by Daniel Harrell
Happy New Year. We begin again. And Merry Christmas too! Clearly with the hymns we’ve sung this morning we are still officially in Christmas. Eight maids-a-milking to be exact. According to the church calendar, Christmas runs until January 5, which I think is great since Christmas is an exponentially better holiday once you get past December 25. It’s been nice not to having to travel this year—though we did miss time with our families back east. A number of you were worried about that. You’d ask what we were doing for Christmas, and we’d reply how we were just staying put. You’d then assume that meant we had family coming out here, but we’d say nope, just us. The something like a mild panic would appear across your face. “Can you have Christmas without family?” And then, uh-oh, “does this mean we should invite the Reverend over to our house for Christmas?” I understand the panic. Having the Reverend show up at your house for Christmas dinner is not like having Santa Claus. You have to be on your best behavior for both of us but at least Santa brings presents.
Had we traveled to North Carolina where my family abides, we would have gathered at my grandmother’s house for some fine, gut-busting southern cooking. The highlight would have been my grandmother’s roast turkey and cornbread dressing soaked in a sweet lard-enriched gravy. Like drinking butter only better. You could feel your arteries harden with every morsel. It’s good eating. As it was we stayed here and as I need me some roasted something for Christmas to be Christmas, I roasted a goose that I shot out by the pond here (I’m kidding about that last part). If you’ve ever roasted a goose you know that it puts off a lot of fat—making for some serious gravy—just like my grandmother’s. We put out an all call on Facebook and around the church and delightfully ended up with two other Christmas-orphaned families at our table. They ate up that goose too—especially the ten-year-old boy who did his best impression of Tiny Tim. I’m surprised he didn’t sprout feathers given all the poultry he consumed.
Dawn and I were talking about how much we enjoyed this entire Christmas season—the gatherings, the beautiful church services, the lights, even the lack of snow. It was just like North Carolina. And yet I’m still amazed with how abruptly everything coems to a halt every December 26. “Joy to the world” and then back to work. Everybody starts fretting about year end finances and gift returns and getting to all those things you put off until “after the holidays.” There’s some momentary hope for a new year—except that you have to make resolutions and try to keep them more than a week. And of course the Iowa Caucuses are on Tuesday. So much for peace on earth. Was this what it was like that first Christmas?
Take the shepherds. Did you ever wonder what happened to them after the herald angels sang and they got back from the manger? What do you do once you’ve seen a Messiah? Luke tells us they ran to town and amazed everyone with their report, but afterwards we presume they went back to their fields to keep watch over their flocks by night again. There wouldn’t be much action on the Messiah front for another thirty years. Were they discouraged? Concerned? Worried that they had imagined the whole thing? Christmas can sometimes be that way. Which is why it’s good that there’s a verse in the Bible like Philippians 1:6—“the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”
It’s one of the best loved verses of Scripture. I remember receiving a framed, cross-stitched rendition of Philippians 1:6 many years ago. It was crafted for me by an old girlfriend as her way (I think) of reminding me that I had plenty of room for improvement. It’s a great verse for New Year’s Day. January 1st draws out our deep longing for the future and a commitment to change, to work harder to make it happen this time or fix it so it won’t happen again. And yet having tried and failed so many times, most of us refrain from New Year’s resolutions because we know we can’t keep them. Better to just avoid the disappointment. But according to Philippians 1:6 you don’t have to try so hard anymore. God’s doing all the work. He has you covered.
Paul embedded this verse within an extended salutation wherein he thanks the Philippians for their monetary support. He describes this support as their sharing or “partnership” in the gospel, a translation of the Greek word koinonia which we typically translate as fellowship. Koinonia means to have all things in common; it’s where we get words like community and communion. Koinonia was epitomized in the book of Acts church where no one had any tangible needs because everything was communally shared. In this way fellowship is connected to stewardship, which we will emphasize next Sunday. Remember to bear your pledge cards for 2012 to church as we partner in the gospel once again together as a community. We will give because God gave to us. He brought us into community with himself as participants in the gospel of grace and if you have truly experienced grace, then you know how impossible it is to hoard it. You have to give it away. Paul prays for the Philippians that their love and grace may overflow more and more. Grace is what makes the church the church.
The koinonia of Philippians 1 is certainly economic. The life and mission of the church always requires financial support, therefore God spurs our giving until his return on “the day of Jesus Christ.” However, for Paul, the only New Testament author who uses the word koinonia, partnership or community also goes beyond resource sharing. For Paul any koinonia of material resources derived from a deeper koinonia of Spirit. In Galatians, Paul speaks of the right hand of fellowship (koinonia), which we extend to each other whenever we pass the peace. More than a handshake, the right hand of koinonia tangibly acknowledges our common bond through the Holy Spirit. In 1 Corinthians, Paul speaks of communion as our koinonia in the body and blood of Jesus. More than bread and wine, communion tangibly acknowledges our fellowship in Jesus’ death and resurrection: His dying and rising will be our dying and rising too. No longer fearful of any condemnation because of our sin, the communion table assures us that we will rise to feast with Jesus as sure as eating my grandmother’s turkey on Christmas Eve. God who began his good work in us will get it done.
