Life and Death After Christmas (Advent 2018)
This has been one of the most surreal Christmas holidays of my life.
The week before last I came down with a flu that took me off my feet for several days; when I preached last week I was still recovering. Jack was home sick with a fever, and we thought we’d have to cancel the Christmas Eve dinner we had planned to have at our place.
Then Monday morning came and Jack seemed to be doing better, so we kept going. I was on my feet all that day, helping take care of the kids while Loanne cooked, and by the time people started showing up for dinner I was barely conscious. Both kids went to bed early, and by the end of the evening Loanne had a fever too; then the next day Zadie joined the mix and got sick as well. Christmas week was spent with Loanne bedridden, me up every night with the baby, and Jack all by himself for three days playing with Legos.
If you know me, you know I’m a sentimental guy; Christmas is always my favorite time of the year. It was as if this year, God was for some reason deciding to take everything I typically love about the Christmas holidays and systematically strip them away. It was stressful and sad and frustrating for everyone.
And then, in the middle of that—in a kind of cap on my pre-Christmas week, and a necessary reminder for the week we were about to have—there was a moment during our Christmas Eve dinner where time seemed to stand still. I told Loanne later that when I think about this Christmas in twenty years, I’m pretty sure that moment is what I’ll remember (those of you who were there probably already know what I’m talking about).
Every year on Christmas Eve we invite people who are in the city without family to come have dinner with us. This year, there were two young women from China who came; I had only met them the day before, when they asked if they could come. One of them spoke almost no French, and I’m ashamed to say I was so distracted by everything going on in our family that I hadn’t taken the time necessary to try to get to know her better.
At one point she stood up and said she’d like to share a song with everyone. So she stood up in our living room and started to sing in Chinese. Only a couple people there could understand what she was singing, but it didn’t matter; without a shred of self-consciousness, she sang and raised her hands and worshiped God, there in our living room. At one point she couldn’t continue singing, but started crying as she read the lyrics off her phone. Her friend stood next to her and held her elbow and helped her along through the rest of the song.
When she was finished, she apologized for crying, and explained through her friend that she was just overwhelmed at how blessed she was at that moment, because back home in China, she can’t sing praises to God like she was doing there in our living room. Those tears were just simple gratitude to be able to do what most French Christians would have been terrified to do: sing a song of thanks to God while surrounded by her brothers and sisters.
There’s a reason I told that story. Every Sunday this December we have been looking forward to celebrating the birth of Christ. And I love that every December, there is one Sunday, post-Christmas, after we’ve gotten to his birth and celebrated it accordingly, when we are forced to take a moment and ask ourselves, “Okay, the Messiah has come; Jesus is here—now what?”
I’d like you to turn with me to Paul’s letter to the Philippians, chapter 1.
Just a quick reminder of the context. Paul planted the church in Philippi several years before he wrote this letter; he knows these people well, and he remembers them fondly. In fact, this letter is one of the few which contains no major course correction for the church. There is no rebuke of sin here, no massive correction of doctrinal errors. Paul is simply giving them news of himself and celebrating what God has done for them.
Paul’s in prison as he writes this letter, as he makes clear, and he knows the Philippians are worried about him. So Paul wants to reassure them that God knows what he’s doing, that his imprisonment has actually served to advance the gospel, that even in his chains he is rejoicing that Christ is being proclaimed through what he enduring.
And in this section he’s going to answer the unspoken question that he knows is on their minds: Is he going to die in that prison, or will he go on working for the gospel?
His answer isn’t the kind of answer you’d expect. He does give them an answer, but he frames it in such a way as to suggest that even if he’s wrong, it doesn’t really matter: there’s something else that’s more important than whether he lives or dies here.
Yes, and I will rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.
So there’s his answer: Yes, I believe I’m going to stay alive and keep on working for the gospel, because I’m convinced that you need me here. That actually is the good news they were hoping for.
But did you see how he preceded that good news? Everything he said prior to verse 24 is geared to make it sound like there’s something else that’s even better news.
Look at v. 22-23:
22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.
