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The Unfinished Symphony
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I would venture to guess that every single one of us has attended a funeral of someone whom we felt was far too young to die. One of the most painful things I do is to preside at a memorial service for a child who has died before the parents. That seems like am obscenity, doesn’t it, an attack directly from the hand of the enemy. Or perhaps a young person is struck down by cancer or AIDS. Or maybe in a car accident. One Sabbath morning, she is here at church with us: alive, vibrant, singing, giving hugs. And then, all at once, she is gone. Far too soon, she is gone.

And at a time like that, while we sit here at the memorial service, remembering and holding on to our faith . . . a thought comes to our minds. This wonderful verse from Philippians 1:6: “Being confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it to completion until the day of Jesus Christ.”

Now admittedly, funerals are not usually where this Bible passage is traditionally used. We tend to cling to the hope described in I Thessalonians 4 instead. Or the powerful promises in I Corinthians 15. Because Philippians 1:6 seems to be defining an uncompleted project, an as-yet-unfulfilled dream, an unfinished symphony. And of course, according to the conventional wisdom of the world, when you go to a funeral home, man, you’re there for something that is irrevocably done. The funeral marks the end of life, the finishing of this one person’s brave journey—whether they are seven years old or 97.

But, you know, on the day of a funeral service, I have this to think about instead. Here is an unfinished story. A Christian friend is cut down too soon. She still had work to do. She still had love to give, and now her husband or her kids or even her parents have to bravely continue without that love. She still had friendships to enjoy and parenting or grandparenting to do, and now she can’t. A monumental task has been cut short, left undone, cut off with a jagged piece sticking out. 

But friend, because of her faith in Jesus Christ, because of the certainty of the resurrection, the life of our lost friend and loved one is a soon-to-be-finished project. True, it is interrupted. For the rest of this year and then on until that great day, we’re deprived of this loved one’s laugh and their wit and their bright ideas. But He—God—who began a good work in him or her is going to finish. The unfinished symphony is going to be completed. The years stolen by the curse of cancer or that hit-and-run driver or that IED in Baghdad are going to be restored a hundredfold, a million-fold. Our friend will live again and finish and fulfill and come to full fruition, doing and experiencing everything God dreamed in the eternity He has always planned to give to them.

Today, as we launch into several Sabbaths of Bible study in the remarkable book of Philippians, I hope that those of us who remain, as Paul puts it, can take this verse equally to OUR hearts. Because admittedly the apostle was writing to living people. Men and women in the frail, fragile Christian Church of Philippi. We’ve Only Just Begun was their opening song at church each Sabbath morning. They were virgin believers. They were just getting out of the starting blocks in terms of faith and a daily walk with Jesus Christ. Spiritually speaking, you could see the warts on these people from a long ways off even though binoculars and telephoto lenses hadn’t been invented yet. But that doesn’t deter Paul from giving this ringing endorsement: “I know,” he proclaims, “that the same God who started this good work—two Sabbaths ago—in you isn’t going to give up! He’s not going to walk off the job! What God starts, He finishes! Always!”

And if that sounds like a blanket statement, I really intended it to be. In terms of a man’s character, a woman’s character, a child’s character, God is going to finish the job. The process of sanctification, of making a person holy, is something He will achieve in our lives. I know you’re thinking of that famous bumper sticker from a couple decades ago: “Please be patient; God is not finished with me yet.” And yes, sometimes lazy believers do paste those on their souls and use them as an excuse for careless, disloyal living. But for the Christian who’s not only willing to wear the bumper sticker, but also submit himself to the paint job and the oil lube and the engine tuneup God wants to perform is going to find that Philippians 1:6 is a money-back, Mr. Goodwrench guarantee.

C. S. Lewis once observed that many of us who are new Christians are troubled by the reality that hard times immediately come. In fact, it almost feels like the moment we come up out of the baptismal pool, the difficulties and temptations and potholes in the road start to beset us. And we don’t know why. As he puts it, God might have needed to use trials and troubles to rouse us out of our former stupor, our secular state, but why now? However, Lewis makes this point: “Because God is forcing him on, or up, to a higher level: putting him into situations where he will have to be very much braver, or more patient, or more loving, than he ever dreamed of being before. It seems to us all unnecessary: but that is because we have not yet had the slightest notion of the tremendous thing He means to make of us.”

He quotes from one of his own spiritual mentors, George MacDonald, who uses the illustration of a house. You have in mind that the contractor will come in and make just slight modifications. We don’t want anything done except for the most cosmetic of improvements. But no! Instead, this ambitious builder begins knocking out entire walls, tearing up the floors, blowing up the foundation, reducing the chimney to rubble. Again quoting Lewis: “Presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to?” And the answer is that Jesus is building for Himself a brand new palace, a place He wants to come and live in Himself. He wants to be Immanuel right within your soul: “God with us.”

