Today, I invite you to metaphorically come into the garden with me as we reflect on the planting and growth of a very special plant. It is a plant that was originally planted as a seed by the head gardener. As it grows, the head gardener, with your help, continues to ensure that the seed will grow to full maturity, and in time, produce fruit. This is a parable of the Christian life that I would like to construct from the passage read from Philippians 1:1-11.
In particular, I would like to draw upon verse 6 which reads, ‘I am confidant of this that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.’ (NRSV)
Last week we saw that the season of Advent is one of waiting for Christ to come, and that we are to wait with perseverance and with each other. This second Sunday of Advent we learn another feature of our waiting, and this is that as we wait for the second coming of Christ, we wait with assurance that the good work begun in us will be brought to completion.
The good work is the work of salvation that God works in those who accept Jesus as their Saviour and Lord. By salvation we mean the forgiveness by God of our rebellion against him so that we can come back into a personal relationship with him, be given a new nature in this life and eternal life in the next.
Now the good work begins with the planting of a seed and verse 6 indicates that we can be assured that this seed of salvation will be brought to completion, i.e. to full growth and fruition. We have this assurance for two reasons:
I. It is God who planted the seed.
God is the one referred to in verse 6 as ‘the one who began the good work’; it is he who planted the seed.
The seed that we are talking about here is the seed of ‘love’. This is not love as we might talk about love - not love in the sense of romantic love, or erotic love; but the divine love that God has for us. This love is the very nature of God himself. As we are told in the Bible, particularly in 1 John, Chap. 4, ‘God is love’. When we open ourselves up to receive Jesus into our lives we receive, through the Holy Spirit, something of God – in effect he plants within us a seed of his nature – divine love.
It is God’s love that prompted him to commence the good work in us of salvation. In the Old Testament, in Deuteronomy 7:8, where we have recorded God’s reason for choosing his people, Moses tells the Israelites that it was, ‘because the LORD loved you … that he … redeemed you from the land of slavery …’ And John 3:16 tells us that, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’
So, it was God’s idea to plant this seed; he is the one who initiated it and he has done so as a decisive and deliberate act – planned and executed in accordance with his perfect will. It wasn’t your idea, it wasn’t the idea of some priest or preacher, it wasn’t the idea of some evangelist – it was God’s idea; ‘he began a good work in you’.
The Bible affirms this many times as we read of the conversion of people who became followers of Jesus. For example, in Acts 16:14 we have recorded the conversion of Lydia, where we read that, ‘the Lord opened her heart to give heed to what was said by Paul’. It is the will of God that is the ground of salvation – so the encouragement for you and me is that God has willed your and my salvation.
Our salvation begins then, with the planting of a seed, the seed being a seed of the very nature of God, i.e. divine love. The seed of love has been planted in all those who have asked Jesus to come into their life as their Saviour. There is a wonderful implication in this and that is: we are not people who lack love; rather we possess love – God’s nature received through the Holy Spirit.
Now, this seed that has been planted was planted by God with the intent that it will grow, and we know that the Christian life is intended to be one of growth. The planted seed needs to grow to its full maturity, and we can be assured in this, along with Paul, that the good work begun in us will be brought to completion. The first reason for this assurance is because it was God who planted the seed, and the second reason why we can have this assurance is because …
II. It is God who tends the growth.
This is rather fortunate, because if our salvation depended upon ourselves, I know that I for one would probably not make it. I have enough trouble trying to keep Linda’s pot-plants alive when she goes away to visit our daughters! 😊
We human beings are too fickle in nature. We are by nature subject to being influenced by our feelings, our moods, our emotions, our biases, and our self-indulgent-nature. Today, we may say we will accept Jesus as our Lord and follow him for the rest of our life; but tomorrow, we may fall away because we no longer feel the emotion of the moment; or our desire for something else becomes greater.
God, on the other hand, is consistent and reliable in his nature. He is the same God today as he has been throughout history and we can trust and rely upon him in all things. He never starts something and then forgets about it, or decides to not finish it. So, we can share Paul’s confidence that God’s intention is that this seed, that he planted, will grow to full maturity and bear fruit.
The growth that we should anticipate from the planting of the seed of God’s divine love is that this love should pervade our whole being and character. There should be evidence of this in our changing natures and lives. A growing Christian will show evidence of keeping Jesus’ commandments, of living as Jesus lived, of genuine compassion, and of loving one another. Something like divine love should become a virtue, something that people recognise within our character, and which will then prompt all of our subsequent attitudes and actions.
Paul saw this in the lives of the Philippians, in their partnership in the proclaiming of the gospel, and in the love that they expressed for each other. In verse 7 he speaks of their sharing with him in the ‘defence and confirmation of the gospel’. Those who truly possess the gospel would also want to spread the gospel and help to establish believers in their faith. Like the Philippians, they would be ready to stand up for the gospel, ready to identify with it, to jump to its defence, and to hold on to it in the face of the opposition of the world.
