Philippians 1:1-6, ESV, “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseer sand deacons:
2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
3 I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, 4 always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 And 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. 7 It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace,[d] both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8 For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. 9 And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”
Encouragement is fuel for the future. When the gauge of our emotional tanks is in the red zone, encouragement is a booster that keeps us moving forward. And moving forward is vital in difficult days.
If you were to ask me what is the one thing that I miss most about my late Aunt Eva (1897-1996) who reared me, I would answer, “encouragement.” My wife is also a source of great encouragement as is our son and our children. But Aunt Eva ’s encouragement to me was special because she was with me as a child. My childhood was marked by difficult days.
Encouragement is something that we all need, and it is something that God wants you to experience. I know God wants encouragement for you. St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians proves it.
The Philippians had provided the Apostle Paul with a financial gift for use with other churches under his charge. In return, the apostle Paul wrote from prison, very likely wrong and around 62 A.D., to give them encouragement. Of course, the remarkable gift of encouragement is given from a man who is in prison. And yet the apostle Paul says that the things that have happened to him will have happened to advance the gospel. Paul not only encourages others he encourages himself in what? Encourages himself in God.
The Old Testament said that David did this as well. In difficult times the Bible says that David withdrew to encourage himself and God. This morning I want to tell you how I received that encouragement from God through and Eva. Then, I want to give you the encouragement from this magnificent passage: Philippians number 1:6. Though believers are troubled on every side, we have been encouragement from God that transcends our troubles and even sanctifies our sorrows. Let me explain.
My father was a maritime officer transporting troops during World War II. He went to the Officers Maritime Academy in New London Connecticut, which is now a part of the US Merchant Marine Academy. He served as a Merchant Mariner and a commissioned Coast Guard officer. He was discharged after World War II as a Commander in the United States Coast Guard.
My father was like Jack London’s Martin Eden. I can’t listen to Tom Waits’ “Shiver Me Timbers” without snapshots of Jesse Ellis Milton appearing in that cerebral light-room upstairs. He spent his whole life on the sea. The isolation and hardship of such a life converged to conjure up dark demons. He tempted by the siren songs sounding from Cape Town to Madras, from Chicago to Shanghai. Too often, I think he followed the piper. He would inevitably and invariably pay dearly for the musician from Hell. The “world” was and is that piper. The “world” promised my father adventure and left him with a mess of a life. Just take one area of his life. He had married a woman who was a schoolteacher. She desired her husband come home after the war and to settle down. But settling down would have been a sharp and impossible turn for Jesse Ellis Milton. Our family archives testify to a boy born in 1908 to parents still making their way out of Reconstruction.
The Civil War destroyed the wealth made by my father’s great-grandpa, Michael Joseph Milton. A veteran of the War if 1812, the grandson of a Revolutionary War Soldier from North Carolina, the family had amassed land and some wealth that the land yielded. Mostly, the antebellum period of my family was one of modest wealth gained by fighting America’s wars. Land grants, the Veterans’ benefits of the day, earned through service in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.
Jesse Ellis Milton was one of eight children born to George Michael (“Uncle George) and Elizabeth Louise (“Aunt Louiser”) Milton in 1908. It was always evident to everyone who knew him that my father would not be a farmer. He read. My father read the classics. He read Melville. He loved and memorized many of the literary works of Rudyard Kipling. He read everything he could get his hands on. And he loved the stars. He would follow those stars from the rural (Civil) war-ravaged piney woods on the Louisiana-Mississippi border through the Straits of Gibraltar, past the Cape of Good Hope, and to ports like Madras and Jaffa. He would learn to read the heavens and guide Great Merchant vessels across the seven seas.
The records in my files tell the story of an adolescent lad who traded the quiet, muddy lumbering backroads of southeastern Louisiana for the sweeping sea lanes of the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and the Mediterranean Sea. Though he rose through the ranks to be a commissioned officer in the United States Coast Guard and the chief mate, that is the executive officer, of numerous ships in the United States Merchant Marine during World War II, he began his life on the sea as an “able seaman.” That phrase simply means he was a deckhand. All of this is to say it would’ve been a tough sell to have my father, given his history and his adventuresome spirit, to follow in his father’s footsteps, and become a farmer. My father and his wife divorced, and I have no doubt that this shipwreck in a family’s was the result of saltwater in my father’s veins. By the 1950s his life was taking a downward turn. Postwar not only cost him a wife but also sobriety.
