In this series on the Lectionary readings for the Second Sunday of Advent, we have been following the life and ministry of John the Baptist and the message God was proclaiming through John: a huge roadwork project. What is that project? God wants us to repent, so that he might bring righteousness on the world. And that brings us to the fourth reading, Philippians 1:3-11, which explains what this means for us.
There we read Paul’s prayer for the Philippians, a writing which would have been 25 years or so after the events of John the Baptist’s ministry.
Very much like the church we heard about last week, in the city of Thessalonica, Paul had started a church in the city of Philippi, which like Thessalonica, is in modern-day Greece. But unlike modern-day Thessaloniki, which is a bustling city, Philippi is now just an archaeological site. In Paul’s day, it was another important city, however, not far down the road from Thessalonica. You can read about Paul’s visit there in Acts 16.
We learn in his prayer in Philippians 1 that Paul had great affection for his friends there. Take a look at Verses 3-5 and 7-8, and there we see Paul’s thankful and joyful prayer because of their partnership in the gospel. In verse 6 he expresses his confidence that God, who began good work in them, will carry it to completion. Sfter that encouragement, he concludes with some teaching and goals for them in verses 9-11. It is a prayer for four things:
First, that their love may abound more and more in depth of knowledge.
Second, that they would be able to discern what is best.
Third, that they would be pure and blameless until the day of Christ.
Fourth, that they would be filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Christ.
The anchoring phrase of these verses is that first phrase of Paul’s prayer: that their love may abound more and more in depth of knowledge. In the language Paul originally wrote this in, ancient Greek, this is a very vivid phrase. It carries the idea of an overflow of love that just keeps growing beyond what can be contained. What happens in that extremely loving atmosphere of a church family is that they will be able to discern what is best, and they will be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, which is the day of the second coming of Jesus. This is a love that knows no bounds, and a love that is getting to know one another more and more.
Paul is once again, like he was last week with the Thessalonian church, looking forward to second coming of Jesus, now teaching the Philippian Christians how to act in preparation for that day. They are to love one another with a growing, overflowing love, that is marked by knowing one another more and more.
That raises an interesting question: Is it possible to love someone who you barely know? You may be aware of them, but it cannot be said that you love them. Love requires knowledge. And knowledge boosts love. When they love like that, growing in their depth of knowledge for one another, Paul says, there will be residual blessings. They will be able to discern what is best, and they will be pure and blameless as they wait for Jesus to return. Love for one another ,then, is foundational for a church family.
Finally, take notice of last phrase of Paul’s prayer: “that they would be filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Christ.” This is the word that ties all our passages together: righteousness.
Paul wants the people to be filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus. From Malachi’s prophecy of the two messengers we learned about God’s desire for his people to be righteous. Then from Zechariah’s psalm in Luke 1, we heard Zechariah, the father of the first messenger, talk about God’s plan for rescuing his people so that we could serve him in righteousness all our days. Next we looked at the ministry of Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist, who fulfilled the role of the first messenger, calling people to repentance and lives of righteousness. Now we conclude with Paul teaching the people how this righteousness flows from Jesus. Paul will teach in many passages that we do not have a righteousness of our own, but instead we can only accept the gracious gift of Jesus giving his righteousness to us, at one point describing it like putting on the clothing of righteousness.
After we take on Jesus’ righteousness, waiting for Jesus to return, we are called to lives of love, demonstrating the righteousness that Jesus came to give to us. That is the amazing gift of Malachi’s second messenger, who is God himself, that he wants to cleanse us of our unrighteousness and give us his!
What is this righteousness? I mentioned that it is very much connected to the idea of justice, of making things right, flowing from a heart of love.
As we wait, then, for Jesus to return, we are to be a people so filled with love, abounding with love, that we work to make things right in our lives, in our relationships, and in the world around us. That is the fruit of righteousness. That is how we live and work and prepare for Jesus to return. That is the work of clearing the debris, making straight the crooked paths, smoothing the hills and filling the valleys. By loving one another with so much abundance, we are bringing justice and righteousness to the world.
To this concept of justice, I think of the recent report given at our local ministerium about homelessness in our school district, Conestoga Valley. It is rampant. CV has more homeless students in our school district than any other in the county except for the school district of Lancaster. This is why we support CVCCS and the Ministerium and Homes of Hope. I encourage you to consider what role you can play, especially at Christmas, no matter where you live. Get to know your community. Can you find any evidence of injustice?
Addressing injustice in our communities is just one example of how we can bring justice and righteousness and prepare the way for the return of the King. Think about that return of the King. What will he see when he arrives? Just like the dignitaries that visit Jamaica, will Jesus find a road with potholes and debris, or will he find a road that is paved and cared for? I’m not talking about actual roads, in case you were wondering! I’m talking first and foremost about his church, but also all people, society, and culture. Will Jesus find broken relationships, people stuck in addictions, ravaged by injustice? Will he see his church striving to love and to bring righteousness to the world?