Advent 2019: The Call of Christmas

Sermon by David Strain on December 1, 2019

Philippians 2:5

Well if you would take a Bible in hand once again and turn this time to Paul’s letter to the Philippians, chapter 2. Philippians chapter 2, page 980 and 981 in the church Bibles. We have been working our way through 1 Peter on Sunday mornings, but since this is the first Sunday of the Advent season, we’re going to use the opportunity presented by the season to meditate over the coming weeks in a more focused way on the meaning and significance and implications of the first Advent, the first coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. 

And to guide our thinking, we’ll be working our way line by line through Philippians 2:5-11. It’s a famous passage, sometimes known as the “Carmen Christi,” the “hymn to Christ.” It was probably sung or used in some way in the apostolic churches, and Paul is quoting it here in the context of his letter to the Philippians as an apt summary of the message about Jesus’ person and His work – who He is and what He came to do. And our plan over the next several weeks is simply to take one line at a time so that, God willing, over the course of the next four weeks we will tackle “The Call of Christmas,” that’s today in Philippians 2:5, then verse 6 next week, “The Plan for Christmas,” then on the fifteenth of December, verse 7, “The Heart of Christmas,” then on the twenty-second, “The Cost of Christmas,” then finally on Christmas Eve we’ll look at verses 9 through 11 and consider “The Point of Christmas.” All of which means this morning we’re focused on verse 5, “The Call of Christmas.” We’re going to think through the implications for our mindset, for our attitude for the way we think about ourselves and one another in the world of the coming of Jesus Christ. 

Before we read the passage, we’re going to pause again and pray and ask for God to help us understand and embrace the message of His holy Word. Let’s pray together.

O Lord our God, please help us now. We know we prefer the inventions of our own imagination to the truth of Your Word. We filter out Your Word using our own preferences. We twist and distort its message, choosing to embrace those parts we think endorse our own decisions and choices, ignoring those parts that challenge us. We are fickle, sinful people, prone to wander and prone to leave the God we love. And so now, acknowledging and confessing these realities, we cry to You for the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, to open our minds and our hearts to embrace the Gospel, to receive and rest upon Christ alone as He is offered to us in it. Do that now, we pray, through the reading and the preaching of Your holy Word, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Philippians chapter 2. Let’s read from the first verse of the chapter. This is God’s inerrant Word:

“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Amen, and we praise God for His holy Word.

Well it’s that time of year again and Christmas is almost upon us. The Advent season is underway, ready for it or not, and there is a veritable tsunami of Christmas schmaltz poised to descend upon us. Schmaltzy TV shows and movie reruns and shopping mall Christmas carols ready to engulf us, all in an effort I suppose to try and evoke some sort of feeling of nostalgia and “Christmasy-ness.” Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with that. I like a bit of schmaltz as much as the next man. Nothing really says Christmas like watching Kevin McCallister pound away on Hank and Marv after all! But if we’re not careful, the facts of the narrative of the birth of Jesus Christ and its extraordinary significance can sort of blend right in and become just another part of the pageantry and the sentimentality of the season, just another tool to evoke that “Christmasy” mindset and outlook.

But whether “Home Alone” really does it for you or not – it does it for me; I’m a sucker for all those sabotages and booby-traps that Kevin plays on the wet bandits, but anyway. That’s just me! Whether “Home Alone” does it for you or not, the real mindset, the real mindset that the Christmas message ought to produce in us is not some mushy, nostalgic feeling, it’s not some vague sentiment; it’s actually the mindset articulated in verse 5 in the call the apostle Paul issues to us in the fifth verse of chapter 2. Do you see it there in verse 5? “Have this mind” – so here’s the mindset, the facts of Christ’s first coming, which he’s about to rehearse for us in verses 6 through 11, here’s the mindset Christ’s first coming should produce. “Have this mind among yourselves,” he says, “which is yours in Christ Jesus.” In verses 6 through 11 he’s going to go on to spell out the meaning of Jesus’ first coming. “He emptied Himself,” that first Christmas we are told, “by taking the form of a servant, a slave, being born in the likeness of men.” He came, we are told, “in order to obey,” all the way to the dreadful cross. And now the same One who was born of the virgin and laid in a manger, sits enthroned at the right hand of Almighty God. He is now King of kings and Lord of lords. He’s been given “a name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus, ever knee should bow to the glory of God the Father.” That is the Christmas message, the Christian Gospel in summary in this extraordinary “Christ hymn” here in chapter 2.

