It’s a bittersweet and wonderful moment when someone accepts a college diploma after triumphing against high odds. Other people breeze through four years of classes, blessed by a high IQ, a microwave in their dorm room, and parents who will write the checks every semester. But this person has to struggle mightily with some handicap or hurdle that makes their victory in June all the more impressive.
Years ago, there was just such a ceremony at Pacific Union College. As the school chancellor read off the names, all of a sudden the entire place was on its feet. Several thousand people were giving one graduate a standing ovation.
Her name was Shirley, and there was nothing that spectacular about her grades. She wasn’t on the honor roll; she wasn’t getting one of those fellowships to M.I.T.’s graduate program. She was just Shirley. And with her little white cane, she carefully tapped her way across the platform to receive that hard-earned sheepskin.
Well, people were in tears, thinking about what an accomplishment this was. If you’ve ever been up to Angwin, California, you know that Pacific Union College is built on a mountain. There are hills and steep staircases; the sidewalks can be slippery when it rains. The hike up to Irwin Hall was treacherous for people with two good eyes and two sure feet. But this young lady had navigated that campus through the midnight of permanent blindness. And so the standing ovation lasted for five minutes.
Maybe you’ve been to a similar ceremony, where someone who really had a disabling challenge proved that they were not disabled, that they could beat the odds and triumph against the adversity that had been dealt to them.
Now, many of us standing on the sidelines when the PA echoes with that special name are just insulated bystanders. But imagine with me if it’s your kid who learns Braille and negotiates those tricky campus sidewalks for four years, taping lectures and then having to memorize material instead of being able to take notes. Now it’s your son, your daughter, standing up there to receive the reward. And you’re so proud you simply want to burst. You want to grab the microphone from the dean of students and shout out: “Keep on clapping, everyone. ‘Cause this is my child. And I’m so proud!”
Well, you know, here in Philippians chapter four we find a bit of “proud papa” syndrome being expressed by our spiritual mentor, the Apostle Paul. And he’s been giving fatherly advice to his Christian friends in Philippi, some of whom are spiritual children, so to speak. Infants in the faith, actually. And there are times—we’ve discussed this especially in studying First Corinthians—where Paul actually accepts the role of a spiritual father. “It’s okay for you to follow my example,” he very carefully tells them. “I’ve struggled my way through many spiritual challenges and hard times; I’ve learned the hard way how to walk in steady fellowship with Christ. So do as I do.” And his invitation is given with the proviso that they look even more at Christ, their real and lasting Model for living. But in a hands-on, day-by-day way, he does try to show them by his own life how they should be seeking Jesus and following Him in spiritual growth.
At the close of chapter three, which we’ve studied together these past few Sabbaths, Paul had concluded that for Christians, our citizenship is in heaven. And how God’s people are going to be transformed, under the control of Christ, and become glorious like Him. Now in the closing chapter of this letter, he begins this way: “Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!”
And those two expressions give us such a portrait of how we who are in the faith ought to feel about one another. That person you pray for, that young person at church you kind of link up with . . . that person is your joy! And your crown! They’re a trophy for the Lord, a prize that comes from our gentle and gracious witness, our months and years of sharing and witnessing and loving. As you see the cumulative effect of all the little moments where growth is happening, as you notice where they’re becoming more and more seasoned, like graduate students—this is one of the greatest rewards in the Christian faith.
Some of us who have served God as pastors might feel that we get an unfair share of this reward. So many times it’s been my joy to study with a person, maybe someone who begins, not just at Square One, but from a background of actual hostility toward Jesus Christ. And it’s not my doing; the Holy Spirit gets all of the credit . . . but a miracle takes place right before my eyes. This person gets new vision, so to speak, a new heart, a new brain. Their attitudes and emotions and decisions to a complete 180! Their mindset is transformed. They fall in love with Jesus. And not only do I get wet with them in that baptismal tank when they are buried and resurrected to new life, but I then get to stick around and watch and participate as that fresh flower, that budding miracle plant, grows in maturity. I can stand here this morning and tell you that there’s nothing like that experience. I can look around this church building at this very moment, and see people whose lives have undergone an amazing rebirth. And to the extent that God has empowered me or you to have a part in bringing this person to the foot of the cross, yes, we do feel a bit of “proud papa” emotion as we experience the miracle.
But you know, I want to make a second point here. Because admittedly, when a man or woman’s name is listed on a church web site or in our bulletin as the pastor, the spiritual leader of the flock, that implies a factor of Christian leadership. And Paul was a leader too, a mentor in the faith. But I would suggest to you today as we start chapter four, that this opportunity to invest in the graduation ceremonies of others is meant for every single one of us: pastors and parishioners alike. If you’re a follower of Jesus Christ—and even if you’ve just been His disciple since this last weekend—it’s your privilege and your obligation to begin to taste of this experience of helping others graduate and receive diplomas and crowns.
