The Gong ShowPhilippians 2:14-16
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We’ve been exploring the letter to the Philippians, this prison letter from Paul, and excavating the grace and peace that we’re finding together. This ancient letter, written in a time of isolation and uncertainty, is abounding with joy and hope and justice and grace and peace and it has been a gift to share in this journey with you.
Throughout the week to come I’d encourage you to take advantage of our guide to prayer and study, you can find it daily on our facebook page or at our website. Every day we have a reading, thought, and prayer that ties back into our conversation today. You may also want to take a few notes today during the sermon, my hope and prayer is that our time together with one another will be a breath of fresh air for your soul and there are a couple things that you might want to write down and remind yourself of in the week to come.
Paul writes in Philippians 2:14-16, “Do everything without grumbling and arguing so that you may be blameless and pure, innocent children of God surrounded by people who are crooked and corrupt. Among these people you shine like stars in the world because you hold on to the word of life. This will allow me to say on the day of Christ that I haven’t run for nothing or worked for nothing.”
In these few sentences, there are tons of references to passages in the Hebrew Scriptures and they’re just below the surface. When this letter was read aloud to the church in Philippi, some people would have heard this passage and said to themselves, “Ah, that’s brilliant, well done, Paul” and others would have been scratching their heads wondering to themselves, “What’s all this about grumbling and being blameless while we shine like stars?”
If you were with us last week, hopefully you remember that when Paul writes, “carry out your salvation” the you there is plural. Scripture is always written with community and our relationships with one another in mind. I did, just a little bit ago, tell you, as in you, that I hope you can take advantage of our daily guide to prayer and study because when we carry out our salvation it means you grow in faith so that we can grow together with one another. I have nothing against you as an individual reading the Bible by yourself, in fact, I am all for it, I hope people will actually read and discover the Bible for themselves. But at the same time can you imagine giving someone that’s never read anything in the Bible before, that doesn’t know anything about the Christian faith, and they open their Bible to the Gospel of John, chapter 1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people.”
Perfectly clear, right? Everyone that reads that passage automatically knows exactly what’s going on in the text and isn’t scratching their head with how God was but was also with someone else named ‘Word’ that made everything.
It’s in community that we can grow and learn from and with one another as we carry out our salvation. Christianity has always been a communal faith where we help one another along the way. When this letter was first read to the Philippians, I have to imagine that they paused to explain why these words matter so much.
When Paul writes, “Do everything without grumbling” he’s making a reference to the Exodus. The story of the Exodus is kind of a big deal in the Bible. It shows us so much about the character of God and how liberation and freedom and justice is what God wants for us and for everyone else. There’s a passage in Exodus, chapter 16, where the Israelite people have been freed from their bondage in Egypt, they are no longer slaves, they are living into their liberation, but this liberation has brought them into the wilderness, and things are getting tough.
It’s written in Exodus 16, starting in verse 2, “The whole Israelite community complained against Moses and Aaron in the desert. The Israelites said to them, “Oh, how we wish that the Lord had just put us to death while we were still in the land of Egypt. There we could sit by the pots of cooking meat and eat our fill of bread. Instead, you’ve brought us out into this desert to starve this whole assembly to death.”
There is a Jewish tradition known as the Midrash, it’s essentially a story about the story that explains things in a new way. Often with scripture and things of the Spirit, truth comes through the side door, we need poetry or imagery that awakens us.
Perhaps the most famous Midrash to come from the wisdom of the ancient Rabbis was inspired by the Exodus.
It’s said that while the Israelites were walking into their freedom and liberation, as they crossed the Red Sea with the waves held back by God, two folks were walking through the mud, complaining about the how it felt between their toes. One Hebrew complained to another, “My sandals are going to be ruined, there had to be a better route for us to take, I just can’t stand the feeling of mud between my toes.” The other Hebrew complained back, “At least you have sandals, my feet keep sinking deeper and deeper, the muck between your toes is nothing compared to mine.” Together these two cross the Red Sea, complaining the whole time because they missed the miracle that was taking place all around them.
