Wednesday, January 20, 2016

January 17, 2016 Philippians: How To Be An Encourager

When I served as an associate minister back in the 80s, I often received phone calls from Lillie Franklin, a member of our congregation.  I was always happy to hear from Lillie, as she was a very kind, encouraging person.  Many of our conversations began with an invitation for me to take the short trip from the church to her house to enjoy some of her delicious, homemade fried pies.  We would sit on her porch, or at her kitchen table, and I would enjoy the conversation and one of her pies, along with a scoop or two of ice cream that made it even better.  Lillie always had a kind and encouraging word to share, and would often tell me how much she thought I looked like the actor Tom Selleck (which was never true, but I was always happy to hear the comparison).

All of us have encouragers in life.  Who have been your encouragers?  You were probably thinking of some of them as I talked about Lillie.  What a gift we have in our encouragers!  And let us not forget that we have the blessing of being an encourager to others.

We are continuing our series of messages from the book of Philippians, and today we come to a message title How To Be An Encourager.  Our Scripture text is not one that is often referenced when studying Philippians, but it should not be overlooked either, as it has some powerful words to offer about encouragement.  As we have journeyed through the book of Philippians we have found there to be a strong theme of encouragement, and tucked away in this passage are some words of encouragement.

Follow along as I read Philippians 2:19-30 –

19 I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you.
20 I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare.
21 For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.
22 But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel. 23 I hope, therefore, to send him as soon as I see how things go with me.
24 And I am confident in the Lord that I myself will come soon.
25 But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs.
26 For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill.
27 Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow.
28 Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety.
29 So then, welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor people like him,
30 because he almost died for the work of Christ. He risked his life to make up for the help you yourselves could not give me.

Last week I referenced the story from Luke’s gospel that tells of Jesus healing the ten lepers, of which only one returned to offer his thanks.  As I spoke about that story I used the phrase be the one.  I appreciate that several of you mentioned that phrase after the service, and I’m going to use the phrase this week for each point I would like to make.

1.  Be the one to find something good to say.
In one of my D.Min. classes, on the first day, my classmates and I found ourselves finding a seat among the desks, which had been arranged in a circular pattern.  The professor began the class by asking one of the students to say something encouraging about the person sitting to his right.  At the time, none of us were acquainted with one another, and I felt a sense of relieve that the professor had not called upon me.  The student obviously struggled to find something encouraging to say about the other, and we all were asked, in turn, to do the same.  It was a difficult exercise, to say the least.  The professor was not out to make anyone uncomfortable; he was simply making a point.  Watch and observe other people, he said, and you can find something positive and encouraging to say about others.  It was a good lesson for us.

Paul writes in Ephesians 4:29 that we should not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen (Ephesians 4:29).  It is a much-needed reminder of our call to be encouragers to other.

In verse 20 of today’s passage, Paul writes of Timothy that I have no one else like him.  Imagine how that statement must have encouraged Timothy!  Paul knew a lot of people.  He worked with the giants of the early church.  He knew Peter, and most likely the other disciples.  In his travels, and his work with so many congregations, Paul knew many impressive and wonderful people.  And yet it is of Timothy that he says I have no one else like him.  Imagine what an encouragement that must have been to Timothy!

Be the one to find something good to say.

2.  Be the one who can go beyond your own struggles and be an encourager.
Sometimes we forget that when people ask us how we’re doing they are asking a rhetorical question, but we begin offering a long list of what is wrong in our world.  Please don’t hear me as being insensitive to anyone’s struggles, but we must remember that we are not the only ones who experience difficulties in life, and we cannot allow our struggles and our difficulties to keep us from encouraging others.

Sometimes we need to be encouraged, and sometimes we need to be an encourager.  Paul was someone who, considering his circumstances, needed to be encouraged.  But Paul wasn’t lost in his own problems.  Each week, as we’ve traveled through the book of Philippians, I’ve mentioned Paul’s difficult circumstances.  He was in chains, under arrest, and awaiting his execution.  It doesn’t get much worse than that!  And yet it’s really rather miraculous that Paul could so clearly see beyond his own struggles to be an encourager to others and not seek encouragement solely for himself.

