WELCOME to this post for divine worship at Digby Baptist Church. Full service details are available in the Bulletin, here on the website.
SERMON – Numbers: Sharing God’s Grace. Numbers. Numbers are interesting. One, two, three. One hundred. 3.14159. Six six six. A billion, a trillion, a googol. I’m surprised at how I enjoy watching math videos on Youtube, even though all the math how-to I learned forty years ago is now forgotten.
Numbers. Numbers are powerful. Numbers of people. A family, a community, a church, a cultural group, a nation. Digby Baptist is, officially, a couple hundred people. Digby town is a couple or 3 thousand. Amherst is ten thousand.
Numbers. Numbers is important. The Biblical book called Numbers. It tells more of the story of the ancient Children of Israel, in the wilderness, led by Moses. The book begins and ends with a census; hence the name of the text, ‘Numbers.’
In chapter eleven we have this story, about a number of leaders who were chosen to help Moses – seventy elders. Filled with the Spirit, they were. But a couple of fellows were not with the rest, yet still they prophesied, spirit- filled. A tattle tale told on them, to Moses. Moses’ second- in-command says, ‘yeah, you tell them, Moses!’ But what does Moses say? “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”
This is what I want to explore today: the ministry of a number of people, the sharing of the grace of God. So let us turn to this letter of joy, called Philippians.
We read someone else’s mail, or so it might seem. The apostle Paul wrote a letter to his Christian friends in the town of Phillipi. Paul is imprisoned. But his letter is beautiful. And it is so special and inspired it has been saved for generations to read and ponder, and meet God in these pages. Let’s walk through these words, written to a number of people.
The start of his letter: 3 I thank my God for every remembrance of you, 4 always in every one of my prayers for all of you, praying with joy 5 for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.
There is great joy over these people, who are partners in the gospel. The Gospel. What is the gospel? There is so much to say, even this preacher does not know where to start. This good news is, in one sense, simply the story of Jesus. Along with His story, is the confidence that this story reaches beyond its time, even to us, and makes life different, better, new, for us. Christ is our centre.
In my teenage years I was in the Christian Service Brigade, rather like scouting but overtly Christian, with Bible memorization and prayer and so on. In my twenties, the CSB leaders in Middleton had a reunion for all the boys and leaders who had been in the Brigade. They even had a punch bowl with Tang in it, complete with spruce needles floating, just like on our camping trips! I always remember what the key leader, John Tufts, said about that kind of youth ministry. It was very simple. He said, to be successful it must have two elements. It has to be fun, and it has to be Christ-centred.
We are a local Church, a number of people who should be connected because this is Christ-centred. I always look for that connection. You too; remember it.
In Philippians 1 Paul has great joy over these people, this number of people, this group. These ones, long ago, were partners with Paul in this new movement, the Jesus movement, the Way of Jesus. It was not about a bunch of individuals. They were a group, a fellowship, a team.
Next, Paul wrote, 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Jesus Christ. This is one of those Bible verses that gets brought out and quoted often, to encourage and give hope and inspire. But it may or may not apply to any group of us today. Sure, I might have confidence that the good God started to do among you will get finished. Or I might not have confidence that things will be finished.
I have been thinking a lot and a lot and A LOT about what good we have done together over the past eight years. Much of it is still hidden from my eyes, somehow. That’s probably good for me and my ego: it’ll help me be slightly humble.
I do see things like… an opening of our hearts and a relaxing of former strictness. I see it in the ways you know how to include people who, years ago, might have been frowned upon for their behaviour, their looks, their differences of opinion, or their religious history. I like to think the Master will do even more with you, Digby Baptist, to love and include people, with the power and authority of Jesus. You know the very different sorts of folks Christ spent His quality time with!
Paul is so personal in this letter, of course. 7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because I hold you in my heart… He clearly had spent time with them, in their town, and was keeping in touch, now that he had been arrested and was no longer a free man. He knew what God would do with them because he knew them well.
I know you well, thanks to our eight years together. I will certainly hold you in my heart. So many of you are generous at saying that and promising that. On Monday, at the Bible Study Group, Bonnie recited a freshly composed ‘Ode to Jeff’ which was fun but also touching. (I have a lyric ready for you that I’ll present at the reception next week.) Last Sunday, Dianne presented me and Sharon with other gifts of creativity: not one beautiful quilt but two! And from a few people already we’ve been given overly generous cash donations, with words of thanks. Etc.
It is quite fitting that we, in congregations, often speak of being ‘church family.’ We are given, by Creator, the work of holding one another in our hearts.