In fact, my father was at an institution seeking to overcome the physical addictions to alcohol when he met a woman. She was there in New Orleans for the same reason. They had nothing in common except for their pain and their sins. He was an experienced maritime officer, a man as acquainted with Wordsworth as he was with navigational charts for the seven seas of the world, of which he also had a license to command vessels. He came from a pioneering family that settled the town in which he was born — a family from this very area in North Carolina and before here, Virginia, and before that the Jamestown settlement. He was a musician. He had been reared in the Christian church, and in fact, he went to church and professed Christ at an early age in the Methodist Episcopal Church South local parish founded by his grandfather. The woman that he met in the alcohol recovery unit of Touro Infirmary in New Orleans had a third-grade education. She came from very poor, dysfunctional family in the backwoods of Tylertown, Mississippi. This woman found herself with a child. They were not married and had no intentions to marry. She made it quite clear that the best thing to do would be to have an abortion. This was in a day when not only was abortion illegal, but in the southern part of the United States, it was taboo. Jesse Ellis Milton protested and made a compact: “you carry the child to full term, and I will take the child to rear.” My father, thus, saved me from the abortion doctor’s scalpel. I was born to shame and sorrow. But, by God’s grace, I was born.
By the time I was nine months old, and my father having to go out to sea to earn a living, I was allowed to remain with the woman who was my biological mother. Alcoholism does great damage to the central nervous system as well as to the human soul. It had no doubt affected both mind and soul in profoundly dark and diabolical ways. My father was called while at sea by the New Orleans Police Department to say that he needed to come home. He learned that his son had been tied up and placed in a doghouse. The police went from having a missing child to an abusive mother. I have been told that it took all the influence my father could muster to keep the courts from placing me under the care of the State. This turn of events led to one of the greatest blessings in my life. For when I was nine months of age my father placed me in the arms of his eldest sister, Eva Milton Turner. Aunt Eva was 65 years old when I was nine months old. Her husband had just died. He was much older than she and they never had children. However, I would later learn, from experience of watching people come up to Aunt Eva in the community, that she had a hand in teaching, or somehow raising a whole lot of other children. Some of those children were her siblings. Some were children of other sad stories. My story was changed by God through Aunt Eva.
So, I was reared by a widow on five acres of hard scrabble farmland, a portion of a more extensive section that is been left to her by her husband. She had to sell most of it to provide some kind of income for herself and this little boy.
Wynona, a stranger to me, a mysterious lady with cruel, gray eyes came into my life when I was four years old. That woman was my biological mother. I was kidnapped by Wynona. After returning me, she was arrested. She was somehow released. During those days and before the ultimate court order, I can remember being curled up in her protective posture to shield myself from repeated blasts of a belt buckle coming down hard to beat me. This happened more than once. Each time was in my father’s house, near Aunt Eva and my grandmother. I also remember that I was once dangled from the top of the state capital building of Louisiana. At the time, the State Capital was the tallest building in that state. At age 4 I asked my and Eva, “when will the nightmare end.” Four-year-old boys should not say such things. I do not know if my Aunt Eva said then, she would say it later: “You just need to remember, my boy, what God starts, God completes.” The courts stepped in when I was five years old. I became a ward of the State to be reared by Aunt Eva.
Her encouragement in the gospel, her prayers for me each day of my life — I say without hyperbole, each day of my life, from infancy to the time I left home —covered me with a warm quilt of peace that drove out the soul-fever of an abused little child. Her encouragement led to a childhood that was filled with church, 4-H, baseball and football, and a “Huckleberry Finn” boyhood, happily accompanied by Snooper my mixed Corgi, Little Joe, my prize-winning Hereford calf, Bossy the Red Devon Mamma cow, Spot the Holstein milk-cow, Sugar Baby the white The Welsh Pony, Buck the goat, Pepper the Suffolk sheep, chickens, and tomcats. There was a boy running over pastureland, creeks, and rivers, climbing the Catawba Worm tree and selling the fat, juicy catfish bait for .50 a soup can. Aunt Eva gave me the gift of reading and a love of books. Death was everywhere it seemed. My father died just as I turned six years of age and that finalized my status as an orphan as well as a ward of the state. My grandmother died right after my father. All of my family was so much older. By eight years old, I was well-acquainted with funeral homes, rituals of burning the dead, and the spiritual strength of my Aunt Eva through it all.
