A Mundane Christmas

A Mundane Christmas

Philippians 2:14-18


Any superhero movie fans here? Who’s your favorite superhero?


Think about two superheroes for a minute – Batman and Spider-Man. Believe it or not, there’s a huge argument out there about whether Batman even is a superhero. See, Batman is a rich and strong man with lots of cool gadgets. His superpowers stem from his external possessions. Spider-Man has a few accessories as well, but he is a superhero because of the spider powers he obtained when he was bitten by a radioactive spider. His nature has been changed. Now he has a new power accessible to him, within him. Batman doesn’t have a super power. He just has a lot of money. Spider-Man has a super power.


Christ in you makes you more like Spider-Man than Batman. Something alien to you, from outside of you, has entered into you and changed your nature. You now have power that you didn’t have before. The problem with this analogy is that Spider-Man became something more than human, while we instead are being restored to our full humanity. We are becoming more like Christ. And that is happening all the time, not just during the Christmas season. People tend to be much more aware of the needs around them, much more generous and giving during this holiday season than at any other time of the year. Everywhere you look there’s a food drive, and the shelves of food pantries are overflowing. In July? Not so much. Same needs. Empty shelves. People aren’t thinking about giving, about meeting the needs of others, then.


There’s a great line in a song by Trans-Siberian Orchestra called “Christmas Day.” It goes like this: “So tell me Christmas are we kind, More this day than any other day, Or is it only in our mind, And must it leave when you have gone away?” It’s asking a great question – does Christmas make any difference in us at all? Does the birth of Jesus Christ, the son of God, Emmanuel, God with Us, make any difference? But the truth is that Christ came to transform us not just for a few weeks in November and December, but throughout the year. Too many of us are like this meme … not just physically but spiritually too. For a few weeks in December we’re really into Jesus. The rest of the year? Not so much. What impact does Emmanuel, God with Us, have in our lives not just today but every day? Turn to Philippians 2:14-18.


For the bulk of this short letter (you can read every word in less than 30 minutes), Paul spells out in great detail what it looks like to be transformed by the Holy Spirit as we follow Christ. But he begins this letter with some really deep theology. He paints this glorious picture of Christ and his self-humbling, self-sacrificing nature and encourages us to be of the same mind. Look up at 2:5-11. Typically, after writing words like that, Paul would launch into a spontaneous doxology, with high and lofty words of praise to God. But that isn’t what happens here. After penning this beautiful passage, he launches into something that seems to be so, well, mundane. Basically, what he says is, “and this is what it looks like to have the mind of Christ in you.” Read text.


Having the mind of Christ in you begins with active obedience. Now, at first glance, that seems kind of basic to be following the words Paul has just written. The problem is that when we think about the people we know of whom we might say, “This is someone in whom Christ dwells,” we think about people who are doing great things for God. To us, abandonment to the will of God, obedience to Christ, having the mind of Christ, is for a select group of really spiritual people who work as pastors and missionaries. Or maybe we think about people who have lots of money to give to God-honoring ministries around the world. Or people who risk life and limb for the sake of Christ in some of the darkest, most dangerous corners of the world, or people who have given up prestigious careers and loads of future income to work among the poor. Or the saints who volunteer in the children’s ministry. People like that.


But the truth is having the mind of Christ in us has a lot more to do with the mundane matters of daily life than most of us are comfortable with. “Do all things without grumbling or disputing.” How many types of things are included in the phrase “all things?” Well, everything. Now, there IS more to notice here. For starters, the word Paul uses for “grumbling” is the same word Greek translations of the Old Testament used for the grumbling of the people of Israel in the time of wandering in the wilderness. It involves a consistent pattern of grumbling about others, particularly those in leadership. And the word for disputing describes useless, and often ill-natured disputes and doubting.


