"Heavenly Minded and Earthly Good"
Saturday & Sunday Worship, Irvine Presbyterian Church · January 24-25, 2004
Copyright © 2004 by Mark D. Roberts
Scripture Reading: Philippians 4:8-9
8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
What Are You Thinking About?
So what's on your mind today? Really! What's on your mind? Better yet, what's in your mind? What are you thinking about? Dreaming about? Wondering about? Where is your attention focused? What sorts of input does your mind regularly receive? What are you feeding your inner being?
For many of us, television supplies much of our daily mental intake. When we're not working or studying or seeing to the necessities of life, we're watching the tube. According to recent Nielsen statistics, the average American watches four hours of television a day. In the average American home the TV is on seven hours and forty minutes per day. Like it or not, we Americans are filling our minds with whatever we happen to watch on television.
The facts I've just mentioned are enough to make us nervous, because we all know that at best TV is generally mindless, and at worst it can be downright sordid. Let me lay out a few more frightening statistics:
So have I got you depressed yet? Scared? Angry? Feeling guilty?
Maybe you're feeling rather pleased with yourself at the moment because you're one of the rare ones who hardly ever watches television. But most other media aren't much better than TV. The books we read, the magazines we peruse, the music we listen to - much of this stuff is more or less of the same ilk as television.
So let me ask you once again: What are you putting into your mind? What are you thinking about?
Think About These Things . . .
I'm always astounded when I read Philippians 4:8. It sounds so, well, unbelievable, so idealistic, so naïve. Does Paul really expect us to think about that which is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy? Apparently so. One thing is clear: Paul certainly lived before the age of television!
The imperative "think" is a present imperative in Greek (we've seen this before in Philippians), a form in Greek that means "keep on thinking." In other words, we are not to think about that which is true, honorable, etc. once, and that's it. Rather such thoughts are to be filling our minds continually. They should be the stuff of our everyday mental diet.
Before I suggest what I think this text means for us, I need to say what it does not mean. It does not call us to live in denial, to pretend that everything is fine when it's not, or to refrain from saying difficult things when they need to be said. If you've read Paul's other letters - notably, Galatians and the Corinthians letters - you know that Paul can be absolutely blunt when thinking and speaking of that which is wrong theologically and morally. Philippians 4:8 does not mean that if you're in a bad marriage, for example, you should ignore the problems. In fact, the first thing we're to think of is that which is true. If the truth is that your marriage is struggling, then you had better deal with that truth. Of all people, Christians should be those who confront the truth with courage and confidence. After all, God is the God of truth.
Nevertheless, Philippians 4:8 calls us to think, and keep on thinking, about that which is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy. We should be filling our minds, not with spiritual junk food, but with the healthiest and tastiest of soul food.
So how do we do it? How can we take this verse to heart? Let me suggest five practical steps that you and I can take - and, in most cases, that we very much need to take.
First, and most importantly, fill your mind with the things of God. Spend at least a few minutes each day reading and reflecting upon the Scripture. Be sure to make participation in corporate worship one of the highest priorities in your life. And get involved in a Bible study or small group where you talk about God's revealed truths.
Time for a commercial break. Friends, we have some outstanding opportunities for learning and fellowship on Sunday mornings. I know that many of you attend one of our classes, but many others are missing out. Just last Friday I grabbed a cup of coffee with Mike Regele, who is a co-teacher of our 10:15 hour Friends in Fellowship class. Mike was describing to me what he's going to be teaching in February and who are some of the great folks in the class, and I found myself wishing I could somehow cut out on worship and attend the class. Probably not going to happen since the 10:15 folks like to get a sermon from me. But you can certainly go to this class, or to the others that meet on Sunday morning. Check out the announcement sheet for more details.
The second practical step for thinking about that which is true, just, etc., is this: Regularly expose yourself to things in this world that reflect the beauty and goodness of God. Enjoy the grandeur of God's creation. Go to the beach at sunset every now and then and drink in the glory of God. Listen to music that lifts the soul. Read good literature. My practice over the last several years has been to balance my reading between something contemporary and something that is truly classic. So I read John Grisham for fun and Charles Dickens for enrichment.
Third, without denying real and important problems, look for goodness in the things around you. People in Irvine can be terrible complainers, and often about the most trivial things. Make me wait a few extra minutes in the doctor's office and I can grouse about it all day. How much more beneficial to my soul if I were to reflect upon the excellence and ready availability of my medical care!
Fourth, look for and affirm the goodness in the people around you. No pretending here or falsehood. Rather, I'm urging you to see the genuine goodness in your spouse, children, parents, siblings, friends, grandparents, teachers, colleagues, coaches, etc. etc. Think about these admirable qualities and tell the people around you what you're thinking about them.
Fifth, cut back on your time of exposure to television and other media, and spend that time in something that will enrich your inner life. Many years ago I made a decision to cut back the amount of time I spent watching sports. I became much more selective in my watching, viewing only games that really mattered to me or even watching just the final quarter of those games. In the last decade I've probably spent a thousand less hours watching television and a thousand more hours hanging out with my family because of it. And you know what? I don't feel deprived at all! In fact, I wouldn't swap those hours for anything. They have helped to fill my mind with good things.
After telling the Philippians to think and keep on thinking of godly things, Paul moves to his next exhortation: "Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you" (4:9). Once more we have a present imperative, accurately rendered in the NRSV as "keep on doing." Paul is talking here, not about momentary imitation, but a way of life.
