sermons & teachings


"Telltale Signs of Life"

A Sermon Preached by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts

Irvine Presbyterian Church   ·   January 17 & 18, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by Mark D. Roberts

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Scripture Reading: Philippians 4:4-7

            4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.   5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.   6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.   7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Telltale Signs of Life

            The Spirit is at work as we speak! Lest you misunderstand me, I'm not making a faith statement here, but a statement of scientific fact. I'm speaking not of the Holy Spirit, whom I certainly believe to be at work among us, but the Spirit now exploring the surface of Mars: that five-foot tall, six-wheeled mobile geology lab called "Spirit."

            This little Martian explorer is searching for, among other things, telltale signs of life on Mars. In reality these signs aren't very impressive to non-scientists, consisting mostly of microscopic evidence of water. At best the experts are hoping to find tiny hints that life on Mars might once have existed. We're not exactly talking about little green men here!

            I think they're setting the bar too low. I'd like to suggest five telltale, indisputable signs of life on Mars. You find any one of these, and you've got real life.

Telltale Sign of Life on Mars #1 - While digging around in the rocks, Spirit finds an autograph book with Ray Walston's and Orson Welles' autographs. (That's for you trivia buffs.)

Telltale Sign of Life on Mars #2 - Prominently placed all over the surface of the Red Planet are John Campbell's election signs.

Telltale Sign of Life on Mars #3 - While searching for geologic evidence of microbic life, Spirit hears a faint voice sighing: "ET phone home."

Telltale Sign of Life on Mars #4 - In the middle of the crater they're exploring there is a large sign reading "Yankee Go Home"

Telltale Sign of Life on Mars #5 - As Spirit roams over the surface of Mars, it runs right into a Starbucks.

Now there are some indisputable, telltale signs of life on Mars, don't you think?

            So what are the telltale signs of "real life," Christian life, life in Jesus Christ? If you were to observe the actions of an individual, what evidence would point to the fact that this person is truly alive in Christ? Or suppose that you're seeking to join a church and you want to find one that's really alive? What should you look for? What are telltale signs of life in Christ?

            When we talk about "happening" churches, we often point to measurable qualities, like the prodigious size of the church, or its impressive church growth, or the grandeur of its buildings, or the fame of its leaders. These qualities may be indicators of real life, but they may also mean simply that a church has mastered the American art of marketing, in this case selling Christianity like Starbucks sells coffee.

            But if real life isn't indicated by church growth or prominent leadership, how can it be recognized? Once again I ask: What are telltale signs of life in Christ, for a church, and for you own life, and mine?

            Philippians 4:4-7 answers this question. It doesn't touch upon every sign of life, but it gets five of the most important ones. So let's return to the text and examine these five telling indicators of genuine life in Christ.

Telltale Sign of Life #1: Rejoicing

            The first telltale sign of life is rejoicing.

            Verse 4 reads: "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice." This command is consistent with the repeated emphasis in Philippians upon joy. Often Paul speaks of his own rejoicing (for example, 1:4). Four times he calls the Philippians to rejoice as well (2:18; 3:1; 4:4 twice). In each of these instances we find an active imperative, which in Greek suggests that the action should be continuous. "Rejoice, and keep on rejoicing," would be an apt paraphrase.

            So how do we obey this command? After all, if you're not feeling joyful at the moment, it's rather hard to change your emotions at will. In fact life is full of struggles and disappointments. We often feel sad or discouraged, hardly joyful. Is Paul telling us to deny our feelings, to pretend, to put on a happy face when our hearts are heavy?

            No, I don't think so. First of all, joy and happiness aren't the same thing. Happiness is momentary, situational, and often superficial. Joy, on the contrary, is sustained, transcendent, and deep. One can feel joy even in moments of sadness. Just ask parents who have sent their children off to college. In those last goodbyes they can feel terribly sad at the thought that their beloved child is leaving home, and, at the same time, they feel deeply joyful for who this child is and what he or she has accomplished. Joy isn't giddiness, but profound gratitude mixed with a deep trust that God is working all things together for good. So even in times of sorrow, we can nevertheless feel truly joyful.

            But there's another nuance in Paul's command to rejoice that we must grasp. When he says "Rejoice in the Lord" we hear an echo of the Psalms. Take Psalm 33, for example,

1             Rejoice in the LORD, O you righteous.

                        Praise befits the upright.

