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Homeward Bound: Life Is Uncertain, So Eat Dessert First!

Philippians 2:1-11

King David, in the Old Testament, once said: “There is but one step between me and death.”

That reminds me of a line from Robert Inman’s novel, Old Dogs and Children: “Things move so slowly for us for so long, and then change comes suddenly, without warning. You can have a heartache for a long, long time—and then have your heart completely broken in an instant.”

And that reminds me of an old Hasidic proverb: “You will only sing as loudly in the world to come as you sing on this earth, so decide right here and now how loudly you want to sing in heaven.”

And that reminds me of what I read in the Orlando Sentinel’s “Informed Source” the other day: “What is the best way to start your morning? To think of this day as though it were the first day of your life, or to plan it as though it were the last day of your life? Psychiatrist and author, Dr. Wayne Dyer has said that you’re better to deal with each day as though it were your last.”

And that reminds me of a bumper sticker I saw not long ago. It read: “Life is uncertain, so eat dessert first!”

And all of that together reminds me of the statement Paul made in Philippians 1:21. He said: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

Now I want to tell you what I find fascinating about that statement. He wrote those words from prison. He was in chains, he was in bad health. He was under the sentence of death. He knew that any moment, the officer of the Praetorian guard could say to him: “The time for your execution has come.” Yet in the midst of that circumstance, Paul said: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” In other words, he was saying: “Life is uncertain, so I am going to live it for Christ, and enjoy it to the fullest.” Incredible! How could he say that in the midst of what seemed to be a hard and hopeless situation? It wasn’t that Paul was a masochist. He didn’t enjoy pain and persecution. It was that he was a Christian, and he felt that he was doing God’s will there, that he was standing firm for what he believed, that he was standing tall for what was right!

You see, Paul was committed to Jesus Christ with every fiber of his being. He was so committed that he saw every day, every occasion, every circumstance, every happening as an opportunity for serving Christ. And thus, even from prison, even from chains, even in bad health, even one step away from death, Paul could say: “This is the life! I’m serving my Lord. For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

Just a few verses later in Philippians, Paul lists the three characteristics of real life in Jesus Christ. In Philippians 2:8, he describes Jesus Christ in these words: “And being in human form, Christ humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” There they are—the three distinguishing marks of a glorious life in Christ: Christ-like humility, Christ-like obedience, and Christ-like love. Let’s look at them together…

For me to live is Christ-like humility.

The Son of God humbled Himself and took the form of a servant. This is our calling as Christian people—to humble ourselves and take the form of servants. Of course, that kind of humility is hard to come by.

Do you remember the classic story from McGuffey’s Reader about the cold-natured turtle who wanted to go to Florida for the winter? But he had a problem. He had no way to get there, no means of transportation. If he set out walking, winter would be over before he ever arrived. But then he had a bright idea. He had two friends who were wild geese, and they were about to fly off to Florida. So the turtle got a long piece of stout string and persuaded each goose to tie an end to one of their legs while he, with his strong jaw, bit down on the string in the middle. Well, the geese took off with the turtle dangling in between them, holding on to the string with his mouth. All went well…until they passed over a farmer out in the field. The farmer, with genuine admiration, was so impressed that he shouted up to them: “What a creative idea? Who in the world thought that up?” The poor little turtle so filled with pride, and anxious to take credit, opened his mouth to say: “I did”, and…well, the farmer had turtle soup for supper!

I guess we are all afflicted with that kind of “I” trouble! Remember how the poet put it?

I had a little tea party
This afternoon at three,
Very small, three guests in all,
Just I, myself, and me.

Myself ate all the sandwiches,
And I drank up the tea
‘Twas also I who ate the pie
And passed the cake to me.

But Christ shows us the way to conquer that kind of “I” trouble. He lived in the spirit of humility, and those who learned to live with Christ-like humility are those who find the greatest joy in life.

One of the sunniest souls ever to walk American soil was the great African American educator, Booker T. Washington. One day, as Professor Washington was walking to work at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, he happened to pass the mansion of a wealthy woman. The woman, not recognizing him, called out: “Hey, boy, come here! I need some wood chopped.” Without a word, Dr. Washington peeled off his jacket, picked up the ax, and went to work. He not only cut a large pile of wood, he also carried the firewood into the house and arranged it neatly near the hearth. He had scarcely left when a servant said to the woman: “I guess you didn’t recognize him, Ma’am, but that was Professor Washington!” Embarrassed and ashamed, the woman hurried over to Tuskegee Institute to apologize. Booker T. Washington replied: “There’s no need to apologize, madam. I am delighted to do favors for my friends.”

Christ-like humility has a majesty about it, you see. There is about someone who lives like that a magnificent magnanimity. Therefore, since life is uncertain, since we are just one step away from death, since we are better off planning each day as though it were our last, let me encourage you to live today—and every day—with Christ-like humility.

And for me to live is Christ-like obedience.

