God Works in You

A few weeks ago, a pastor friend of mine posted on Facebook, “What is a mother? Describe a mother, your mother. I’m working on something for Mother’s Day. Please help!” I followed it, curious what people would say. Y’all – no one could live up to the descriptions: selfless…always putting others first; the glue that holds the family together, always there with unconditional love, puts her family first; sweet, kind, faithful to God; organizer of chaos with the patience of Job;… We all know what we want a mother to be – perhaps my favorite response was “A mother is someone who gives birth to a child. But a momma, a mommy…those are the cherished women who go above and beyond.”

These are the shining stars. These are the people we are called to be, as parents. The relationship of parent and child was lifted up by God as like God’s relationship to us, as God’s people. We were formed for relationship; in the very beginning, God recognized that it is not good for us to be alone.

And parenthood is good, relationships are good, but they are hard. When my firstborn, Nicholas, was just a baby, a friend of mine shared a phrase to help me as I rocked him in the night, “This is a short-term investment on a long-term project.” I have referred back to that phrase in my mind more times than I care to admit.

In this passage of the letter to the Philippians, Paul is encouraging the Philippians to make the investment. Just before this passage, he quoted a hymn that the early church was singing about Christ and told them that they should have the same attitude as Jesus.

Then he begins, “therefore.” Since Jesus humbled himself, since God exalted him, since at his name every knee should bow and tongue confess that he is Lord to the glory of God, and since we are to follow his example, THEREFORE…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.

Paul knows how we are, though, when we get together, instead of talking about how we God can work in us, to develop us as we serve and study and worship and give, we tend to grumble. The verb Paul uses here for complaining is the same verb used to describe the Israelites’ irritation with Moses and manna. It is a mumbling, murmuring that won’t be satisfied with answers or reason. It is a focus on scarcity and unmet desires, and it is insidious. It turns us to focus on ourselves, and we fail to see and receive God’s grace.

If you Google “selfie culture” you will get plenty of articles describing obsession with taking pictures of ourselves. Our phone usage statistics show that women 16-25 spend an average of 5 hours a week taking selfies and post on average 3 selfies daily. And in the last 7 years, 259 people worldwide have died taking selfies…mostly men. It’s not just about young people. Our natural tendency is to selfie our lives, to focus on ourselves.

Paul is telling the Philippians and us, beware of the “selfie culture”. You will wind up focused on what you don’t have, what you don’t like, and grumbling…and you will fail to miss what God is offering you.

It may seem strange to us, though, that Paul says that we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Isn’t salvation God’s free gift? Isn’t it a gift of love that shouldn’t make us afraid? Yes and yes. We cannot earn salvation, it comes to us by God’s grace, but it is a long-term project of God in us. Ask any teacher to tell you about one of their “project” children and they will know what you mean. We are ALL God’s “project” children. God is constantly giving us opportunities to make short-term gains toward the long-term goal of being like Christ. And we are to receive those opportunities with fear and trembling, and what Paul means here is awe. We are not to take them for granted. We are to see them as powerful opportunities for change, not only of ourselves but for others and for the community. They won’t be easy, and Paul wants us to know it. The verb he uses here for “work” when he tells us to work out our salvation is the word for the kind of work that causes perspiration, callouses on our hands with a sore back and bone weariness.

And then he gives the Philippians, and us, two examples to follow, two shining stars. Timothy and Epaphroditus. Timothy looks out for the interests of Jesus Christ, caring more for the welfare of the Philippians, whom he hasn’t even met, than he does his own welfare. And Epaphroditus, who is the one who brought Paul the offering and the letter from the Philippians, Paul says should be welcomed home with great joy and honor. He has been caring for Paul in prison on behalf of the Philippians. In Roman prisons, prisoners were dependent on friends and family to bring them food, clothes, bedding, basically anything they needed. And even when Epaphroditus got so sick he nearly died, he still was caring for Paul. These are our examples, who have gone above and beyond, and who shine like stars, and who allowed God to work out their salvation in them.

Already, we are learning that the divorce rate in China is rising. Tensions are rising here as we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place – we can’t stay home forever and we don’t know how dangerous it is, really, to go out. Mental health workers and police are responding to higher rates of domestic violence, attempted suicide, depression and anxiety. My friends, this is like rocking a crying baby all night long. It is a short-term investment in a long-term project. Seek help. Text or email me and I will help you find the professional you need. Find what brings you calm – whether that is sitting in the sun, running, calling an elderly member, meeting a friend at a socially appropriate distance or on Zoom, working in the yard, reading a book, serving someone in need,…and let it bring you not just calm, but the joy of contentment.

On Mother’s Day, may we remember that “A mother is someone who gives birth to a child. But a momma, a mommy…those are the cherished women who go above and beyond” and give thanks for all those who have gone above and beyond in our lives.

What if my friend had asked “What is a Christian?” I imagine he would have gotten a lot of the same answers: selfless…always putting others first; the glue that holds the family together, always there with unconditional love, puts family first; sweet, kind, faithful to God. Yet, many people have more painful experiences of Christians. Christians have not all lived up to God’s vision for them and call to them. As we work out our salvation, may we recognize the journey we are on. A Christian is someone who believes Jesus is the Christ. But a disciple, a follower of Jesus…those are the cherished people who go above and beyond, those are the ones that God in whom God in at work, those are the shining stars.

Let God use you to be a shining star – I’ve seen several over the last weeks – people who have made masks, and masks, and more masks, a friend who found a huge bottle of hand sanitizer and delivered it in a pink bag to my back door with a wave, a team who eagerly hopped in their cars to bring palm branches to members’ homes for pictures for Palm Sunday, people who have volunteered to call and shop and deliver and send notes, doctors who have called families who couldn’t be there with their loved ones, nurses who have cared for their patients like family. What shining stars have you seen? How will you let God work in you so you, too, are a shining star? May we, with Paul, declare, “even as we are being poured out in service, we are glad and rejoice!” Amen.