I Thank God For You
Given that I only have 3 Sundays left in this pulpit, my intention is to bring you 3 sermons that will, hopefully, prepare you for what lies ahead. Paul's letter to the Philippians seems particularly appropriate because he is writing them from the standpoint of a departed minister. Paul is in prison and, apparently, since no interim moderator had yet been appointed, Paul felt at liberty to write the Philippians a note of encouragement and exhortation.
After his standard introduction, Paul begins the body of his letter in verse 3, writing, "I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus"(v.3-6).
In these verses, Paul touches on many important themes; he speaks about prayer, he speaks about sharing in the gospel, and he speaks about the providence of God. Yet, before we touch on any of these themes, we must not miss the very first theme: Paul's affection for the people of Philippi.
Let us not gloss over Paul's statement, "I thank my God every time I remember you". How many ministers of the gospel could honestly say that they thank God upon every remembrance of their congregation? I am so glad I can say that my experience resonates with Paul's.
In the last few weeks, many have commented on the progress of ministry in our two churches. You have pointed, not only to the quantity of our growth, but also, to the quality of our growth. You have pointed out the progress gained through our ministry to children and youth. You have pointed to the progress gained through Bible studies and our Mom's & Tots group.
What is it that drives this kind of progress? Glory be to God alone! We know that it is God who causes growth. But we also know that God causes growth by human means, and so we must ask another question. What kind of minister, or leader, is necessary in order to facilitate growth?
As I think about the various leaders in our churches, as I think about my own ministry with these congregations, I maintain that one of the keys to our success has been this: our prayerful affection for one another.
When we appoint leaders, when the time comes to call a new minister, look for someone who knows their Bible--yes. Look for someone with sound, reformed, doctrine--yes. Look for someone who has a prayerful commitment to Christ--yes. But do not overlook this: Choose a minister who will love the people. Choose a minister who will be able to say, "I thank my God every time I remember you".
If someone were to ask me, "What is the one thing I did that was better than everything else?", I would not point to my preaching. I would not point to my leadership abilities. In my view, the one thing that never wavered was my affection for the people of these congregations.
It is of paramount importance that ministers love their congregations, and that congregations love their minister. It has been my experience, that where there is mutual affection, there is effective Christian service.
You have often heard me quote Charles Spurgeon in many of my sermons. Spurgeon ministered in one of the largest churches in England in the 19th Century. On one occasion he was asked to account for his tremendous success in ministry, and without hesitation, Spurgeon responded, "My people pray for me".
Would I be accurate in saying the same about my ministry with these congregations? Have I progressed as a result of your prayers? Has this congregation progressed as the result of my prayerful affection for you? I think the answer to both of these questions is a resounding "yes". Where there is mutual affection, there is effective Christian service.
And, as we see in the writings of Paul, where there is affection, there is joyful prayer. No arm-twisting is required for Paul to pray for the Philippians. No, because of Paul's intense love for these people, praying for them is the natural expression of his affection for them.
But what is the basis of Paul's affection for the Philippians? Paul tells them. The reason Paul is constantly giving thanks for the Philippian Church is "because of (their) sharing in the gospel"(v.5). It is their common love for the gospel of Jesus Christ which binds them together.
I understand Paul's affection for the Philippians, and I understand how this affection overflowed into joyful prayer for these people. The individuals in the Philippian Church shared Paul's concern for the spread of the gospel. If he preached, they would encourage him. If Paul required financial support, they provided it. When it came to furthering the gospel of Jesus Christ, Paul knew that he could count on the support of the Philippian Church. And this caused Paul to thank God for this church upon every remembrance of them.
We can safely infer from this that prayer is not something to be relegated to the first 20 minutes of our day and then forgotten about. Prayer is not a Sunday-only activity. Every remembrance of the Christians in Philippi causes Paul to pray. When Paul writes elsewhere that we are to "pray without ceasing"(1Thess. 5:17), this, I believe, is what he had in mind.
Your prayers do not, necessarily, have to be made with a bowed head and on bended knee. Your prayers do not, necessarily, have to be audible. Paul's example says nothing about the technique of prayer; it teaches about the frequency of prayer. Whenever someone comes to our mind, we should pray for them.
As we think about what might happen during this vacancy, we should be driven to pray. Perhaps you are tempted, as I am sometimes, to worry a bit about how this process will unfold. Perhaps you are tempted to worry about how well the search committee will cooperate. Perhaps you are worried about who will fill the pulpit. Perhaps you are worried about church finances. Surely Paul's message to you is clear: arrest your concerns with prayer.
And notice the confidence Paul has in prayer. Paul expected his prayers to be answered. In verse 6, Paul says, "I am confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus."
Paul is speaking here of the providence of God. Because God is the author of their salvation, because God is the founder of the Philippian Church, Paul is certain that they will continue to mature in the faith.
We, too, should share Paul's confidence in the providence of God. We should also notice that Paul's confidence in their growth didn't cause him to be idle. Paul understood that God's providence is designed to work concurrently with human prayer. The puritan, Thomas Watson, reminds us of this truth when he comments on Acts 12, saying that, indeed, it was "The angel (that) fetched Peter out of prison, but it was prayer that fetched the angel" (Watson, Gleanings, 100).
We should be confident about what God is doing in our midst, but we must also be diligent to pray.
And beyond our private prayers, it is imperative that you also pray together. Nothing unites a church better than corporate prayer. I am thankful for the existing groups in our churches that gather regularly for prayer. I do not hesitate to say that prayer is the most important activity in the church because, without prayer, no other ministry can expect to succeed.
If we think of ministries in the church as a vehicle for the gospel, then we must understand that prayer is the fuel for these vehicles. Our session, our board of managers, our youth ministry, our Sunday school will ultimately be ineffective for the Kingdom if they are not fueled by prayer. Success in these ministries does not depend on our clever ideas, our conservative decisions, or our balanced budgets. Success in these ministries depends on the providence of God--providence that works concurrently with our prayers.
Prayer is the only fuel that will drive our ministry vehicle. Prayer is the one ministry upon which every other ministry depends.
Mark this day as the day where you commit yourself to pray constantly for the advancement of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Make this the day where you commit yourself to praying regularly for the ministries of this church. Make this the day where you commit yourself to praying regularly for the leaders of this church.
If you do this, be assured of the promise that "He who began a good work in you will complete it until the day of Christ Jesus"(v.6). Amen.