This sermon is part of the sermon series "Harmony and Humility in the Church". See series.
There were about 20 of us: the engaged couple, their parents, the bridesmaids and groomsmen who were going to be in the wedding the next day, and Nell and me. We had just left the wedding rehearsal, and now we were seated around a long table in the upstairs room of a Mexican restaurant. It was the joyful celebration dinner that follows the wedding rehearsal.
The bride's parents had been members of our church for about a year, and they were wonderful people. Only a year or two earlier, they had become Christians. It was all new and exciting to them, and they were growing and serving the Lord. And now their daughter was marrying a fine Christian husband.
There was lots of laughter and fun at the table. I remember saying real loud to the father of the bride, so everybody else at the table could hear, "Hey Gary. I asked a man once what it was like to give away his daughter in marriage. He told me, 'It's like taking your finely tuned Stradivarius and handing it to a gorilla.'" Everyone laughed. But the mother of the groom stood up and said, "I'm the mother of that gorilla, and I resent that." More laughter.
Just then the waitress brought in margaritas and set one down in front of everybody. When everybody had one, Gary got up with his margarita in his hand to make a toast—a toast to the happiness of his daughter and her wonderful husband. Some people at the table reached for their margaritas; others looked down to see what I was doing. They all seemed to be asking, Is it okay to drink alcohol? What would the pastor think? What should I do?
Gary was finishing his toast, and my mind was spinning fast. Gary is absolutely innocent in what he's doing, I thought to myself. To him as a new Christian, it's perfectly natural that he would toast his daughter with a margarita. If I don't join in, he and his wife will be mortified. They'll think they've made a terrible mistake, that they've done something terribly wrong. They'll worry that the pastor will forever look down on them. If I don't join in, they'll take it as my disapproval of them spiritually.
But if I do join in, I continued, I know there are other people in the church who think it's a sin to drink alcohol. In their mind, Christians don't drink. If I do join in, they'll hear that I drank, and they'll think it's terrible—'The pastor drinks! What kind of a pastor is that?' And they'll sit in judgment of me and ignore my preaching from then on.
Situations like that one, in which you need to the best choice, come up all the time.
A few months ago we had a wonderful booth at the Armenian Festival in the park. People came by, learned about our church, and took our literature. Suppose next week I get a phone call: "Pastor Sunukjian, you don't know me, but I saw your booth in the park. My fiancée and I want to get married. We're not really church people, but we'd still like an Armenian pastor to perform the ceremony. Would you be willing to do it?"
I would need to make a choice, and I would want it to be the best choice. One choice would be to say, "Yes." Maybe, as we meet for several weeks of premarital counseling, I can win them to the Lord. Maybe they'll start coming to the church, and grow in the Lord.
The other choice would be to say, "Paul, I'm sorry, but with my schedule, I just don't have the hours to be able to do that." I would be thinking of how many hours it would take to complete the premarital counseling, the wedding rehearsal, the wedding and celebration afterward. If I took the hours away from other things, would something at Talbot suffer? Would I not be sufficiently prepared to preach here on Sunday? Would someone in the church who wants to meet with me be offended because there was no time available?
One choice would be to say "Yes," hoping to win this man and his fiancée to the Lord. The other choice would be to say "No," because even though it might be a good thing, it would take away from perhaps more necessary things.
These kinds of situations come up all the time—you need to make a choice, and you want it to be the best choice.
Should you buy your teenager a car? It would help them get to school, and around to their activities. It would save hours of chauffeuring by others in the family.
Should you buy your child a car? Would it be good for them, for the family? What would be the best choice?
Someone at church makes a comment. You're not sure how to take it. Was it a jab at you, or was it totally unintentional and innocent? Should you address it or let it go, assuming they meant nothing by it? What would be the best choice?
One of the kids in the Sunday School or youth group is acting up. You're the teacher or the leader. Should you manage as best you can for the sake of the kid and the family? Or, for the sake of the others in the group, should you ask him to leave, perhaps offending the family? Which should you choose? What would be best?
One of the young couples in the church decides that God is calling them to be missionaries overseas. They've signed up with a mission board, and now they're raising support. They need to raise about $4,000 a month—to cover transportation, language school, living expenses, and overhead costs. They come to the elders of their home church, hoping that the church will support them financially, maybe even to the level of a thousand dollars a month. The other $3,000 will hopefully come from friends, family, and other churches.