So he’s basically saying, I’m torn. If I stay alive, I’ll get to stay working for the gospel—that’s good. But speaking selfishly, if I die, then I get to be with Christ—and that’s better. That means rest from all of my persecution and labor. That means finally getting to be with the One I’ve been living for all these years. That means finally getting to come home at the end of a very long journey.
So whether I live or die, it’s good news all around. That’s the first bit of good news.
The second bit of good news comes earlier—v. 20:
...it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.
So whether I live or die, both my life and death will serve the gospel. If I live, I can keep working for the gospel; if I die, my death honors Christ, for I’ll have died for him, and the news of my sacrifice will give Christians courage to live unhindered for Christ, just as I have.
So you see, the good news here is framed in two different ways, but it comes back to the same thing both times:
If I live, I get to live for Christ; and if I die, I get to be with Christ.
If I live, my life will serve the gospel; and if I die, my death will serve the gospel.
Let me put it another way: it is a blessing to get to live for Christ; and it is a blessing to get to die for Christ.
Or, as Paul put it (v. 21):
For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
Paul is speaking from experience here. You remember his story.
Paul, who was once called Saul, was a devout Pharisee who hated the Christians. When the first Christian martyr, Stephen, is stoned to death, Paul is standing by holding the coats of the folks throwing the stones and approving of his execution (Acts 8.1, 22.20). We see just following Stephen’s execution that (Acts 8.3):
Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.
Paul isn’t just motivated by some vague political ideology; he’s protecting his livelihood. His entire identity was bound up in maintaining Judaism as he had known it, and he knew Christianity was a threat to that way of life. He wasn’t just evil; he was protecting what was dear to him.
And it all came crashing down one day as he was en route for Damascus to capture Christians and bring them to prison in Jerusalem. Jesus himself appears to Paul on the road, literally knocking him to the ground and leaving him blind, and convincing him through the intermediary of a Christian named Ananias that this Jesus he’d been persecuting is the Messiah he’d been waiting for (Acts 9.1-22).
His conversion was radical and miraculous, and it’s important to remember that at that point, Paul lost everything. He could no longer run in the same circles as before, because all of his friends were persecutors of Christians. He couldn’t go home, because everything he called “home” was tied up in this violent brand of Judaism. He couldn’t even seek proper refuge in other Christians, because (at least at first) they were all terrified of him. He had literally nothing left except for Jesus.
And yet, despite all of these dangers, what is the first thing we see him do? He goes to the synagogues—those places where he would have been recognized and admired—and began preaching the gospel. Acts 9.20:
And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God."
How can we explain his persistence?
Paul finally knew who Christ was, and what he had gained in him. More than Christ taking his sin on himself on the cross; more than Christ’s perfect righteousness given to him, to forgive him of his sin and declare him righteous; Paul had met the all-consuming treasure of the universe, the treasure that made him understand what was actually worth celebrating.
Meeting Christ had cost Paul everything, and had given him the only thing that actually mattered.
For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
That singular sentence, which we so often repeat, and to which we give so little actual thought, is the Now what? of the days post-Christmas.
How different would our Christmases be if we had even a hint of that same experience?
We celebrate the birth of Christ with songs and decorations, and we say that Christ is our life. But all it takes is a week sick in bed at just the right time to send most of us into a downward spiral of self-pity. (I got this particularly harsh reality check this year.) We can say, “Christ is my life!” till we’re blue in the face, but when the promotion we wanted is withheld; when we learn of the death of a loved one; when we lose our financial stability; when the people we counted on don’t show up when we need them… At that moment, we realize just how much all these other things took up far more space in our lives than he did.
There is a kind of church culture that loves the idea of Christ, but that runs away the second Christ actually makes any kind of meaningful demand on our lives. When Christ starts stripping from us the things that we love, he stops seeming good. We say, “To live is Christ,” but what we often mean is, “To live is the stuff I like about Christ”—not the Jesus we see in the Bible, but the Jesus that makes us admirable, a false Jesus we’ve created to make us feel like the versions of ourselves we want to be.
But Jesus is the Son of God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, the Alpha and the Omega—he transcends all this other nonsense we fill our lives with.
