There’s no such thing as a sure thing.” That statement brings out the blatant skepticism inherent to the human nature. Whether you’re dealing with the stock market or simply perusing the coupons in the Sunday paper, people are cautious to jump at something. After all, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
“There’s no such thing as a sure thing.” In our heart of hearts, we might concur. And that is why St. Paul’s words this morning are so shocking. His sentiment and hope stands in complete contrast of our often negative, cynical outlook on life. In fact, the apostle states in all confidence that CHRISTIANS HAVE A SURE THING. He goes on to outline that certainty. He tells us that we have a sure thing 1) In Life, and we have a sure thing even 2) In Death.
1) In Life
The Christians in Philippi must have wondered what was going on. The apostle Paul was locked up in prison, they had no idea if Paul would survive or not. What’s worse they wondered how this would all effect them. The apostle was in prison facing the possibility of a death penalty. Would people even bother listening to the gospel if their best-known and most eloquent supporter – St. Paul – was a prisoner of the state? It seemed the only sure thing was that the Christian church was on the “outs”.
The truth is that Paul’s imprisonment actually became a tool in God’s hands. God worked through Paul’s stay in Rome to advance the gospel. The Palace Guard was specifically assigned to guard Paul. This was a detachment of elite imperial troops. They served as the emperor’s bodyguard. As Paul awaited his trial in Rome, he became acquainted with many of the soldiers of the palace guard. These soldiers began to realize that Paul was no ordinary prisoner, and certainly not a criminal. It became clear that Paul was simply a prisoner because of his connection to Jesus Christ. His only crime was that he proclaimed the gospel.
The guard members spoke about Paul’s case with each other, with their families, and with others in Rome. As a result, the gospel of Christ was being shared. Paul’s case became “front page news.” It was the talk of Rome.
Paul realized something as he sat in prison. He could have felt sorry for himself, doubted God’s love and guidance, or he could have taken advantage of the opportunity to make a friend and share the name of Jesus. Paul realized he had a sure thing. And he knew God had given it to him. St. Paul trusted that the Lord would provide for all of his needs in life. It’s as he wrote to the Romans 8:28 “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
The apostle Paul lists the reason he had this opportunity to speak boldly, even in the face of uncertainty and danger: “For I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.” Did you catch the reason? Paul admits that his boldness was the result of the Philippians who prayed for him. They prayed that God would give Paul the strength and boldness to take advantage of opportunity to share Jesus, even though he was in chains. The reason they prayed was because they trusted the Holy Spirit would grant a sure thing; that he would give Paul the words needed to share the name of Jesus with those who imprisoned him. The Spirit was using Paul to glorify Christ.
It’s fairly certain that you won’t ever be thrown in prison because you’re a Christian, but God promises us a sure thing. The sure thing is that he will give us opportunities to share our faith with people in our lives. That means the Lord might even put us in unsavory places to accomplish his goal. He might put you in line at the unemployment office, so that you might talk with someone there who needs the hope of Christ. He might put you in the hospital because a nurse, a doctor, or a fellow-patient could benefit from your confidence in Jesus as your Savior. The Lord might put a co-worker in your office that loudly proclaims his unbelief in God, just so you have an opportunity to give a reason for the hope you have.
Too often we’re tempted to doubt God and wonder if he knows what’s best for our lives. We might wonder why God allows sickness, unemployment, or a family crisis to enter our lives. Yet, God tells us exactly why these things often happen – it’s his way to give us a sure thing because that is his way of answering prayers. You may be struggling with a problem or crisis in your life because that’s God’s answer to your prayers. If you’ve ever prayed for patience, you know that God will often answer that prayer by giving you an illness, a troubled child, or some other challenge to cultivate patience. Just think how God answers our prayers on behalf of each other! The Lord may lead us to face a tough situation – unemployment, hospital stay, or death in the family – as a chance for us to pray for one another. And in this way we rally around each other and build up the unity of the Spirit.
