SOMETHING MORE Philippians 1:21-27; 1 Peter 3:15 Theme of the Month Mentorship: Growing, Maturing & serving
Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Sharp
Lead Pastor, English Congregation Vancouver Chinese Baptist Church, Vancouver, British Columbia
Sunday Sermon for 24 January 2010
Scripture Passages Philippians 1:21-27
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me. 21
Whatever happens, as citizens of heaven live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together with one accord for the faith of the gospel. 27
1 Peter 3:15
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.
A certain advertising agent decided to trade in his suit and winged-tip shoes for a white robe. He set himself up as a swami in one of the Eastern religions. He advertised his ability to answer life’s most profound questions and eventually gathered a group of disciples who sat reverently about him while he remained lost in meditation. Finally the newly-made swami broke his trance long enough to utter his profound insight for the day: “Life,” he said, “is like a can of Pringles potato chips floating in a bowl of Pepsi Cola.” The disciples nodded respectfully--except for one. He said, “But swami, why is life like a can of Pringles floating in a bowl of Pepsi Cola?” At this, the ex advertising agent lifted his head, fixed the questioner with an icy stare and said, “Listen, fellow, did you come here to learn or to argue?” What is the meaning of life? Beethoven once played his latest sonata for a group of his friends. The music filled the room. As the last note lingered, the friends asked Beethoven, “What does it mean?” Beethoven’s only answer was to go back to the piano and play the entire sonata again. Finished, he said to his friends. “That is what it means.” Someone saw this sign on a subway wall: “Life is one contradiction after another.” Underneath someone else had written: “No it’s not.” On a bulletin board someone found this cryptic message: “This life is a test. It is only a test. Had it been an actual life you would have received further instructions on where to go and what to do!” But the reality is that this isn’t only a test, it is an actual life – yours and mine, with all its ups and downs, joys and sorrow, pain and pleasure. It is an actual life for you and me and for the other billions of people who inhabit this planet spinning through space. And because it is real life, the most important question we can ask and seek to answer is: What is life all about really? Now for some people, they will tell you that there is no point to life. We might as well face that reality. For some people, life has no ultimate meaning or value. The Russian playwright Anton Chekhov once said, “You ask me what life is? It is like asking what a carrot is. A carrot is a carrot.” To many in our society today, there is no real point to life. We are all accidents in the evolutionary chain. Life has no meaning. Get used to it. To ask what life is or is about is a meaningless question. In one of his best-selling books, the philosopher, educator Allan Bloom observed that many college students today are reluctant to hold any opinions, especially about the ultimate meaning of life. After all, people who thought that they were right in the past did terrible things as a result. Therefore, this line of thinking concludes, it is best to have no opinions at all. But unfortunately, the result of taking this position is that it usually results in a moral vacuum, where nothing is ultimately right and nothing is really wrong. And whom I am I to say. But this is where many people are in today’s world. They see no ultimate purpose or point to life and therefore there is no ultimate right or wrong. SOMETHINGMORE 2
This leads us to a second thing we need to see: Where there is no purpose, there is no power. It is very difficult for human beings to live without purpose. The reality is that people cannot live without meaning. Where there is no meaning there is no power. And no matter what we might tell ourselves or what our philosophy tells us, we can’t live that way. During World War II, a group imprisoned at a Nazi concentration camp in Hungary converted waste products into synthetic alcohol to be used as a fuel additive. One day the Allies bombed the camp and almost destroyed the building where the alcohol was manufactured. The next morning, the guards decided to punish the inmates. They forced them to take all the rubble from the airraid and arrange it at one end of a field. When the prisoners finished this task, the guards ordered them to carry it back to the other end. This went on, back and forth, for several weeks until the prisoners began to break under the strain. Some tried to escape and were killed. Others electrocuted themselves by jumping on the high-voltage fence that surrounded the camp. A few lost their minds because the work made no sense—their lives had no meaning. We must have meaning. We must have a reason for being. There has to be some ultimate goal towards which our life is moving. Greta Christina is a freelance writer who is also an atheist. Often in her writings, she is brutally honest regarding her dilemma about dying. As an atheist, she realizes she has a problem with facing death and disbelieving in an afterlife. Writing in a magazine popular with skeptics called the Skeptical Inquirer, she admits: Death can be an appalling thing to think about. Not just frightening, not just painful. It can be paralyzing. The fact that your life span is an infinitesimally tiny fragment in the life of the universe, that there is, at the very least, a strong possibility that when you die, you disappear completely and forever, and that in 500 years nobody will remember you and in five billion years Earth will fall into the Sun—this can be a profound and defining truth about your existence that you reflexively repulse, that you flinch away from and refuse to accept or even think about, consistently pushing it to the back of your mind whenever it sneaks up for fear that if you allow it to sit in your mind even for a minute, it will swallow everything else. It can make everything you do, and anything anyone else does, seem meaningless, trivial to the point of absurdity. It can make you feel erased, wipe out joy, make your life seem like ashes in your hands. This is the Atheist’s dilemma, intellectually they have concluded or chosen to believe that life has no ultimate meaning or purpose, but find it hard to really live that way. I don’t know if you saw the 2007 film The Bucket List. It is a story of two terminally ill men played by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman who take a road trip to do the things they always said they would do before they “kicked the bucket.” In anticipation of the film’s release, Nicholson was interviewed for an article in Parade magazine. While reflecting on his personal life, Nicholson said: “I used to live so freely. The mantra for my generation was ‘Be your own man!’ I always said, ‘Hey, you can have whatever rules you want—I’m going to have mine. I’ll accept the guilt. I’ll pay the check. I’ll do the time.’