Paul even decides to send his friend Epaphroditus back to Philippi to encourage the congregation there.  I’m sure Paul could have greatly benefitted from his continued presence, but he was worried about the members of that congregation and about Epaphroditus.

I’m often touched to enter a hospital room to visit someone, attempting to encourage the person, and they become an encourager to me!

Be the one who can go beyond your own struggles and be an encourager.

3.  Be the one who encourages – today!
I have hear people speak of their regrets in life, and many of those regrets have to do with missed opportunities to speak with someone about important matters.  In a previous congregation Tanya and I were blessed by a couple who were like second parents to us.  They were such wonderful encouragers to us and meant a great deal to us.  The husband, unfortunately, was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  After some months, he was in the hospital and had been unconscious for a number of days.  His weakened condition and the amount of medication needed to manage the pain had caused him to remain unconscious.  His wife expressed to me on several occasions of how she wished she had the opportunity to speak with her husband one more time.

Miraculously, she was given that opportunity.  One day, late in the afternoon, I walked into his hospital room to visit with her and she told me an amazing story.  Just after lunch, her husband suddenly awoke, sat up in bed, and they talked for about an hour.  In spite of his weak condition and the amount of medication he had been given, he was able to speak clearly, with the opportunity for both of them to say their final words to each other and other important matters.  After about an hour he put his head back on the pillow and never regained consciousness.  It was an opportunity few people receive.  It was, I believe, a miracle. 

Do not put off what you need to say.  Say it today.  We are not guaranteed tomorrow.  Paul knew he did not have a lot of time left, and I that realization certainly puts life into perspective.  I’m not trying to be morbid, but time is a precious gift and we have no idea how much time we have in this life.  Paul did not put off until later the encouragement he was able to offer in the moment.

Be the one who encourages – today!

4.  Be the one who understands the power of words and actions.
We must understand the power of our words, to build up or tear down.  The book of James talks very powerfully about the power of words and the manner in which they can be a blessing or a curse.  In James 3:3-12 we read –

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.
Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.
Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.
The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind,
but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.
11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

Our words can build up or tear down.  And allow me to add this – it’s not just the right words that we must offer, it’s also being willing to speak out when the time calls for us to do so.  There are times when silence is as unfortunate as the wrong words.

When I was in high school there was a student who received a lot of harassment.  There was a great deal of speculation about him and some hurtful rumors spread about him.  It was difficult for him to walk down the hall without hearing hurtful and insulting comments.  This young man and his family attended my church, though he never sat with the rest of us.  A few times I wondered why he never associated with us and it took me some years to understand why.  For one, we never invited him to sit with us and, secondly, I never stood up for him.  While I never participated in the name-calling and insults that were hurled his way, neither did I speak up.  Too many times I stood quietly and failed to come to his defense.

I very much regret that now.  I wish I could turn back time and have the opportunity to come his defense.  Navigating the social scene in high school is difficult for anyone, and my silence contributed to the difficulty faced by this young man.  I could have been an encouragement to him by standing with him and standing up for him.

You will recognize, no doubt, the name of the Biblical character Barnabas.  Did you know that was not his given name? Acts 4:36 tells us that his given name was Joseph.  Barnabas was a nickname, and means Son of Encouragement.  Isn't that a beautiful fact to know, that Barnabas was such an encourager that it became his name!  What would people choose as our nickname? Unfortunately, I did not earn the name of encourager with the young man from my high school and my home church.  I imagine Barnabas would have quickly stood up for him, encouraging him in both word and deed.
Be a Barnabas.  Don’t be silent when the moment calls for you to speak.  Be willing to speak up for the ones who need an encourager.  Be the one who understand the power of words and actions.  Be the one who can go beyond your own struggles and encourage others.  Be the one with something good to say.

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