In his book from quite a few years ago, Love, Acceptance and Forgiveness, author Jerry Cook tells about a man who called him at the church once and said, “Pastor, my neighbor wants to give his heart to the Lord, become a Christian. Can you come right over and kind of talk him through the steps?”
Well, that was great! This is what we pastors live for. Even if it’s Game Seven of the World Series or our own house is on fire, we generally seize those moments without question. It was the same for Jerry Cook. He grabbed his Bible and his car keys and was halfway out the door with a big spiritual smile on his face . . . and then something hit him. And he said to himself, “Wait a minute.” He went back and called that parishioner and said to him, “I’m not coming.” “What? How come? I need you. You’re the pro. Getting this person into the baptismal tank is your job.” And Pastor Cook told him, “Man, I don’t want to rob you of the joy of leading this person to know Jesus. You do it.” The guy said, “No way. I don’t know what to say.” And Jerry told him, “Just tell him what Jesus has done for you, and how you, yourself, gave your life to God. Just take him through it. Like the demoniac who was healed by Jesus—and his first assignment after conversion was to just tell his family and friends about it.” Well, the following weekend, the man—along with this new adopted child of God—told the pastor it was the greatest experience of his life.
In fact, Pastor Cook decided on a new rule in his own church. And this might run up against our Adventist laws and bylaws and General Conference policies, but he announced that if a person in his church brought a new believer into the faith, that member would do the baptizing, not Pastor Jerry Cook. He’d stand off to the side in the cheering section and simply join in the applause.
Well, that’s kind of an intriguing policy . . . and maybe some of you are already packing a towel and a hair dryer in your car for next weekend at church. But let me raise the stakes a bit. Because, you know, we’re really talking here about something even more important than a college diploma, or a Baptism Sabbath. The stakes are higher than that even . . . and Paul’s intense enthusiasm here, writing about joy and crowns, gives that away. This is all about salvation and eternal life, not just a diploma to hang on the wall. In a sermon titled “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis, who was himself just a layman in the Church of England, points out that every single day you and I are meeting people. We have quick encounters and long-lasting relationships. But every single one of those people is heading for an eternal destiny. Some of them are on the path toward eternal life. They’re going to be citizens of heaven for a long, long, long time. Others of them—and this is the tragic reality of life—are heading for everlasting destruction. For a long, long time for them too—for a forever—they will not be a part of the Kingdom of God.
“All day long,” he writes, “we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people.”
Let’s think about our own homes and families. Do you help your own spouse in his or her life of daily surrender to God? I happen to think that this is one of the main reasons why God created marriage in the first place! But every time you do that, you’re investing in that eternal life. You don’t just help your spouse get a diploma which whips up their earning power for 40 years on Wall Street. Your friendship, your love, your encouraging words, are actually shaping the forever of that person.
You or I might sit on an airplane next to someone, and have just the briefest exchange. God might open up the tiniest crack in the conversation window, where you can just say a few words about the power of prayer, or about your conviction that God is interested in that seatmate. And you might get off the plane and go get your suitcase from Baggage Claim and have no concept of what you just did. You tossed just the tiniest pebble in the pond, you think. But you and I cannot measure the ripples, and then waves, God will create from that moment. Again, you’re participating in the “college education,” the journey toward heaven, of a person who’s either going to live forever or be lost forever.
Maybe you remember the lyrics from that song, Thank You. You visited a Sabbath School where some eight-year-old kids were just learning about Jesus. Your story nudged a kid toward the kingdom. You had the chance to keep your own money, or sacrificially give some of it away—and now someone is a citizen of heaven because of your investment. Was it a huge, six-figure gift? Probably not. But God took the ripple of your dollars and used them to bring a person to Graduation Day.
Here’s one more idea for us to celebrate as we conclude. In verse three, Paul lets us know that we’re all in this project together. We have our personal moments of effort, of sacrifice, of missions. And then we have the synergy of our community efforts, of the witness of this church as we pull together. To each person Paul’s writing to, which would include you and me, he calls us a “loyal yokefellow.” Those of you who have been on the farm know that when the oxen wear a yoke, they are working together. They’re part of a team. Being in step with your fellow believers is all-important. And we are yokefellows because we’re helping to pull people toward the platform and the graduation celebration. And again, how high are the stakes? There at the end of verse three, Paul tells us about the most wonderful heavenly volume in the world, where the names of the saved are written. Its title? The Book of Life. And every day we live and breathe, we’re helping to put people’s names there, emblazoned for all eternity.
Submitted by David B. Smith. Better Sermons © 2005-2009. Click here for usage guidelines.