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Starting and ending well.

What ever our experience of life, there is always particular satisfaction to be gained in a job well done. For the train driver, it will be the journey where she kept to time, pulling into each station along the route just a few seconds before the train was due. A teacher who inherits a class with a poor reputation for behaviour but manages to turn them around so that the end of year results are good. A project manager delivering a new build on time and on budget with a minimal number of snagging jobs. Each in their turn will enjoy high levels of job satisfaction.
Preparing for Christmas can be a busy and stressful time of trying to get the right present for everyone in the family, decorating the house and preparing the food. For those of you in the thick of it, I hope that when you finally sit down on Christmas afternoon or whenever, that you will feel it was all worth it; a job well done.
In today’s new testament reading, St Paul is writing along with Timothy to the church he had founded at Philippi. Paul first brought the gospel to Philippi during his second missionary journey recorded in Acts 16. Situated in north-eastern Greece, it is said to be the first place where he preached on European soil. In Paul’s day, Philippi was a significant Roman colony. Today, the impressive ruins are a UNESCO world heritage site. Paul writes: ‘I am confident of this, that that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ (Philippians 1.6) Paul is writing from prison in Rome. He has heard good stories of the growing church in Philippi and so writes this very personal letter, full of joy to encourage them. But it is worth us taking a moment to consider how this work began.
Significantly, it began in a place of prayer, where those of Jewish background were already praying near the gate by the river. (Acts 16. 13-40) Presumably there were not enough of them to justify a synagogue. Paul shares the gospel with this group including a lady called Lydia from nearby Thyatira who dealt in purple cloth, a lady of means. The Lord opens her heart to respond to the gospel message and she is baptized along with her household. Next, there is a disturbed slave girl who is described as having a ‘spirit of divination.’ She was what we might call a fortune teller and made her owners a lot of money. She accurately spoke of who Paul was and the work he was doing. She annoyed Paul repeatedly calling after him, so he asked the spirit to leave her and it did. Her masters were furious because they had lost a source of income. Paul and his then companion Silas are dragged before the magistrates, the city in uproar against them and end up in jail.
Paul and Silas sing hymns and pray modelling their faith for the other prisoners. At midnight there is a huge earthquake. The doors of the jail burst open and the prison governor arrives about to take his own life because he assumes all the prisoners would have escaped. But Paul reassures him that they are all still there. The jailor, recognising a miracle when he sees one, falls at Paul’s feet and asks the most important question anyone can ask: ‘What must I do to be saved?’ The answer Paul and Silas give is simple, the answer which echoes down the centuries: ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, you and your household.’ The jailor and his household are baptised. They all celebrate with a meal, the jailor and his household rejoicing that they had become believers in God.
It is a remarkable train of events which kick starts the church in Philippi. Firstly, a person of wealth and influence comes to faith. She and her household are baptised. Then, at the other end of the social spectrum, a poor slave girl is released from a controlling spirit and the control of her masters. We don’t know the rest of her story. Did she join the fledgling church? Then there are the prisoners. How many seeds were sown in their hearts through the hymns and prayers of Paul and Silas? Finally, there is the jailor and his household, rejoicing in new found faith.
Much of this happens through Paul and Silas as human agents. They pray and worship God. They are not afraid to speak up and share their faith. After the earthquake, they do the right thing, persuading the prisoners not to do a runner. But by no means is it all down to them. God himself was powerfully at work in Philippi. Before Paul and Silas arrived, there were people praying together. It is the Lord who opens Lydia’s heart to hear what Paul is saying. It is the God who removes the spirit of divination from the slave girl albeit at rather indignant words of Paul. God causes the timing of the earthquake for the night that Paul and Silas are held in the cells. He prompts the jailor’s question about his own eternal state before God.
So, when Paul comes to write the letter to the Philippians years later from another prison cell, he is confident that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1.6) God began the work of creating a body of Christian believers in Philippi through the remarkable series of events of which we have been speaking recorded in the book of Acts chapter 16. Paul is convinced it will be brought to a successful conclusion; a good job done. What God has started, he does not fail to finish. Yet, in verse 5 he commends the Philippian Christians for their sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. Clearly, the work of the gospel is a collaboration, a partnership. It is work in which Paul and Silas worked together. They partnered with the new Philippian christians to take the work forward. The letter Paul writes to the Philippians is from Timothy to ‘all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi with the bishops or overseers and deacons or helpers’ (Philippians 1.1) But critically, this is also about a partnership with God. It is the amazing number of ‘God instances’ which make all the difference to reception of the Christian gospel in Philippi and the founding of the church in that place. God is at work in people’s hearts and minds, he is releasing them from unhelpful spirits and breaking down prison doors.
Christian mission and church growth, the spread of the Kingdom of God is all about God’s activity. Do you want to be on board with that? Are you hungry for it to happen here? Are you prepared to play your part? Then the job starts with prayer as it did in Philippi. In response to our earnest prayer, God will start to open hearts and create situations in which people ask that vital question: ‘What must I do to be saved?’ In this way that the work is begun. God will bring it to completion by the day of Christ, but he calls you and me to be his faithful servants sharing in that work being prepared to act and speak for him.
Philippi no longer exists as a functioning city, only as a scheduled monument. In a sense, the work has long finished there. Lydia, the jailor and all the other saints are already gathered in that we might share with them in glory one day. But God’s great work started well before then. Malachi in our old testament reading speaks of the coming messenger. (Malachi 3.1) Luke in the gospel reading quotes Isaiah talking of the voice crying in the wilderness.’ (Luke 3.4) The work may well not be completed until long after our days when may be Wrexham is a ruin. We need to the holy patience of Advent waiting for the ‘Day of Jesus Christ’ when the one seated on the throne says: ‘It is done, I am the Alpha and Omega.’ (Revelation 21.6). Yet, such waiting should not be passive, watching the decline of the church hoping it will see my days out. It should be an active participation by prayer worship and service so that we might share with God in a job well done; that we might receive the invitation ‘Well done, good and faithful servant, you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your Lord.’ (Matthew 25.23)
09.12.2018 Advent 2

Rev Jonathan Smith

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