindness, patience, compassion? I am not saying the world’s values need to dictate how the church lives in order to be attractive – far from it – but those outside the church and many within are looking to see our walk before they will listen to our talk. If before they hear anything we have to say about Jesus, sin, salvation, eternal life, they see a community of people murmuring and arguing, see a spirit of complaining and bitterness, see a lack of care for the vulnerable and weak, then anytime we talk about the love and grace of God, they will be mentally calling ‘BS.’ Reality is, friends, we are sending a message by our life and by our life together as a community whether we like it or not – our life can either obscure or make plain the message of Jesus. 

I have heard research that suggests that visitors to a church often decide whether they will come back the next week within the first seven minutes of arriving. Seven minutes. Think about that. People can already get a read about what kind of community we are, what we are about, and whether we are for real within the first seven minutes. Christians may know that the word of life are spoken when the Word of God is read, we may be proud of the biblical preaching in our congregation or the spirit of prayer that is a part of our services, or even our fellowship afterwards, but most visitors decide whether they are coming back before they have heard a single word from me. They see whether we murmur and argue or are filled with humility, love, and compassion by how we treat them and each other before I even open my mouth. 

Do all things without murmuring and arguing. I want each of us, myself included, to hear this call clearly this morning, but we have to admit that this is really hard right now. Everyone is stressed and weary and the lack of connection we are all experiencing is hard. The fellowship and time together that serves as the glue that holds us together or the lubricant that reduces friction has been lacking for months because of the situation in the world. We have lost something of our life as a community in these last months and I believe Satan is using that lack of connection to steal, kill, and destroy. 

The call of the church in the midst of a dark sky is to shine like stars in the world. We do that, in part, by our character as a community. When we act with humility, when we do life together without murmuring or grumbling, when our priorities in this life and in the life to come match up with what God’s Word says, then we shine. 

We also shine when we hold fast and hold forth the word of life. Verse 16: It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. Not only are we to let our walk in this world match up with God’s Word, but we are to be people who hold fast to the words of life. I noticed something as I was studying this passage. Some translations say ‘holding fast to the word of life’ and others said, ‘holding forth the word of life.’ As I dug deeper, I found that the Greek word here could be translated either way. Perhaps that was part of Paul’s point. We shine when we hold fast to the word and when we hold it forth. When someone holds a candlestick they are both holding fast to the candlestick and holding forth the light of the candle. When the church holds firm to the Word of God and walks according to it, we shine like stars and I, like Paul, can boast that my labor among you was not in vain and I have not run myself so hard for nothing. Yet also, when the church holds forth the Word of God to the world, when we know the word of life and hold it out to a world in desperate need of Jesus and all that he gives, we shine like stars and I, like Paul, can boast that it was all worth it. 

The greatest joy of a pastor’s heart is to see a congregation shining like stars. It makes all the challenge, all the pain worth it. Paul talks about being poured out as a libation, like a drink offering. His life for Christ and his life as a pastor for this Philippian community has been an act of being poured out. God has chosen to pour out Paul’s life – Paul’s faith joins with the faith of this church as an offering before God. There is challenge here, it is an emptying of himself, even an anticipation of his upcoming martyrdom. But still Paul rejoices and is glad. Even as he is emptied out for Christ and his church, Paul rejoices and invites the church to rejoice with him. He wants their joy to be together and to be in Christ Jesus. There is heartache, there is darkness, there are trials to be faced as the church seeks to shine like stars, but they rejoice together, because in the end, there is joy. In the end, it is not in vain. 

But how do we do this? How do we shine like stars in the world? We saw that we do this by living with a Christ-like character, letting our walk come before our talk, doing all things without murmuring and complaining. We saw how we do it by holding fast to the word of life as a church and holding it forth to the world. And in the end, it is worth it, there is joy. 

But maybe you have heard all that this morning and just feel more weary than when you started. Perhaps shining like a star sounds like a good idea to you, but just feels like one more burden on your shoulders when you can barely stand as it is. One more thing on your to-do list when you already cannot keep up. Perhaps the call of Jesus feels more like a weight settling on your shoulders this morning than like freedom and joy. 

There is good news. Listen again to verses twelve and thirteen: Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Yes, work out your salvation. Yes, keep working – saying ‘no’ to murmuring and ‘yes’ to patience. Yes, salvation cannot be earned, but only received, but there is still work for us to do. Yes, there is a call to obedience. Yes, there is a call to mission. Yes, there is a call to live out our salvation here and now. Yes to all of this, and yet mercifully and beautifully, also yes, it is not another burden on your shoulders. For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. The strength you need to shine in the darkness with the light of Christ, to walk the way of Christ on this narrow and steep path, comes from God. It is not your strength or your power that will make you shine, that will carry you through. It is God at work in you that makes you capable of following him in such a way that people see Jesus. 

It is about taking the salvation already accomplished for us in Christ and appropriating it, living it out, here and now. Humility, putting others ahead of our selves, working without murmuring and complaining, holding fast and holding forth, even joy itself are gifts from God to be received by grace and then lived out in our everyday lives. 

Paul sees no tension, no contradiction between claiming that all progress in living out our faith in God comes by the work of God in us and simply commanding us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Answering the philosophical questions of how to hold these two together is interesting and I would be happy to talk about it with you afterwards, but don’t let that distract us from the force of what is being said here. If you are a Christian, God is at work in you, enabling you to live for him, to will and work for his good pleasure – so take what you have received in the gospel and work it out, let’s see it in your life (not just as ideas bouncing around in your head). 

Imagine you are back sitting under that pitch black sky. As you look up, you begin to see the stars. First one, then another, then hundreds shining and filling the sky. This is the church, holding fast and holding forth the light of Christ, no matter how dark the world may seem. Then, as Paul says, But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you – and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. 

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