How often are we grumbling and complaining, looking down our feet, instead of appreciating the miracles that are all around us?
In Exodus 16, the people complain about their freedom from slavery and they tell Moses it would be better for us to go back to Egypt and be slaves again because there we at least had meat and bread. I can understand this complaint a little bit, I crave steak and bread every now and then myself. But in Numbers 11:14 there’s a complaint and a craving that’s never made sense to me, it’s written, “Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers…” Fish, fine, I don’t mind fish and chips, I can understand complaining a bit there, but cucumbers? Have you ever ate a cucumber slice and then said to yourself, “I just can’t have another, cucumbers are just so filling”?
A few chapters later in Numbers 14 it’s written, “The entire community raised their voice and the people wept that night. All the Israelites criticized Moses and Aaron. The entire community said to them, ‘If only we had died in the land of Egypt or if only we had died in this desert! Why is the LORD bringing us to this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our children will be taken by force. Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?’”
All of these complaints, these ways that the people continue to look at the mud between their toes instead of marveling in awe at the waters being held back around them, as they continue to miss the miracle that is their liberation and freedom, this brings us to the second reference that Paul makes in our passage today. Paul doesn’t just write do everything without grumbling and arguing, Paul isn’t simply saying that we shouldn’t let ourselves be distracted by the mud between our toes, Paul goes on to write that we should be ‘blameless and pure’ which is a reference to Genesis 17.
There it’s written in Genesis 17:1 as God initiates and begins this convent, “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.”
God has always been looking for partners, God has always been seeking and encouraging us towards seeking justice, loving kindness as we walk humbly with God and one another.
Blameless is where we begin, but as we’ve already seen, sometimes we miss the plot and instead of living into the liberation that God wants for us we get stuck with muck between our toes.
And yet, it’s not just that Paul calls us to be blameless, Paul goes on to say that we should be ‘innocent Children of God surrounded by a people who are crooked and corrupt’ which is yet another reference to the Hebrew Scriptures. Some translations of the Bible even have this part of the text in quotes to make sure that you don’t miss the reference. This time Paul is pointing us to Deuteronomy 32:5 where it’s written, “But children who weren’t [God’s] own sinned against [God] with their defects; they are a twisted and perverse generation.”
With this reference Paul does something really interesting, because in Deuteronomy 32 is a denouncement. God goes so far as to say you don’t even deserve to be called my children, it’s God is saying to the people, “you’ve been liberated from slavery but you’re complaining about not having cucumber sandwiches, you aren’t living like and don’t deserve to see yourselves as children of God right now because with your complaints and grumbling and arguing, as you keep focusing on the small details that have gone wrong you miss the grace that makes everything right!”
In Deuteronomy we are the crooked and the corrupt, we’re twisted and perverse and let’s be honest. And yet, for Paul and the Philippians, the hope and promise is that you, that we, might be “blameless and pure, innocent children of God” even when we are surrounded by people and events and pandemics that feel and are crooked and corrupt.
Paul takes these references to Exodus and Deuteronomy, but flips them, because we aren’t grumbling, we aren’t looking at our toes and because of that we’re shining like stars (which is a reference to Daniel 12).
Perhaps we could rephrase what Paul is saying like this, the way the story went isn’t the way our story has to go. They might have missed the point, they might have been worried about the mud on their sandals, they might have complained about the freedom and liberation that God saved them for, they might have said to themselves this is too hard, let’s go back to Egypt, but you don’t have to live that way, you can make it, God is with you and the way the story went doesn’t have to be the way your story goes.
You might have had a parent that was emotionally distant, but that doesn’t mean you have to be.
You might have fallen off the wagon and given into your addiction, but that doesn’t mean you have to fall off again.
The way the story went doesn’t have to be the way the story goes.
You are a child of God made to shine like the stars.
The word that begins this passage, the word for grumbling, in Greek, is γογγυσμῶν (goggusmos) how much fun is that to say and how can you hear that word and not think of a gong?