Jesus humbled Himself, Paul says, but He also became obedient. Christ-like obedience means following God wherever He leads—even if it is to a cross. Christian obedience means living out the prayer “Thy will be done.” Christian obedience means standing firm in our faithfulness to God no matter what. Of course, that kind of obedience is hard to come by.

We are too quickly tempted to take the shortcut, the quick fix, the easy way. We are too often like the young man who wrote an enthusiastic love-letter to his girlfriend which read: “My Darling, I love you. My love for you is like a red, red rose that blooms for you alone. My love for you is so great that I would travel to the ends of the earth for you. I would dare the greatest dangers. I would fight my way to your side, though giants should oppose me. Through storm and flood and fire, I would persevere to reach you. Accept his letter as the expression of my undying love. Yours forever, John. P.S. I’ll be over to see you on Saturday night if it doesn’t rain!”

My beloved, half-hearted love is out. Half-hearted obedience will not do. It is not enough just to talk a good game. Obedience is required. Someone has called it “sanctified stubbornness”, isn’t that a great phrase? Sanctified stubbornness! It was that kind of sanctified stubbornness, that kind of Christ-like obedience which enabled the early disciples to keep on preaching Christ in the face of beatings, ridicule, persecution, imprisonment, even death. It was that kind of sanctified stubbornness which made John Bunyan one of history’s greatest figures. He had been in prison for twelve years. They offered him his freedom if he would promise to stop preaching. To which John Bunyan replied: “I am determined yet to suffer until moss grows over my brows rather than to violate my faith!” Christian obedience, you see, means applying God’s will to every situation in your life. It is making Christ the Lord of every moment. It is seeing every event, every incident, every occurrence in your life as a unique opportunity to serve God.

I guess this is the Sunday I let my Alabama roots show from this pulpit, but back home in Alabama they tell a story involving Coach Bear Bryant and his Alabama football team. It was the fourth quarter of a very important game, and Alabama had a one point lead. The Alabama quarterback called a risky razzle-dazzle play. It was a bad call. The play backfired. There was a fumble and the other team recovered. Only a great defensive effort saved the game for Alabama.

Now, the quarterback was a sensitive young man, so Coach Bryant swallowed his anger and didn’t say anything to him after the game. He waited until the following Tuesday to correct him. He walked up to the quarterback, draped a big arm over his shoulder, and said: “Son, I’ve been thinking about it, and I don’t believe I would have called that play, #27 in the fourth quarter last Saturday. It almost cost us the game.” The quarterback replied: “Well, gee, Coach Bryant, if I’d had from Saturday to Tuesday to think about it, I wouldn’t have called it either!”

The point is that we don’t always have from Saturday to Tuesday to make up our minds, to think through our decisions. As Christians, then, we have to condition ourselves, train ourselves, prepare ourselves to have the presence of mind to obey God in every circumstance, and to apply His will to every situation. Therefore, since life is uncertain, since we are just one step from death, since we are better off planning to live each day as though it was our last, let me encourage you to live today and every day with Christ-like obedience.

And for me to live is Christ-like love.

Christ humbled himself. He became obedient…even to death on a cross. Self-giving love—it was the underlying principle of Jesus’ entire life. He is the Master who washes his disciples feet. He is the Suffering Servant who goes out on a limb for others. He is the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep. He is the Savior who goes to the cross that we might live. And that is our calling—yours and mine—to imitate the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ.

Former Governor Jerry Brown of California once visited with Mother Teresa in Calcutta. He went with her to a six o’clock-in-the-morning worship service. The setting was austere and spartan. Everyone sat on the canvas-covered concrete floor. Mother Teresa stood to speak to the worshippers, all of whom were volunteers in her ministry to the destitute and the dying. She wanted to give them encouragement as they were ministering to poor people with all kinds of terrible diseases. First, Mother Teresa read the words from Matthew 25 where Jesus said: “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me.” Then she delivered her message, so simple, yet so profound. She said: “Jesus is found here in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor, the neediest of the needy, the sickest of the sick.” Then she said to them: “Hold up both of your hands, and let me attach a word to each of your fingers so that you will never, ever forget the sacredness of your task.” Then, touching her fingers one by one, with a word for each finger, she said: “What you do for them, you also do for Him.” Over and over she said it: “What you do for them, you also do for Him.” Then she said: “Now whenever you look at the fingers on your hand, you will remember that when you are touching the poor, you are touching the Christ. When you are serving the needy, you are serving the Lord.”

Now, hold up your hands. Together, let’s attach a word to each finger. “What you do for them, you also do for Him.” From now on, when you look at the fingers on your hands, remember the words: “What you do for them, you also do for Him.” Therefore, since we are all just one step away from death, since life is so uncertain, since we are better off planning for each day as if it were our last, then let me encourage you to live today—and every day—with Christ-like humility, with Christ-like obedience, with Christ-like love. For then you will understand how and why Paul could write: “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

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