Introductory remarks from Mark Buchanan:
"Courage" was the third week in a 10-week series on Philippians entitled I Can Do Everything: Paul, Jesus, the Philippians, & Us. I began the series with a memory citation of the entire letter. The second week, I dealt with the first 11 verses. "Courage" is based in Philippians 1:12-30.
I had preached a shorter (5-week) series on Philippians a mere two-and-a-half years prior. I decided to preach it again because of a heightened focus on outreach in our church. Though outreach is hardly the letter's most conspicuous theme, three considerations led me to approach it in this way: one, the letter's robust call to unity and joy as a sign of the gospel's deep winsomeness and ultimate triumph; two, its emphasis on Christ-likeness as the heart of witness; three, its prophetic engagement with contemporary issues—fear of death, pride of accomplishment, preoccupation with the here and now, the fickleness of happiness, the equation of security with wealth. I wanted to frame the letter as a biblical critique of these popular but flawed values, and as an invitation to follow a more excellent way.
I also wanted to integrate the story of Paul's travels in Philippi recorded in Acts 16. This story (featuring a businesswoman, a slave girl, a jailer, and some prisoners) is a powerful confirmation that Paul lived the life he commends to others. In fact, we hung at the back of the sanctuary four black-and-white photos, enlarged to 4'x3', that depicted a rich socialite in Seattle, a modern-day slave girl in India, a Khmer prisoner in Cambodia, and a prison guard in Sudan (all photos my brother, a professional photographer, shot on assignment in those places). The idea was to create a visual link, with an international flavor, between then and now, here and there. Mostly, I wanted to depict people who we might think of as unlikely candidates for salvation to drive home the point that if the gospel reached such people in Paul's day, it can reach such people in ours.
"Courage" covers a lot of material. I took the theme that unites this long section of the letter, and then I structured the sermon as a response to the fear-mongering so prevalent in our culture. In essence, the sermon asks the question, "What should we do when the sky is falling?" and answers, "Be courageous." And here's why … .
I used a blend of contemporary, historical, and biblical illustrations to strengthen the message, but I wanted to do more than just illustrate; I wanted to inspire. I wanted to engender courage in peoples' hearts.
I had two possible endings, the Polycarp one and another one. The alternate ending was part of an interview with Brady Boyd (from the Summer 2008 issue of Leadership), where he tells about New Life Church in Colorado walking through healing, reconciliation, and forgiveness after the 2007 shooting deaths on their campus. I fully intended to use this story, but as I was closing in on the end of my sermon, I could see that the Polycarp story was a more natural fit, so I grabbed it and discarded the other.
The most satisfying thing about "Courage" was the number of people who came up in the weeks after I preached it and told me that it gave them courage to "stand down the tanks" in their life.
The 20th century has been variously called the Age of Anxiety, the Age of Unbelief, and the Age of Depravity. Some pundits, not even a decade into the 21st century, have already named this century the Age of Fear. Fear increasingly defines our world on all fronts about all things, from Bangkok to Burnaby, Duncan to Delhi, New York to Newton: fear about local and national and international economies, climate change, the environment, the surge in gang- and drug-related violence, the diminishment of the food supply, the tainting of the blood supply, the population explosion, the reemergence of anti-Semitism (if it ever went away), the rise of militant Islam, the rise and resiliency of international terrorism, the breakdown of international diplomacy, the spread of cancer, the sweeping magnitude of the AIDS/HIV epidemic, the threat of a worldwide and untreatable contagion, the alarming growth in human trafficking. The list goes on.
Be afraid, the world says. Be very afraid.
On the morning I began to prepare this message, Wednesday, February 11, 2009, these were the headlines in the Times Colonist:
- Study links mold to aboriginal health woes
- Premier pledges to take on gangs
- Temperatures drop as winds lash Greater Victoria
- Activists vow to go to court
- Teen charged in fatal hit and run
- Baby's death stuns Nanaimo couple
- Woman dies after RCMP shoot alleged killer
- Dog stabber avoids jail time
- Stocks tank as U.S., Senate approves stimulus package
- Aussie fire toll climbs to 181
- Brace yourselves for a difficult year
- Gas prices inch higher
- Broadcast profits hit 13-year low
- Yahoo stock downgraded
- Canadian workers to feel GM's white-collar purge
- Mood darkens for metals bosses
- Economic slump could siphon jury pool
- Miller Western curtails production
- Kruger cuts back on coated paper
- Molson Coors earnings fizzle
- Muzack files for bankruptcy
- HarperCollins to lay off staff
- Unclear rescue plan causes market slide
- Global warming blamed as birds migrate north
- Windstorms batter France; UK on flood alert
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
That is, unless you know and trust the God and the Lord Jesus Christ, whom Paul and the Philippians knew and trusted. They, even more than we, had abundant reasons to be afraid.
