by Jason Micheli
Philippians 1.1-11 (click to see Scripture text)
If you look at the track listing of the songs on Johnny Cash’s 1969 live album, At San Quentin, you’ll discover two idiosyncrasies.
Not only is it the album with Cash’s only top ten billboard hit, “A Boy Named Sue,” which was written not by Johnny Cash but by Shel Silverstein, the title track, “San Quentin,” is listed twice on the album, back to back.
It’s not a misprint.
Cash performed the song twice for the inmates at San Quentin prison.
By all accounts, he did so in order to quell the crowd’s rage and avoid a riot.
Like all his other shows, he began with his standard greeting, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” and then opened by playing a couple of his familiar hits for the fifteen hundred inmates— most of whom were lifers— in the audience.
A half-hour into the show, after a set with June Carter, Johnny Cash said to the prisoners, suddenly serious, “I was thinking and praying about you guys yesterday. I’ve been here three times before, and I think I understand a little how you feel about the world.”
The inmates listened in rapt silence to the sudden show of respect and solidarity from the celebrity.
“We’re all in hell in here!” one of the prisoners shouted.
“It’s none of my business how you feel about some other things,” Cash said, “and I don’t give a damn about how you feel about some other things, but I tried to put myself in your place, and this is how I think I’d feel if I were you about this place, about San Quentin.”
And then Johnny Cash unveiled a new song, a song that had come to him just hours before.
The song began with heavy guitar notes.
Not knowing what to expect from the brand new song, the prisoners were shocked by the venom of the song’s opening lines, San Quentin, you’ve been hell to me.
You can hear it on the album—
Roused by Cash’s identification with them, the inmates suddenly “let loose a chilling roar of brotherhood.”
You’ve hosted me since nineteen sixty-three.
I’ve seen ‘em come and go and I’ve seen ‘em die.
And long ago I stopped askin’ why.
San Quentin, I hate every inch of you.
And again on the album, you can hear the prisoners release a birth-pangs howl—
You’ve cut me and you’ve scarred me thru an’ thru.
And I’ll walk out a wiser, weaker man;
Mister Congressman, why can’t you understand?
Cheers erupted to each stanza of the four-minute song, carrying Cash to his final, venomous benediction:
San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell.
May your walls fall down and may I live to tell.
May all the world forget you ever stood.
And the world regret you did no good.
With the song, Cash had tapped into the longing and lament, the rage and the despair of San Quentin’s prisoners.
When the song ended, the inmates erupted into thunderous applause and they demanded that Cash play the song again.
And he did.
After he finished the song for the second time, the prisoners broke out into an even more deafening response, this time breaking the rules by standing on tables and chairs to cheer and scream, pushing the mood to a tipping point.
“A dangerous energy filled the room,” Cash’s producer recalls, “All the guards were nervous. They thought there was going to be a riot. Johnny realized that all he had to say was ‘Let’s go!’ And there would’ve been a full-scale riot.”
Stomping their feet, some of the prisoners shouted to the stage, “You give us the word, Cash, and we’ll beat the hell out of them, just for the hell of it!”
“I was tempted to give them that word,” Cash admitted later, “but what they wanted for the world only God can do.”
What they wanted, only God can do.
“I am confident of this,” the Apostle Paul writes at the top of his letter to the Philippians, “that the One who began a good work among you will bring it to completion on the day of Jesus Christ.”
This is one of Paul’s best known lines from his epistle to the church at Philippi, and it’s one of the most beloved, most cross-stitched verses from any of his letters.
Over the years this verse has been for me what it’s been for many others over the centuries, a source of encouragement and comfort that no matter my doubts or my limitations, no matter my shortcomings or my failures, no matter how many times I disappoint people like you, “the God who began a good work [in me] will bring it to completion…”
This is certainly not a wrong way to hear today’s text but hearing it exclusively in terms of individual encouragement and personal comfort prevents us from understanding the full Gospel that Paul proclaims already in just the sixth verse of his letter.
To hear this Gospel in its fullness, we must appreciate the context.
The Apostle Paul is dictating this epistle from prison.
Paul and Silas had first visited the Greek city of Philippi on their second missionary journey, about twenty years after the crucifixion, where they were arrested as agitators and accused of stirring up civil unrest.
According to the Book of Acts, Paul had freed a girl from oppression, which did not please those in Philippi who profited off her exploitation and, so, in the name of Law and Order they locked Paul and Silas up, roughing them up along the way, and then eventually ran them out of town but not before the Holy Spirit through them had planted a church.
Paul writes to this congregation from a prison in Rome.
This is just Paul’s most recent stint behind bars, and it would be his last as the Emperor Nero would have him beheaded in 64 AD.
Philippians— this is Paul’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
Paul is cut and scarred through and through. He knows that this time he will not walk out a wiser, weaker man. He’s about to die. And, in keeping with imperial custom, his corpse will be degraded and humiliated to set an example for the sake of the status quo.
To all outward appearances, then, the Powers of Sin and Death have won. Caesar is Lord. Caesar reigns. And the Church of Jesus Christ— the world will soon forget it ever stood. The Gospel, seemingly, had done the world no good.
Hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword all appeared to have succeeded in separating Paul from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
So when Paul writes to the Philippians, “I am confident of this: that the One who began a good work among you will bring it to completion on the day of Jesus Christ,” he means, I am confident of this and this only.
I am confident of this alone.
Here I stand, Paul is saying, confident in no other: that the God who began a good work among you will bring it to completion on the day of Jesus Christ.
The God who began a good work among you all— This is more than an individual memory verse.
Paul’s concern here is cosmic in scope.
Paul has in mind not just solitary believers but all of humanity in bondage to the Principalities and Powers.
At the end of his rope, Paul points us not to any potential in ourselves, but to what only God can do.
And with his ministry seemingly defeated and with death looming, despite all evidence to the contrary, Paul insists that the God who began his redemptive work in Jesus Christ will bring it to fulfillment when the Son of Man comes again in glory.
When it comes to a passage like our text today, we have trouble understanding just how surprising it is that someone like Paul has any confidence whatsoever in a coming good work by God on our behalf.
What we have difficulty understanding in our culture today is that, from a biblical perspective, the only thing Paul or the Philippians or any of us have any right to expect is not a good work from God, but rejection by God.
Grace is God’s favor that is undeserved, that’s true.
But more to the point, grace is contrary to what is truly deserved.
As Karl Barth says,
“Grace is always ‘despite’ and not ‘because of.’ God’s gracious action is never ‘consequently’ but always ‘nevertheless.’ It is life from the dead and the justification of the ungodly, not the reward of the righteous.”
We don’t understand this, because we live in a culture that prefers to speak exclusively of God’s love and almost never of God’s judgment.
The message you hear from preachers like me is nearly always a variation of the message that God includes everybody, embraces everybody, accepts everybody just as they are— fine, but it doesn’t lift the luggage. The biblical idea that there is something seriously wrong with all human beings and with the world which we have made in our image is seldom part of the Church’s message.
Nonetheless, a fundamental presupposition of the Gospel is the fact that our situation— the situation of the entire world— is such that only God can redeem us.
Only God can rectify what we in liege with Sin and Death have broken and continue to break.
Our only hope is for Almighty God to complete the work begun in Jesus Christ, because “there is no one among us who is righteous, not one,” the Bible says. There is no distinction between any of us, even the best of us, the Bible says. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, the Bible says. Even the good works we do, apart from Jesus Christ, we do them to our condemnation, the Bible says. All our good works are like “filthy rags,” says the prophet Isaiah.
As Paul makes clear in his salutation today, grace and peace can come only through God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is exactly what Jesus says in John’s Gospel, “Peace is a gift I give that the world cannot give.”
Nothing of the Gospel, and nothing Paul says here in Philippians, can be understood apart from this diagnosis of the human condition. All are in bondage to the Principalities and Powers. We’re all locked up under the Power of Sin. And what WE WANT and PRAY for the world, ONLY GOD CAN DO.
Being religious or spiritual doesn’t help, the Bible says— religion and spirituality are just more ways we attempt to justify ourselves. We are ALL lost creatures, powerless over the Law of Sin and Death. You can just easily put Paul’s Gospel point today in the inverse.
We cannot complete the work of New Creation that God has begun in Jesus Christ.
The Gospel is unintelligible apart from the acknowledgement that there is no human way to sort out what is wrong in us. Here now in the United States, we’re all living the Gospel reality that there is no human way to sort through what is wrong in us or in the world. Thus, there is no human way to fix what is wrong in the world. There is no human way to fix what is wrong in the world, because we are what is wrong in the world.
Our confidence, therefore, is not in our ability— with a little bit of help from our friend, Jesus— to improve ourselves and to make the world a better place. Our confidence is in the Living God.
In ourselves, we have no basis for any hope, whatsoever.
In God, we may be confident that the Good Work begun in Jesus Christ will be brought to completion.
The Lutheran pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, spent the final eighteen months of his life in a Nazi prison.
In the waning days of the war, on the personal directive of Adolf Hitler, the Third Reich strung him up on a gallows and martyred him.
In his Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer sounded a theme similar to the Gospel hope to which St. Paul points to from behind bars today.
From his prison cell, Bonhoeffer reflected on the place of the Gospel in a secular world, and this led him to criticize— severely so— our tendency in the “world come of age” to abolish God as “a working hypothesis.”
Having removed God as the working hypothesis behind our morals and politics and, even, our religion, Bonhoeffer judged that we fundamentally live in the modern world as functional atheists.
Even believers— maybe especially, believers, live in the world as functional atheists, Bonhoeffer saw.
In our politics, we might pay lip service to “biblical principles” or “Judeo-Christian values.”
In our philosophy or commerce, we might give deference to “the teachings of Jesus.”
In our organizing for justice and reconciliation, we might marshal to our side “the spirit of the prophets.”
But in doing so, we really only “smuggle God in at some last place,” Bonhoeffer says, “as though God is irrelevant to everything in our world, but our religious sentiment.”