I chose my own way. That was my philosophical position well into my 50s. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had to adjust.” But reality has a way of getting the attention of even a Jack Nicholson. Later in the interview, Nicholson adds: “We all want to go on forever, don’t we? We fear the unknown. Everybody goes to that wall, yet nobody knows what’s on the other side. That’s why we fear death.” The truth is that where there is no purpose there is no power; no power to face life and ultimately death. But where do we find the meaning and the purpose, the point of it all? That is the stubborn question. And it is a question that can’t be ignored. At least not for long. And this leads to the third thing I want to say this morning and that is that where there is meaning, where there is faith, where there is purpose, miracles take place. Why? Because in our heart of hearts there is the desire, the need to live with purpose, to live courageously. In the film Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Sauron’s dark forces begin to overcome peaceful Middle Earth. The hope for Middle Earth lies in the hands of two hobbits, a dwarf, an elf, and a man named Aragorn. Knowing that a militia of ruthless soldiers is heading for the country of Rohan, Aragorn comes to help its people. As he walks about the palace he finds the King of Rohan’s daughter practicing with a large sword. She doesn’t know Aragorn is watching her. In a gothic parlor, lit only by a few flames, she wields the large silver sword like an experienced soldier. Though petite, she is formidable. As Aragorn suddenly steps out of the darkness, she reacts with agility and their swords clash. Aragorn comments on her skill. She replies, “The women of Rohan have had to learn that just because you do not carry a sword does not mean you cannot die upon one. I fear neither death nor pain.” Curious, Aragorn asks, “What do you fear?” “A cage,” she says. “To stay behind bars until use and old age accept them and all chance of valor has gone beyond recall or desire.” In other words, we either live with purpose and meaning or we miss out on the adventure of life and the thrill of life. And there is a connection between faith, purpose and life. Twenty-five years ago, one of David Larson’s medical school advisers warned him that he would harm his patients by incorporating religion into his psychiatry practice. Back then, many psychiatrists considered religious patients delusional, immature, or neurotic. Larson has spent nearly two decades trying to prove them wrong. Now a psychiatrist and president of the National Institute for Health Care Research, Larson cites a mound of studies, both his own and others’, attesting to the preventive and healing effects of religion. Let me read a small sampling of these studies: SOMETHINGMORE 4
• In a 1995 report on 232 people who underwent elective open-heart surgery, it was found that those who received no strength or comfort from religion were more likely to die within six months of the operation. • A decade-long study of 2,700 people showed that after accounting for all risk factors, only one social attribute—increased church attendance—lowered mortality rates. (So, I’m glad you showed up this morning. You may just live longer because of it.) • Among women recovering from hip fractures, those with stronger religious beliefs and practices were less depressed and could walk further when they were discharged. • In a rigorously controlled study of elderly women, the less religious had mortality levels twice that of the faithful. • A review of one group of 200 studies suggested that religion has positive effects on diseases ranging from cervical cancer to stroke. In short, the evidence indicates that faith is good for us. Where there is purpose, there is power! Having said that, though, let me add this thought: it may be that many people don’t really want an ultimate meaning to life. There is a risk, isn’t there? If we declare in our hearts that the Gospel is true—that there is a meaning to life—that there is a God who exists—a God who has created us in God’s own image and has placed us in responsible stewardship of this earth and our life, if we decide in our heart that this is true, we might have to change the way we are living. And that is a challenge that some people just don’t want to accept. It reminds me of something the late novelist Ayn Rand once said. After captivating an audience at Yale University, she was asked by a reporter, “What’s wrong with the modem world?” Without a moment’s hesitation she made her reply. “Never before,” she said, “has the world been so desperately asking for answers to crucial questions, and never before has the world been so frantically committed to the idea that no answers are possible. To paraphrase the Bible, the modem attitude is, ‘Father, forgive us, for we know not what we’re doing—and please don’t tell us!” My guess is that for many people the reason they really don’t want to believe the Gospel is not that they have investigated it and found it false, but because there might be too much to give up. For many people there is no meaning to life, but wise people know that where there is no purpose, there is no power. That brings us to the final thing that needs to be said: Christ offers more meaning than our lives can ever contain. In a world where people are having difficulty finding meaning, Christ offers not only meaning but a path to an abundant life. If getting by is what life is all about, then almost any philosophy will do. But if we want something more—something the world cannot give—then we must turn to Christ. That is what our lesson from Philippians is about. Paul is in prison. He is awaiting trial. A conviction could mean his death. He wants his friends to know that he is prepared either way. So SOMETHINGMORE 5
