Left-Handed Power

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We are now smack in the middle
of the holy season of Advent,
the season in which we Christians
slow down and remind one another
that we are waiting
for the coming of our King.

Not only are we awaiting
the arrival of Christmas
and our remembrance
of the Baby in the manger,
but—just as importantly—
we are awaiting his return.

In truth, all our lives are a sort of Advent.
Whether we know it or not,
all our lives we are looking
for the Second Coming,
the Last Great Day
the return of the King,
when the Lover of our souls
will come again
to judge the living and the dead
and to set all things right.

And so, today,
even though John the Baptist
is all up in our hymns and Gospel lesson,
I want us to turn instead to Paul
and his letter to the Philippians,
and I want us to explore the power of love
as we await the coming of our King.

*   *   *

If you want to talk about Paul and the Philippians,
the first thing you need to know
is that Paul loved the Philippians.

You can see it right there
in the first few sentences
that we heard today:

“I thank my God every time I remember you,
constantly praying with joy
in every one of my prayers for all of you,
because of your sharing in the gospel
from the first day until now.” [1]

He is grateful for them.
He has joy for them.
Paul loves the Philippians.

I know some of you may be thinking,
“Well sure, but doesn’t every priest or pastor
always love his or her congregation?”

Heh heh. Hate to burst your bubble, but no . . .
that’s not always the case.

I remember one priest telling his congregation,
“Today I am retiring,
and I’m glad to be able to say
that I made 100% of you happy.
A third of you were happy when I arrived.
A third of you were happy while I was here.
And today, a third of you are really happy to see me go!”

But in this case
with Paul and the Philippians,
here was a pastor
who loved his people:

*   *   *

So it’s out of that great love for them
that he tells them
his greatest hope for them
and his greatest prayer.

Here is greatest hope.
He says: “I am confident of this,
that the one who began a good work among you
will bring it to completion
by the day of Jesus Christ.” [2]

In other words,
what Paul knows,
what Paul believes,
what Paul holds
as his greatest hope for the Philippians
is that their salvation does not belongs to them;
it belongs to God alone.

It’s like he’s saying,
“There is nothing you can do
to make God love you more.
God just loves you,
and all the good that he has begun in you,
he will bring it completion
before all is said and done.
You’re a work in progress,
and you’re in good hands.”

I hope you all know this is true for you as well.
I hope you know that you, too,
are the special object of God’s affection.

There is nothing you can do
to make God love you more.
As imperfect as you may be,
as awful as your yesterday may have been,
as uncertain as your tomorrow may remain,
you have been reconciled to God in Jesus Christ.

I once heard somebody ask,
“If you had the choice of your salvation
being all up to you or all up to God,
which would you choose?” [3]

No contest.
The Good News for the Philippians
and the Good News for you
is that it’s not all up to you.

God began the good work,
and God is bringing it to completion.
All you have to do is accept the gift.

*   *   *

So that’s Paul’s hope
for his beloved congregation.
Here’s his prayer.

He says: “And this is my prayer,
that your love may overflow more and more
with knowledge and full insight
to help you to determine what is best,
so that in the day of Christ
you may be pure and blameless.”[4]

Do you see what he did there?
While he’s convinced
that God loves them
and that there’s nothing they can do
to make that love any more complete,
he also knows that they must take it seriously
and pour that love forward
into the world around them.

Perhaps the most important phrase there is
“with knowledge and full insight.”

This isn’t a namby-pamby,
sweet and saccharine,
fairy-tales and fire-flies
kind of love.

This is an eyes-wide-open,
see-things-as-they-really-are,
see-the-world-for-what-it really-is
kind of love. [5]

By now I know many of you have heard
our Presiding Bishop Michal Curry preach.
Some of you have heard him online.
Some of you have heard him in person.
The whole world heard him at the royal wedding
of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

If you listen to more than one sermon
from Presiding Bishop Curry,
you quickly pick up on a constant theme:
the Way of Love.

Over and over and over
he beats that same drum:
The Way of Love.
The Way of Love.
The Way of Love.

After a while, some have begun criticize,
saying, “Yeah, Presiding Bishop, we hear you,
but the world is cold and hard, oppressive and afraid.
We need to be talking about the way things really are.
We need to be talking about more than just love, love, love.”

But Presiding Bishop Curry is no slouch.
I think he knows exactly what Paul knew:
that the world is cold and hard, oppressive and afraid,
and that the Way of Love—
an overflowing love of Jesus Christ
that sees the world as it really is—
is exactly what the world needs.

Love isn’t the easy thing.
Love is the hard thing.
Love seems like weakness,
but it is the greatest force
the world has ever known . . .
particularly when it comes
straight from the heart
of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The writer Earl Palmer once wrote:
“Human lives in [Paul’s] world were aflame
with ambition and the desire for power
in the apparently endless success of imperial Rome.

“Over against this ambition and power
Paul puts a radically different power—love.

“It is what Martin Luther called ‘left-handed power.’
The ‘right-handed power’ of the world
is based on force and brute strength,
whether military force or personal ambition.

“Right-handed power can always be defeated
by a greater right-handed force.

“But left-handed power is the power of love,
the power of forgiveness,
the power of self-giving.

“Nothing can defeat it—
there is no greater power in the universe.

“The cross of Christ
is the greatest example
of God’s left-handed power.

“The power of Rome that put Jesus to death
turned out to be nothing more
than the instrument that ensured the victory
of God’s power
of love and forgiveness.” [6]

See, if you’re living under someone’s boot—
the boot of Roman Emperor,
the boot of an oppressive dictator,
or even the boot of your own endless guilt and shame
and the stupid stories you keep telling yourself
about who you are and who you aren’t—
chances are you’re going to be looking
for a God who will come with power and force.

But what Paul knows,
what Presiding Bishop Curry knows,
what the season of Advent knows
is that God is not playing by our rules.

His force is the force of love.
His power is a power
made perfect in weakness. [7]

He’s the one who conquers whole kingdoms,
rescues countless lives, and brings you your salvation
wrapped not in shining armor
but in swaddling clothes in a manger
and a crown of thorns on a cross.

Our God is full of surprises.

*   *   *

So what’s the grace for us today?
What’s the grace from Paul and the Philippians,
from Presiding Bishop Curry,
from the Lord Jesus Christ
whose return we eagerly await?

The grace for us today
is that our salvation comes from the left—
from the Way of Love, not the way of force—
and God is the one who will bring it to completion in you
by the day of Jesus Christ.

Meanwhile, with such love poured into your hearts,
the added grace is that the same love
can overflow more and more
out of your own life into the world.
And it sorely needs it.

It’s not the easy way.
It’s the hard way.
It’s the weak way.
And it is the way for which you were destined
since before the beginning of the world.

Amen.

[1]Philippians 1:3-5
[2]Philippians 1:6
[3]Jones, Scott & Todd Littleton. “Episode 73: Rejoice.” Audio blog post. Synaxis: A Lectionary Podcast.4 Dec. 2018. Web. 5 Dec. 2018.
[4]Philippians 1:9-10
[5]Jones & Littleton.
[6]Palmer, Earl F. Integrity: A Commentary on the Book of Philippians.Vancouver: Regent College, 1992. 52.
[7]Jones & Littlton.