Advent 2c

Preached: December 6, 2009

A Christmas Prayer from the Christian Heart
Philippians 1:3-11

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The Word from God through which the Holy Spirit points us to Jesus' great compassion is Philippians 1

I thank my God in all my memory of you, always in my every petition for all of you joyfully petitioning regarding your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now, since I am convinced of this very thing, namely, that the One who began a good work in you will fully complete it up to the day of Christ Jesus -- even as it is right for me to be mindful of this on behalf of you all because I have you in my heart. All of you are my fellow sharers of grace both in my bonds and in the gospel's defense and confirmation. For God is my witness how I long for you all with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is what I pray that your love still more and more increase in knowledge and all insight so that you can test what is superior, in order that you may pure be and blameless on the day of Christ, having been filled with the righteous fruit that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:3-11)

This is the Word of our Lord.

Dear friends in Christ, fellow saints washed clean in the blood of our risen Savior:

Christmas is full of memories. The smell of pine and Christmas cookies. Family coming home, the warmth of a fire. Children's gleeful shouts, Christmas programs, presents, carols, falling snowflakes, the night in jail . . .

Well, hopefully that is not part of your Christmas memory. But that was part of Paul's memory of his time in Philippi. He and Silas had been stripped and severely beaten by the authorities. Bloodied and bruised, they spent half the night in prison, praying and singing hymns until the earthquake came.

Yet he reflected on his memory of Philippi with thanks and great joy as he prayed for all the Christians there. Why? Because of the wonderful work the Lord had begun to do among them and continued to do. We can learn much for our own prayer-life from the Apostle Paul, especially as we approach Christmas when our thoughts turn to the spiritual. Use Paul's prayer as a model for a Christmas prayer from a Christian heart, from your heart, dear friends,. That's our theme this morning.

A. Remember the deep bond of fellowship in Christ Jesus

1. Where did Paul's emotion in his prayer come from?

Paul's heart flows into his prayer. Sometimes conservative Lutherans are portrayed as emotionless, stone-faced, and stoic. Dare we even smile in church? But emotion fills and drives Paul's prayer. “I always pray with joy” (Philippians 1:4 NIV). “It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart” (Philippians 1:7 NIV). “God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:8 NIV).

But where did this emotion come from? It certainly wasn't that Philippi had been such a good time. A public beating will quickly drive that kind of joy out of you. It certainly wasn't family affections or childhood memories that tied him to Philippi. Paul had never been there until his second missionary journey. It was quite a foreign city without even a Jewish synagogue to make it feel like home.

Where did Paul's emotion come from? From that deep bond of fellowship in Christ Jesus that he shared with all the believers in Philippi. That's what moved him to pray from his heart. “I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Philippians 1:4, 5 NIV). That word translated “partnership” is the Greek word for “fellowship.”

2. What kind of fellowship moved Paul to pray?

What kind of fellowship is this? Fellowship in the Gospel, in that Good News of what Jesus has done to save us. That deep bond of fellowship was created by the Gospel, and it served to further the Gospel. Think of Paul's first Sabbath Day at Philippi. Without a synagogue to go to, they went down to the river to find a place of prayer. They spoke to the women who had gathered there. The Lord opened the heart of Lydia not only to believe the Gospel but also to insist that she furnish Paul and his coworkers with housing while they were at Philippi. That's the deep bond of fellowship in Christ Jesus from the first day onward that Paul mentions.

Or think of the fellowship with the jailer. After that earthquake the jailer falls before Paul, saying “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30 NIV). Paul answered, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved -- you and your household” (Acts 16:31 NIV). What grace from God, freely giving away salvation as an unconditional gift in Christ Jesus! That night the jailer and his family were all baptized. What a bond of fellowship created by the Good News of Jesus, our only Savior from sin and death! That bond transcended even the distance between prisoner and jailer. Paul brings that bond to mind again when he writes: “All of you share in God's grace with me” (Philippians 1:7 NIV). “I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:8 NIV). What a deep bond of fellowship in Christ Jesus!

That's also why Paul can repeatedly say, “all of you,” including those new Christian in Philippi whom he had not met personally. His heart went out to them as well, for his joy and thanks and affection was not built on natural relationships but on that supernatural, that spiritual relationship, which we share in Christ Jesus, that bond of fellowship created when the Gospel works faith in our hearts.

