December 7, 2003

Annabelle phoned me on Saturday morning this week to let me know that she was well enough that she was planning to be here for worship this morning. In the course of our conversation about the service, she asked me, “How’s the sermon going?” And I responded with something like, “It’s a work in progress.” It had begun more than a week before when I’d sat down in my new study here at the church, and opened up my bible to the lectionary readings for Advent II, Year C, and read the scripture texts for my first Sunday here at St. Andrew’s.

That day I had jotted down some notes about the readings – things that struck me right off… the music of Handel’s Messiah that came to mind as I heard the words from the prophet Malachi … the hopeful sound of Zechariah’s song for the life of his son John, and for the Saviour whose way his son would prepare. And then there was the image of the apostle Paul, sitting in a dark jail cell, tired and lonely, and almost losing hope for his own future… but praying fervently for the churches that he had started, remembering the faithful Christians in Philippi. How they had grown in faith and numbers during his time with them! Despite his own desperate circumstances, Paul must have just glowed at the thought of the Philippians. And then he might have knelt and prayed… prayed that their faith would grow even stronger, even if he himself could never make it back to be with them again.

But these were just my first thoughts, scribbled on a pad of paper, over a week before sermon time. And in between, a few other things got in the way of finishing the work. Several times during the week, I had time to make a few more notes, to choose a direction, and even to make an outline. But when Saturday morning arrived, it was still a “work in progress,” begun in faith with some good ideas, I think, but living in hope that God would provide the time, the energy, the clarity of thinking, and the inspiration to bring it to completion.

The apostle Paul founded the Christian church in Philippi some time around the year 50, and when he had to leave the Philippians and go on to other places, he must have felt that there was much more work to be done among them. Compared to some of the other churches that Paul had started up, the Philippians sounded like a real blessing to work with…

They did what Paul asked them. They didn’t have factions among them. And they didn’t have any major issues that Paul needed to straighten out. Paul writes in his letter to them:

“I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.”

It was a letter of encouragement that Paul wrote to the Philippians from his jail cell in Rome. And though the Philippian Church was doing well, Paul still managed to write four chapters-worth of advice and instruction to them. He told them to stand firm in their faith and to live their lives in a way that was worthy of the Gospel. He encouraged them not to be intimidated by the many people who would disagree with them. He warned them to avoid becoming conceited and to humble themselves as Christ did. He told them not to complain or to argue with each other. He reminded them to hold fast to the word of life and to rejoice and be glad in spite of their suffering. He told them not to worry, but to pray with thanksgiving to God. And he told them to keep on doing the things that they had learned, and received, and heard, and seen in him.

Most of all, Paul explained to the Philippian Christians, that God was still at work in them. They were a pretty good Christian community. They were pretty good Christians, and Paul was certainly proud of them. But God was still at work in them. They were “works in progress,” and Paul was sure that even in his absence, God would keep on working in the lives of the Philippians, helping them to live more and more like Christ. Paul wrote:

“I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

The Philippians were “works in progress” but works that God had started, works that would be completed. They could be confident in that.

Today, I invite you to think back to a time when our God began a good work in you. Perhaps it was the day of your baptism. Perhaps it was your childhood Sunday school classes, or a parent or grandparent who read you bible stories and told you about the love of Jesus. Perhaps it was the words of a preacher, or the encouragement of a friend, or an experience at a youth retreat, or a quiet moment of prayer. Perhaps it was the fact that you got out of bed this morning and decided to come to church. However it happened, I want you to remember today that the one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion.

For a few among us today, this is (in a sense) a day of completion. As this group of women and men have affirmed their faith in Christ and become members of this congregation, God has brought to a kind of completion, all the work that has been done in them to this point. What began so many months or years ago in each one of their lives has been completed today as they affirmed their faith in Christ and made a commitment to this Christian community. But it is also just the beginning of their journeys of faith.

On Thursday night, I had the pleasure of picking up the membership class where Annabelle had left off a few weeks ago. And after cramming the material for sessions 4 & 5 into one evening, what struck me was how much there is to learn about our faith – how many questions we can have – how obvious it is that none of us have got everything figured out about God, or Christ, or our place in the world. What became obvious to me was that we’re all “works in progress”, the new members, the long-time members, the session members, and even the ministers.

Today I want to invite our new members, and all the rest of you too, to remember your baptism. Remember that God has claimed you as his own, and that God has begun a good work in you. And I want to encourage you to be confident, as Paul was, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion on the day of Jesus Christ.

Many years ago, when the world seemed to be spinning out of control, God sent prophets who announced that a Messiah would soon come to set things right again. Though God had created the world and its inhabitants and called them good, something had gone wrong over the years. The people had disobeyed God, refused to acknowledge God, and hurt one another in so many ways. People lived in slavery. People lived in poverty. People lived in war and strife. But those who believed the prophets’ message waited in hope and expectation. They waited for God’s work to be completed. They waited for the promised Saviour to come.

As Christians, we believe that the Saviour has come. Two thousand years ago, God’s work was being done in a tiny, helpless child. God’s work was being done in an outspoken, energetic young man. God’s work was being done in a dynamic preacher and healer, and in an innocent man condemned to death. We believe that God’s work was being done in the one who offered his whole life for our sake, in the one who offered his body, like bread to sustain us, who offered his blood, like wine to quench our thirst.

And yet, here we are again this Advent, waiting for the world to be made right – for God’s work to be completed. The earth is still aching for a new birth. The world is still longing for peace and for justice. You see, we’re in the “in-between” time. The Reign of God (the Kingdom of God) has come to us in Jesus Christ, but its full impact hasn’t yet been felt throughout all of creation. The Reign of God is within us as we live our lives as God’s people. And yet, we are still “works in progress.” God has more to do with us yet. God has more to do with our church. God has more to do with our world.

And so we wait for Christ to come again. And so we prepare a way for the Lord, allowing God to work in us. And as we do, let us join our Lord at his table once again. Let us find our sustenance in the bread of life. Let us quench our thirst with the cup of joy. Let us gather round the table to be nourished by Christ, until the day when God’s work is complete and we feast with Christ in the Kingdom of God. Amen.