They chose courage, and we'll see why.
God says we must be courageous in the face of fear.
In Philippians 1:12-30, God says be strong and courageous.
Later in this letter, tongue-in-cheek, Paul tells the Philippians, "If anyone else thinks he has reasons to boast, I have more." Then he lists all his bragging rights—born this, done that, been here, gone there—before saying all that now is rubbish to him.
Paul might well have begun this section, "If anyone else thinks he has reasons to be afraid, I have more: stuck in prison, sometimes half starving, not knowing whether I'll live or die, with even Christian brothers out making trouble for me, embedded in a culture openly disdainful of and sometimes violently opposed to what you and I have staked our entire lives upon."
If anyone had whining rights, quaking-in-their boots rights, Chicken Little screaming "the sky is falling" rights, it would be Paul, and next to him the economically impoverished and sociologically beset Philippians.
But Paul is downright cheerful, and what he says, mostly, is: be strong and courageous.
How do we achieve that? Let's glean this passage to discover what courage is and does and where it comes from. There are, according to this section of Philippians, three things courage does.
Courage encourages courage.
Paul says that "because of my chains"—because of, not in spite of—"because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly." My courage, he says, has given others courage to be courageous. A single act of courage can do that: create a firestorm of bravery.
Remember Tiananmen Square in 1989? A mere stick of a man, standing down a tank convoy dispatched from one of the most militaristic, repressive regimes in history. That single act of courage did more to embolden ordinary Chinese—and the world—to stand against brutality and tyranny than a thousand diplomatic speeches could ever have done.
Napoleon was an artillery officer during the siege of Toulon. He built a battery—an artillery post—in such an exposed position that his commanding officer told him he'd never find anyone brave enough to man it. He knew what to do. He named the post the "Battery for Men Without Fear," and not once did he have to go looking for soldiers to man it.
Courage encourages courage.
This is why cowardice is so universally scorned. Soldiers are court-martialed for it. According to Revelation 21:8, the cowardly don't get into heaven. Just as courage inspires courage, so cowardice breeds cowardice. Infamously, Yiannis Avranas, captain of the cruise ship Oceanos, abandoned ship when it sank off the coast of Africa in August of 1991, when 170 passengers and crew, including many elderly, were still on board. When challenged, he's reported to have said, "When I give the order to abandon ship, it doesn't matter what time I leave. If some people want to stay, they can stay." Doesn't that put fire in your bones?
In the story of Gideon in Judges 6-8, Gideon defeats an oppressive enemy of 135,000 seasoned warriors with an unarmed band of 300. Gideon first recruits 35,000. But God tells him that's too many. So God begins to pare them down. His first criteria: no cowards allowed:
Announce now to the people, 'Anyone who trembles with fear may turn back and leave Mount Gilead.'" So 22,000 men left …
And then God sifts out those who are unprepared. That leaves Gideon with 300: 300 unarmed farmers against 135,000 seasoned warriors. But it's enough. 300 who are prepared and courageous are better than 35,000 who are unprepared and terrified. Because courage encourages courage.
Courage exalts Christ.
Paul writes, "I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ might be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death." Courage is worship. It elevates who Christ is. It holds him in high esteem, because courage reflects Christ's character.
Last week, I said our entire lives should be lived to the glory and praise of God. I defined glory and praise this way: glory results when what shines from you reflects God's character. And praise results when your life prompts others to thank God. Well, courage does all that. It reflects Christ's character and so exalts Christ's reputation. And it leads others to thank God.
A story that only came to light after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 concerns the courage of several people, but especially the Bishop Kiril of Plovdiv, Bulgaria, during the Nazi era. An order had gone out from Hitler to deport to the death camps thousands of Jews that the Nazis had already rounded up in Bulgaria and were in a holding pen to be loaded into boxcars. Bishop Kiril—a huge man—strode down to where the Jewish people were kept and stood between them and the SS. Famously, he quoted the Book of Ruth: "Where you go, I will go." His courage shut down the deportation efforts, and it is estimated that that act—which gave courage to others—saved the lives of nearly 50,000 Jews during WWII.