Through all of my activities, I guess I was never able to really come to terms with that identity. And so I drifted. I drifted far from the teachings of Christ that I learned in the lap of my aunt Eva I was in my mid-teens when I left on to search for the answers to the great existential questions of life: who am I, why am I here, where my going? My Aunt Eva wept on the porch of our home. But she encouraged me even as she disapproved: “what God starts, God completes.”
After I took to the Navy and became a top-secret intelligence analyst and interpreter, I began a prodigal journey. I wallowed in every sort of ungodliness short of physical sensuality and drugs. God also kept me from any kind of criminal activity. You see, my prodigal journey was a journey of a young man in search of an answer to heal the deep pain that I felt — a pain that would not go away. Through horrible decisions, ungodly associations, and just plain old youthful stupidity, I hit the proverbial rock bottom. I ended up back with my Aunt Eva my 20s. I laid my head on her lap, and I wept for what felt like over a year.
During that time she would stroke my head, and she would pray for me. She reminded me that my father took me ay just 12 days old to a minister at Felicity Methodist Episcopal Church (in the Garden District New Orleans) on a Sunday morning and presented me for baptism. She reminded me that God had plucked me like a brand from the burning in place me in her arms. She reminded me of her love for me and my father’s love. She would remind me of what happened before my father died when the three of us walked down an old gravel road to a little-roughhewn pinewood tabernacle. That night, my weakened, alcoholic father fell on his knees in the sawdust of that little tabernacle. I sit next to him on that little handmade bench and I witnessed a visage that is forever burned into my mind: my father on his knees, weeping in repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, and a lay preacher — a plumber by day and a preacher on Wednesday nights — with his arms around my father, leaning over me. I didn’t close my eyes. I observed a scene that was both frightening and charged with grandeur. The minister-plumber prayed flawlessly in the King James Version tongue. He appealed to God through Jesus Christ, with urgent, and with unction assuring him that God hears all those who call upon him and not only that he takes the very things that seek to destroy us and they become in the hands of a loving God the very things that save us. He was essentially saying what my aunt Eva would speak to me, “what God starts God completes.”
My wife, Mae, and I married. My Aunt Eva was never so happy for me. Later, she would even see me not only return to the Lord, to service in His Church. Aunt Eva would be present at my ordination to the gospel ministry. Aunt Eva would hold our son, John Michael, was born nine years after our wedding. That little boy was like a rainbow, a joyful my wife and me that God does indeed complete what he begins. To all the years of my ministry, I seem to have had people could come to me, as one young lady did many years ago, and say to me, “God is safe me. But can he ever use me? Was quote I would listen as she and others like her would tell me the story of brokenness, heartache, and great loss. After listening I would read them this first,
“And I’m confident of this very thing that he has begun a good work in your life will completed unto the day of Jesus Christ.” I will tell them my story is a testimony to the God of grace not only uses filthy sinners who once blasphemed his name by calling them to become saints who preaches name, but the God who is not finished with us.
I will never forget when I was a pastor in Overland Park, Kansas. It was a Sunday morning. I was running just a little late What with all of the happy activities. I was visiting Sunday school classes, preparing for worship, giving encouragement to members, spotting new visitors, and praying with church officers before the service. I was moving at faster-than the normal pace, scurrying with purpose from one place to another in between Sunday School and the morning worship service.
