Encourage Like Paul!

“Encourage Like Paul!” – August 2, 2020

Phil 1-3 thank God words

Philippians 1:3-11 (1:3-6)

Do you remember a time when someone encouraged you? I mean, when you were feeling downhearted or down in the dumps, and a friend or relative gave you a real, sincere word of encouragement? I am afraid to say that my words of encouragement often do not measure up when compared to this encouraging letter Paul wrote to his Philippian friends. Paul really meant what he said in this letter to Philippi – every word!

We are starting a sermon series on the letter to the church in Philippi this week. This letter is one of the most heartwarming and personal letters written in the New Testament. Philippians is one of my favorite Bible books, too.

Just to remind us all, the apostle Paul traveled around for years. As an itinerant preacher and missionary, he was often on the move. Although, Paul did settle down from time to time, and stay in particular towns for a number of months. Like, right here, in Philippi.

`           I know today we might be encouraged by a family member over the telephone, or by a co-worker in a Zoom meeting, or by a friend through email or Instagram. But in the apostle Paul’s day, there were only two choices: either face to face, in a personal encounter, or in written form. Paul was far away from his friends and former parishioners, so he used a letter.  

Paul’s affection and care for his Philippian friends went much deeper than a nodding acquaintance, such as we might see in casual, continued encounters like in line at a grocery store, walking in the neighborhood, or in a polite exchange at the office.

Let’s look at exactly what Paul said here. This was a thank-you letter for a financial gift sent by the Philippian church. Since Paul was in prison, he was doubly thankful for the gift! I suspect it provided for his food, clothing and other needs while he was locked up. Let me remind people that if a prisoner’s friends or relatives did not supply these necessities, the prisoner was sadly out of luck. The prison did not supply anything. At least, not for free.

So, you and I might think this was a sad time and puzzling situation for Paul to have positive words to say about anything – much less to send such a positive, uplifting letter to his faraway friends in thanks for their financial gift.

Paul is fairly bubbling over with gratitude and thankfulness as he begins this letter. I wanted us to especially notice the 3rd verse. Paul thanks God every time he remembers his friends in Philippi. Do you have friends you can say that about? Do you or I have even one or two friends who are so special to us that we remember them to God with such warmth and excitement? What a marvelous thing to say about a friend. A good friend. Even, a best friend.

Verse 4 tells us that Paul always – always prays with joy when he prays for these special friends from Philippi. This is the first of many times Paul uses to word “joy” in this letter. He uses either the noun “joy” or the verb “rejoice” fourteen times! When I first took the course Bible Study Methods decades ago in bible college, we were told that if a passage or a book of the Bible repeated something, there was a really good reason for it. I believe, and commentators and Bible scholars agree, the apostle Paul means joy to be an overarching theme in this letter.

And, verse 5 tells what fills Paul with such joy: the Philippians not only were supporting Paul in prayer, but they also supported him in the partnership of the Gospel. They shared the Good News of Christ, too! That really filled the apostle Paul with joy.

How do you feel when you are especially encouraged and affirmed? What if that someone who encourages you is someone very special? Someone who means a whole lot to you? Doesn’t that make that encouragement and appreciation even more meaningful?

Let’s imagine. Close your eyes, if that helps you imagine. You and I are among this group of believers in Philippi, and we have just received this letter from our Pastor Paul in prison. Let’s listen again to these three verses: “I thank my God for you every time I think of you; and every time I pray for you all, I pray with joy because of the way in which you have helped me in the work of the gospel from the very first day until now.”

Paul is thankful for the money his friends sent. But, I hear these words saying how incredibly thankful and grateful Paul is for the caring and love of these people, friends from far away. Have you ever been encouraged and affirmed, with these amazing words?

I am reminded of when I taught piano lessons, some years ago, before I started seminary and several years into it. I taught for about ten years. I remember one student in particular. Her parents were going through a nasty divorce that lasted for many months. I taught this girl for a whole year. Her mother wanted her to continue with lessons until the end of the school year, as a stabilizing factor, because she saw how encouraging I was to her daughter in each lesson. And, I really tried to be a caring encourager for a troubled time in this girl’s life.

We all have had teachers, coaches or mentors in our past. Who has taught you about the Christian faith? Who has mentored you along the way, and encouraged you to become a more faithful believer? Do you have an apostle Paul in your life? Or, perhaps an encouraging and faithful Barnabas, one of Paul’s companions? Or, maybe an excited and eager John Mark, another companion of Paul? [1]

Whatever kind of teacher, coach or mentor in faith you have had, praise God for this beloved person. Thank the Lord for the impact this dear one has made on your life, and on mine. And, perhaps you can be that person who has a lasting impact on someone else. Please God, may it be today!

[1] http://www.word-sunday.com/Files/c/2Advent-c/SR-2Advent-c.html

“A Letter from a Mentor,” Larry Broding’s Word-Sunday.Com: A Catholic Resource for This Sunday’s Gospel. Adult Study, Children’s Story, Family Activity, Support Materials.


(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!


The Word Became Flesh

“The Word Became Flesh”


John 1:14 – December 25, 2016

Words, words, words, words!! Words of every kind, of every description. Words that tell, words that show, words that praise, words that criticize. Words separate and draw together. Words fill people with joy and peace as well as with suspicion and animosity. Words have power. Whether insightful words or divisive words, encouraging words or cajoling words, stirring words or capitulating words, words have the ability to shake emotions and to inflame passions for good or for evil.

How do people use words and language, anyway? People speaking a common language need to agree upon the sense of what they say. It helps to be bound together by social convention as well as language rules of practice and use. In fact, language provides the structure of our common experience, understanding and perspectives. But I don’t want to get all high-falutin’ and theoretical. I want to bring this home to where we live.