That’s why Paul urges us to stand firm in the Spirit. He says, “I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of gospel.” “Stand firm in one spirit” is actually an athletic phrase. Paul uses athletic phrases from time to time in his writings. He often speaks of the Christian life as running a race. "Stand firm" is an athletic term that creates the image of a defensive stance. Like the goalie in soccer, who has to stand firm to prevent the opponent from scoring a point, the Christian must stand firm in the face of conflict or adversity. And we are to stand firm together. Enjoy the fellowship we share as members of God’s family. I have heard some people make statements such as, “I don’t have to go to church to be a Christian. I can worship God alone on the beach or in the mountains.” Well, that is true. We can worship God alone, and I hope we all do that from time to time. But that is not all that there is to being a Christian. Being a Christian also means sticking together, not just worshipping together, but also sticking together even in conflict and trouble; praying for each other and offering to help one another to remain strong in Christ. So, stand firm and know that God will provide a sure thing!
2) In Death
This applies even to the other aspect of Paul’s argument. He says, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet, what shall I choose? I do not know!” St. Paul wasn’t sure what would happen whether he would be released from prison or put to death. Yet, that didn’t matter. In the end, he trusted that God would provide a sure thing. Paul knew he was a new creation by God’s grace. In baptism he had put on Christ. He lived everyday in the knowledge of forgiveness – his sins were covered with Jesus’ blood. St. Paul drew his strength for daily living from Christ Jesus. His constant desire was to know Jesus more deeply and to serve him more completely.
If our lives are rooted in Christ, then we’ll share the apostle’s view on death. It’s true that we all love this life with its blessings and opportunities, but we will look forward to heaven as flawless joy – a place where we can worship and serve God perfectly. It’s a matter of focus. And it doesn’t involve focus on ourselves, but on what God desires. Even if the apostle Paul made it out of prison he was going to continue to give himself away for others. His vision was focused on others, not himself. Self-focused people have the most difficult time letting go of this life.
Howard Hughes is an example of this. He never gave himself to a cause bigger than himself, and his death reflected it. Howard Hughes was worth 2.5 billion dollars at his death, he was the richest man in the United States. Yet, he died alone.
Not a single acquaintance or relative mourned his death. The only honor he received was a moment of silence in his Las Vegas casinos. Time magazine put it this way: "Howard Hughes’ death was commemorated in Las Vegas by a minute of silence. Casinos fell silent. Housewives stood uncomfortable clutching their paper cups full of coins at the slot machines, the blackjack games paused, and at the crap tables the stickmen cradled the dice in the crook of their wooden wands. Then a pit boss looked at his watch, leaned forward and whispered, "O.K., roll the dice. He’s had his minute." Time Magazine, Dec. 13, 1976.
Too often we fear death because we’re too focused on ourselves. When we focus on ourselves, we take our eyes off of God. And our faith suffers. We are led to doubt that God has a sure thing in mind for us. Yet, he does. Death is simply the doorstop Christ uses to prop open the gates of heaven. We don’t need to fear it. We can embrace it. And even in our death we can give God the glory and strengthen one another. I’ve had the chance to hear many people confess their trust in Jesus, even as death loomed over them. What a joy to know that a loved one is with Jesus – at rest without any pain or suffering.
There was a woman who had been diagnosed with cancer and had been given 3 months to live. Her doctor told her to start making preparations to die. So she contacted her pastor and had him come over to discuss things. She told him about the songs she wanted sung, what Scriptures lessons she’d like read. There was one more thing she wanted.
The woman explained, “I want to be buried with a fork in my right hand.” She explained, “In all my years of attending church dinners my favorite was when whoever was clearing the dishes would lean over and say ‘you can keep your fork.’ That was my favorite part because I knew something better was coming. It wouldn’t be Jell-O or pudding. It would be cake or pie; something with substance. So I want people to see me there in that casket with a fork in my hand and I want you to tell them, “Something better is coming, so keep your fork too. Trust in Jesus, even in the face of death.”
Whether we live or die, we have a sure thing. St. Paul believed that. He urged the Philippians to believe it. And by God’s grace, we believe that, too. We have a sure thing. It might not be the stock market, the bank account, or even the prospect of job security. The sun won’t always shine on our vacation. Our favorite sports team won’t always win. Yet, we have a sure thing in Christ. We will be faced with opportunity after opportunity to give God all the glory in this life and in the life to come. And that’s a sure thing! Amen.