he writes, “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me; Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body” (Philippians 1:21-24). Do you get what he is saying? In Paul’s mind, it was a win/win situation—whether he lived or died. Why? Because Christ promised him a full, rich, purposeful life either way—whether he was serving God in this world or in the world which is to come. And this has also been the experience of many others. Malcolm Muggeridge, a British journalist and writer, who spent most of his life a fierce atheist said, after coming to Christ as a mature adult: “I can say that I never knew what joy was like until I gave up pursuing happiness, or cared to live until I chose to die. For these two discoveries I am beholden to Jesus.” Karen Watson was a missionary who served in the Middle East. Before leaving home to serve she left a letter for her church and her family. The letter was dated March 7, 2003. Karen was killed, along with four other missionaries, on March 15, 2004. In the letter she wrote these words: Dear Pastor Phil and Pastor Roger: You should only be opening this letter in the event of my death. When God calls there are no regrets. I tried to share my heart with you as much as possible, my heart for the nations. I wasn’t called to a place. I was called to him. To obey was my objective, to suffer was expected, his glory my reward. One of the most important things to remember right now is to preserve the work….I am writing this as if I am still working with my people group. I thank you all so much for your prayers and support. Surely your reward in heaven will be great. Thank you for investing in my life and spiritual well-being. Keep sending missionaries out. Keep raising up fine young pastors. In regards to any service, keep it small and simple. Yes, simply, just preach the gospel….Be bold and preach the lifesaving, life-changing, forever-eternal gospel. Give glory and honor to our Father. The Missionary Heart Care more than some think is wise. Risk more than some think is safe. Dream more than some think is practical. Expect more than some think is possible. I was called not to comfort or success but to obedience….There is no joy outside of knowing Jesus and serving him. I love you two and my church family. In his care, Salaam, Karen Karen knew that the life that Christ offers has more meaning than our lives can contain.
Author Bruce Larson says that one of his favorite verses is John 10:10, where Jesus tells us that He came that we might have life. The Greek word used for “life” is “zoe,” which means: “life pressed down, heaped up and running over.” The image made new sense to Larson as he stood in a market in rural Kenya with his church’s local missionaries, Denny and Jeanne Grindall. Their van had broken down next to a market where hundreds of people, mostly women, were selling dried beans and rice and corn, all stored in great burlap sacks. Each buyer brought his or her own container, some kind of a tin cup, and when a purchase was made, the vendors heaped their product into the can until it was literally overflowing. In Africa, goods are sold not by careful weights and measures but heaped up, pressed down and running over, as Jesus wants his life in us to be. My friends, if survival is all you are looking for, don’t waste time with Jesus. But if you want life that is pressed down, heaped up and running over, then there is only one place such a life can be found. That is in him. No wonder Paul could anticipate a fullness of life whether here or with Christ. He had discovered the source of real happiness—the source of real meaning—the source of real power. There are people who see no meaning in life. That’s sad, tragic. Where there is no purpose, there is no power. But Christ offers us more meaning than our lives can contain; he offers us life pressed down and running over. “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” wrote Paul. “But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake.” For Paul the issue was win/win all the way. Life did not frighten him. Neither did death. He had found the source of all power. He had found a reason to live. Have you? Have you found a reason to live? The passage in 1 Peter reminds us that if we have found that life, we are spreaders of hope in a hope-starved world. Have you found that hope and meaning and purpose in Christ and are you living it and sharing it?
Reflection Questions 1. As you read today’s two Scripture passages, what thoughts, questions, impressions do you have? 2. Do you agree that people have to have meaning to live? Can you think of a time in your life when you felt that your life or work had no meaning? How did you feel? How did you overcome? 3. Would you agree that faith is good for us physically and emotionally? Why? 4. What do you think of Paul’s “win/win” perspective? Could you say the same for your life? 5. What do you think of Karen Watson’s letter? 6. Could you say that the life you are enjoying in Christ is “pressed down, heaped up and running over”? 7. Would you describe yourself as a “hope spreader”? 8. What questions, thoughts, impressions do you have about today’s sermon? SOMETHINGMORE 7