The best place to start your new year is in the Word of God:
"I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel…" (Philippians 1:12).
Pessimism is not always wrong. But it is notoriously limiting.
Helen Keller wrote:
"No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars or sailed to an uncharted land or opened a new heaven to the human spirit."
I believe many in the church are pessimists, but today is a day to be an optimist. Is that just a Pollyanna attitude that comes from a fleeting feeling associated with a new year? As we move into a new year together, I challenge you to look upward and forward with me as we turn to one of the most optimistic books in the Bible, the Book of Philippians.
I recently came across a surprising book titled The Power of Negative Thinking! Julie K. Norem is a psychology professor at Wellesley College who wrote the book and says you could "harness the power of negative energy" to reach your goals. The promo for the book went like this:
"Are you tired of always being told to 'look on the bright side?' Are you criticized for imagining worst-case scenarios? Do you wish your optimistic friends would just leave you alone and let you be negative?" If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be one of the millions of people who have learned to cope with the pressures of modern life by using Defensive Pessimism, a strategy of imagining the worst-case scenario of any situation."
As a pastor, I have seen people with the “gift of discouragement,” but I never knew it was a virtue until I read about this book. I have read that there are church consultants who are telling us the Church in America is not going to make it unless (fill in the blank here):
(1) We speak the language of the culture;
(2) We tune into exactly which kind of worship the unbeliever wants; or
(3) We develop the right marketing campaign, program or website, etc.
Amazingly, in many of the cases, the solution for the deathbed situation in the church is available for a small consulting fee from said consultant! To quote the recently passed Stan Lee, "Nuff said.”
You know, there also may be someone reading this who feels as if he or she is not going to make it, that the journey of discipleship has taken some wrong turns. Maybe you are discouraged by your sins or the situation in which you find yourself or your family. You can't see through the circumstances to see any approaching victory in your Christian life. We all feel these things from time to time.
This new year, I am more optimistic than ever about the future of the Church of our Lord Jesus, and I am confident about your life and mine in the Kingdom of God no matter what we might be facing. Now, a misplaced optimism would say I am optimistic because I believe “you can hang in there and do it,” or that our leaders are capable of leaping tall buildings in a single bound. No, I am not optimistic because of you, another leader, myself or any human part of the church.
I am optimistic because, in over 2,000 years of human frailty, satanic opposition, and worldly attack, the promise of our Lord that He would build His Church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it are as certain today as ever.
We see this realized in the early Church. With an apostle in jail, failing to evangelize and reach the Gentiles, the church's future seemed to be in jeopardy. [A possible Western Union telegram from Jerusalem HQ: "Reverend Paul: Your irresponsibility has put you in prison and endangered the Mission!"]
The truth is that while Paul was in prison, he wrote a letter of thanksgiving to the church at Philippi about how God was using his situation to advance the kingdom. From the wonderfully encouraging Book of Philippians, especially chapter 1, verses 3-14, I want to encourage you to look through the positive lens of the Bible to see God can build His church through you. Indeed, this is a perfect description of an optimistic Christian and a confident church. This description may be summed up from this passage by the values of a hopeful church and by the affirmation of an optimistic church. Both are firmly grounded in Paul's letter.
The Philippian church had given Paul a gift for the other churches, and Paul returned their gift with this letter, which is a remarkable gift of truth that can change lives. First, if we were trying to distill Paul's values from this part of his letter in verses 3-11, we could include these six values. The first value is this:
Paul thanked God upon every remembrance of them. Their ministry had produced some great things in the past; they had helped other churches and had been a blessing to the body of Christ. Paul thanked God for them and for the fellowship they enjoyed in the past.
Remembering is a sacred act in the Bible, one commanded by God. The Passover was an observance in which Israel was to remember how God had liberated them from an oppressive life of bondage and into freedom. The Lord's Supper is a commandment to remember that Christ is our Passover for us, that in His body and blood we have our freedom and are on the way to our promised land. The Book of Psalms is filled with the command to remember. David, in Psalm 77:1, honors what God has done in the past: "I will remember the works of the Lord; surely I will remember Your wonders of old."