Some of you might remember the Gong Show, this ‘talent’ show where the gong rang mask the boos of the crowd.
γογγυσμῶν (goggusmos) is a great word for kids to remember because as they hear their parents complaining they can say, all I hear is a lot of γογγυσμῶν (goggusmos) right now, and saying γογγυσμῶν (goggusmos) is less expensive than buying a gong to have around the house.
Complaints, when they aren’t important, when they don’t matter, when it’s nothing but mud between our toes, those complaints just sound like a gong.
The word that Paul uses in this passage for arguing is διαλογισμός (dialogismos). One scholar translates that as reasoning that is self-centered and confused, another Biblical scholar translates διαλογισμός (dialogismos) as ‘disputatious reasoning’ and who but a Biblical scholar uses a phrase like disputatious reasoning? What it really means, in the end, is reasoning, arguing, with others for the sake of a self-centered ulterior motive, it means we’ve lost the plot, we’ve missed the point, but we still want to argue about it and we end up sounding like a gong.
In our passage today, Paul makes these references to the Exodus story, to remind us how the story went while showing us that it’s not how the story has to go. So how do we avoid our own γογγυσμῶν (goggusmos)? What do we need to do to make sure that we don’t lose the lot?
For Paul, it starts with remembering. Throughout this letter to the Philippians, Paul has been reminding them of grace and peace, Paul has said to them the God that began a good work in you will be with you to complete it, Paul writes that they are to shine like stars, Paul wants them to remember grace, to remember peace, to remember mercy, to remember justice.
Sometimes we forget to remember. That’s why if you ever read the full Exodus story for yourself, and I hope you will someday, you’ll see over and over again how God says to the people after the Exodus, remember that I liberated you, remember that I brought you out of Egypt, remember the covenant that I made with you, remember, remember, remember.
Have you ever watched little kids learn to play a sport? Whatever sport kids are learning, especially at the peewee level, it doesn’t matter the sport, it doesn’t matter where the kids are supposed to be on the field of play, kids, as they start to learn sports will always move like an amoeba. It doesn’t matter what they’re supposed to do, kids just bunch up and run with one another, or get distracted by bugs like I did.
Perhaps you have had this experience watching peewee sports, kids are having fun, they’re not really playing the game at all but that doesn’t matter because they’re kids and it’s peewee sports. In the chaos of the amoeba a kid that’s supposed to be on offense switches to defense and changes teams without realizing it, and a parent shouts from the crowd, “Alex you’re running the wrong way!” and Alex says back, “Thanks for getting me back into formation”.
Every now and then, parents say something to a child at play that stings more than the ringing of γογγυσμῶν (goggusmos)? Sure, Alex probably shouldn’t score points for the other team but they were having fun and is a peewee league really the place for that kind of biting and demeaning grumbling?
We γογγυσμῶν (goggusmos) when we forget to remember, and what we forget to remember more than anything else is that this is all a gift.
Think of the gift, even the luxury, that is a child learning to have fun with other children in a safe environment. It’s a gift that the kids have uniforms, it’s a gift that they have all the equipment they need, it’s a gift that we have parks and playgrounds, it’s a gift that you have a schedule that allows you to get to the game and enjoy it.
Each breath is a gift, each day is a gift, our friends are a gift, our family is a gift, the friends that become our chosen family are a gift, our ability to work is a gift, our ability to retire is a gift, the ability to buy gas for your car is a gift because 18% of the global population is wealthy enough to own a car while a third of Americans have more than 3.
I know we’re all going to forget, just don’t forget to remember that it’s all a gift.
Have you ever been ready to go on vacation, you are setting aside your schedule completely and there is nothing on your agenda, and as you’re driving to your destination you start to complain about the traffic and how you’re going to be late? In that moment, your just a gong.
There is always a larger story that’s unfolding. There is always a story that is bigger than whatever story we happen to be telling ourselves because sometimes we can be complaining and forget that we have the resources and the gifts that enable us to sound like a gong as we continue to complain about the first world problem that we’re struggling with.
