Pentecost 17 – Series A – Proper 21 (October 1, 2017)
“Shine Like Stars” (Philippians 2.1-4, 14-18)
If you visit Hollywood, California, you’ll see a lot of stars there … if not in person, then certainly on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. All along Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, you’ll see these big inlaid stars in the sidewalk under your feet as you stroll along. On those stars are the names of prominent people in the entertainment industry.
But what makes someone a “star”? They’re usually an actor or musician who is readily recognizable to most people.
Some of these stars are like huge suns. Bright. Attractive. They have a warm glow about them. On the other hand, one might be tempted to describe some of them as giant balls of gas, especially when they go on and on at awards ceremonies, touting their latest political agenda.
Some are like shooting stars. Meteors. Streaking across the sky, bright and spectacular, but only for a moment, quickly flaming and fizzling out.
Some are like distant stars in the sky. They’ve been around a long time. They are consistently sparkly. No matter when they show up, they never disappoint.
But being a star doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with your character. It just means you are a good actor. You have the looks for the part. You have a good agent who gets you good roles (and you have the money to pay that agent). You’re in the right place at the right time.
St. Paul tells the believers in Philippi that they “shine as lights in the world.” They “shine like stars” – as some translations have it, since the word “lights” here refers to the heavenly bodies in the sky. Paul writes, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life” (Phil. 2:14-16).
“Shine as lights.” “Shine like stars.” This has everything to do with your character and behavior. In the world – and in the human heart – there is darkness, evil, corruption, hopelessness, hatred, dread, and despair. Paul is using language similar to Deuteronomy 32:5 where the children of Israel, during their wilderness wanderings, are described this way: “A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he. They have dealt corruptly with him; they are no longer his children because they are blemished; they are a crooked and twisted generation” (Deut. 32:5). The Israelites also did their fair share of grumbling and disputing. They complained to Moses and to God about their circumstances in the desert. Ezekiel has them grumbling against God, saying “The way of the Lord is not just” (Ezek. 18:25). And there must have been some grumbling and disputing going on in the church at Philippi for Paul to bring this up … and, in fact, in chapter 4:2 he singles two women out: “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord” (Phil. 4:2). What were they disagreeing about? We don’t know. Whatever it was, it was serious enough for Paul to bring it up in his letter.
Like the Israelites … like the Philippians … we don’t always act very star-like. Our sinful hearts often obscure the light rather than shine it. Some people can be a veritable black hole, sucking the light and life away from others and out of a congregation because of the gigantic gravitational pull of one’s negativity, criticism, gossip, etc.
Into this darkness, Jesus shines his light. A star appeared in the sky to direct the Wise Men to him. What did they find? Not a newborn prince, but a humble child in the meekest of circumstances. The verses omitted between the paragraphs of our text today tell us how Jesus humbled himself: “though he was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant being born in the likeness of men. And being in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:6-11). Jesus entered this world in humility. After thirty years of obscurity, he had what you might call a meteoric rise to fame … a short three-year ministry that just as quickly flamed out, ending in disgrace at the cross. But it was there that he bore our disgrace, our shame, our guilt. In his resurrection and ascension, he is now the brightest and best star who fills the universe with his love and forgiveness … who burns away all our sin and makes us innocent and blameless in his sight … who shines the light of faith in our hearts so we can trust in him and receive his forgiveness and eternal life.
Jesus said “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). And he tells his followers, “You are the light of the world” (Matt 5:14). We shine because we reflect the light of Christ. Note how Paul says, “You shine.” He doesn’t say, “you should” … “you must” … “you need to shine.” He simply says, “You shine.” It’s what we do as God’s baptized people. That reminds me of those recent GEICO commercials with the catch phrase, “It’s what you do.” One of these ads has Prince Charming kissing Sleeping Beauty, but she doesn’t wake up. After he leaves, she carefully opens her eyes, sits up, says, “I thought he’d never leave,” turns the TV on with the remote, and proceeds to watch her favorite show. The announcer says, “If you want someone to leave you alone, you pretend like you’re sleeping. It’s what you do. If you want to save 15% or more on car insurance, you switch to GEICO. It’s what you do.”
If you’re a baptized believer in Christ, you shine as a light in the world, holding fast the word of life. It’s what you do. Because in Christ Jesus, there is encouragement and consolation. There is comfort from his love and the love we have for each other. We participate in the Spirit, that is, we are intimately connected to God and one another through the Holy Spirit and the faith that has been given to us. In Christ Jesus, God’s people share deep affection and compassionate sympathy. We “do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
Paul is in prison as he writes this. He is fully expecting to be put to death. But he was not hopeless nor despairing. He still has reason to rejoice. “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.” What he’s referring to is the way wine was poured out with certain sacrifices in those days. Both Jews and pagans did this, so the Philippians would be familiar with the practice. Paul sees his life as a sacrifice of sorts in the interest of the faith of the Philippians. Therefore, he encourages the Philippians to rejoice with him. And to make his joy complete, he urges the Philippians to be unified in their confession of faith: “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Unity in Christ is closely connected to unity in truth. And that unity is to be confessed and made clear. Therefore, Paul tells the Philippians – and the Church of all time and places – to “shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life.” By the way, that phrase “hold fast” can also be translated “hold forth” or “hold out.” And really, both ideas are vital. Hold fast to and hold out the word of life. Hold fast to it. Hang on to it. Cling to it. Trust in it. Your eternal life depends on it. And hold it out. Don’t keep it to yourself. Proclaim it. Deliver the precious, forgiving, saving message of the Gospel to the world through your mouth, through your prayers, and through your offerings which support mission work here and around the world.
Shine like stars. Not like a meteor, which streaks across the sky but quickly fizzles out. Nor should you be like a big ball of gas, proudly touting your own opinions and acting as if you are the center of the solar system, with everyone else revolving around you. No. Shine like those stars that fill the night sky, consistent, faithful, dependable … yet never outshining the sun who is at the center of our galaxy, the one around whom everything truly does revolve … the blameless and innocent Lamb slain for you, the one who humbled himself for you, the one whose blood was poured out for you, the one whose blood we partake of today, the one in whom we are glad and rejoice.