A few years ago at a Willow Creek Summit, Jack Groppel, who works with leaders to hone optimum performance, showed two video clips. The first was a group of NFL linebackers. They showed up, first day, for training at Groppel's center in the swamplands of Florida. He gave them their first assignment: Run to the perimeter fence, tie this ribbon there (or maybe it was fetch a ribbon there—the details are fuzzy), and return to base camp. Oh, one last thing: a wild boar was spotted in the forest this morning. Very dangerous. Be on high alert.
A cameraman was planted along the forest trail, hiding behind the bushes. The massive linemen round the bend, looking panicky. The cameraman snorts, rustles the bushes. The football players, all 300 pounds plus of them each, turn tail and run, squealing like schoolgirls.
The next video clip: same scenario, only this time it's CIA operatives. At the point where they round the bend and the alleged wild boar starts snorting and rustling, each operative gets into combat position and holds his ground.
Who would you pick for a body guard? Whose organization is exalted?
Courage exalts Christ.
Courage is a sign of whose king is really King.
Paul writes, "Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ … " He's just told us that at least one measure of that worthy conduct is courage. " … Then whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel, without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved, and that by God."
Paul isn't being bloodthirsty here. He's not saying we should relish the thought of anyone being destroyed. That would be counter to everything else he says everywhere else. But Paul's not flinching from facing ultimate reality. Life has an ultimate destiny, and that ultimate destiny depends on this: Whose king is really King? Who actually rules history and eternity?
Paul is using a military metaphor here. It was well known in the Roman world that Rome often won converts to the empire when it became clear that Rome's king was really king. No use following a losing king. Better change than perish. Paul takes that well-attested historical fact and turns it on its head. He's saying, courage is a testimony of an ultimate reality: that King Jesus is King of Kings, Lord of Lords.
Later in Philippians, Paul writes:
For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body … . Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends! (Phil. 3:18-21; 4:1)
Courage says to a world that is easily frightened and quickly scattered, a world that puts its faith in things that cannot save and therefore always disappoint: it may not look like it now, but we serve the king who is really King. And we know he holds the future. Want to join?
Let me close with another story from history, this time the martyrdom of Polycarp. Polycarp was Bishop in Smyrna in the early part of the second century. He was a younger contemporary of the Apostle John and knew John personally. At 86 years of age, the Romans killed him for his faith.
As the old man walked out into the Roman Coliseum to face his accusers, he heard a voice from heaven: "Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man." The Roman proconsul—someone whom history has forgotten except he played a bit part in this story—demanded Polycarp to deny Christ and swear to Caesar, to which he famously retorted, "For 86 years I have been his servant, and he has never done me wrong. How can I blaspheme my king who saved me?"
Now I read from a transcript of the exchange:
"Swear by Caesar's fortune," the proconsul shouted.
"If you imagine that I will swear by Caesar's fortune, as you put it, pretending not to know who I am, I will tell you plainly, I am a Christian."
The proconsul threatened, "I have wild beasts. I shall throw you to them, if you don't change your attitude."
"If you make light of the beasts, I'll have you destroyed by fire."
"The fire you threaten with burns for a time and is soon extinguished. There is a fire you know nothing about: the fire of the judgment to come, and of eternal punishment, the fire reserved for the ungodly. But why do you hesitate? Do what you want."
"Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian," the proconsul announced to the crowd. "This fellow is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, the destroyer of our gods, who teaches numbers of people not to sacrifice or even worship."
The mob called for his death, and as he was set aflame, he prayed, "I bless thee for counting me worthy of this day and hour, that in the number of the martyrs I may partake of Christ's cup, to the resurrection of body and soul."
The proconsul ordered that the body not be given to the church, for fear he would be worshipped. His fears, in one sense, were unfounded. The church only worships Christ. But in another sense, his fears were worse than he thought: Polycarp's courage encouraged courage, exalted Christ, and announced to the whole world whose king is really King.
To see an outline of Buchanan's sermon, click here.
For your reflection:
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? _____________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ___________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? _______________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? ______________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ___________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see Plagiarism, Schmagiarism and Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarize.
Mark Buchanan is an Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Ambrose Seminary in Calgary, Alberta.