It’s interesting that C. S. Lewis, devout Anglican that he was, almost believed in purgatory. Now, in actuality he did not, and of course, as Protestant Christians, neither do we. Purgatory, as traditionally taught, has each believer paying the price for his or her own sins and is a deadly negation of Calvary. But C. S. Lewis did envision the truth that one way or another, before we can really live in perfect safety next to the sea of glass, we need to have hearts and minds of “glass” where the resentments and hatreds and potholes of bitterness have been filled in. Don’t you think that the first week King David is up in the New Jerusalem, he is going to have to look up in heaven’s address book, go over to the house of Uriah the Hittite and say a few words of confession? Won’t God have a bit of “completing the work” to do there in the experience of this dedicated but frail human monarch?

Let’s think for a moment about this big, vast, sometimes bloated organization called the Christian Church. Or maybe we’d be better served today to think about our church right here. This is a wonderful family and we sense the unity God calls us to preserve. But we’re human. You know it; I know it. Sometimes we have our own fractured Pharisaism and some factions and even fights. Sometimes my spouse and I go for a walk and I shake my head and say, “Oh dear, what a mess!” Am I speaking about the global church, or about this church right here, or about my own fragile Christian walk? I’m not going to tell you! But there are moments when our spiritual condition is a mess. I can be immature and so can you. And so can the entire Body of Christ. 

The Christian Church was started by Jesus. He founded it; He got it going 2000 years ago. And here’s a Bible verse which promises us that the process He began He’s going to carry through to completion. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in meetings where someone lamented about the condition of the Church. But invariably someone else would stand up, give a great big confident Christian smile and then remind us that the church is the “Bride of Christ.” “Jesus loves this church,” they say. “And He’s going to make it perfect. He’s going to finish the job.”

Let me share one more conviction with you today. You know, I especially treasure this concept of completion within the Church for another reason.  Because it’s within the Church that we so often find the elements that bring us individually to our own completion. We complete each other within this fellowship. Now please think about this. All of you, as parishioners, certainly help to complete me! What would be the point of my studying to prepare and deliver sermons if no one listens? Why should our young people work on PowerPoint for our service if no one comes to appreciate the beautiful visuals? What’s the purpose of having Sabbath School if no one attends? Or someone giving Bible studies to an empty chair? Many of us here would not want to open our mouths and sing unless there were many other singers with us helping to—dare I say it—drown us out? When this church family experiences financial needs, we turn to you and, time after time, you faithfully help carry us through the dry times. When we’re struggling over a big decision in our church board or in some subcommittee, we can know that many people each day include this church in their list of prayer concerns. We complete each other. And I know it’s the same in our churches too, yours and mine. 

That’s why it’s just a terrific blessing for me to read backwards in this chapter and go back to verse three. Here’s what Paul writes: “I thank my God every time I remember you.”

Isn’t that a great Hallmark line? Paul remembers his friends in Philippi—their prayers, their songs, their hugs, their spiritual insights, their new, excited faith, their commitment—and he just can’t help but break out into celebration every time that memory flickers in his brain. Those people in Philippi, his brothers and sisters, help complete him as a spiritual man because every time he remembers them, it drives him to his knees in thanksgiving to God. And God uses His church to validate this guarantee in Philippians 1:6.

There are some marvelous extra insights to be found in some of the paraphrase versions of the New Testament. Notice here in The Message, by Dr. Eugene Peterson: “Every time you cross my mind,” he writes, “I break out in exclamations of thanks to God.” Then he adds this very 21st-century metaphor: “Each exclamation is a trigger to prayer.”

Isn’t that a fantastic premise? Wouldn’t you like to be a part of that kind of network? A phone call, a greeting at church, a fresh loaf of bread, even just a memory of a shared conversation . . . all of these being spiritual stimuli causing you to thank God—and also fall to your knees in prayer. 

But now let me take you back to verse six and this business of “completing.” Maybe you’re sitting right here among us this Sabbath, and you have cause to be discouraged. Perhaps you don’t have a job. Maybe someone just broke up with you. What if you just had a temper lapse, really blew up at someone you care about? Maybe you fell back into a destructive habit and you feel so weak and defeated today. All right. But what does the Bible promise us? It promises that this story isn’t over! This picture isn’t complete! If you’re unemployed right now, that’s not the end of the story God is writing in your life. So you made a mistake, committed a sin. God’s not done painting the portrait of your character yet! Things aren’t over! Maybe your marriage isn’t what you would like it to be. Well, take heart! God’s still knitting the quilt of unity He wants for the two of you to experience. Keep with the program. Keep trusting Him. Keep claiming Philippians one, verse six.

Let’s go back to the stark metaphor of a funeral. Because this can be the thought which keeps everyone going. “This funeral isn’t the end; this life story, so brutally interrupted, is going to be resumed in a marvelous way.” In fact, let me return to The Message Bible. And why don’t you think of YOUR toughest funeral, your most painfully incomplete project as we think about these words together. Here it is: “There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind,” Paul writes, “that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.”

Isn’t that amazing? And of course, we know that there’s no one who can finish something with a flourish like our incredible God.

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