And Paul, as he begins in verse 5, he introduces his quotation of this hymn by summoning us to understand the difference these truths should make to our outlook and attitude and mindset, to the way our brains work, to the way we operate in the world, to the deep attitudes of the heart that govern our daily lives. “Have this mind;” this is the mind that you ought to have in light of the coming of Jesus Christ.

And in particular, I want you to notice two things, two parts of the call that Paul issues here in verse 5 that we have to focus upon. First, this is a call to a new community. It’s a call to community. The mindset he has in mind is a mindset embraced together, a mindset that propels us toward one another. So it’s a call to community. But it’s also a call to Christ Himself. The mindset that Paul is speaking of here is a mindset that is yours, he says, “in Christ Jesus.” You get it when you get Christ. So this is a call to community and it’s a call to Christ.

A Call to Community 

First of all, this is a call to community. Depending upon your Bible translation, you may have noticed some translations make verse 5 say something like, “Have this mind in you.” Or maybe, “Have this mind within yourself.” That’s really not the best sense of the original, the Greek. Where else would your mind be but within yourself? It sort of makes Paul speak in redundancies. Our English Standard Version that we have in the pews is, I think, a better translation. Paul says, “Have this mind among yourselves.” That is, the mindset that has been reformed and remade in the wake of the message of Christ’s coming is a mindset that presses us toward one another, that makes us pursue each other, that summons us to seek and build godly community together. It’s to be had among us, between us, cementing our relationships one with another. 

And when Paul says, “Have this mind among yourselves,” it’s helpful to know what he’s thinking about. And in that regard, it’s useful to notice that he has already used the same word for “mind” twice before in the chapter. If you look at verse 2, you can see that. “Complete my joy,” he says to the Philippians, “by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” That does tell us a little bit about Paul’s concern as he’s writing here. It suggests some things about what’s happening in the life of the Philippian churches that Paul is seeking to address, that he summons them to unity of mind and heart and love. The members of the church, you know, may well have sung the “Carmen Christi,” the “Christ hymn” of verses 6 through 11 often enough; they may have known it well. And more than that, they may have embraced its truths with clarity and intentionality. They could, perhaps, have expressed the orthodox doctrine of the incarnation, that the eternal Son of God became a man in Jesus Christ, conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin, born under Pontius Pilate. They could have told you about His obedient life and His sacrificial atoning death. They could have expressed well in precise and orthodox terms the resurrection and ascension and heavenly reign of King Jesus at the right hand of Almighty God the Father. All of that, it seems, they knew. This is a familiar hymn, often on their lips. These were truths that were not strange to them, and yet there’s a disconnect between the truths they’re progressing and the lives they were living in relationship with one another. There is tension and division between them. And so Paul has to exhort them and remind them that, “If you really believe these things, that should change your attitude, especially in the way that you speak to, think about, and relate to one another within the fellowship of the local church.”

And we are no better. We often sing rich, profound truths. In fact, have you noticed that many of our most theologically rich and profound hymns are our Christmas carols. We’ve already sung one or two of them today. And we love to sing them; rightly so. And we sing them with great gusto. And yet, there is still often a disconnect, isn’t there, between the glories of the truths we sing about. At 8:30, Alex Roberson was being recognized for having memorized and recited The Shorter Catechism. And we can perhaps recite the words of The Shorter Catechism’s extraordinary summary of the incarnation and the significance of Jesus’ coming that, “The only Redeemer of God’s elect is the Lord Jesus Christ who, being the eternal Son of God, became man. And so was, and continues to be, both God and man in two distinct natures, in one person forever.” It’s an amazing summary of what happened that first Christmas. It’s glorious truth. And it can roll off our tongue and these hymns can roll off our tongues and then the very next moment the same tongue will turn and say, “You’ll never believe what Mrs. so-and-so said to me the other day. Who does she think she is?” The same tongues that praise God can tear strips of brothers and sisters.