I was a bit upset last week when I visited a shut-in I know (for the last time) and she seemed to think I had been mistreated while here and not appreciated – by Church people! I’m not sure how she got that idea; I think she is just a bit out of touch and perhaps slightly confused. I tried to listen well, and then quietly say I did not feel badly used here, but cared for and supported.
Next in Paul’s sentences we get to the title of my sermon: for all of you are my partners in God’s grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. Partners in God’s Grace; sharers in God’s grace.
I keep saying my way of explaining grace. I don’t limit it to ‘getting something good we don’t deserve.’ That can sometimes be true. Mostly, I say GRACE is something that happens that is above and beyond what we could have done. Grace is: more good appears than we could come up with. There is a supply of goodness and blessings that is bigger than us, even all of us people put together.
This was needed for Paul and his friends, while he was imprisoned. How could they be partners in the faith with a setback like that? Grace. Today, how can we be partners in the Faith with the limitations of a pandemic, and all the wrecking of plans and togetherness? Grace. More is possible with God than we can cook up on our own. Yes!
In the next line Paul is back to his deep friendship with these people. 8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the tender affection of Christ Jesus.
You are probably like me; you long for people in a few ways. You long to see someone who is away from you; you long to be together. We’ve had a lot of that. I’m going to feel that in the months ahead, when I am seldom back in Digby. It will be a bit like the longing I’ve had for a few months to have Doug still alive, and Mike. Or how I’ve wished I still had in pew fellowship Barb and Nancee and Linda, and others.
We also long for people… to make progress. You know, to make a good decision and act on it, to be healed from some serious problem, to be reconciled to someone. We long for good things to happen to one another.
Twenty some years ago I was dating a woman in the town where I lived. One signal that she was not the right one for me was the way she had a bad attitude about some people. She had a coworker I knew, and that coworker had something really nice happen. My friend turned up her nose, and said that woman didn’t deserve what she got. I couldn’t believe it! We are here to long for the best for other people. (Not to mention pray for our enemies.) I’ve been so happy to see compassion in you all.
Speaking of this, the finale of our reading today was: 9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what really matters, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
Dear Church, we are a support group for our progress. I think my main pastoral focus is personal progress – in you. I don’t focus on ‘getting people saved,’ though that is a definite step of personal progress a lot of people could use! I don’t focus on recruiting people into the Church, though I know this is on my mind a lot, probably for selfish reasons. I am concerned and curious about the spiritual growth of humans, mainly the ones I know and care for. How do you learn something important? How do you make a personal change? How do you take your next best step?
A lot of my pondering this is about God, what God actually does with you. How does the Spirit intervene? When does what we, the Church, do make a real difference in people’s lives? That is the question for our day and age.
We share God’s grace. We share what Jesus does to transform us. We share the message that this is real today.
Let us pray. Spirit of truth, may the lessons of the scripture grow our faith and action. May the distractions be forgotten.
As we worship together, we dedicate the offerings we have brought or sent in, for the good work we do together. Inspire us to give well, Holy God, and to spend our resources in excellent ways.
God of Love, as we hold one another in our hearts, we pray for healing and help for many today. We ask for guidance and courage along life’s pathway. We seek from You a touch of courage and a release from all the fears that keep people isolated and distant. And we bless our Pulpit Committee in the searching work they are undertaking for the fellowship.
Risen Christ, this past week was like many – there were many deaths as well as times to gather and give thanks. With resurrection hope, comfort all who mourn, bless those who are facing death, and also be near those who walk with those at the end of life.
God of the Universe, our prayers are for the whole world, held in Your hands. We ask for your steadfastness and strength in: the alarming high inflation rate in many nations.
the concerns of an outbreak of wild polio in Mozambique.
the shortage of infant formula in the United States brought on in part by faulty production methods resulting in contamination and infant deaths.
the damage to property and loss of life as Uruguay has been hit by the strong winds and high waves of a subtropical cyclone.
the people of Iraq who are suffering under the eighth sandstorm to engulf the country since mid-April. We pray for the countries of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria and Bahrain who are suffering these intense and more frequent storms.
and the sufferings of the pandemic, wars, famine and impoverishment around our world. Even the news of monkeypox spreading is one more drop in the bucket of anxiety: let there be grace and serenity, we pray.
Now, as Richard of Chichester prayed: Thanks be to thee, my Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits thou hast given me, for all the pains and insults thou hast borne for me. O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother, may I know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly, day by day. AMEN.