However, whilst God is the ‘head gardener’ who planted the seed and ensures the growth, we also have a part to play in nurturing the growth of God’s love within us. At home, Linda is clearly the ‘Head Gardener’; however, even though I am only an assistant gardener (or more like, as she often says, the ‘apprentice gardener’!) I still have a part to play.
Perhaps a better picture is one of the parent who helps and directs their little child to plant and grow a flower in the garden. The little child has work to do to enable the plant to grow to full maturity; but meanwhile the parent is supervising and ensuring that the plant does not die. So, it is with God as we cooperate with him in the nurture of the seed of salvation that he planted within us.
When the plant in Linda’s garden begins to get tall, she protects and nurtures it by hammering in two stakes each side of it to support its growth. In verse 9 of Philippians, Chap 1, Paul tells us that there are two stakes that support the growing shoots of love.
The first of these supporting ‘stakes’ is knowledge. For healthy growth to occur we need to support it by knowledge of the things of God, i.e. religious, spiritual, and theological knowledge. Knowledge of the truth provided for us through the teaching of the Holy Spirit, provided in the Bible, and in the living word of God, Jesus Christ, is the means of salvation. We cannot love the Lord if we do not know him. In addition, the more we know him, the more we shall love him, and increasing knowledge and love is one of the evidences of Christian growth.
However, some of us grow in knowledge without growing as Christians. To guard against this Paul says that the love must be accompanied by full insight - or as some versions translate it, discernment. So, the second of the stakes that support the growing shoots of love is ‘discernment’. Discernment determines how we apply the knowledge. It is what enables us to make a moral decision. We increase in discernment if we daily seek to be obedient to Jesus’ commands, to live as Jesus lived, to extend God’s love to each other, and seek to live in accordance with God’s will and for his glory.
So, our part in the nurture of the growing plant is in knowing the truth and applying the truth to life. It is asking questions such as, “What does the bible say on this?” “What would Jesus do in this situation?” “How may I better exhibit the love of God?”
Now, as we support the growing plant with the two stakes of knowledge and discernment, we should see growth in the form of the developing leaves. The developing leaves are the distinctive lifestyle of the Christian; the thing that should set us apart from those who do not have Jesus in their life. The distinctive lifestyle is the outcome and evidence of the love of God that we possess, and should be the thing that prompts others to want to find out more about Jesus.
However, sometimes we fail to put in place the two supporting stakes, or we allow them to become loose and fall away from the growing plant. This is what occurs if we allow ourselves to become too influenced by the values and attitudes of the world; rather than the values and commands of the bible.
We need to constantly test our values, attitudes and actions against the Bible and the example of Jesus. We need to constantly ask ourselves, “What is motivating this behaviour or this attitude, or these words that I am about to speak – is it God’s love within me, or is it influenced by the ways of the world, or my own self interest? Is it supported by my knowledge of God as revealed through the bible and Jesus Christ and am I applying this knowledge with the discernment that comes through the teaching of the Holy Spirit.
As we seek to be open to God’s tending of the growth of the seed of divine love planted within us, we will, in due course, see the blossom forming. The blossom is the developing holiness of the Christian.
Remember that last week we said that ‘holiness’ in the New Testament has the sense of ethical purity or freedom from sin. In verse 10, Paul indicates that this holiness should be observed in both the inner person in their purity and the outer behaviour in terms of being blameless.
As we continue to grow as Christians, this will ensure that ‘on the day of Christ …’ or in other words, at the second coming of Jesus that we anticipate during Advent, their will be for God a harvest – what Paul calls, in verse 11, ‘the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, for the glory and praise of God’.. This is the harvest of God’s people who have been made wholly acceptable to God and become the bride of Christ at his second coming.
So, as we await Jesus’ second coming we can be encouraged with the assurance that God is working in our life and will continue to do so. He planted the seed of love and we can be confident that he will continue to tend the growth to bring to completion the work that he began in us.
In this we have a role, and that is in seeking to increase in our knowledge and discernment which are the stakes that support the growing shoots of love. We increase our knowledge if we daily read our bible and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit in prayer. We increase in discernment if we daily seek to be obedient to Jesus’ commands, to live as Jesus lived, to extend God’s love to each other, and seek to live in accordance with God’s will and for his glory.
As we do this we should see the developing leaves, i.e. the distinctive lifestyle of the Christian. And in due course, we should see the blossom of holiness forming, evidenced in the purity of the inner person and the blamelessness in the outer behaviour. This will lead to the harvest of righteousness at Jesus’ second coming.