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Paul told the Philippians that he gave thanks to God every time he remembered or thought of them. As he wrote this letter to them from prison, he wanted them to know that thinking about them gave him joy even in his unhappy situation.
One of the things he would probably think about when he remembered the people of Philippi is how he came to know them. You might remember that he was on his second missionary journey, and he was getting frustrated. He thought that the best thing would be to revisit the congregations that had been started on his first journey, and then head straight west to Ephesus to start work there. But as he tried to head west to Ephesus, he says that the Holy Spirit prevented him. Something happened that kept him from going where he thought he should go, and he ended up in Troas instead. It was there that he had a vision of a man from Macedonia begging him to come to Macedonia and help them. It was clear to him that the reason he was prevented from going to Ephesus was that he was needed in Macedonia. The first place he went in Macedonia was the city of Philippi.
Twenty years ago, there were some frustrations for me at the church I was serving in Atlanta. The congregation decided that they no longer wanted to do work in the area where I had lived and worked for 17 years. They wanted to be in an area that was closer to where most of the members lived. I struggled with the thought of leaving the area I had lived and worked in for so many years. That’s when you called me to come to Nebraska and serve you.
You might imagine some of the comments we received when people heard that I had been called and had accepted the call to Nebraska. Especially our friends outside of the church wondered, “where’s Nebraska? Why would you want to go there? Isn’t it just completely flat? How many people actually live there?” Though we had never been to Nebraska before, we trusted that God was calling us through you and that he would bless everyone involved. That’s exactly what he did! The congregation in GA did move to a new location and is doing very well. And God has blessed my family, and Bethel and Grace as well- providing new facilities for each congregation, stability, and a small measure of growth when many congregations are shrinking.
Paul gave thanks and rejoiced as he saw the hand of God guiding his ministry, and so do I.
When Paul got to Philippi things didn’t necessarily go smoothly. There was no Synagogue, so he had to look for a place where people with a Jewish background who knew their Bibles were gathering. He found them meeting alongside a river. When he told them that God had sent the Messiah they were waiting for, Jesus of Nazareth, who lived and died for them and rose again, Lydia and others were brought to faith in Jesus and were baptized.
When Paul cast a demon out of a slave girl, her owners had him beaten and thrown in Jail, but God sent an earthquake during the night which caused the jailor to realize his sins and ask Paul how he could be saved. When Paul told him about Jesus, the Jailor and his whole family believed and were baptized. The next day he was released and had to leave Philippi, but he never forgot how God worked the miracle of faith in Lydia and her friends and in the Jailor and his family. The joy of knowing that the Holy Spirit had worked in their hearts to bring them from darkness to light, from being dead in sins to being alive in Jesus, seems to have made him forget any negative things that had happened to him there. He could thank God because of their fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now.
Every congregation and ministry has it’s challenges, but we certainly have not faced many big ones at Bethel or Grace. None of us have been beaten or put in prison for our faith. But whatever challenges there may have been, their memory is blotted out by the joy of seeing the Holy Spirit at work. We have shared in the joy of seeing children, yours and the children of others, brought into God’s kingdom through baptism, including 8 of our own grandchildren who were born and baptized in places around the country while we were serving here. We have shared in the joy of seeing those children grow in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and others—Confessing their faith at their confirmations and continuing to be witnesses in High School, and then in college, getting married and bringing their own children to baptism and brining them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. What a joy it is to have had the privilege of teaching Catechism, confirming young people, conducting Christian Marriage ceremonies, and baptizing children – and in twenty years, doing not just one or two of those things, but all of those things for some of you. Those are the things that will always be a reason to give thanks to God and will always be remembered with joy.
For twenty years we have had a partnership in the Gospel. We have worked together to reach out to our communities. I especially appreciate those who either formally or informally share the gospel with their friends and neighbors and invite them to worship. God wants all to be saved and in order for that to happen the gospel needs to be shared by all, with all. We have worked together to support the work of Trinity, NELHS and the Synod. You have shown your faith and love by faithfully and generously providing for our needs and offering support and prayers during Jane’s cancer and my stroke, and you have cared for the needs of your brothers and sisters in Christ as well. Your partnership in the gospel will always be remembered with joy in our prayers.
What does the future hold? What will happen next? Change and transition are always uncomfortable, always a source of anxiety, but Paul reminds us that there is something that will always remain certain.
Paul says, I am convinced of this very thing: that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
We don’t know much about what the future holds. With everything going on in the world today there certainly is a lot of uncertainty, but, like Paul, we can be confident of one thing. God is in control. As God pointed out in our first Scripture reading today, what he promises will happen. The one who says, I act, and who can reverse it? He is the one who has begun a good work in you. He has worked saving faith in your heart, a fact that is demonstrated by the fact that, in spite of all the temptations and excuses you could have given to do something else, or be somewhere else, you are here today. Faith is the good work God has begun in you. He has put his Spirit on you and brought you to faith and enabled you to come to worship him and hear his word. What he started he will bring to completion. He will keep you who continue to hear and study his word in faith because that’s what he promises to do through his word and sacrament. Through the word and sacrament, he will keep you and me in faith until the day of Jesus, until we die, or he comes again in glory. Either way, we don’t really have to say goodbye because sooner or later we will be together again. Sooner or later, all of us who trust in Jesus will be together in worshiping and rejoicing around the throne of God with each other, and people from every nation and tribe and language, for all eternity.
I thank God every time I remember all of you. My heart is filled with joy and thankfulness because we have been partners in the gospel, and we are heirs with Jesus of eternal life.