Dear saints in Christ Jesus,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
You are a work in progress. You are the Lord’s work in progress. In the opening verses of St. Paul’s epistle to the Philippians, he reassures us, “I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). When we take an honest look at ourselves and realize that we are far from perfect godliness, it is a comfort to know that even though Jesus Christ, your Saviour, has already completed everything necessary for your salvation when He gave His holy, divine life for you on the cross, He still has more to give.
Three weeks ago we heard from the first chapter of St. Paul's epistle to the Philippians that the Lord is bringing us to completion through our sufferings, which conform our lives to the life of Christ. Two weeks ago, in the second chapter of the epistle, we heard how Christ Jesus, who being true God, took the form of a servant and died upon the cross for our sins. The continuing work of this Gospel is bringing us to completion by conforming our lives to His life of humble service. Last week, in the third chapter, St. Paul reminded us that all of these good works of suffering and service count for nothing in regard to our righteousness before God because saving righteousness is freely given, and it is the righteousness of Christ Jesus, not our own.
Today, as we bring to completion our meditations on this letter to the Philippians, our Epistle Reading for today is taken from the final chapter where St. Paul emphasizes that all of this is a source of great joy for the Christian, a reason to always give thanks to God in all circumstances for His continuing work in our lives to conform us to the eternal, holy, glorious life of His Son.
It is good that near the end of the letter St. Paul includes the reminder that we ought to rejoice always as “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” As St. Paul has described this process of God at work in us throughout the epistle, it really doesn't sound like much fun: suffering like Paul in prison; humble service like Christ placing Himself beneath the lowest of the low in order to give His life for them; counting all of our accomplishments as loss and throwing them all away in regard to our salvation. Where is the joy in any of that?
And yet, as he begins to wind up his letter, Paul tells us to rejoice in the Lord always, even while you are doing this stuff, that is, while the Lord is doing this stuff in you. There is an important distinction there. We don't rejoice that there is suffering in the world, or in our own lives, but we can rejoice that even in suffering the Lord is doing something wonderful in you. Likewise, in the humbling service that places you beneath others there is no joy in itself. But there is joy when we realize what a loving Lord is doing in us through such humiliations. Even in throwing out all of the good we have been able to accomplish and having it count as nothing toward our salvation, as painful as that may be, there is a reason to rejoice. Rejoice always.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). Rejoice in what the Lord is doing in you, completing in you. Rejoice in what the Lord, who is at work in you, is doing to bring you to completion. Rejoice in what the Lord has done to save you, because that is what is still at work in you. The Gospel, the love of God in Christ Jesus, is not dormant, waiting for a trumpet signal on the last day before it effects anything. The Gospel is at work even now, and confirming your faith that it will be at work in you also in the day of Christ, the day when He comes again.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is near” (4:4-5). The Lord is not far off, waiting for some future day when He can jump off of the stool at the right hand of the Father and come running to finally receive you at the last. The Lord is near now. He is with you. He is working in you. He is bringing to completion what He began when He called you to faith in His redeeming work of love, when He died on the cross for your sins and rose again to secure a resurrection to eternal life for you.
He is at work to bring you to completion by speaking to you through the words of His apostle Paul, the words read from Scripture, the words preached by your pastor. He is near and at work as He comes to us on the altar in His body and blood, given for you. He is right here at work, calling you to the eternal feast where everything has been prepared. Everything is ready. Everything has been paid for. You have been invited through the Gospel's good news that this is all for you (Matthew 22:4). And as you come to this place, or wherever the Word of God is faithfully preached and this Sacrament is properly given, the Lord Himself is working to bring you to the completion of it all, to the heavenly banquet of rich food and well-aged wine, when “He will swallow up death forever and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces,” as Isaiah prophesied (25:6-9).
There is joy because of the Lord's work in you to bring you to completion; to bring you to the completion of His work of salvation for you. In the Small Catechism, Martin Luther has taught us that when we pray, “Deliver us from evil,” “we pray that our Father in heaven would rescue us from every evil of body and soul, possessions and reputation, and finally, when our last hour comes, give us a blessed end and graciously take us from this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven” (Lord's Prayer. Seventh Petition). It is our constant prayer that God would continue to work in us to bring it all to completion by getting us to Himself in paradise forever. There is reason for joy, even though the Lord works this in us through suffering, humility, and counting all things as loss.
In everything (suffering, humility, and loss), we pray that God would bring it all to completion on the day of Christ. We pray with thanksgiving, knowing that this is the Lord at work in us to give us all that for which Christ Jesus suffered and died in horrible humiliation and agony on the cross. This is the reason for Easter celebrations. This is the reason for Sunday morning worship. This is the reason for Thanksgiving dinners, because we know that this is the Lord's work in us. This is our loving heavenly Father answering our prayers for forgiveness, for deliverance from a wicked world, for victory over death and the devil, for an end to all tears.
This is the only way you can enjoy a Thanksgiving Feast when you cannot get together with family and friends. This is how you can be thankful for the sufferings that you experience, as St. Paul could be thankful that even though he was in prison it meant that the soldiers could hear the Gospel, a sentiment that has been expressed by imprisoned Christians throughout history. This is how you can be thankful for being set in low positions in order to serve others, as Christ Jesus, who is equal with God, took on the form of a servant, becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross. This is how you can be thankful for opportunities to live out your righteousness before men even though it all counts as nothing toward your salvation, because your salvation has been completely and fully secured in the suffering, humiliating death, and resurrection of Jesus for you.
As you see every day in all of the things that come upon you in this life, “He who began a good work in you is bringing it to completion,” you can be truly thankful whatever those things might be. Paul told the Philippians that he had learned to be content in all circumstances. “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (4:12-13).
Dear saints in Christ Jesus, our comfort is not that we can build a bigger church, or run a marathon, or beat cancer. When St. Paul wrote, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” he meant that he can endure prison and poverty and hunger and loneliness, and being away from family and friends, and not knowing whether he would live or die. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” means that I can face whatever will come upon me in this life, in my fallen flesh, in this wicked world, whatever the devil might hurl at me, because I know that in these very things my almighty, loving heavenly Father is at work, keeping me secure for my salvation. “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in the Day of Christ Jesus.”
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” I can be thankful this year despite all of the deaths, the loneliness, the sufferings, and the loss of my successes. This is Christ at work in you, strengthening you to be thankful today and to face tomorrow, and to find yourself on the last day seated at the eternal feast, clothed with the righteousness of Jesus, and absent of tears.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.