2             Praise the LORD with the lyre;

                        make melody to him with the harp of ten strings.

3         Sing to him a new song;

                        play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.

Here we see that rejoicing in the Lord isn't so much a matter of feelings as it is of actions. It's praising God with singing and shouting. Thus when Paul says "Rejoice in the Lord" he's urging the Philippians to worship God with joy, to sing and shout and praise and give glory to God.

            Christian worship, if it is anything at all, should be consistently joyful. Again, I'm not saying we deny our pain or ignore our sin when we worship. The truth is that our struggles and failings are the very thing that ends up helping us to rejoice in the Lord because they drive us to the cross, where we receive God's mercy and grace. Joyful worship isn't something we rev up through energetic music or emotional manipulation. Rather, it's a response to what God has done in Jesus Christ.

            Our church's "Basics of Worship" statement expresses this truth succinctly. Let me read it to you:

Worship and the Gospel

Christian worship responds to God's grace given through Jesus Christ, who died on the cross and was raised from the dead so that we might experience eternal life. In worship we proclaim, celebrate, and dramatize the gospel of grace. We remind each other of what God has done in Jesus Christ and we invite all people to share in God's grace through faith in Christ. Because we have been saved by grace, we worship with joy.

How can you tell if a church is truly alive in Christ? Check out their worship. Is there a consistently joyful celebration of what God has done in Christ? If so, then you've got a live one.

Telltale Sign of Life #2: Gentleness

            The second telltale sign of life is gentleness.

            Gentleness? This seems like an odd non sequitur. First Paul is calling us to rejoice. Then he adds, "Let your gentleness be known to everyone" (v. 5). What's this about? What is gentleness? And why is it such a reliable indicator of real life?

            The Greek word translated as "gentleness" ( epieikes ) appears infrequently in the New Testament. When it is used, it is contrasted with such qualities as hostility, quarrelsomeness, and harshness (1 Tim 3:3; Titus 3:2; 1 Pet 2:18). Gentle people seek peace rather than conflict. Though they may speak the truth with conviction, they don't use words to wound, but to communicate and heal. If we are gentle, it doesn't mean that we will back off from our convictions or give in so as not to hurt feelings. But we will refrain from unnecessary harshness, choosing instead to speak with kindness.

            Why should we be gentle? Paul does not provide a reason in Philippians 4. But in one of his other letters he refers to "the meekness and gentleness of Christ" (2 Cor 10:1). As we treat people with grace-filled gentleness, they will see Christ in us. Thus gentleness is a reliable sign that the life of Christ is thriving in a church or in an individual Christian.

            My friends, let me urge you to think about your key relationships, with your spouse, or your children, or your roommate, or your subordinates are work, or your colleagues on a church committee. Do you treat these folks with true gentleness? Or does your speech often come laced with harshness? The more Christ is alive in you, the more you will be known as a gentle person.

Telltale Sign of Life #3: Prayerfulness

            The third telltale sign of life is prayerfulness: "Don't worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God" (v. 6). Wherever the life of Christ pulsates in his people you'll find consistent, faithful, persistent prayer. If we are truly alive in Christ, we'll pray the first thing in the morning and that last thing before bed. We'll pray in good times, bad times, and ordinary times. We'll pray alone and we'll pray together with other believers. We'll pray by asking, thanking, praising, confessing, adoring, and simply talking with God. As we pray, we'll be listening for the still, small voice of the Spirit.

            If you struggle with prayer, if you know you ought to pray more but have a hard time doing it, let me suggest two things. First, work with your natural rhythms, not against them. If you're a morning person, then by all means get up early for quiet time with God. But if you're not a morning person, you probably know the guilt that comes from repeatedly sleeping through your appointments with God. Let me urge you to set aside intentional time at some other point of the day to get alone with God. Put it in your daily calendar, and then keep that appointment.

            Second, if you're struggling to spend regular time with God in prayer, get others to help you. Form a prayer partnership with a brother or sister, or join a small group that prays regularly. We're not meant to in prayerful solitary confinement. Praying with others can help us break free from the bondage of prayerlessness.

            One of the things I deeply appreciate about this church is our commitment to prayer. But let us never take this for granted. We must be continually vigilant in making sure that prayer permeates our fellowship together.

Telltale Sign of Life #4: Gratitude

            The fourth telltale sign of Christian life is gratitude. As Paul says, "Do not worry about anything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God" (v. 6). Did you catch that? With thanksgiving. Gratitude will always be a defining mark of genuine life in Christ.