And look at this. Paul doesn’t view a lack of grumbling and disputing as somehow peripheral to the lives of those who follow Christ. Grumbling and complaining isn’t a minor blemish. As one commentator stated, “They mark the watershed of the Christian life” … our ability to get along and work through disputes without disrupting community. Critical and complaining spirits have spelled trouble for the church from the time of the Philippian Christians right up through today. From the 19th century Scottish Christians who went to church simply to see if, in their opinions, the good news of Christ was being preached correctly to today’s Happy Meal and McChurch worshippers who leave one church to go to another time after time after time, critical and complaining spirits have always been an issue. And we largely ignore them until they get out of control. But for Paul, learning not to criticize or complain are not small add-ons to the more important matters of the Christian life. Paul isn’t talking about a nice add-on for the super-spiritual people, monks and Mother Theresa. He’s talking about a characteristic of obedient faith in the mundane matters of life that is at the CORE of following Christ for everyone.


Now look! Look at what verse 15 says! Blamelessness and innocence have nothing to do with somehow attaining complete moral purity on our own. Blameless points to what a Christ-follower is to the world. It involves living in such a way that others have difficulty finding fault. It doesn’t mean you’re perfect, that you’ll never make mistakes, or that others will never be able to find fault. It involves speaking kindly even when you’re passionate about something, not sacrificing your passion but also not sacrificing the other person for the sake of winning an argument.


On the other hand, innocence points to the inner life of a Christ follower, and it literally means unmixed or unadulterated. It’s a word used of wine or milk not mixed with water, or metals with no alloy in them. Innocence involves a sincerity and integrity of thought and character. You’re the same person wherever you go, no matter who you are with, whether you are in church, or in the office, or at the gym, or the country club.


There’s a third phrase Paul uses here to describe the person without grumbling and disputing, the person in whom the mind of Christ dwells, and that’s “without blemish.” This points to what we are in the sight of God, and is often used to describe the Old Testament sacrifices. The animals and other offerings for sacrifice were to be “without blemish.” Because Christ’s blood shed at his death on the cross covers us, our lives are viewed BY God as sacrificial offerings of worship TO God.


When we have the mind of Christ alive in us, when the transforming work of the Holy Spirit is active in us, we will live in such a way that our lives proclaim, not through our political stands or civic involvements, but through sincere and agreeable spirits that Christ lives in us. And when we do that, OTHER PEOPLE WILL NOTICE. We will “shine as lights in the world.” Or as Will Rogers said, we’ll be able to “Live so that we wouldn’t be ashamed to sell the family parrot to the town gossip.” We think that all of the real work of the kingdom of God is done by pastors, missionaries, nuns, and others who make up a select few. Truth is, the real work of the kingdom of God is done by all of us as we carry ourselves as Christ-followers through the mundane matters of daily life.


But Paul doesn’t just want simple obedience out of us. He wants extravagant obedience. Look at verse 17. The imagery he uses here comes from the ancient Greek and Roman religions as well as Jewish sacrifices …  the libation, which was a cup of wine poured out as an offering to God or whichever gods were being worshipped. Paul here views the faith and life of the Philippian Christians as a sacrificial offering to God, and indicates that he is happy to join them in their sacrifice. Their own lives, their own obedient faith, serves as the foundation for his own extravagant obedience here. He doesn’t encourage them to be like him. He tells them he wants to be like them, to join them in their own extravagant obedience to Christ, even if it costs him his life. There are two points here that are easy to miss.


The first is that extravagant obedience to Christ involves a willingness to give up control to the spirit of God at work in us. Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to give up control. I want my life to be about MY plans and MY dreams and MY work to bring those things about. Abandonment to the Christ-life in us means we become willing to “pour out our lives believing that we neither can nor need to control the future.


The second easy to miss point as Paul talks about extravagant obedience is that pouring out our lives as a drink offering, as a sacrifice, is always for the sake of others. Jewish priests poured out the offerings of wine, and also of blood. Even though Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice for our sins replaced the literal priesthood and the need for sacrifices, Paul found this a meaningful metaphor for what it means to live in extravagant obedience to the work of Christ in your life and in mine. Paul saw not only himself, but also the Philippian Christians as offering their whole selves as a sacrifice for others.