That is, we act in the world as though God is dead and the world’s only hope is the work we do, but we ourselves are a part of the world in need of redemption.
Smuggling God in at the last moment, into our causes and our politics and our lives — for Bonhoeffer this is the opposite of the Living God who raises the dead to life.
“It is impossible to state too clearly,” Bonhoeffer wrote from prison, “that only the coming of the Lord Himself can make ready the way for His coming…the end of all our work to prepare the way of Christ must lie precisely in perceiving that we ourselves can never prepare the way.”
We prepare Christ’s way in the world by recognizing that we ourselves can never prepare the way, or, as the Apostle Paul puts it from his own jail cell, “I am confident of this, the One who began a good work among you is the only One will bring it to completion on the day of Jesus Christ.”
Notice, the Apostle Paul takes the Old Testament concept of the Day of the Lord and, just as he makes Jesus Christ synonymous with Yahweh in the greeting of this letter, he amends the Day of the Lord to the Day of Jesus Christ.
For the Hebrew prophets like Malachi and Micah, the Day of the Lord signaled the end of age when God Himself will come to His Creation like a refiner’s fire and rectify a lost and fallen world.
The Day of the Lord heralded by the prophets will be the Day of Jesus Christ, Paul says today, when Christ will come again and finish His redemptive work.
As Charles Wesley puts the Day of Jesus Christ in his hymn, “Finish, then, the New Creation/pure and spotless let us be/let us see thy great salvation/perfectly restored in thee.”
Paul’s basing his confidence and hope not on any signs or evidence in this world.
Paul’s basing his confidence and hope beyond this world.
By looking to the Day of the Lord, the Day of Jesus Christ.
This accent on the Day of the Lord is why, historically, our text today is assigned by the lectionary for the second Sunday of Advent.
Advent is, as Fleming Rutledge calls it, the passive season, the wait and watch season.
The season that anticipates not the first coming of Jesus Christ, but Christ’s coming again.
It is the season where the Church confronts the reality that what we want for the world only God can do.
Of course, this does not mean we despair and do nothing.
Of course, not.
We discern and we do the good works God has prepared for us from before the foundation of the world.
We engage public issues and we confront sin and we resist evil and oppression because this is what it means to put on the armor of faith.
However what separates God’s elect people from everyone else in the world who do good works is that we alone know that we cannot make the world come out right.
By faith, we are the ones who know that all our good works in the world, every hungry mouth we feed and every structure of racism we seek to dismantle, all our good works in the world are only partial and provisional and will be brought to completion only by Jesus Christ.
And this is why the cliché that Christ has no hands or feet in the world, but our hands and feet is not a biblical statement.
It gets Paul’s Gospel confidence backwards.
We need the Living God to finish His New Creation.
The Living God does not need us.
The True and Living God creates ex nihilo, from nothing.
His Word is powerful to bring into existence the things that do not exist. “Lo,” Jesus promises, “I am with you still until the end of the age.”
The end of the age.
The Day of Jesus Christ.
On that day there will be no more hardship or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
On that day, those that mourn will be comforted, all who’ve starved for justice will be filled, and the poor will be given the keys to the kingdom.
And on that day, the proud will be humbled and the lowly uplifted, the powerful will be brought down from their thrones and the rich will be sent empty away, and the Living God will bring to completion the Good Work began in Jesus Christ.
This is the only thing I’m confident of.
Johnny Cash’s Live at Folsom Prison album from a year earlier had been such a commercial and critical success, his label, Columbia Records, had been keen to add another prison to Cash’s tour schedule where, hopefully, they could cut another live album from behind bars.
Initially, because of the hectic pace of his performance schedule, Cash gave little thought to his upcoming show for the prisoners at San Quentin, approaching it as just another gig.
His producer, Bob Johnston, encouraged him not to worry and play the same set list they’d used at venues up and down the West Coast.
But, according to his biographer, Robert Hilburn, forty-eight hours before the show, Johnny Cash began to think about the prison concert more seriously, attempting to find common ground with his imprisoned audience by looking at the world through their eyes.
He prayed on it.
Just across the bay from San Francisco where it housed California’s death row, Cash prayed on San Quentin’s reputation as a hardened and hopeless place.
He thought about the rage and despair the inmates there must harbor, and he empathized with them, connecting it to the dark anger that resided deep inside him.
He considered the broken parts of our world, beset by poverty and racism, that led many of those men to be locked up in cages and forgotten by society.
He dwelled on his own struggles with addiction and how he had had his own run-ins with the law, as a consequence.
By the time Cash stepped up on the stage at San Quentin prison two days later, he had two new songs under his arm and he felt “like a man on mission, seduced once again by the idea of redemption, and he vowed to find a place for the promise of that redemption in the show.”
You might say Paul today is likewise seduced by the idea of redemption, confident that the One who began a good and redemptive work among us in Jesus Christ will bring it to fulfillment for us.
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
3 I thank my God every time I remember you, 4constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6I 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. 7It 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 gracewith me, both in my imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel. 8For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. 9And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.