We all use language. Every day. In conversation at home, or on the telephone, or at work. Reading a newspaper or writing e-mail. Watching television or giving a sermon. All of these uses of language use words. Words communicate meaning, ideas, stories. Each one of us has a personal story, of what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now. Each story is individual and unique. Our stories are communicated using words and language, and each individual has a creative, unique way to tell his or her story.

The story of an individual’s own personal life makes sense because it is part of a larger story, the Story that has the story of Jesus Christ at its center. The Story of the Baby in Bethlehem that is so familiar to so many. It is a story of God’s initiative which calls for my gratitude and response, a Story some theologians have called ‘the history of salvation.’ It is the Story set forth in the Word of God that attracts, crossing boundaries and transcending lines of race, class, culture and age.

Our gospel text for today, the first verses of the Gospel of John, is a restatement of an old theme. Remember Genesis 1:1? “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Most scholars today believe the apostle John was thinking of that introduction to the Greatest Story ever told when he wrote his own portion of it. John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word.” John reframed that Story, and gave it a new look from a different perspective.

In John, Chapter 1, we have God, the creative God who made heaven and earth. The almighty God wanted to communicate with us puny, limited human beings. But how was God supposed to communicate His Story?

I can remember when my children were younger, in first and second grades. Sometimes they would need help with their homework at night. Years before, I had taken several courses of math in college . . . college algebra, trigonometry, analytical geometry. But, after considering more advanced mathematical ideas, how was I supposed to explain simple addition and subtraction to my young children in language they would understand?

That’s the way I look at God’s problem sometimes. It’s sort of like God, able to do the most advanced mathematics possible—in God’s head!!—and God needed to be able to explain the simplest addition and subtraction problems to us ordinary, simple-minded human beings.

There was another problem, as if the simple-mindedness of humanity wasn’t enough. That problem was (and is!)  sin. Funny thing, how sin keeps cropping up in our lives and getting in the way. Sin divides people from one another as well as from God. Sin isolates and forces apart. Sin happens on a horizontal plane with other people as well as on a vertical plane with God. And sin causes humanity to walk in darkness and to run from God’s presence.

So here we have a loving God, a God of light, a God who wants so much to communicate with us sinful human beings. But how was God supposed to communicate God’s Story?

            The Gospel of John tells us how. In the beginning was the Word. The Word was God. The Word is God. Jesus is the Word. John 1:14 says that the Word, Jesus, became fleshand . . . the Word dwelt among us.

Let’s look at this verse more closely. The Word became flesh. The Greek word for “flesh” is sarx, the same word that the apostle Paul uses when he talks about the flesh. Except that Paul meant sinful flesh, and Jesus as God incarnate had sin-less flesh.

Think about it: the whole idea of God becoming a helpless baby, a human being, able to feel cold and heat, able to be hungry and thirsty, with blood and bones and a nervous system and a digestive system. So staggering was this idea that some of the people in John’s day could not believe it. God? the creative God who made heaven and earth? Coming to earth as a helpless, human baby? No way!!

And, that’s not all!! Not only did this Creator God make Himself appear in creation so that our eyes could see Him, this almighty God, after making Himself flesh and blood, has the crazy idea of dwelling among people. Becoming one of us limited human beings, sharing our food and living in our midst. Jesus became fully man. He didn’t just seem to be a man, and pretend to be human. He really and truly became man, living with us as one of us.

What a way for the almighty, eternal, creative God to communicate to us in a way that we limited human beings might possibly understand. God wanted humanity to understand His Story of good news, the Bible, but God also wanted humanity to understand His Word made flesh, the one called Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus (the Word incarnate) is the central principle of Scripture as well as the central character of the Greatest Story ever told. Reformed believers have throughout the centuries been finding new ways to confess their faith, using the fallible, limited resources of language that have been handed down to humanity throughout the generations. God helps us understand the Greatest Story ever told, and there is nothing God wants more than for us to want to understand His Story better and better.

A good many years ago, a bible translator went to a remote, mountainous region in the interior of Africa. He worked hard at turning an obscure oral language into a written language, which involved decoding the language, writing a grammar, learning extensive vocabulary, and finally translating a portion of the Bible into the heart language of that particular people-group.

After several years of intense work and language preparation, when he felt he was ready, the missionary made his first presentation of the Story of Jesus to a group of headmen from the tribe. He was surprised at their response, which was unlike any he had ever had before in all his years of being a missionary and telling people the Story of Jesus. The group of men just sat agthere in silence, and then the chief came forward.

The chief grasped the missionary’s hands and, with tears in his eyes, thanked him for coming to tell them the Story of Jesus. “This Story of good news is the one my people have waited for, all their lives long!!” And then came the clincher: the chief asked, “Your tribe has had this Story for many, many years. What took you so long to tell us?”

Communicating the Story of Jesus has power! Awesome power! This is a Story that can change people’s lives for eternity. Telling the Story in someone’s heart language is one of the best ways to communicate how much God loves us.

When Jesus came to this earth, He spoke the language of the people of His region, and He communicated ideas in ways people could understand. Yes, He was the Word become flesh, and yes, He showed us how to live this life that we have to live. Jesus, in the words of the Barmen Declaration, “the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.” [1]

Praise God that God sent the Son Jesus into this world, the Word incarnate, the Word that became a helpless baby in Bethlehem. Praise God that God has given us the right to repair that broken relationship with us, and to be called the children of God. And praise God that God loved us so much that—as John 3:16 says—God gave His only begotten Son on our behalf, to reconcile us to God for eternity.

Gloria in excelsis Deo.


[1] 8.11, The Barmen Declaration, The Book of Confessions, (Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Distribution Services, 2014) 283.


(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)