Failure to remember what God has done is sinful: "Our fathers in Egypt did not understand Your wonders; they did not remember the multitude of Your mercies, but rebelled by the sea—the Red Sea" (Ps. 106:7).
So it is right, good, and glorifying to God to remember on this day. You know God has used your church in powerful ways in the past. I am sure there are people here who have been blessed by this church. I suspect there will be people in heaven because of the past teaching ministry of this congregation. Like Paul, we can look back and remember the great times together. We can be thankful for ministry. We can be grateful for good friends, for godly pastors who have passed through these halls. As you move forward, do not disconnect from the past, but honor the history of God's activity in even the smallest details of life.
Pastor, it is the same way for you. You can move into the future by honoring the past. God has used you to bless the saints in your ministry in your previous charges. You can be thankful, for all things have worked together for you to come to this place in your life, and it would not have occurred without all of the joys, sorrows, people, places, and events of what has gone before.
You know, as a pastor who was only the 12th pastor in 163 years of history, there was a lot of past to honor! A few years ago, I returned to a centenary celebration of that church's sanctuary. It was an excellent time for us all, and I have learned it is essential for people to feel that what has gone before is not lost. It has meaning.
In a way, Paul began his letter by honoring the past. However, we cannot live in the past. To do so is to erect a mausoleum and live among the dead. Paul lifts their eyes to the glorious present and future in verse 6, and this is a second value of the optimistic church or Christian:
Verse 6 is one of the greatest verses in the Bible. Paul begins by speaking of "Being confident of this…" God had done some great things in the past, but there were great things to come. The Christian life is dynamic, alive and moving through history to reach every new generation that comes along. Likewise, God is not finished with you yet. You honor the past, but now God is calling you into a future with Him. The reign of the Lord Jesus guarantees He will see you through.
Confidence for the future that is grounded in God's faithfulness in history conditions the heart that says with Paul, as the late Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message:
"I'm not saying that I have this all together that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out to me. Friends, don't get me wrong. By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I've got my eye on the goal where God is beckoning us onward to Jesus. I'm off and running, and I'm not turning back."
Now a third value is in verse: "you all are partakers with me of grace" (Phil. 1:7)
The central theme of the writings of Paul is what God has done in Christ through the divine truth of grace. God has done what we cannot do through sending His Son to live the life we cannot live and die a death for our sins. He offers eternal life to all who call upon Him by faith. This act of God is grace and Paul affirmed in Galatians 2:21: "I do not set aside grace, for if righteousness came by the law, then Christ died in vain." Beloved in Christ, we are saved by grace, kept by grace; and it must in this grace that you begin your ministry together.
Here is the fourth value of optimism embedded in the text:
In these verses, Paul shows that his own heart is for loving the saints with the "compassion of Christ Jesus." Then Paul says his prayer is that the love of the saints may overflow increasingly with "knowledge and full insight" to help you to determine what is best.
My family and I vacationed in California a few years ago. One thing we did was go up through the Carmel Valley, into the Sierra Mountains on a hike. As we went, we went with hearts filled with joy at being with each other, with souls filled with the beauty of creation—but we also had a map! God wants you to go forward with love. God wants you, dear pastor, to love these people through the compassionate heart of their Savior. He wants all of us to follow Him in love wed to knowledge and insight of His Word.
Now, look at verse 10: "to help you determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless." The fifth value is this:
God wants you to remember you are on a journey—a journey of faith in Christ—which is going somewhere, to the new promised land, the very abode of almighty God. Some of us will get there when we pass from this life, others when Christ comes again, and all of us will see that great Day of Resurrection.
Preach it, pastor. Encourage each other, people of God. If you are here this morning, please remember the Word of God is telling us the Day of Christ is coming. How will you appear before His throne, pure and blameless except through the righteousness of Christ?
Moreover, I think Paul is dealing here with the Christian life. He is saying to remember we are on a journey. When we are overflowing with love and God's Word that gives knowledge and insight, we will begin living for eternity today. Finally, we read this sixth value of Biblical optimism in verse 11: "Having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God."
