An Optimistic Ministry: A New Years Sermon

I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, (Philippians 1:12 ESV)

(see Philippians 1.3-14)

Introduction to the Reading

Helen Keller wrote that: “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 that there are many in the church that 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? Well, listen to the Spirit inspired words of a man locked up in prison, writing about the sovereignty of God and the life of Joy.

Please give attention to the inerrant and infallible Word of the Living God in Philippians 1.3-14.

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 all of the Bible: the Book of Philippians.

Introduction to the Sermon

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 that 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.”

You know as a pastor I have seen people with the “gift of discouragement” but never knew it was a virtue until I read about this new book! Well, actually, I have read that there are church consultants who are telling us that the Church in America is not going to make it unless (and you can fill in the blank here): (1) We speak the language of the culture; (2) We tune in the exactly which kind of worship the unbeliever really wants; or (3) We develop the right marketing campaign, or program or web site, or on and on. 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!

You know there may also be someone here who feels like they are not going to make it. They feel that the journey of discipleship has taken some bad turns. Maybe they are discouraged over their own sins, or over the situation they find themselves in their families. They just can’t see through the circumstances to see any approaching victory in their Christian lives. We all feel like that from time to time.

This New Years, I am more optimistic than ever about the future of the Church of our Lord Jesus and I am optimistic about your life and mine in the Kingdom of God, no matter what you may be facing. Now a misplaced optimism would say that I am optimistic because I know 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 either you or another leader or me or any human part of the Church. But I am optimistic. Because in 2,000 years of human frailty and 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 is as certain today as ever.

Nowhere do we see this more clearly realized than in the early church. With an apostle in jail, apparently failing to evangelize and reach the Gentiles, the Church’s future seemed to be in jeopardy. But the truth is that while Paul was in prison, he wrote a little letter of thanksgiving to the Church at Philippi about how God was using his situation to advance the Kingdom.

From that wonderfully encouraging book of Philippians, and especially chapter one, verses 3-14, I want to encourage you, on this first day of your new pastorate together, to look through the optimistic lens of the Bible to see that God is able to build His Church through you. Truly, this, then, is a divine description of an optimistic Christian and an optimistic Church.

This description may be summed up from this passage by the values of an optimistic church and by the affirmation of an optimistic church. Both are firmly grounded in Paul’s letter.

The Values of an Optimistic Church (1.3-11)

The Philippians church had given Paul a gift for the other churches and Paul returns their gift with this letter. And in this letter there are remarkable gifts of truth that can change lives.

First of all, 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)

The Apostle Paul thanks 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 thanks God for them and for the fellowship they have enjoyed in the past.

Remembering is a sacred act in the Bible and one that is 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, to remember that Christ is our Passover for us, that in His Body and Blood we have our freedom and we 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.  Psa. 77.11 (NKJV)

Still other times, 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.  Psa. 106.7 (NKJV)

So it is right and 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 right here who have been blessed by this church. I suspect that there will be people in heaven because of the teaching ministry of this congregation in the past. Like Paul, we can look back and remember the great times together. We can be thankful for ministry. We can be thankful for good friends, for godly pastors who have passed through these halls. As you move forward, you do not disconnect yourselves from the past. You can honor the past.

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 and sorrows, the people, places and events of what has gone before.

You know, as a pastor who was only the twelfth pastor in 163 years of history, there was a lot of past to honor! Recently I returned to a centenary celebration of that church’s sanctuary. It was a great time for us all, and I have learned that it is important for people to feel like what has gone before is not lost. It has meaning.

In a way, as Paul began his letter by honoring the past. But you 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 v. 6 and this is a second value of the optimistic church or Christian:

2.    Build for the Future (v. 6)

Verse six is one of the greatest verses in the Bible. And Paul even begins by speaking of “Being confident of this…” God had done some great things in the past, but there was great things to come.

The Christian life is dynamic, alive and moving through history to reach each and 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. And the reign of the Lord Jesus guarantees that He will see you through.

This is the heart that says with Paul, as 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 onward¾to 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 (NKJV).