This bigger picture, the full story, is another reason why we see this remember repeated so many times throughout the Exodus story. The Bible tends to repeat the same things because we tend to forget the same things and need to be reminded. Over and over again in the Exodus story it says remember you were slaves and after awhile we might say to ourselves, I remember, I didn’t forget, but we still find ourselves complaining about the muck and the mud that’s between our toes, we miss the walls of water that are being held back so that we can walk to the other side not just to survive but to thrive and live into the liberation that God wants for us.
Sometimes we γογγυσμῶν (goggusmos) because we forget, but other times we γογγυσμῶν (goggusmos) because we tell ourselves that we don’t have enough.
1 Corinthians is a fascinating letter because throughout this letter Paul writes to a church and reminds them of all the ways that the fill the gaps for one another. Paul talks about the church community as the body of Christ, that we are all a part of this body together and that we have different skills and abilities and talents and gifts for the sake of one another and the world.
There’s this brief but brilliant verse in chapter 1 of 1 Corinthians where Paul writes in verse 7, “…you aren’t missing any spiritual gift”. Remember what we talked about last week and how the you is y’all, it’s all y’all, it’s a plural, it’s a communal you. Paul writes you aren’t missing any spiritual gift, Paul tells this community of faith you have everything you need.
Do we really believe that?
A lot of the time the way that we live says we aren’t so sure. Too often we live as if some day, when we have that money, when we finish that diet, when we get that promotion, when we can retire, when they grow up, when we can get back together again like we used to, maybe, someday, when all the pieces fall into place, then we’ll have what we need, then we will have grace and peace.
Paul doesn’t write that someday we will have everything that we need, Paul doesn’t tell the Corinthians that eventually they will be the people that can accomplish great things with and for one another, Paul doesn’t say read these books, start these programs and maybe someday down the line you’ll have everything you need. Paul begins this letter to the Corinthians by telling them you all have everything you need.
Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke, “The kingdom of God is within you”. Salvation is not waiting for us in the future, we’re not just sitting here, twiddling our thumbs, hoping for the moment when God will be with us, it’s here, it’s now and we’re a part of it because together we already have everything that we need.
But sometimes we still γογγυσμῶν (goggusmos) because we don’t want to admit that alone we don’t have everything we need, that we could use some help, that what I lack you might have in excess. So we complain and we grumble and we gong along instead of shining like stars together.
Paul tells us that we γογγυσμῶν (goggusmos) when we don’t remember, when we forget the blessings and the abundance that is all around us because we’re too concerned with the mud between our toes. Paul tells us that we γογγυσμῶν (goggusmos) when we think that we have to wait for the day when we will have enough, Paul tells us that we can fall into complaining and arguing when we refuse to believe that we are in this together.
As Paul wraps up our passage for today they write to the Philippians that when they shine like stars, when they remember, when they celebrate the gifts and the grace that is all around them and within them, then Paul will know that he hasn’t “run for nothing or worked for nothing.”
The work metaphor is pretty obvious, none of us want to labor in vain, we need to know that our efforts are worthy of our exhaustion. The sports metaphor, the running metaphor is a little more nuanced for Paul and it’s a metaphor that Paul loves to use. Throughout a most of Paul’s letters sports are used as a way to explain our life of faith.
Run, in this passage and in many other places throughout the Christian scriptures, means a marathon, the original Olympic marathon, which wasn’t a sprint, but a marathon.
If we forget that this is a marathon and act like this is a sprint, we’re going to γογγυσμῶν (goggusmos).
Sometimes in a marathon everyone is cheering you on and reaching out from the barricades to give you Gatorade. Other times in the marathon it gets lonely, you might feel like you are running all by yourself, you don’t have the crowd cheering you on, but if you keep going, you’ll hear them roar again.