            I think you'll agree with me that gratitude seems to be disappearing from our world. In pop culture, Halloween is a much, much bigger holiday than Thanksgiving, which is mostly an occasion for gluttony and football, not gratitude to God. You see a lack of gratitude every day in the market, or at Target, or wherever people receive service as if it were owed to them, without saying "Thank you." Teachers can tell you how rarely they receive heartfelt thanks from their students or their students' parents: complaints, yes, thanks, not nearly often enough.

            We don't feel gratitude or express it because we mistakenly believe that we're entitled to the good things we receive. And sometimes this sense of entitlement can carry over to our relationship with God. We can actually believe that God owes us blessings because we're good people.

            Gratitude is one of life's greatest gifts. When we're grateful, we savor life's goodness. Gratitude magnifies our joy in living. Furthermore, when we're remember how God has graced us and when we give him thanks in return, our faith is kindled and we're inspired to pray bigger prayers, thus opening up the way for even more divine blessings.

            If you want to pray with more faith, if you want to trust God more, begin with thanksgiving. Remember God's goodness to you and tell him all about it. You'll find your faith coming alive, your prayers expanding in their scope and boldness.

Telltale Sign of Life #5: Peace

            The fifth telltale sign of life is peace: "And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (v. 7). Although the Bible usually envisions peace as something experienced in relationships among people, here the focus is upon what we call inner peace. It's the corollary of the encouragement in verse 6 to avoid worry.

            As we pray, as we lay before the Lord our fears and burdens, at least two things happen. First, God, in his grace and wisdom, answers our prayers. Sometimes his answer is no. Sometimes it's yes. Sometimes it's wait. We pray because God has taught us that he answers our prayers. Yet this is not the whole purpose of prayer. Second, as we pray, our hearts experience the awesome, comforting, presence of God, and in his presence we experience the peace that exceeds our understanding. Even though receiving God's answers is wonderful, the more we pray, the more we are drawn to pray simply because it's so good to be with the Lord.

What Enables Us to Experience the Five Telltale Signs?

            In summary, here are five signs of telltale Christian life:

· Rejoicing

· Gentleness

· Prayerfulness

· Gratitude, and

· Peace

If you want to know how much of real life in Christ you're experiencing, look for these five qualities in your life. If you want to see how our church is doing, look for the same in our life together.

            So if, as you look at your life, you see some of these signs, but not others, what should you do? How can you grow in your experience of these five telltale characteristics?

            As you may have noticed, I completely skipped one sentence in Philippians 4:4-7. Although it comprises only three words in Greek, it's the most important sentence of all: "The Lord is near." How can we rejoice? What can help us to be gentle? How can we grow in prayer and gratitude? How can we know true peace? Here's the key: The Lord is near.

            For Paul, "the Lord is near" referred to two complimentary realities. First of all, it pointed to the fact that Christ will someday return to complete his work on earth. In that day, all things will be restored and creation will be renewed. Pain and sorrow will be vanquished forever as we live in the full presence of God. This certain hope gives us the ability to rejoice when life is hard, and to live each day in eternal perspective.

            But as Christians we don't simply wait around for Jesus to return in order to have fellowship with him. Through the Holy Spirit, Christ is present right now. He's here in reality even though we can't see him with our eyes. We'll experience real life when we recognize his presence with us through the Spirit and live in that presence each moment.

            As I was working my way through the list of the telltale signs of Christian life, you may have noticed how similar this list is to the collection of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5: 22-23. Joy, gentleness, and peace are specifically mentioned in that text as that which the Holy Spirit grows in us. Thus when we read Philippians 4:4-7 through the lens of Pauline theology, we can't help but see the invisible but unmistakable hand of the Holy Spirit.

            My friends, the Lord is present with Christians whether we recognize him or not. Yet the key to real life is realizing that Christ is with us through the Spirit and deciding to make him the center of our life. As Paul wrote earlier in Philippians, "For to me to live is Christ" (Phil 2:21, KJV). When we live in Christ - trusting him for our salvation, submitting to his lordship, adoring him in worship, attending to the voice of his Spirit, serving him both in church and the world - then and only then will we be fully alive. Then and only then will we see in our lives the five telltale signs: rejoicing, gentleness, prayerfulness, gratitude, and peace.

            Sisters and brothers, live in Christ - and be fully alive! Amen!