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. And He offers eternal life to all who call upon Him by faith. This is grace and Paul will say 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 in 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 that his prayer is for the love of the saints may overflow increasingly with “knowledge and full insight” (NRSV) to help you to determine what is best.

My family and I vacationed in California a few years back. One of the things we did was to go up through the Carmel Valley and 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. But he wants all of us to follow Him in love wed to knowledge and insight into 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 that you are on a journey¾a journey of faith in Christ, which is going somewhere¾to 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. If you are here this morning, please remember that the Word of God is telling us that the Day of Christ is coming. How will you appear before His throne pure and blameless except through the righteousness of Christ?

But moreover, I think Paul is dealing here with the Christian life. He is saying that remember that we are on a journey. As we are filled 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 is saying that all of our lives is moving towards praise. The values of this optimistic believer is that life is lived as an act of worship. Our worship services will be filled with expectation and wonder if we come to see that we are really just 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.

As you, like Paul, begin to enact these, cling to these vital values of the Christian life, it will transform your lives and your fellowship, but it will also lead you to some insights and some affirmations.

Now look and see what is emerging here and tell me if this is not an optimistic Christian!

The Affirmation of an Optimistic Church

1.    The pain of our past is being transformed into the power for our ministry (v. 12)

I absolutely cherish this passage: “I want you to know that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the Gospel.” The beatings, the false trials, the imprisonment, is not stopping the Gospel but is advancing it! This is the truth of God’s sovereignty and it is for this reason that I am so optimistic.

This says that whatever has come into my life, I know that My God is causing all things to work together for the good for those who are His. This reminds me that if God is for us, who can be against us.

In my own life, this truth liberated me and freed me. I was orphaned as a child after having endured no small amount of abuse and heartache. 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 learned that the very things, which had sought to destroy me, had become the things that had 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.

He is doing that with each of us and with all of us.

What have you gone through as a church that was painful? What have you gone through your own life that was filled with pain or heartache or injustice? May you learn this affirmation of Paul’s and be able

2.    The predicament of our present is being translated into a testimony for outreach (vv. 13-14)

Paul is saying here that all of the events that have led to his bondage have led to his ministry. One not given to seeing God’s ways might think that the Church was sunk:

It looked sunk in the Garden of Eden. But God gave a promise in Genesis 3.15 that a Redeemer was coming and as the angel escorted our first parents out of Eden, a Promise was already afoot. The predicament was being translated into a testimony of God’s faithfulness.

You might have thought the Kingdom of God was sunk when a mad king in Egypt issued a diabolical edict to kill all of 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 a man ambitious ruler named Haman conceived a plot to exterminate the Jews, the divinely chosen carriers of God’s Messiah that would be it. But in the Book of Esther, surely an optimistic book if ever there were one, God was working out the promise in the predicament. And in the end of that divine historical irony, Esther saves the day, Haman is hung on his own gallows and the Promise is persevered.

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 beasts of the sea, Herod, sought to kill the child Jesus. But there was providence in the predicament and our little Lord was saved.

And tell me this: what do you see at the cross but this same thing? The predicament is that the King of Glory is being mocked, in between two criminals. Jesus the Righteous, the King of Shalom, is stapled to a Roman cross outside a city called the Holy City, which had turned against Him. Surely, here, finally, the predicament will prove to be the glass that is half empty! Here the Plan unravels and the Son of God fails! But, believers in Christ, in the predicament came the Promise! And early in the morning, on the first day of the week, right on time, just as it was foretold, the predicament of a grave, of a cold body of God, shivered from the first beam of power and that man who was dead rose up again and the immovable seal of the most powerful nation in the history of the world was broken, and Jesus walked out!

Because of this, my dear friend, because the central message of the cross of Jesus Christ is woven into the very life of this man Paul, he is able to say the things that have happened to me have happened to advance the Gospel.

I had a parishioner; I’ll call her Miss Mary Jo, who is a very godly woman and a woman of prayer. She once fell and broke her leg and was rushed to the hospital. The physicians carefully brought healing to her and by the time I found out about it, she was resting in a room. I walked in to see her. There was another person in the room with her; a teenage girl who had also broken a bone and a curtain on the other side of the room separated her. 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 said, “Well, why?” She said, “Because that girl over there doesn’t know the Lord. Now Pastor I’ve already talked to her and I been waiting on you to finish it up!”