Matt Chandler said this:
“It’s not that there aren’t good things. It’s not that there aren’t blessings to be had or gifts given to us by God to be enjoyed. Of course, those things exist. But none are greater than Christ. Those gifts are given so that our worship and enjoyment of Christ might increase, and sometimes they are withheld so that our worship of Christ will stay where it should. In fact, Christ alone is worthy of an entire life’s affection and devotion — and he’s worthy of an eternity’s more.”
Already, Paul takes life with Christ way farther than most of us would. After his encounter on the road to Damascus, Paul signed on to a lifetime of persecution and poverty and hardship.
But his declaration to the Philippians goes even farther than that. He says, For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. In other words, he’s not just talking here about the way he lives; he’s talking about the way he will die.
Dying for Christ is gain because his death will serve the gospel. And dying for Christ is gain because when he dies, he gets to be with the Christ for whom he’s been living. And that, he says, is far better.
People get really uncomfortable when you start talking like this. They start saying things like, “So in the end, Christians are the same as all these suicide bombers who think their deaths are going to get them reward in heaven.”
So let’s be clear: nothing could be further from the truth. Nowhere in the Bible will you find the idea that seeking out your own death is a good thing, and certainly not that you should try to take others with you. That kind of persecution was Paul before Christ, not after.
When Paul says that to die is gain, he’s talking about death leveled against him, and he’s saying that no persecution leveled against him could be a threat any longer.
Under the faith of Christ, the persecutors become the servants of those who persecute them. Their one goal becomes sharing the gift they have received with anyone who will come, indiscriminately.
If Christ is your life, then everything you have, and everything that is taken from you, is viewed through the lens of the surpassing goodness of knowing him, and showing his glory to others. And if Christ is your life, then even those who hate you for it can do nothing to take that surpassing goodness from you.
Paul was the most effective missionary—and, if his letters are any indication, the happiest missionary—the world has ever known. And the reason is that he had come to the place in his life where he could compare everything he had ever had to everything he had in Christ, and found all those other things sorely lacking. In fact, he says as much a little later in this same letter.
If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
The reason Paul was such an effective and happy man was because he had nothing else. All the immense gain he had amassed for himself over the years seemed ridiculous in comparison to what he had in Christ. Ravi Zacharias once talked about how hard it would be to threaten Lazarus after Jesus raised him from the dead. What could you say to him? “You’re going to get yourself killed”? He’d surely laugh.
In the same way, Paul lived his life with the joy of knowing that his enemies could do nothing to him. Put him in prison? He converted the guards. Put him in chains? He’d sing God’s praises. Cut off his head? He’d get to be with Christ. Literally nothing you could do to him could take anything away from him that would actually matter.
In Revelation 7, John recounts his vision of the throne room of the Lamb, in which are gathered all those who had been persecuted for their faith in Christ. We see in Revelation 7.9-17:
9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
15 “Therefore they are before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
16 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
We need to see this: none of these formerly persecuted Christians are weeping over the suffering they endured; none of them are sad to have gone through what they went through. They are resting in the joy of knowing their Shepherd; their weeping is done, because God is wiping away every tear from their eye.
Brothers and sisters, I hope you have had a wonderful Christmas week among family and friends. I hope you have rested and celebrated and enjoyed the festivities.
But in the time when the presents have been opened, and the decorations are taken down, and our Christmas playlists get put back on hold until next year, life begins again. And if any of those festivites are to mean anything at all, if any of it is to be anything more than a pretty fiction, the surpassing worth of knowing Christ must be our greatest and only treasure, the treasure that gives worth to all the other treasures we receive, and that is better than every treasure withheld.
So what about Christ makes the good things in your life worth enjoying?
What about Christ makes the good things in your life worth losing?
What about Christ keeps you happy when your children get sick, when your best friends are absent, when you lose your job, when you don’t know how you’ll pay your bills?
What about Christ would make the simple idea of being able to sing a song surrounded by your brothers and sisters worth weeping over?
What about Christ is good enough to sustain you when you have nothing else?
The answer is everything. There is more goodness and joy in five seconds with Christ, and nothing else, than a lifetime of treasures without him.
So as we begin this new year, let us keep before our eyes a clear vision of who our Savior is, and of why he is our life—not because of what he has done for us, but simply because of who he is.