By Pastor Glenn Pease
Back in the 60's, a movie was made telling the story of a man, who, like Job, got so discouraged that he wished he had never been born. His guardian angel granted him his wish, and also the freedom to go back to his hometown to observe the consequences. Nobody knew him, of course, not even his own wife and mother , for he had never lived. He discovered many things had not been done because he had not lived to do them. Many of the lives he had aided in rough times had gone astray because he had not been there to give a helping hand. Many bad influences had grown strong in the community because he had not been there to prevent them. He then realized how important one ordinary life can be in it's long range influence for good. He was so grateful that he was allowed to wake up, as from a dream, and be alive. His life was full of meaning and significance after all.
Most all of us would have had the same experience. Most of us underestimate ourselves and the influence we have on other lives. Paul did not do this with himself, or any other child of God. He knew that every believer could, if they would, add to this world the same kind of joy that Jesus brought when he entered history on that first Christmas.
Paul, in this passage, holds up the example of Jesus in His Incarnation as the pattern for all Christians to imitate. He says, that if the Philippian Christians will imitate Jesus, his joy will be complete, and he implies their joy and the joy of Jesus would also be complete. What we have here then, is a first century recipe for a merry Christmas. All we have to do is mix into the bowl of life those ingredients that Jesus brought into the world on the first Christmas.
This is the season to be jolly, but we often make it a season of folly because we spend most of our time conforming to the world, rather than to Christ. We become so busy getting things ready for Christmas that we tend to neglect relationships. Jesus did not come into the world to give us religious jewelry, though it has great value as being both beautiful and symbolic. He did not come to give us a holiday and a day of feasting, though it is much appreciated. No Christian should complain of all the fringe benefits. But He came to give Himself and His Spirit, and all the fruit of the Spirit. When you care enough to give the best, you give yourself.
Christmas is a time when God would have us look back at our roots. As Christians, Paul expects that by focusing on the roots of Christmas it will help Christians produce the fruits of Christmas. He expects Christians to look at what Jesus did in the giving of Himself, which led to the cross, and apply that spirit in their relationship to others.
The Philippian Church was one of the best churches of the New Testament. But even there, the problems of disagreement developed. Chapter 4, verse 2, tells of two women who were in a state of contention, and this was hurting the unity of the church. A breakdown in unity is a major problem in the church and in the family. Paul is offering, in this passage, a recipe that will restore unity to any group and produce a merry Christmas.
The beauty of this recipe is that all of the ingredients are available to every believer. You don't have to order them and wait for them to be imported from some distant land. Another great value is that each of the ingredients is a gift that does not diminish, but multiplies when given away. The more you give it away, the more you have. If I have one pen and I give it to you, I no longer have a pen, and have been diminished by my giving. But, if I have a sense of encouragement, comfort, and joy in Christ, and I share that with you, I have multiplied these values, and by so doing, have even more myself. It is like an idea. If I share it with you, it is multiplied, and the idea becomes stronger in my mind by sharing it. Self-interest, rightly seen, leads us to share our gifts, and thereby enrich others as we enrich ourselves. In the realm of spiritual values it is always better to give then to receive, for the giver gains more than the receiver, just as a teacher gains more than the student. That is why we should be excited about this recipe for a merry Christmas. Like any good recipe it can be used the year around. Let's examine the ingredients. The first is-
The first part of verse 1 has many different translations, but the key word in most of them is encouragement. The KJV has consolation, and the Living Bible puts it in a question form, "Is there any such thing as Christians cheering each other up?" That is the same thing as encouragement. The NIV has, "If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ." The RSV has, "So if there is any encouragement in Christ." Phillips has, "Now if your experience of Christ's encouragement and love mean anything to you..."
What Paul is saying is that encouragement is one of the ingredients Jesus added to our lives by His coming into history. If we in turn add encouragement to the lives of others, we are keeping alive that which Jesus came to give. Abundant life does not come only from Christ directly, but it comes indirectly through His body. As believers imitate Jesus and encourage one another, they have a profound influence on each others happiness.
Dr. Lewis Dunnington, whose books have been an encouragement to many, tells of how he learned the power of encouragement. He was just 18 and working his way through college. He was selling, The Volume Library, in Bay City, Wisconsin. After four days without a sale, he was ready to hang it up. He wrote to the sales manager for a transfer. That sales manager wrote him such a letter of encouragement, it changed his life. The letter explained that he knew it was a tough area, but he sent Dunnington there because he had confidence in him. He was convinced that Dunnington had the ability to persuade people that these volumes were the best on the market. This letter of encouragement so motivated Dunnington, that he went out and began to sell, and he stayed in Bay City all summer. Success or failure often depend on whether you get a kick in the pants or an encouraging slap on the back. Encouragement can make a big difference.
He tells the story of the late William Henry Eustice, one of the best mayors Minneapolis ever had. At age 12 he was stricken with infantile paralysis and lay helpless for four years. By super human effort he was able to educate himself. At 19 he proudly applied for entrance to a small college. It was hard for a cripple, and just when he needed a boost, he got a kick. One of the instructors told him he was incapable of college work and he advised him to drop out.