Paul said all of our lives are moving toward praise. The values of this optimism are grounded in God and applied in living life as an act of worship. Our worship services will be filled with expectation and wonder if we come to see we are practicing our praise for heaven
So, these are the values:
1. Honor the past.
2. Build for the future.
3. Glory in grace.
4. Abound in knowledge and love of Jesus.
5. Keep your eyes on the eternal.
6. Practice your praise.
When by faith you receive God's Word you will experience a transformation from the inside-out. This transformation will grant you vision to look through the storms of life to see the image of One walking on water. Such new life brings an optimism shaped by promises of God not the wishes of self.
Paul’s Spirit-given Vision is not optimism born out of sentiment. Paul is a realist. He knows his condition. “My chains …” But Paul knows the ruling motif of the Gospel is the preeminent power at work in his life and the world. “What has happened to me will turn out for good.”
Paul’s Vision is God’s gift to you. Your vision for your life, the lives of your loved ones, and the mission of God in the World, in Christ Jesus, will be empowered by the divine realities of the Gospel. What are those Christ-connected realities at work in your life?
I cherish this passage: "I want you to know that what has happened to me actually has helped to spread the gospel."
The beatings, false trials, and imprisonment were not stopping the gospel, but advancing it! I am optimistic because God is sovereign even when I am helpless. I know My God is causing all things to work together for good for those who are His. If God is for us, who can be against us?
In my own life, this truth liberated and freed me. I was orphaned as a child. After having endured no small amount of abuse and heartache, I was relieved of the source of the pain while lamenting the loss of what could have been. I later ran from the pain and my misunderstanding of it; but when I learned about the glory of God, the God who is sovereign in love, I discovered that the very things that had sought to destroy me had become the things that led me to see my need of a Savior. It is not that I embrace my pain in a sadomasochistic way, but I am now at peace with it. God has used it to advance His gospel. The University of North Carolina Charlotte Department of Psychology is researching a phenomenon called Post-Traumatic Growth Syndrome. The same incidents that can cause trauma, as in the Nazi bombings of London, can cause superhuman-like courage and new spiritual resiliency among certain survivors.
Christianity has taught this from its inception. God is doing that with each of us and with all of us. What have you gone through as a church that was painful? Or in your life? God has revealed this truth of Word and His Ways so that you appropriate this affirmation of Paul for your life. In reciting this exciting affirmation with an authentic voice, you will receive the glorious gift of certainty
Paul is saying that all the events that led to his bondage led to his ministry. If you are not familiar with God's ways, you might think that the Church is done-for. The Plan of God certainly seemed sunk in the Garden of Eden, but God gave a promise in Genesis 3:15 that the Redeemer was coming, and as the angel escorted our first parents out of Eden, a covenant promise was already afoot. God's steadfast love is turn-around energy that not only changed the course of human history but restored with His Son what we relinquished by our sin.
You might have thought the kingdom of God was sunk when a mad king in Egypt issued a diabolic edict to kill all the little boys of the Hebrews, but God's faithfulness and His covenant promise were working through the predicament to bring the promise.
Maybe you thought when an ambitious but brutish bureaucrat named Haman conceived a plot to exterminate the Jews, the chosen conveyers of God's Messiah for the world; such evil would spell the end. However, in the Book of Esther, an optimistic book if ever there were one, God was working out the promise in the predicament. At the end of that historical irony, the lovely Esther saved the day; the sacred promise persevered; and the Satan-figure, Hamon, hung from the gallows he had constructed for the Jews.
The predicament of Jesus' birth might have signaled to the angels that it was all over. A new madman in a long line of diabolically-directed beasts of the earth and sea, Herod, sought to kill Jesus. There was providence in a predicament, and the infant God-Man was saved.