3. What can we learn from Paul for our own prayer-life?

How much we can learn from Paul's prayer-life! At Christmas time, when things are going well and we feel the cheer of the season, we're apt to give thanks to God. But if things go bad, we call out, “Why God!” You see, our emotions are drawing their strength from our good circumstances rather than from the deep bond of fellowship in Christ that transcends present troubles.

How much more likely are we to fervently pray for good friends and family? But when we turn to praying for fellow Christians whom we don't care for or don't even know our emotion cools. That's more evidence that our emotions are not drawing their strength from the bond of fellowship we share in Christ Jesus.

Now God has certainly made us to feel affection for our family and happiness when things are good. There's nothing wrong with those emotions. But as a Christian, your emotions have an even more powerful reason to feel affection and joy. Remember the bond of fellowship in Christ Jesus. Don't let that be drowned out. Especially at Christmas time when other reasons so powerful work to replace it. Rather take to heart these words of the Apostle Paul, pray for your fellow Christians whether you know them or not. Pray with the affection of Christ remembering the bond of fellowship you share in his grace. Pray for them as Paul did. Pray even as they pray for you. And what is that prayer? That love overflow in knowledge.

B. Pray that love overflows in knowledge

1. How are love and knowledge connected?

That's what Paul's prayer was. Listen to it again, “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ -- to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:9-11 NIV).

Take note how the Apostle connects love and knowledge. This love isn't the emotionalism that simply feels good. Christian love comes from knowing Christ.

On the other hand, this knowing isn't simply accumulating facts about Jesus and storing them away in your head, like we might do with geometry axioms and proofs. Knowing Jesus takes to heart what he has done for you. It means to cherish his saving message as it changes your life. Knowing Jesus means to love him. The Apostle John put this way, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins . . . We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:10, 19 NIV). That's knowing Jesus.

So a Christmas prayer from a Christian heart prays that love overflows in knowledge or as Paul stated it, “that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight” (Philippians 1:9 NIV).

2. What do we pray as we look ahead to the Last Day?

And such love for others looks ahead to the Last Day. As we pray for others this Christmas, our chief concern is not that they make it home for Christmas or get that present that want or make it through the holiday safe and sound. Our chief concern is that they are ready for Jesus' return, so that they stand before him pure and blameless. That's why Paul prayed for their love to abound in knowledge, “so that you . . . may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ” (Philippians 1:10 NIV).

Only through faith that knows Jesus as your Savior from sin -- only through that faith does anyone stand pure and blameless. For only Jesus' blood purifies us from all sins. Only Jesus' blameless life covers our record of wrongs and stumblings. A Christmas prayer from the Christian's heart prays for others to continue in the faith so that they stand pure and blameless until Christ's return. That's love.

3. What do we pray for until the Last Day?

And finally note what Paul prays for until Jesus comes back. “So that you may be able to discern what is best” (Philippians 1:10 NIV) and “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ -- to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:11 NIV). Overflowing in knowledge, growing to know Jesus, includes growing to know what is pleasing to him. When we know Jesus, we want to live for him, doing what is best. His Word guides us. And through his word and sacraments he feeds our love for him so that we produce good fruit, righteous fruit. Such fruit comes only through Jesus, only he can work it in you. Don't resist his working in you. Don't give in to the desire of the sinful self or laziness. Rather be filled with the fruit of righteousness, the fruit that glorifies God in all that you do. A Christmas prayer from a Christian heart prays that Jesus continues to produce his fruit in us and our fellow Christians as our love abounds in knowledge.

No matter what memories this Christmas may form for you, whether you might count it among your best or worst, join Paul in giving thanks to God. A Christmas prayer from a Christian heart remembers the deep of fellowship we share in Christ Jesus. That's why we give thanks to our God for our fellows Christians no matter what our outward circumstances may be. For our emotion rejoice in that fellowship Christ has brought us into. A Christmas prayer from a Christian heart prays that love overflows in knowledge, a love that clings to Jesus, a love that stand clothed in Jesus pureness, a love that is filled with fruits of righteousness. Pray such Christmas prayers. Amen.

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313