The elders interview them, and then meet privately to decide. Based on the interview, the couple doesn't seem well prepared for missionary work. They lack training. There seem to be some significant areas of spiritual maturity. They haven't served much in the church, nor have they shown much diligence or hard work in secular employment. But they've grown up in the church. They both have families active in the church. Is this the call of God that will finally bring purpose and direction to their life? Is the giving to the church sufficient to commit $1,000 a month for the next 10 years? Would it be more beneficial for the life of the church to hire a part-time youth pastor with that money, or to commit it to these young missionaries? What would be the best choice?
These kinds of situations come up all the time—you need to make a choice, and you want it to be the best choice.
How can we know what the best choice is in these situations—whether to drink the alcohol, marry the couple, buy the car, address the comment, discipline the kid, or support the young couple? How can we know what is the best choice in a situation where there are all kinds of factors, different options, conflicting possibilities? What will help us to choose what is best?
In the early days of Christianity, the apostle Paul was thinking about his friends in a church he loved. He was absolutely confident that God was at work in them. They were his partners in the gospel. He saw them doing some very tangible and ongoing things to make God known to others. And he loved them more than he loved any other church. But he also knew they were facing some choices about how to handle certain situations. Some situations involved people who were teaching in the church. Others involved the ways some members of the church were acting toward each other. Still other situations were developing in the community or culture at large. They would have to make some choices, and he wanted them to choose what was best.
And so he writes to them, telling them why it's important that they choose the best, and what will enable them to do so.
Why to choose the best
Philippians 1:9-11 provides help in making good decisions. Paul gives two reasons why we should be concerned with making the best choices. First, so that no one else will have anything against you; second, so that you yourself will know that you've pleased God in every way.
Paul wants the Philippians to choose the best course of action so that they will be pure and blameless in someone else's eyes. Making good choices ensures others will know that you acted with sincerity and integrity, that you did nothing deliberately to hurt them, and that you had their best interest at heart. When Paul writes he wants them to make the best choice so they will be "pure," he uses a word that meant "without wax." He was telling them he wanted them to be pure, without wax.
In that part of the world they used to make beautiful, delicate dishes and vases. But because the dish or vase was so thin, sometimes it would develop a small crack as it dried. This of course made the vase or dish very weak. But an unscrupulous merchant might still try to sell it. What he would do is take a very light wax and fill in the crack before he put the finishing lacquer over the dish. Once the piece was glazed or lacquered, no one could tell the crack was there, unless they took the dish outside and held it up against the sun. Then with the light shining behind it, they could tell if there was wax in it or not. They could tell if it was pure, without wax.
You want to choose what is best so that you'll be pure, without wax. Nobody will look at you and say you acted incorrectly, that you did the wrong thing. They'll know you acted with integrity and sincerity toward them. I want you to choose what is best, first of all, so that in the eyes of others, you will be pure and blameless.
Secondly, Paul wants the Philippians to choose what is best so that they themselves will know that they've pleased God in every way. When that happens, they will be "filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ." They will sense that all the godly qualities that Christ wants to produce are developing in them.
When faced with a decision, when there are all kinds of factors, differing options, and conflicting possibilities, we want to choose the best course of action. Why? So that no one else will feel that we have acted incorrectly, and so that we ourselves will feel that we have pleased God in the matter.
How to choose the best
Now, what will make it possible for us to do that—to make the best choice? The answer is: the more love we have, the better choices we will make, and the better people we will become. When we have the best love possible, we will make the best choices possible, and we will become the best people possible. Growing in love will enable us to "discern what is best."
Paul says at the beginning of verse 9 that a growing love will lead us to choose what is best: "And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness."
Our growing love, guided by our knowledge of what the Word of God says and informed by our insight into the situation will enable us to discern and choose what is best in a pure and godly way.
Paul says, "This is my prayer, that your love may abound more and more." When he says "abound," he doesn't mean "bound like a deer or a gazelle." He means "abound," or "flow over," like a carbonated drink poured into a small glass.