Tell me this: What do you see at the cross but the very same phenomenon? You know the dilemma very well. To look upon the scene by the mind's eye is to observe the utter horror of the cosmos. There you see Him: the King of glory attached by Roman nails and a cruel cross, "stapled" to an instrument of torture and death fashioned from a tree that the Sufferer-God had once created. There, there you see Him! The unlikely conspirators, Romans and Jews—thus, all of humanity, Hebrew and Gentile—have positioned the Righteous One of God between a brutish murderer and a rogue-thief in an attempt to magnify the indignity and mock His majesty. Jesus the righteous, the King of Shalom, is nailed to a Roman cross outside the Holy City, which had turned against Him. Surely, here, finally, the predicament will prove the glass is half empty and draining rapidly! Here the plan unravels, and the Son of God fails! But as Pharaoh's court magicians displayed their cultic arts by turning a staff into a snake and Aaron's snake-staff devoured all of the magicians' tricks, so, too, God worked paradox by the occultic plan of the devil.
God causes that which was an instrument of death to become the sign of life. From the mouth of final defeat came forth the unblemished beauty of ultimate victory! Early the next morning, on the first day of the week, right on time, just as Jesus foretold, God spoke life into death and light into darkness, and it was good. For the insurmountable problem of the grave, casketing the cold body of Almighty God the Son, withered and died on the Day that God sent His light into that thick darkness. Jesus received the bright beam of incredible power, and that God-man who was dead became alive forevermore! The immovable seal of the beastly empire of Rome snapped like a twig; the immovable stone seal rolled away like a spinning penny. And He arose! Thank God Jesus arose.
Because of this, my dear friends, and because the central message of the cross of Jesus Christ became the life story of the Apostle Paul, the prisoner can rejoice in his chains. By faith, you, too, my dear friend, must acknowledge the Lord's sovereign hand: in your own life, in our nation, and your church. In so many ways, it seems our country has broken bones. Our creed has cracked, and our code is crumbling. When the Church gets a headline in the paper, these days, you can count on it being a bad one. But my dear friend, revivals have appeared in the worst of times. When we come to see we have no solution, we begin to acknowledge that we are in need of salvation. In that, we live in a day of great opportunity and expectation.
Ministry in such times is hard, I know. Recently, many of us who are chaplains (I am a retired Army Chaplain, Colonel) wrestled with how to respond to potential threats to First Amendment rights to preach the gospel concerning human sexuality, since that the former presidential administration had imposed a same-sex marriage agenda onto the military. If I think about it (without thinking too deeply), it is enough to take away your enthusiasm for chaplain ministry. Then I see a soldier in need. I hear of a marine family who has lost a loved one. I read about a guardsman from the Midwest who risked his life to save others in a grenade attack in Afghanistan, and I say, "They need Christ. Oh God, let me minister to them!" I remain optimistic that until I am thrown in prison or thrown out of the pulpit, I will preach the whole counsel of God for the sake of those who need to hear it. When I begin to focus on Christ and others and forget self and my questions, I get excited again about ministry. I can leave the rest to God. I begin to say, "This is a glorious time to be alive and to minister Jesus to those who need Him!"
Dear pastor and people of God, what a glorious time in your lives! God has worked all things together for such a time as this. Whatever predicaments you may face—in your church, in your life—say with Paul, "This is working out for the advance of the gospel."
Almighty God and heavenly Father, as You gave Your one and only Son, Jesus Christ, to become the atonement for our sins, the righteousness that we must have to stand before You, and as You raised Him from the dead, everything has changed. You are working all things, now, toward Your own glorious aim. Nothing can stop the advancement of Your kingdom! By Your Spirit and Your Word, transform and renew our minds in this glorious gospel truth that we may rest in your wonderful gospel promises and so learn to live, not oblivious to suffering, unaware of tragedy, unmindful of the snares of sin, inattentive to the pain of others, but with an optimism based on faith in the finished work of Christ and in Your redemptive plan for Your heaven and earth. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.
Michael A. Milton, PhD (University of Wales; MPA, UNC Chapel Hill; MDiv, Knox Seminary), Dr. Milton is a retired seminary chancellor and currently serves as the James Ragsdale Chair of Missions at Erskine Theological Seminary. He is the President of Faith for Living and the D. James Kennedy Institute a long-time Presbyterian minister, and Chaplain (Colonel) USA-R. Dr. Milton is the author of more than thirty books and a musician with five albums released. Mike and his wife, Mae, reside in North Carolina..
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