The scholar Stephen Fowl refers to this as God’s economy of salvation. Fowl writes, “God’s salvation…is to bring about an inward change in a believer so as to produce an outward transformation in [their] living. This refers to the organic aspects of God’s salvation and the transformation of the soul, implying both the regeneration fo the spirit as its base and the eventual redemption of the body as its consummation.”
Essentially what Fowl is saying is that as we face difficulties and struggles, as we slog through this marathon there will be challenges, but the difficulty, the struggle, the slog is an invitation to become a more grounded, hopeful, humble, caring, generous, giving and receiving kind of person. We become the kind of people that shine like stars when we go through the difficulties of life seeing them not as signs of God’s absence, but as invitations to enter into the transforming, renewing, redeeming, redemptive work of God that happens in spaces and times and places as difficult as this.
We are in this marathon together and if you’re like me and hate running that might not sound like an inspirational hope, but the hope isn’t in me, the hope isn’t in you by yourself, our hope is found in the God that holds us together, the God that gives us and shows us and reminds us that we already have everything we need.
The danger with this kind of teaching is the same danger of γογγυσμῶν (goggusmos). We might forget, we will forget.
The reason I asked you to take some notes at the start of this sermon is because we have some questions to ask ourselves – what do we need to remember, what can’t we afford to forget, how do we need to remind ourselves that the way the story went isn’t the way the story has to go? What does it look like in your every day life, in the mundane reality of our lives, to shine like a star?
My guess is that you’ve got a hunch about the answer to all of those questions. The Spirit is with us and can be really annoying sometimes, telling us what we already know but don’t want to own. You are here to shine like a star, rising above the disputatious reasoning and γογγυσμῶν (goggusmos) that too easily gets in the way.
I hope and I invite you to extend our service this morning by journaling about those questions – what do you need to remember, what bigger story is being told, how will you run this marathon with us, all while remembering the way the story went isn’t the way the story has to go. Think about that, journal for yourself and keeping your notes in front of you this week and in the weeks to come. Don’t forget. Be the kind of person that remembers this is a marathon and an invitation to grow into the person that God already knows you are so that you might shine like a star.
Do everything without grumbling and arguing so that you may be blameless and pure, innocent children of God surrounded by people who are crooked and corrupt. Among these people you shine like stars in the world because you hold on to the word of life. This will allow me to say on the day of Christ that I haven’t run for nothing or worked for nothing.
Sept. 14 -19
Click on the day to expand the guide.
Read – Mark 14:22-26, Psalm 118:1-6, 28-29
Notice – Jesus and his disciples sang “songs of praise” at the end of their Passover supper just before Jesus’ arrest. We know Psalm 118 was the last hallel (hymn of praise) Hebrews usually sang at Passover. Jesus, just before his crucifixion, probably sang, “The LORD is for me—I won’t be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” and “Give thanks to the LORD because [God] is good, because [God’s] faithful love lasts forever.” The Psalmist asked simply and profoundly, “The LORD is for me…. What can anyone do to me?” To what extent are you able to trust and be grateful that God is always “for” you? How much stronger is your level of gratitude on a beautiful, sunny morning when all is going well than on a cold, gray day when something left you sad or disappointed? How can you carry the gratitude into the gray days?
Pray – Jesus, I offer you my gratitude because you are good, because your faithful love lasts forever. Well, honestly, I don’t always do that yet, but it’s my goal. Please keep teaching me. Amen.
Read – Matthew 5:13-16
Notice – The current pandemic crisis has given us a chance to focus on who we are, why we are here, and what our goal is as Christ followers. Jesus said God calls us to be “the light of the world,” people through whom God’s love shines to light up the dark, hurting places around us. We are here to live lives led by the Holy Spirit in which God’s light reaches beyond the walls of our church. On a personal level, who has been a light in your life? What have you learned about living as a channel for God’s reordering light and hope from their example? Who do you know whose world you have an opportunity to brighten? Pray about this and choose one specific step you can take to bring the light of God’s love and hope into their life this week.