Late one night, Emanuel Lighe returned home to find police waiting for him. There was a death in the village, and Lighe’s name topped the suspect list. Cuffed and detained, Lighe was questioned well into the night at the police station. He was refused the right to leave. Hours turned into days; days dragged into weeks. Lighe remained at the police station, then was transferred to Prison Civile de Lomé, the main prison in the capital city of Togo in West Africa’s Togolese Republic. He remained there for five years and four days. Here’s the problem. Lighe was innocent.


Prison Civile de Lomé is a perilous place. Amnesty International cited the prison for its basic human rights violations. Built to house 500 inmates, the prison is packed with 1,800 inmates who live and sleep in one cramped, open-air yard. Infectious disease is rampant, and many prisoners die, often before they’ve served their sentences. Lighe spent half a decade of his life in this [prison]—always hungry, always scared, always wondering how he, an innocent man, landed in this place.


“Life in prison is so difficult that it’s hard to understand for outsiders: people get raped, beaten up. Money and possessions get stolen. There’s a lot of violence and pressure,” he says.

For years, members of the Bible Society of Togo … have visited the prison, bringing food for the inmates and supplying them with another life-giving gift: the Bible.


For Lighe, the Bible became a source of life and hope. It inspired him daily to reach out to his fellow inmates, spreading God’s Word through preaching and living out its message. Although Lighe struggled to understand why he was placed in prison, God began to teach him that his detainment had a purpose: He was there to minister to his fellow inmates. “I believe in God’s power and God’s Spirit, so I continued my work, because I am not ruled by man,” says Lighe. With his purpose found and forged in the unlikeliest of places, Lighe thanked God for bringing him to prison.


After Lighe was released, he struggled to find work and was lost in the business of daily life. He knew something was missing, so he began to return to the prison regularly to visit friends and continue his ministry. Even though he’s no longer a prisoner, Lighe commands the same respect among the inmates. Inside the walls he is the real, breathing picture of God’s hope. THAT is extravagant obedience, pouring self out sacrificially for others.


Now look at how this section closes. When Paul wrote this letter, he was not a free man. He was under house arrest, likely in Rome awaiting an audience with Caesar. He knew that he would likely die a martyr’s death. Look at what Paul says next in Vv. 17-18.


Paul isn’t happy about his circumstances here. He isn’t happy that he is in prison. He isn’t happy that the poor Philippian believers must shine their light in so dark a place as Philippi. Happiness is dependent upon happenings … upon circumstances. If Caesar offered to allow Paul to walk free and continue to do the work of Christ, I am quite sure Paul would have taken him up on the offer. Paul doesn’t tell us we have to be happy about everything here. But he uses the imperative here, in other words, he instructs us, to be filled with joy as we obey the spirit of Christ, as we have the mind of Christ in us and live extravagantly for him in the mundane matters of this life.


This beautiful picture of joy and extravagant obedience in the mundane comes from Evelyn Underhill … “A Christian should be like a sheep dog. When the shepherd wants him to do something, he lies down at his feet, looks intently into the shepherds eyes, and listens without budging until he has understood the mind of his master. Then he jumps to his feet and runs to do it … and at no moment does the dog stop wagging its tail.”


Joy isn’t happiness. It isn’t even close. But joy is a key component of extravagant obedience … for joy is a quiet confidence that God, and not me, is in control. And when I acknowledge that HE is in control, I will recognize that most of the real work for Christ happens not from the pulpit or in the remote jungle, but in long lines in airports, in checkout lines in crowded grocery stores, in neighborhoods and office buildings. It is to those places that we are called to go with extravagant obedience to Christ. Yes, God calls some to work full-time in ministry as a career. He calls some to the mission field overseas. But he calls all of us to have the mind of Christ, to shine his light in the darkness of our world, wherever we may go. May we, when our shepherd wants us to do something, lie down at his feet, look intently into his eyes, and listen without budging until we have understood the mind of our master. And then may we jump to our feet and run to do it, at no moment stopping the wagging of our tails.”