A little boy followed me. No more than six years old, the buzz-cut tike, complete with a sports coat and a tie, had apparently had enough of chasing the preacher. He put his plan into action. I had paused from my marathon and was leaning against a hallway wall and reading through the bulletin. He began gently tugging on my pastoral robe. At first, I thought I had stepped on my Geneva gown. It felt like little perch playing with your bait. But the second tug felt like hooking a monster catfish! The little guy got my attention as my whole body was drawn downward by the remarkable strength of his pull! There was no shaking him loose! I leaned over and put my arm around him, and I said, “good morning my boy!” The lad grinned one of those sparkling smiles that just grips your heart (and makes your spirit chuckle at the missing front teeth).
The eager Sunday School scholar thrust a piece of construction paper towards my face, so closely that I had to pull back so that I could refocus to see it. His Sunday School teacher had undoubtedly assisted him in this crafty creation. But there was no doubt he was the authentic artist. With great excitement, he demanded, “Pastor, look at it!” I surveyed the piece of construction paper. The pause to pay attention was really just what I needed. Do you know what I saw? His teacher had helped him cut out the picture, photograph, of a piece of heavy construction equipment, sort of a bulldozer looking thing. I could still see the Elmers glue seeping out from underneath the photograph that had been attached to the construction paper. He then wrote something on the top, as a title. Yet obviously written this with a pencil and then his teacher helped him with glue and glitter to create a marquee message. The message read, “please be patient with me. I am under construction. God is not finished with me yet.” The Scriptures citation was Philippians 1:6. Not only did that little boy and his creation and his message gripped my heart but it transported me to a doctrinal truth that has covered my life and is marked my ministry. That truth is, “what God starts, God completes.”
I’m writing this article to you today and seeking to explain the truth of Philippians 1:6 because I seek to be a living testimony to the doctrine I’m writing about today. This passage says that the good that follows and is completed on the day when Jesus Christ comes again is the transcendent and supernatural consequence of one great doctrine: that is the doctrine of God’s grace. The transforming grace of God through Jesus Christ which he provides for you the life that you could never live through the righteousness of Jesus Christ, and a sacrifice for sin that you have committed as a result of the sin nature that you carry within your own person, guarantees that anything and everything that comes against you will be transformed by Almighty God into the very things that save you.
The ruling motif of the Christian life is the cross. The cross of Jesus Christ is a sign of failure, a symbol of pain, and a setting for the most heinous crime in the history of the universe: the murder of Almighty God by his own creation. So horrible was this cross that creation itself could not bear the site. Darkness covered the setting at midday. The earth revolted against the sin of mankind. The foundations of the earth at Jerusalem and perhaps even around the world shook on that day in natural of the horrendous to the deicide perpetrated by sinful mankind. “But God…” “But God…” Who is rich in mercy and in steadfast love for his people caused the very thing that would destroy his plan to become that event which would advance his plan. The cross which was assigned of suffering became a sign of salvation. The cross, which was a symbol of defeat became a symbol of victory. The cross, which was the setting for the greatest crime in the history of the universe became the scene for the greatest act of mercy and love in the history of the universe. And if this were not enough God would seal what he had done with the opening of a tune and the raising up of his son Jesus Christ from the dead on the third day in that tune. I say to you again: this is the ruling motif of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Only be careful to mark this truth. The glorious sequence of supernatural and divine intervention that brings about the transformation of our lives and our future and our eternity does not begin with what you do but what God has already done. Do you notice the passage and its beginning? “I am confident of this very thing that he who began a good working you will perfected until the day of Jesus Christ.”
Encouragement is the fuel for the future. I want you to be encouraged that if God has started something in your life, it is absolutely certain that he will complete it on to the day of Jesus Christ. What does this doctrine mean? For one thing, it means that you may not fully realize all of the victory in this life, but you may be called to follow the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to realize the fulfillment of God’s promises in your own resurrection. But it means something else in this is what I want to leave you with. Philippians 1:6 is teaching us that Almighty God is the great first mover, not only of his universe but of your life. Receive him now, not by works of the flesh, not by your gifts or your intellect, but only by his grace through his son Jesus Christ repent — turn from any and everything that is kept you from him — and say in your heart, “Lord God, I cannot save myself. I turn to Jesus Christ alone for eternal life.” Lay your head down in the lap of your Lord and your Savior, leave your questions and your burdens with him; and hear the message of the gospel for you this day:
“What God starts, God completes in your life.”