Pray – Jesus, sometimes my love for you stays all too hidden. Help me to live like that city on a hill, not so that I look good, but so that you do. Amen.
Read – Psalm 4:6-8, Isaiah 12:2-6
Notice – We don’t know all the details, but Psalm 4 clearly came from a time when both the psalmist and his nation faced trials and danger. And the prophet Isaiah wrote on the heels of stern warnings of coming judgment (cf. Isaiah 1:10-17). The phrase “on that day” meant this song of praise was a song of hope for a future Isaiah might not (and did not) live to see. Their joy was rooted, not in any earthly, material prosperity, but in the presence of God with God’s people. Scholar John Goldingay said, “Providing the people with a song that they will be able to sing one day is another way of inviting them to live in hope. …they’re virtually praising God for fulfilling his promises before the fulfillment happens. Wherever they are, they’re invited to see that they have come this far by faith and can continue in hope, not because their faith or hope is big but because the God they trust and hope in is big.”* How do you maintain your trust and hope in our big God at times of disappointment, sadness, and loss?
Pray – God, I find joy relatively easy on sunny days when everything goes my way. Teach me to focus more on you, and less on everything going my way, so that my inner joy is more deeply rooted and durable. Amen.
* John Goldingay, Isaiah for Everyone. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015, p. 53.
Read – John 1:6-14
Notice – The “man named John” in verse 6 was not who wrote this gospel, but the preacher/prophet known as John the Baptist. He lived out a calling to “testify concerning the light.” The gospel writer clearly defined what he meant by “light.” Jesus, he said—the Jesus he had seen, heard and known—was the light who broke into the world’s darkness. As darkness couldn’t put out light, so Jesus could deliver us from the darkness of our world, and within ourselves. Then we, like John the Baptist, could “testify” to the light. Greek thinkers like Plato said the “logos” (Greek for “word”) was too pure to enter the corrupt material world. Hebrews usually saw God as so awesome and distant that they feared to even say the divine name. John drew on both those thought worlds, yet boldly wrote, “The Word became flesh.” How can it help you realize how much God values you to believe that he “became flesh,” like us, rather than just wishing you well from afar?
Pray – Jesus, I choose you as the Lord of my life. Help me, even when it challenges me, to always keep my heart open to welcome you. Amen.
Read – Ephesians 5:8-14
Notice – What are some thoughts or acts in which God has moved you from darkness to light? How can recalling those past advances give you hope and trust for God’s leading in the future? Doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven starts with our individual lives. Have you ever intentionally “tested” parts of your life, as verse 10 suggested, to discern light from darkness? What is one change you will make in your life to live more fully as a “child of the light”? Verse 8 did not say, as we might expect, something like “You belong to the light.” It used a stronger phrase: “Now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light.” What is the source of the light that shines from your life in your best moments? Can you recall one or more times when you realized Christ’s light shining through you had brightened another life?
Pray – God, creator of light, keep illuminating the darkest corners of my life. Keep guiding me as I test habits and practices, seeking to live every day as a child of your light. Amen.
Read – Philippians 2:14-16
Notice – When we complain, we think we are just making observations about reality. But constant complaining creates an alternative reality that leads us to shirk responsibility and blame others for our discontent. Wesley called us to ask ourselves and one another this question, “Do I grumble or complain constantly” so that we can replace negative with positive thoughts, and start developing new habits marked by hope and optimism. Do you think you are optimistic or pessimistic by nature? What kind of feedback have you received from people in your life about this aspect of your personality? Do you believe it is possible to reframe your approach to circumstances to view them in a positive vs. negative light? What could help you do this? Think about any constant grumblers you know. What choices might be driving their negative outlook? Who do you know who is consistently a “glass half-full” person? Observe closely what decisions and practices seem to help them live their lives this way. When have you made a conscious decision to be more positive about a particular situation, or about your life overall?
Pray – Holy God, you always work for my good. May I honor you by avoiding complaining and replacing it with rejoicing, even when things do not go my way. Amen.