A sermon delivered by Robert Browning, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Frankfort, Ky., on October 9, 2011.

Philippians 1:9-11

What do you think are the most important things in life? It is not uncommon for me to ask this question when getting to know people. Few questions tell me more about people than the answers they give.  So, I suppose it is only fair that I answer this question for you on this second Sunday as your pastor.

I wonder if Paul asked this question of people he met. Based upon our text, I think he may have. Tucked away in the first chapter of this tender letter to the people he dearly loved, Paul prayed they would learn what was most important in life so they could avoid costly mistakes and live a life which honored God.

“And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” Philippians 1:9-11.

That phrase, “to discern what is best” grabbed my attention. James Moffatt translated that to read, “to learn what is important or excellent.” I like this because it tells me that some things are more important than others, and it is up to each of us to learn what is most important.

How do you learn what is important? It happens in a variety of ways. I believe adversity is a great teacher. In all likelihood, we learn more about life from adversity than prosperity. Perhaps we are more teachable then.

I think we learn what is important from our study of scripture and through prayer. Each time we open the Word, the Spirit joins us to help us understand its meaning for our lives. Since God loves us, God wants the best for each of us and will help us make wise decisions.

Most of us need mentors to teach and model what is important, too. We need influential people in our lives who will listen to our questions and offer sound advice.

Who taught you what is most important in life? Like you, I have had many people who have influenced me, beginning with parents, grandparents, other family members, especially children, preachers, teachers, friends and authors. I am indebted to them for what they have taught me by word and deed.

As a matter of fact, I believe every person we meet can teach us something about life we need to know in order to be “pure and blameless…filled with the fruit of righteousness.” Every encounter, planned or spontaneous, can add to a deeper understanding of life if our minds and hearts are open.

At this point along your journey, what do you think is most important? Allow me to answer this as I give you time to think about it. For me, the most important things in life are my relationships to God, others and my possessions. Let me elaborate.

I believe the most important thing in life is my relationship with God through faith in Christ. Life is bigger than we are and God can make such a difference in how we handle our problems, challenges, struggles, temptations and decisions. Just as a child needs loving and responsible parents, so we need God and need to trust God with the same confidence a child places in her parents.

One of the first jobs I had was at a lumber company when I was sixteen. I worked on Saturdays during the school year and each day in summer.

My heart was filled with fear when I reported for that first day of work. I knew nothing about sorting lumber, driving forklifts, filling and delivering orders for builders or navigating a concrete truck through narrow streets. It felt like I was wading into deep water with no life vest.

About an hour after I arrived and began work, my dad came walking through the large shed where I was. I don’t recall a time I had been happier to see him. He didn’t stay long or say much. He asked if I was OK and needed anything, then he left. That short visit meant the world to me and was exactly what I needed. It gave me the confidence I needed as I traveled down an unfamiliar road. I knew I wasn’t alone, which calmed my troubled spirit.

I know of nothing more important than my relationship with God. Just when I need God most, He shows up to lead, guide, comfort, enlighten, empower and forgive me. His very presence lifts my spirit and calms my anxious nerves. God does things that only God can do, and I am grateful for His goodness and faithfulness.

I believe the second most important thing in life is my relationship with others. Just as we need God, so we need each other. God created us to live in community where we would care for others as if they were our own children.

Are you familiar with the Sequoia trees in Northern California? They hold the record for the tallest and oldest trees in the world. They can grow up to 350 feet in height, weigh up to 500 tons and live to be two thousand years old.

One of the most unique features of these stately trees is their root system; it is surprisingly shallow and the roots are only about one inch in diameter. As a matter of fact, they have no large tap root.

One way which the trees are able to remain upright is by growing close together and intermingling their root systems. Their roots spread about fifty to eighty feet in search of other trees. This is why you never see a Redwood tree growing alone, but in clusters.

I believe God created us to live in clusters. Our survival is also dependent upon building close relationships.

“What is the purpose of religion?” Rabbi Harold Kushner was asked. “To build community,” was his succinct reply. He’s right.

I am convinced the human and divine merge when we turn strangers into friends. So, listen to their stories. Walk in their shoes. Be kind to them. Lend a helping hand. Be an encourager. Treat them with dignity and respect. You need them, and they need you.

At the same time, cherish relationships you have with family members and close friends. Don’t let anything come between you; it is not worth it and so unnecessary if you embrace the concept of grace.

Learning to live with imperfect people is perhaps the strongest evidence of faith. Only by God’s grace can someone’s worst behavior bring out our best. Anyone can sever a relationship; only the strong can redeem it. By God’s grace, be strong.

I also believe our relationship to the things around us is very important. We live in a culture that wants us to get addicted to things, and most of us are. The more we have the more we want, and the more we want the more we sacrifice to get them, including our health, our relationships and our integrity.

According to the Bible, the things of this world are meant to help us live, but they are not to be the reason for living. How we obtain what we have and how we use them are certainly important to God. God values honest, hard work and generosity equally. One without the other rings hollow and will not honor Him.

I am concerned that we are living in a time when people have adopted a drawbridge mentality. Many believe their needs matter more than their neighbors, and they can prosper at their expense. Nowhere do I find this supported by scripture or by Jesus’ lifestyle; just the opposite is true. Responding to the pleas for help that others ignore is the essence of our faith. This was reinforced by many things Jesus modeled and taught, highlighted in the story of the Good Samaritan.

This was also why Paul connected learning what was important with love. The more we love God and others, rather than things, the more capable we are of seeing what is truly important in life.

Have you written down what is most important to you and shared it with others? I believe handing this down to our children and grandchildren is as important as any artifact we might leave them. Those around you now and those who will come after you need to know what your priorities are. They also need you to pray for them as Paul did his dear friends in Philippi.

How closely does your lifestyle align to what you would tell someone this afternoon? If you shared your list of priorities with others, would they be confused, or would they thank you for being authentic? What if I asked those closest to you what is most important to you, would their list match yours?

Have you misplaced your priorities? It is easy to do, you know. All of us get distracted or listen to bad advice at times and put other things ahead of what is most important. Has this happened to you?

“I climbed the ladder of success only to discover it was leaning on the wrong wall,” someone said. Don’t let this happen to you. With God’s help, climb down that ladder and start over. 

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