Senior Vicar Christian Willick - The Third Sunday in Lent - Sunday, March 12, 2023

Text: Philippians 4:14-20

Watch Service Video Sermon Podcast

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. Our sermon text is Philippians 4:14-20; you’ll find it on page 8 of your service folder. We read: 14 Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. 15 Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; 16 for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need. 17 Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account. 18 I have received full payment and have more than enough. I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. 19 And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.

20 To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

This is the Word of God for the people of God.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

I want to tell you a vicar story. It’s not from my time as senior vicar here at St. John’s, but it’s a story from my first year as a vicar, in Marietta, Georgia.

It was a Sunday morning in December 2021, a morning much like this morning except without the snow, and I was standing in the back of our church. The reason I was standing was that, God be praised, every single seat in the sanctuary was filled. The children’s Christmas service had just concluded; the kids had done an excellent job with their speaking roles and musical parts, and they’d even gotten me to play handchimes with them on a piece. Now the congregation president stood up front and wished everyone a merry Christmas, but before dismissing us he said, “Now could we have our two pastors come up here, please?”

I had a knowing smile on my face as Pastor Seifert and Pastor Guse both walked up—you see, just that past week a member had walked into church and asked me where she might leave her contribution to the Christmas gift offering, and then quickly added, “Oh, no! Don’t tell the pastors, that’s supposed to be a surprise for them.” But what surprised me most now in that moment after the children’s Christmas service was when our congregation president added, “And vicar too.”

I was speechless. I had never been in a position quite like that before. It was such an unexpected and undeserved gift, and it meant more to me than I could’ve dreamed of. It was, in the words of our text, a fragrant offering, a pleasing sacrifice—not to me or our pastors, but to God—and it left such an impression that I remember it even now.

The reason I share this story is that our sermon text shows us an experienced pastor on the receiving end of something like this too. For the apostle Paul, the Philippians were quite literally the congregation of his dreams, as God had actually called him to be their pastor through a vision at night. Paul came to them right away and met a group of people that would grow to become one of the most diligent and beloved congregations he founded. Too quickly, though, Paul had to leave them under sudden circumstances, beaten, tired and sore, and it was scary not knowing what would come next; but what came next was this:

“As you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia (that is, the region Philippi is in), not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only.” What came without prompting and without missing a beat and without even a second thought in their minds was support from the Philippians, “for even when I was in Thessalonica (100 miles down the road into Greece), you sent me aid” not just once or twice, but multiple times!

That kind of love left an impression. Paul remembered it even now 10 years later while writing our sermon text under house arrest in Rome, chained to a Praetorian guard, separated from the Philippians and all the churches he’d devoted his life to, and yet just the mere memory of them and their gifts to him and the God who united them still, all this combined to make this letter to the Philippians “the great New Testament epistle of joy.” Paul rejoiced to know of the Philippians’ partnership in the gospel and to see the good works God did through them. Their gift was “a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.”

A sacrifice pleasing to God. It’s great to hear these words. But it can be hard to hear them too. The hard part about hearing these words is, I know I’m not. I’m not always pleasing to God. Ask yourself honestly with me: Do I weigh down my heart with worries and cares that shut out joy from my life and from those I interact with? Do I let my eyes or my thoughts linger too long where they shouldn’t be? Do I get so frustrated at the way life is or at the people in my life or just at the guy in the car next to me? In one way or another, I’m confident you can put yourself in that “I” too, because that’s what the law does. That’s what Paul does when he says: “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” Brothers and sisters, let’s have no delusions about ourselves. We are thoroughly corrupted from the moment we are born, from the moment we are conceived, and the evidence of that can be seen every day of our lives. There’s a wage to be paid, and “the wages of sin is death.” No, I’m not a sacrifice pleasing to God, I’m unacceptable to God in every way. So how can Paul call any part of us pleasing?

How? Our junior choir just sang it for us:

“His robes for mine: such anguish none can know.

Christ, God’s beloved, condemned as though his foe.

He, as though I, accursed and left alone;

I, as though he, embraced and welcomed home!”

“A fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.” I’m not; but Jesus was. Jesus paid it all. His robes for mine. “Sin’s wage is paid, propitiation won.” Do you see it? There’s only one sacrifice that was pleasing to God, and that was the life Jesus offered. Yes, let’s have no delusions about who God is: he is holy, he demands a price for sin, but he is also merciful and compassionate, he himself paid that price. And now he takes great delight in you. How? How can he call any part of us pleasing? Because when he looks at you, he sees Jesus. Every blemish taken away, everything taken care of. Because he promises “[he] will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.” Not “might,” not “may he,” he “will.” No doubt about it. That’s something you can take to the bank. All your needs, God will meet in Christ Jesus.

That’s a kind of love that leaves an impression. It creates a response. And this is the lesson I learned after the children’s Christmas service in Marietta, Georgia: I was speechless; it was such an unexpected and undeserved gift, and when I saw how much I’d been given, I wanted to give! I wanted to give back in any way I could.

Brothers and sisters, when you see how much you’ve been given, it makes you want to give! To give in any way you can. You do this just by being in church, giving of your time to be in his Word both here and at home. You do this just by being yourselves in the world, giving of your abilities to help those around you as if serving Christ himself, as in fact you are. And you do this by prayerfully and joyfully giving back some of what God gave you. For me that day it meant reevaluating what I could give for my “Sunday firstfruits” as I call it, and finding joy in being able to increase my offering with my end goal being ultimately to give back entirely what God through the congregation had given me. For you it will no doubt involve a number of factors: looking at all of what God has given you and all those he’s placed into your care, diligently applying yourself to your vocation not just for the sake of you and your loved ones but also for as many people as possible. It will involve you orienting your life in everything to serve the purpose of bringing as many people with you to heaven as possible.

And before we put too much pressure on ourselves, let’s remember this is never primarily something we do for God. It’s not so much that God needs our money. Gospel ministry will continue with or without us, through or in spite of us. Even Paul continued preaching whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. He had learned to be content whatever the circumstance. And yet he could say, having received the Philippians’ gift, now he had more than enough; his heart overflowed, it abounded with their giving, and it wasn’t because of how much they gave, but that they gave! He says, “Not so much that I desire your gifts, but that more be credited to your account!” Oh, what joy he must have felt! He tells us so! The joy he’s expressed throughout his whole letter to the Philippians welled up in this: that the Christians he’d baptized and instructed and watched throughout their growth produced this sacrifice pleasing to God, because they themselves were a sacrifice pleasing to God.

And that brings me to one final point. There’s another group of people I’d like to tell you about that have left an impression on me too, who have supported me throughout my entire ministerial education, right now while I’m at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, back when I was at Martin Luther College, and even back when I first started training to be a pastor at Luther Prep. Not only that, but even before high school this group of people made it possible for me and countless others to have a Christian grade school education and supported the ministry of the church I’ve been baptized in and instructed in my whole life. Maybe you’ve guessed it by now: that group of people…is you! You have been such an encouragement to me, not once or twice but multiple times; you have enabled me to pledge to support the gospel work carried out here, whether through “Sunday firstfruits” or through the Declaring His Praises program too. Thank you for supporting me in my ministry training. Now let me be evidence of your investment at work, and may it encourage you to do so more and more as we grow and expand and declare his praises to a watching world.

That’s my vicar story. So, what does your story look like? Maybe not quite like mine in every way, but I know it’s just like mine in three simple ways: our wage of sin to be paid, our wage of sin paid in full, and our joy-filled response to give. It all centers around the perfect sacrifice that was our Savior Jesus, and that makes everything you are and everything you do a sacrifice pleasing to God.

“To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.