A Glimpse of Kingdom Life: An Advent Reflection on Philippians 1.3-11

Advent is a great season of the Church year, but, with all the distractions of the holiday season and planning for the new year, it’s a hard season to keep well. But in those years when I do manage to ‘keep it well’, I find that it operates as a kind of month-long examination of conscience. It’s a time to reflect on the year that has been — what worked well, what I could have done better, and what I want to change in the year to come. (Or, in the words of the question I’m pondering this Advent, ‘When I wake up on Christmas morning, how will I be different?”) This type of self-examination in light of the Gospel is at the heart of repentance. We often think of repentance as coming to terms with what we’ve done wrong, as confession of sin. But I am convinced this is only part of the story. Repentance must be just as much about how we would like to be in the future as it is about what we’ve done in the past.

Today’s readings offer us an opportunity to reflect on just this. The Gospel, Luke 3.1-6, introduces the ministry of John the Baptist, which Luke defines as “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” and which Luke explains with a reference to Isaiah 40:

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’

As I was reading the lessons for today, I couldn’t help but think the Epistle reading, from Philippians 1, offers us a small glimpse into what “the salvation of God” might look like for us in practical terms. Generally speaking, the letters and sermons that make up most of the books of the New Testament address communities in some sort of crisis. Romans, for example, attempts to bring together Jewish and Gentile Christians into one, united community; the Corinthian correspondence is famously written to a community where nothing seems to be going well; and Hebrews tries to strengthen the resolve of a church facing an intense period of persecution. Philippians is a bit of an outlier in all this, written to a community that seems to be for the most part doing okay.

In today’s reading, after telling the Philippians how grateful he is for them, Paul writes:

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. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. 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, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Things are already going well here: they hold those who are not present with them in their hearts, including those who are in prison. This is a true community, where ‘out of sight’ does not equal ‘out of mind,’ no matter the circumstances of that separation. But then Paul prays that they will truly share in the promise of what salvation might mean for life in community:

I mentioned earlier that Advent can function as a kind of an examination of conscience for us. Well, here in this little portion of Philippians we have a wonderful format for this sort of exercise, an examination of conscience less about confession of sins than about the confession of the salvation into which we are working:

  1. Do I remember, pray for, and reach out to those who are separated from me physically but who are with me in spirit?
  2. How might I cultivate loving relationships more in my life, so that love might overflow?
  3. How might I better turn knowledge into insight and discernment?
  4. How might I purify my heart — remember that it is what comes out of us, not into us, that ‘defiles’ us?
  5. What can I do to live more ‘blamelessly’?
  6. How might I cultivate a more bountiful harvest of the good spiritual fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control — and more?

This Advent season, I’m pondering the question, “When I wake up Christmas morning, how will I be different?” Today’s readings are pushing me to the next question, which may feel ‘less spiritual’, but is of equal importance: “How might I get there?”

I hope we can all take some time this week to reflect on these wonders of salvation-in-action, and how we might better live them out in all of our relationships.

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