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 title 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 Values of an Optimistic Church (Phil. 1:3-11)
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.
1. Honor the Past (vv. 3-5)
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 commended 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:
2. Build for the Future (v. 6)
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)
3. Glory in Grace (v. 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.” Friends, we are saved by grace, kept by grace; and it must be in this grace that you begin your ministry together.
4. Abound in Love and Knowledge of Jesus (vv. 8-9)
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:
5. Keep Your Eyes on the Eternal (v.10)
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.
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 in verse 11: “Having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”
6. Practice His Praise (v. 11)
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.
The Vision of an Optimistic Church
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?
1. The pain of our past is being transformed into the power for ministry (v. 12).
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
2. The predicament of our present is being translated into a testimony for outreach (vv. 13-14).
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 our 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. Given this, why wouldn’t Paul affirm that his prison was a platform for good?
I had a parishioner, Miss Mary Jo, who was a very godly woman, a woman of prayer. She once fell and broke her leg and was rushed to the hospital. The physicians set her leg, and she was resting in a room by the time I made it to the hospital. I walked in to see her. There was another person in the room with her, a teenage girl who also had broken a bone. A curtain separated the two of them. Miss Mary Jo looked at me, and the first thing out of her mouth was,
“Well, now, I know why God allowed that fall, and I know why I am here.” I smiled at what might come out of this faithful woman’s mount. “Okay, Miss Mary Jo,” I said, taking the bait, “Well, why?” Miss Mary Jo shook her head as if to say, “Well, I got to teach this preacher the Bible again.” She sat up in bed.
“Because that girl over there doesn’t know the Lord. Now, Pastor, I’ve already talked to her, and I have been waiting for you to finish it up!”
What faith! I parted the curtain and asked if I could visit. The young lady said she had also been waiting for me. Both old woman and young lass, one Christian of many decades, the other a brand new believer of a few moments, affirmed that the broken bones led to spiritual healing and salvation.
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.”
Now, the gospel part of this message is not just “don’t worry, be happy” kind of optimism. Rather, the Lord graciously pulls back the curtains of providence to assure us that He is in control, even when circumstances conspire against us. But what does that look like in real life? In our lives?
We will call his name Toby. The lad had Down syndrome. But Toby had a dream. Toby wanted to be in the Special Olympics and try to run a 50-yard dash. Toby was nearly 30-years-of-age, quite overweight, with asthma, and too many secondary conditions to count. But Toby had a dream. And if you would have asked Toby if he could pull it off, then Toby would have undoubtedly told you, “Why not?” Well, these beautiful special-needs athletes lined up on that sunny day at the twenty-yard-line of a local high school football field. A referee squinted, held up his hand, and pulled the trigger of a toy pistol. Pow! The athletes were off to the races! Twenty-yards lay between that starting field-mark and glorious victory! You probably would not have recruited any of these athletes to compete at the high school level. But do you know what? They were giving it their all. And the stands were erupting in cheers. Now, our Toby was so heavy and had such problems breathing that he lagged far behind the rest of the special needs sprinters. I guess no one would ever forget how it happened. All of a sudden Toby’s sprint slowed to a walk. Then, as if in slow-motion, the boy went down, in stages, until he was outstretched on the field; the lad was a coughing and collapsed heap of heartache. There, flat-faced in the grass, his tears then soaked into the sod, his big body heaved with disappointment — what a portrait of pain and sorrow. Then, out of the corner of everyone’s eyes, a figure leaped from the stands! The middle-aged man was in a race of his own to get to Toby. “That’s Toby’s dad!” Someone shouted — the crowd hushed to a whisper in that desperate moment. You see, Toby’s daddy had a dream that was greater than his son’s dream. Toby’s father wanted that race for Toby more than Toby wanted that race for himself. Toby’s dad only wanted him to finish, not to compete or necessarily to win. The dad prayed for his boy to have a victory. If you had been in the bleachers that day you would never get the picture out of your mind: that daddy picked up that big boy, threw his overweight form over his shoulder, in a fireman’s carry, and started running with Toby to the goal. You could never forget hearing the daddy as he ran, winded and barely upright: “You are going to make it Toby! You will make it all the way, son! Hold on, Boy!” Toby got into it, as well, and started hooping and hollering from his father’s shoulders! “Yeah, Dad! We gonna make it!” Toby and his dad crossed the finish line. The crowd erupted in applause and stood for many minutes, watching a sight that gave everyone hope. And Toby? Well, he did a victory dance! His dad? He stood off to the side as if he had never been involved. He was applauding, too. Toby won.
We are Toby. We will be victorious—not because of our strength, and, yes, even in spite of our afflictions—because we have a loving Savior who did not consider His place when he lept from heaven’s celestial palace to come down on the field to carry us. Jesus ran the race when we couldn’t. Then, He gave the victory to us as a gift of love. And if you will receive that gift of His life for you and His death for you, you will not only be saved, be victorious, but you will be kept in His victory. God cares for your ultimate triumph more than you ever could. He promises He will turn your heartaches to rejoicing. The Lord Jesus Christ is most strongly exalted in your weakness.
Therefore, I am optimistic, and I am sure about the future. God’s sovereign grace and His unstoppable kingdom leave me no other option but to carry on with an expectation of total victory. Now and forever. How about you?