That’s exactly what was happening at Philippi. If you keep your finger in chapter 2 and turn over to chapter 4, look down at chapter 4 verse 2 and you’ll see one specific example that Paul mentions, not because this pair are worse than all the other members at Philippi, but probably because they exemplify the kind of tension and strife that had erupted in the Philippian congregation. Chapter 4 verse 2 – it’s interesting Paul uses the same verb and the same construction that he uses here in our text in chapter 2 verse 5 to exhort two women in the congregation, Euodia and Syntyche. He wants them, notice, “to agree in the Lord.” Do you see that phrase in chapter 4 verse 2? Literally he says, “Have the same mind in the Lord.”
Now you see the issue. There’s division and tension and strife between them. They are at each other’s throats. A friend of mine calls them, “You-odious” and “Soon-touchy.” They’re temperamentally wired to be in conflict, it seems, and they are aggravating one another. And Paul is saying, “Look, it’s disrupting the life of the church and all of this behavior has no business in the life of a child of God. If you really embrace these convictions about Jesus, if you mean what you say when you sing, ‘He left His Father’s throne above, so free so infinite His grace; emptied Himself, so great His love, and bled for all His chosen race,’ if you mean what you say when you sing those words, if you really believe that, listen – what are you thinking in the way that you act towards one another?” If the truth we celebrate at Christmastime really has begun to sink down and take root in your minds, you wouldn’t treat one another this way. It would rewire your priorities and your values. It would bring you into humility and teach you to count others more highly than yourself. 

And so, that’s precisely what Paul says in our passage back in chapter 2. If you look at verse 3, he tells us how to do that; how to live out this new mindset that we’ve been given in Christ. Verse 3, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” A mindset that’s been reshaped by the facts that we celebrate at Christmas thinks differently about self and it thinks differently about others. That’s Paul’s point exactly, isn’t it? Selfish ambition and conceit are ruled out if you embrace this Gospel. Looking to one’s own interests alone no longer describes the person who is gripped by the truth of Christ’s first coming. Instead, there is growing humility.

It’s an interesting word in the original. It’s a compound word using the same term we’ve seen translated already twice in verse 2 and once again in verse 5 for the “mind.” A humble mind, a selfless attitude – humility; that’s what it means. It’s the word that Paul uses again when he talks about Jesus coming into the world that first Christmas. It describes His whole life of obedience and suffering. You see it there in verse 8. “Being found in human form, he, Jesus, humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” So that’s our model, Paul is saying. That is what we are called to be and to do and that’s the mindset we are called to mirror in our relationships with one another. Isn’t it ironic that today, for many of us, our Christmas celebrations have become consumed with the pursuit of material treasure. Whereas, in our text, the fact of Christ’s humble birth is the basis not for the accumulation of stuff but for serving and giving and pouring out one’s life for others. 

Well what should your take away be as you celebrate with your friends and family the birth of the God-Man, the Lord Jesus Christ, this Christmas? It should be repentance, a renewed resolve to shatter pride, to learn humility, to consider others more significant than self. It should drive us out of our own heads and teach us to pursue true community, to press toward one another and not stay behind our barricades any longer. After all, that’s why Christ came. Isn’t it? From “The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord. From heaven He came and sought her, by water and the Word.” He came in search of you. He came for you, to build you into a new family, into a new community. He came to make you His child, to renovate you inside and out, so that you can press toward one another and know Him together. 

A Call to Christ 

So the message of Christmas calls us to new community, but it also calls us to find this new mindset that is lived out in community and fellowship with one another, it calls us to do all of that by coming to Christ Himself. Look at verse 5 again. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours” – where? Where do you get it? Where is it to be found? Is it something you work up? Is it something to be learned, perhaps, from a self-help book? Is it about reprogramming? About a therapy that will straighten out the kinks and help you change your behaviors? Is that what Paul is talking about? No, Paul says, “You have this mind, it is yours, in Christ Jesus and nowhere else.” It is yours in Christ.

The translation of this part of the verse is disputed, to be sure; it’s a little tricky. But our version, I think, is helpful and gets close to the right way to understand it. It is yours in Him, in union with Christ. Paul isn’t saying simply “Jesus is the example I want you to follow.” That’s true. Jesus is the example he wants us to follow, but he’s saying more than that. Jesus is more than simply a model of the right attitude of humility. Jesus is the fountainhead and the source from which this attitude and mindset will come to you because you are united to Him, you are planted into Christ. Because you have been led into profound, intimate, spiritual connection with Jesus through faith in the Gospel, you have been renovated, made new, inside-out, a new mind is given to you, and Paul is calling us to live out that new mindset and attitude that you find only in Christ. 