Our overflowing love must be guided by knowledge. It must be guided by Scripture. We must know what the Bible teaches about a particular situation. We don't want a soft, mushy heart to rule our head. Nothing is more harmful than a weak, easy nature that is willing to tolerate anything and overlook any behavior.
"Oh, you're divorcing your wife, leaving your kids, and going off to Mexico with someone from the office. I imagine this must be a difficult time for you. Is there anything I can do to help? Do you need a ride to the airport?"
"Oh, honey, no wonder you're too tired to go to school. What do you expect when you stay up to 3:00 a.m. playing computer games. But look, why don't you sleep a few more hours, and I'll get you up around 11:00 and take you to school after that."
No, love is not blind. Love sees 20/20. Love is guided by knowledge. The Word of God clearly lets us know the right situation to love, the right time to love, the right way to love.
"Yes, I know he wants to be an elder in the church, but he still has a way to go in controlling his anger. Sometimes, when someone disagrees with him, he tears into them publicly and humiliates them in front of others. I'm afraid he'd be divisive and argumentative in the board meetings and damage the church. I'd love to see him be an elder some day, but I don't think it would be good for the church right now. The Bible says in I Timothy that an elder must be self-controlled, gentle, not quarrelsome. Let's just give him a chance to grow toward that for another couple of years."
Our love must be guided by knowledge.
Our love must also be guided by insight, by an understanding of the person and the situation. If a young couple is struggling with infertility, we might not tell too many stories about how cute our kids are. If a friend just lost a job, we might realize that's not the time to celebrate the raise or promotion we just got. If a child is not good at athletics, we won't force them to go out for school sports.
When our love is guided by knowledge and insight, we will be led to the right choice. We will choose what is best in any situation.
And so I get the phone call: "Pastor, you don't know me, but I saw your booth in the park. My fiancée and I want to get married. Would you perform the ceremony for us?
What is my knowledge of God's Word? Assuming that neither one of them is a genuine believer in Jesus Christ, I could marry them. The Bible tells me that I can't marry a believer to an unbeliever. The Bible calls that an unequal yoking. But I can marry two unbelievers to each other. My knowledge of the Bible says I could do it.
What insight do I have in the situation? If I invest the hours in them, will they become part of the church after the ceremony is over? My experience is that I never see them again after the wedding. It's always turned out that I wasn't really important to them. They just wanted me to give some kind of a halo or spiritual atmosphere to their wedding, kind of like a good luck charm. They just wanted to use me so they could have some vague feeling that they'd gotten married the right way. But they never did take God seriously, and I never really mattered to them. My judgment or insight is that the hours it would take should really be put to more profitable use.
"Pastor, will you marry us?" this young man might ask me. "Paul, you know, I'd love to get to know you, and maybe marry you someday. But when I marry a couple, I like to feel like I'm going to be part of their lives from then on. I'd love to have that happen with you. Maybe if you and your fiancée could attend the church fairly regularly, we could get to know each other over the next 6-8 months, so that I can see we're going to be part of each other's lives. Then I think it would be a lot of fun to marry you."
I love them, but I also love the people at Talbot and the people at the church. My love, guided by knowledge and by insight, leads me to choose what is best.
In the Mexican restaurant, the wedding toast is ending. The margaritas are being lifted. I need to make a choice—the best choice. I love Gary and Joanne Crawford. I also love the other people in the church who think it's a sin to drink.
I know what the Word of God says. It doesn't say, "Don't drink." It says, "Don't get drunk." My knowledge says, "There's nothing essentially wrong in toasting with a margarita."
What insight might God give? If I offend someone in the church who thinks it's wrong, they'll get mad at me, and maybe they'll leave the church. But it won't affect their spiritual life; it'll just affect how they feel about me. But if I wound Gary or Joanne, they could feel ashamed in front of others. They might wonder if they'll forever be looked down on by the pastor and church.
I love them, and my knowledge of the Word of God and my insight into the situation means that I lift the margarita in a toast to the young couple.
"And this is my prayer," Paul wrote, "that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness."
The more love we have, the better choices we will make, and the better people we will become. And when we have the best love possible, we will make the best choices possible, and we will become the best people possible.
Donald R. Sunukjian is professor of homiletics and chair of the Christian Ministry and Leadership Department at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California.