She could see through her predicament to the providential hand of God.

And by faith, you, too, my dear friend, must acknowledge the Lord’s sovereign hand: In your own life, in our nation, at this time in the life of your church.

Our nation is in hard times. Television has become a pipeline for every sort of moral sewage you could imagine and our people are being infected with it and with it also a love of sin and a falling away from God. When the Church gets a headline in the paper, you can just about count on it being a bad one: a bishop ordained who is living in Sodomite sin with another man, a Church riddled with law suits from shepherds abusing the flock, and our own denominational news is always filled with splits, and falling away and pastors in sin and congregations railing against other congregations over petty things. But my dear friend, in the worst times have come the blessings of revival. When we come to see that we have no solution, we come to see that we are locked up in a generation that desperately needs the Gospel, you come to see that we were born for just such a time as this!

It is hard I know. Recently many of us who are chaplains have been wrestling with how we will respond to potential threats to First Amenement rights to preach the Gospel concerning human sexuality given that the Administration and a willing lame-duck Congress have imposed the “gay rights” agenda onto the military. I think about it and it is enough to take away your enthusiasm for chaplain ministry. But then I see a soldier in need. I hear of a Marine family who has lost their loved one. I read about 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 Army Reserve, 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 even 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.”

Conclusion

Now, the Gospel part of this message is not just be optimistic, but be a follower of the One who has greater plans for you than you have for yourself.

We will call his name Toby. Toby had Down syndrome. And Toby had a dream. Toby wanted to be in the Special Olympics and try to run a 50-yard dash. Toby was near 30 years of age, very overweight and he had asthma. But he had a dream. And he knew he could do it. So, these special needs people lined up on that sunny day at a football field and the gun sounded and off they went! You probably would not have recruited any of them for your track team, but you know what? They were giving it their all. But Toby was so heavy and had such problems breathing. He was way behind and Toby finally just fell. And there, flat faced in the grass, his tears now mixing with the sod, his big body heaved with disappointment. But then, out of the corner of everyone’s eye came his dad. You see, Toby’s daddy had a dream that was even greater than his son’s dream. He wanted that race for Toby more than Toby wanted that race. He only wanted him to finish, not to compete with others, or even to necessarily win. But he wanted his boy to have a victory. And he was even surer that it would happen than Toby. So he ran out, picked up that big boy and started running with him thrown over his shoulder. He started hollering to his boy, “You are going to make it Toby! You will make it all the way, son!” And Toby got into it, as well, and started hoping and hollering! “Yeah, Dad! We gonna make it!”

We are Toby. We will be victorious not because of a powerful, ingenious pastor or hard-working congregation, but a loving Savior who is unwilling that any should be lost, that He will see victory, that you will be kept, that your lamp stand will be in place when He comes again. Because He wants it more than you; because He promises that He will turn even your heartaches to rejoicing; because He is strongest in your weakness, I am optimistic.

His sovereign grace and His unstoppable Kingdom leave me no other option. Do you believe that?

Let us pray.

Almighty God and heavenly Father, as you gave Your one and only Son, Jesus Christ, to become the atonement for our sins, the righteousness that we must have to ever stand before You, and as You raised Him from the dead, everything has changed. You are working all things, now, towards Your own glorious aims. Nothing can stop the advancement of Your Kingdom! By Your Spirit and this Your Word, transform and renew our minds in this glorious Gospel truth that we may rest in your wonderful Gospel promises and so learn to live, not oblivious to suffering, or unaware of tragedy, or unmindful of the snares of sin, or inattentive to the pain of others, but with an optimism based on faith in the finished work of Christ and in Your redemptive plan for Your heaven and earth. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

This sermon was preached for a New Years message and also on the occasion of a new ministry for a pastor and congregation. I was honored to have been the preacher for this date. I have edited it and updated it for this publication.

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About Michael Milton, Ph.D.

Michael A. Milton, Ph.D. (University of Wales, Trinity Saint David's College), is an American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author. He is, also, an alumnus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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