Even as I noted about the previous verse, I find Paul's command to imitate himself to be rather astounding. Suppose that I got up here this morning and said to you, "Here's how you should act as a Christian. Are you ready? Keep on doing the things that you have learned received and heard and seen in me. Brothers and sisters at Irvine Presbyterian Church, imitate me, and the God of peace will be with you!" Whoa! Now that would really elicit a few comments on the patio, don't you think? Maybe a questioning e-mail or two?
Who does Paul think he is? Where does he get such a pumped up ego? In writing to the Corinthians, Paul twice tells them to imitate him. In both cases he frames this command in ways that help us to grasp his rationale. In 1 Corinthians 4 Paul writes:
I am not writing this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you might have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers. Indeed, in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. I appeal to you, then, be imitators of me. (1 Cor 4:14-16).
Because Paul is the Corinthians' father in Christ, he urges them to imitate him - which, according to Greco-Roman morality, is a perfectly acceptable command coming from a spiritual father to his spiritual children. Then, in 1 Corinthians 11, he adds, "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ" (1 Cor 11:1). Paul is saying: Because I act like Christ, imitate me. To the extent that my behavior is Christ-like, behave like me. In other words, Paul is not the ultimate standard of behavior, Christ is. But insofar as he mirrors Christ, he should be imitated.
This much I could say to you as your pastor: Friends, to whatever extent I am like Christ, then imitate me. To whatever extent you see Christ in me, then imitate the Christ in me. And, let me be clear, to whatever extent I'm not like Christ, please don't be like me! (Especially in the way you relate to me!)
Out of context it could sound terribly arrogant for me to suggest that you ought to imitate me. But, in the context of our relationship as pastor and church, it's both right and essential. We who are leaders in Christ's church need not only to speak the truth, but to model it. We need, not only to tell people how to live, but to show them. That is a tall order, let me tell you. But it's God's order.
This last week I received a letter that broke my heart. It was from a Christian organization that has made a huge impact on my life. It concerned one of the greatest leaders in the history of that organization. The letter explained that this man had been accused of molesting a young person many years ago, and that he admitted that the allegations were true. How tragic! What a terrible loss for so many people, beginning with the young person whose trust was betrayed by this man! How much things like this cost the church of Jesus Christ, no matter the denomination or organization in which they occur!
But, even as this letter broke my heart, it also encouraged me. The organization that wrote the letter handled this difficult situation with exceptional honesty and grace. They proved to be people of the truth. They didn't try to hide or spin. They spoke courageously and mercifully. If anything, my trust in this organization has actually risen because of this letter. Yes, one of their former leaders did a terrible thing. But current leaders are people of integrity. In fact, they are people I want to imitate in my life and leadership.
My friends, almost every one of us in this room today is a leader in some capacity in Christ's church. Many of you are leaders in our ministry, as elders, or deacons, or Sunday School teachers, or youth leaders. Many of you are leaders in your home. Your children are watching you and, whether you like it or not, they will imitate you. Others of you are leaders for your friends, your classmates, or your colleagues. In you they see not only what Christians are like, but what Jesus Christ is like. Now that's a high calling, isn't it!
So let me ask you, are you living a life worthy of imitation? Do you want your students, your children, your friends, your siblings, or your colleagues to imitate you? Should they? Has Jesus Christ so impacted your life that one who acts as you act will become more like him?
My friends, I don't know how you respond to this passage. Maybe you feel excited. Maybe inspired. Maybe scared, even scared to death. I must be honest and share that as I wrote this sermon, I was brought to my knees in repentance. Oh, I suppose there are things about me worthy of imitation. But I am so aware of all the other things. I know so many ways that I am not like Christ. And I hope nobody ever imitates those ways. As I reflected upon this text, I had to lay myself and my sin before the Lord, to confess and to ask for his forgiveness once again. In the end I prayed, "Lord, may I live such a Christ-shaped life that people around me should imitate me, even as I imitate you."
Sisters and brothers, I can stand before you today and say that I truly want to be like Jesus Christ. I want to be like him in mind, heart, and action. I want to think as he thinks and to love as he loves. In this, I'd urge you to imitate me. Let's yearn together to be more like our Lord, and, by his grace, let's become more like him in every way.
Conclusion: Thinking About What Is True
But now we come full circle. The very first imperative in this passage is to think about whatever is true. Think about whatever is true. And what is true of me, and of you if you've given your life to Jesus Christ? We are forgiven. We are part of the new creation. Jesus Christ became sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God. God sees us, not dressed in our filthy sins, but in the spotless, pure righteousness of Christ. And the Spirit of God is at work in us, making us more like Jesus. This is true. This is real. And this is where we must focus our minds. Not upon our failures, but upon the One who took our failures upon himself on the cross. We must see ourselves for who we are in Christ - and then we must live out our new identity.
We think and exist and live in Jesus Christ. Through the power of his Spirit, the more heavenly minded we are, the more earthly good we become.
So, dear friends, think and keep on thinking of that which is true, and honorable, and just, and pure, and pleasing, and commendable, and excellent. Fill your minds with the things of God.
And then live it out. Live in such a way that people can see Christ in you, so that as they imitate you, they become more like him.
My sources for the statistics in this sermon include: "Facts and Figures About Our TV Habit," http://www.tvfa.org/research.htm; "Sex on TV3: A Biennial Report of the Kaiser Foundation 2003," http://www.kff.org/entmedia/3324-index.cfm; "Sexuality, Contraception, and the Media." American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Public Education. 1/2001, http://www.aap.org/policy/re0038.html.