Back to Euodia and Syntyche in chapter 4 verse 2 just for a moment, that’s how Paul reasons with them. When he wants them to reconcile and get over themselves and learn to live in fellowship and harmony with one another, he says, “Have the same mind in the Lord.” You see what he’s saying? “Because you’re in the Lord, because you are both in the Lord, you are united to Christ together, this is how you should behave; this is how you should think. You should have the same mind. Stop this petty squabbling. Your union with Jesus Christ changes everything. The mindset that you need is yours, only in union with Him.” 

Listen, you miss the point of Christmas if amidst the food and the parties and the decorations and lights and all the other good things that you’re going to enjoy, God willing, this time of year, you miss the point entirely if with all of this you do not have Christ. The new life, the new community, the new mind that Paul is talking about, it’s not the result of renewed, moral effort. It’s not, “Do better. Try harder.” It’s not, “Turn over a new leaf.” The Christian Gospel – this is so important – the Christian Gospel is not, first of all, a moral makeover strategy. The Christian message isn’t about, it’s not a better way to clean yourself up and straighten yourself out and be a better person. Those are implications of the Gospel, to be sure, but that’s not the message. Jesus is not in the business of simply remodeling the dilapidated, run-down, old home of your life. Jesus wants to – it’s a completely new build that He’s in the business of. From the ground up; a completely new you. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old is gone; the new has come!” That’s what He wants to do in you. That’s why He came. That’s what Christmas is about – new creation, new creatures in Jesus Christ.

So let me ask you this obvious, basic question as we wrap things up. It’s the key question for us as we begin the Advent season. “Do you have Christ? Are you in Christ? Are you His? Is He yours?” I’m not asking you if you know about Christ. I’m not asking if you believe in the historical Jesus. I’m asking if Jesus Christ Himself if your only hope. Is He the resting place of your faith and your confidence? Is He the treasure of your heart? Look, Jesus is God’s gift at Christmas and your name is on the packaging. He is God’s gift made out to you. He’s for you, for free. It’s a gift – Christ Himself for you; available, offered to you. Take Him! In Christ you are made new, inside out – a new mind, a new life, a new self. Do you have Christ?

Calvin, John Calvin famously said something really shocking if you think about it. He said, “Jesus, and everything that Jesus has done, is useless to us, useless to us, for as long as Christ remains outside of us.” For as long as He remains at a distance from us – an object of fascination perhaps, and scrutiny, or vague interest or historical study, as long as He remains outside of us, He’s useless to us. You know the difference between being churchy and being a Christian is the difference between looking in the window and walking through the door. You look through the window and there’s the family, gathered around the table, and there’s a magnificent banquet, a feast. And there’s celebrating and there’s joy, and you’re standing outside in the cold and dark. What are you doing out in the cold and dark? Come in! The door is open! You’re welcome! Christ invites you in! Won’t you take Christ? He is God’s great gift to you, freely available. A Savior of every sinner, every sinner that cries out to Him for mercy. Come and trust in Jesus. What a priceless Christmas gift. Let’s pray together.

Our Father, we cry out to You, please, for one another, for ourselves. Give us the grace of faith to come in, out of the dark, out of the cold, to come in to the life of the family, into the new community, into the new mindset to become new creations, to come to Christ. Give us grace to come to Him. Give us grace. Some of us need to come back to Him. We’ve been wandering away in the wilderness for far too long. Today is the day. Please, Lord, take hold of us and bring us home to Jesus. Some of us think we know Him – we’re religious, churchy people, but we’ve just been looking in through the window; we’ve never really come into the banquet table. Please for them, would you draw them in? Bring them to true, heartfelt repentance of life on their own terms, of co-opting Christ as an accessory to their lives. Grant instead that today they would bend the knee to Jesus and rest upon Him. O Lord, may every heart in this room be filled with renewed gratitude for the gift of God in Jesus Christ, our Lord, now in this Christmas and forevermore. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. amen. 

© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.

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