Specifically described as God’s good work yet to be completed, Paul’s emphasis is plainly on the future. His reference is to God’s saving work, which we all know takes a lifetime. Christians might customarily speak of somebody getting saved, but in reality we’re just as much people in the process of being saved. Like Peter who sank when he tried to walk on the open sea, our troubles and doubts still overwhelm us and drag us down too.
Paul penned Philippians from a prison cell, with no guarantee of earthly release. Which is why he described God’s good work as not yet completed. But unlike our own familiarity with unfinished work, there’s no question that God will not finish what he started. God operates from the future where the end has already happened. His good work is already a good job to be fully revealed on the day Christ comes back. His good work is as good as done. The focus of Christian hope is not on the future but on God for whom the future is present; the focus is not our creaturely destiny but on the God who destines us; we no longer worry about the end, but trust in the God who draws us toward his glorious ends. This is all that really matters, Paul writes. Our hope for a certain future makes the present immensely livable.
So instead of spending the rest of your New Year’s Day trying to make resolutions you know that you’ll break, trust God instead. Practice your resolutions as if they’re already kept. Paul encourages the Philippians and us to be pure and blameless not because we could if they tried, but because in Christ we already are. This is true even when we spectacularly fail because then we get to show what genuine repentance and resurrection look like. To be Christian is not to be flawless, but honest and humble and brave and full of grace.
God is the one who began a good work among us and it is God who will bring it to completion. Christian hope is based on his work in us, not on ourselves or our own ability. Christian hope fosters no illusions of human self-improvement. As opposed to optimists who look on the bright side and deny the effects of evil and sin, Christian hope understands that any real hope cannot found itself upon human potential or wishful thinking. Christian hope sees the effects of evil and sin for the tragedies they are, but then translates them into what they really are by the power of the cross. Suffering, rather than meaningless pain or just desserts, translates into meaningful redemption and reinforced character. Death, rather than a terrifying end to be feared, becomes the gateway to life. Christian weaves life’s tragedies into the necessary pattern of resurrection, pointing toward that day, when by grace, all things will be made new.
And because God will do this, the good end is as sure as my grandmother’s turkey on Christmas Eve—even when I’m not there to enjoy it. Actually it’s even surer than that. The fact is, my grandmother stopped roasting turkeys a few Christmases ago. After 50-some Christmases, she turned 80 and decided she was tired frankly of cooking. That first year without her turkey and dressing was spent at my aunt’s house feasting on fried chicken wings and cold shrimp and pork sausage balls. I understood, but I was really disappointed. Christmas just wasn’t the same without a big bird from the oven. So when Dawn and I got back to Boston, the first order of business was a trip to the grocery store. I needed me some roasted something for Christmas to be Christmas.
Since we were still technically in Christmas when we returned, like today, there was still time. However when I went to the poultry case, all they stocked were these 20 pound monster turkeys which would have meant 10 pounds of meat per person (that’s me and Dawn, Violet thinks turkey are fowl—ba-ba-boom). But turkey was tradition and the grocery store was running a special ($7 off with my shopping card), so I figured why not? I lugged the bird to the check-out line and watched to see the discount beep on the screen above the cash register, you know the one that displays your “savings” once they scan your card. However the turkey discount never appeared. So I called the cashier’s attention to this discrepancy and showed her the tag on the turkey, fully expecting to receive the $7 discount to which I was entitled. She said, “You know what this means?” Sure, I said, it means I get $7 off my turkey anyway. “No,” she informed me, “if it’s not in the scanner it means you get it for free!” Wow! Merry Christmas! I gave her a high-five and left with a totally unexpected, unmerited free 20-pound bird just like Scrooge’s gift to the Cratchets on Christmas morning.
OK, so obviously this is an experience in search of something to illustrate, so here it is: God who began His good work among us will carry it to completion by the day of Christ Jesus as sure as turkey at Christmas however that turkey shows up. Because it is God who does it, it does get done. But because it is God who does it, it doesn’t always get done is ways you expect. It gets done through suffering and death, through tragedies and troubles, through endings that transform into beginnings, through grace you receive though you never deserve it. God always finishes what he starts and therefore we confidently hope. Our koinonia in the body and blood of Jesus points to our koinonia in Christ’s death and resurrection as well as our koinonia in a free Christmas feast that promises to last into eternity.