The discouragement mounted in him that night until he was overwhelmed by despair. He decided to take his own life. Fortunately, the rope he used broke, instead of his neck. By morning the dark mood had passed, and he was determined to graduate from college. He not only did that, but went on to establish a record of public service that was outstanding, and he gave a fortune to meet the needs of others. All that he did to encourage others was almost lost because someone failed to give him encouragement when he most needed it.
Very few of us go through life without coming to those points where we need a word of encouragement. One of the most helpful ministries in the body of Christ is the ministry of encouragement. The more I evaluate life the more I am convinced the greatest tragedy is wasted love. Love that never gets expressed is love locked in because we do not know how to release it. If you really want to help others have a merry Christmas, let the Spirit of Christ be incarnated in your flesh, so that your life, acts, and words are used to encourage others.
Don't be just thinking of yourself, Paul says, but think on the things of others round about you, and ask yourself-who in my environment can use a boost. Search for appropriate ways of doing it, and you will give a greater gift than money can buy, for encouragement is priceless. You can run yourself ragged and spend a small fortune, and never make anyone as happy as you could by giving them yourself in deeds or words of encouragement.
A woman was asked why she put artificial flowers around her flower garden, and she said they were just there to encourage the real ones. It may not have any effect on flowers, but encouragement has a major effect on people. Walt Whitman, like many creative people, had a hard time believing in himself. Then one day he received this letter in the mail that said, "Dear Sir, I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of Leaves of Grass. I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I greet you at the beginning of a great career!" The letter was signed, Ralph Waldo Emerson. From that day, Whitman never doubted his own ability, and he did have a great career. All he needed was the encouragement of one he admired. All of us can add this ingredient to what we share with the people in our lives.
The second ingredient sounds so much like the first, but like the ingredients of any recipe, each one has it's own special flavor. The second is-
II. THE COMFORT OF LOVE.
In this context, it is that sense of warmth and security we have when we realize how much Jesus loved us. He emptied Himself of equality with God and reduced Himself to a servant. He finally humbled Himself to be put to death on the cross. All of this He did, not for His own interest, but for ours. The comfort of such love is beyond calculation. We are comforted both by the gift of the lover and the love of the giver.
When you begin to grasp the wonder of Christ's love, it begins to grasp you and make you a channel of His love to others. That is why Paul describes the great humiliation of Christ as our example. That is why Jesus said, do this in remembrance of me. If we are not constantly focusing on the love of Christ, we have a tendency to become self-centered. This was the one flaw in the church of Philippi-selfishness. It is the one problem that produces friction in the best churches and the best families. When children fight and make parents frustrated, you can trace the problem to self-centeredness. So it is with the vast majority of conflicts in the family of God.
Paul had such joy in the Philippian Christians, but he also had some pain. It is like your experience as a parent. You can be so proud and delighted with most aspects of your children's lives, but then be frustrated and wish they would change in other aspects. Paul's cup of happiness would be filled if only the Philippian Christians would be less self-centered and begin to think of others. Even a non-Christian like Albert Einstein could say, "Only a life lived for others is a life worth while." That is the Christlike life that Paul holds before the Philippian Christians. But the fact is, Christians are constantly forgetting this basic truth, and the result is million of Christians struggle with the pain of being part of the church.
J. H. Oldham said to a friend, "You know-Christianity has no meaning for me apart from the church, but I sometimes feel as though the church as it actually exists is the source of all my doubts and difficulties." That is the very paradox Paul was fighting, and the one that every pastor struggles with along with most of the members. The church is both the source of our pleasure and our pain. Christians are other Christians greatest problem.
The healing of this pain lies in the comfort of love. Love has tremendous healing power. Dr. Karl Menninger, in his famous clinic in Topeka, Kansas, told his staff of doctors, nurses, orderlies, and cleaning people, that the most important thing they had to offer patients was love. He said, if people could learn to give and receive love they would recover from most illnesses. The church is a spiritual clinic treating the illnesses of the soul, and there is no doubt about it, love is the primary medicine by which it brings healing. By dispensing love the church becomes a true assistant to the Great Physician.
It is amazing when you think about it, many of us have it in our power to give healing to others. None of us lack this power, really, for by words of encouragement and deeds of love, we can heal many of the hurts of this world. By mixing these ingredients together we can produce, not only a merry Christmas, but a happy forever, for the sharing of these values is the essence of eternal life.
A man once dreamed he had a vision of the after life. In one place he saw people all seated at a great banquet table with forks with such long handles that no one could get any food into their mouth. It was a terrible scene, for the food could only be touched by the long forks and nobody could get it. It was a scene of agony, torment, and starvation.
Then he saw another banquet table full of people, and all the same provisions, and the same forks. The same rule applied that only the forks could touch the food. Yet this scene was one of great joy and feasting, for each person was picking up the food and feeding the person on the other side of the table from them. They were having a delightful time because they were being selfless and not selfish. That is the difference between heaven and hell.
Paul would say "amen" to this story, for it is saying just what he wants to convey to the Philippians. Selfishness is the road to a miserable now and forever. Selflessness is the road to a merry now and forever. There are other ingredients that Paul mentions also but these two are the major ones for producing a merry Christmas.
If a merry Christmas is to be,
One blest by heaven above,
You must add to life this recipe,
Encouragement and the comfort of love.