“Be Confident Until Then”
December 6, 2009 - Second Sunday in Advent
“It’s a tin fiddle” is an expression I picked up from Robert Farrar Capon’s marvelous theological cookbook, The Supper of the Lamb. In one chapter he waxes eloquent about the deficiencies of cheap kitchen knives, the kind you buy for $1.69 at the grocery store. Their handles come loose, they will not hold an edge, and they certainly won’t slice cleanly through a fresh tomato or a warm loaf of bread.
“It is as if,” says Capon, “there were a conspiracy… to provide the public only with violins made of metal… Nobody who remembered having heard a wooden violin would think the tin one as good. No professional violinist would willingly play a tin fiddle… All that notwithstanding, however, the tin ones would sell.”
The term “tin fiddle” applies well to all the cheap and unreliable tools and devices that are turned out by the millions and sold for practically nothing to unsuspecting and unknowledgeable consumers. The seventy-nine cent screwdriver that bends as you crank on a really tight screw. The frying pan you picked up at the dollar store that flakes off its non-stick lining the second time you use it. The ten dollar cell phone with the “5” key that won’t work after three months. Tin fiddles, all of them.
Yet it’s not only cheap and unreliable gadgets in which we foolishly put our confidence. In our text, Paul writes to Philippi to warn against being confident in personal abilities and accomplishments that are really tin fiddles which will fail us when we need them most. He even warns against the sort of people who think that spiritual tin fiddles are just fine, who build their lives around them.
Verse 1 says Paul repeated his warnings. Verse 2 does repeat “Watch out!” three times, “Watch out for dogs. Watch out for evildoers. Watch out for mutilators.” Dogs were abhorred in the ancient world, but for right now it’s enough to remember that they stick their noses in and eat just about anything, especially if it’s old and putrid. The “dogs” here are people who nourish their spiritual lives on old, putrid measures like racial status and the practice of circumcision. He also calls them “evildoers” and “mutilators of the flesh.” Their circumcision is a ragged mess of a cutting job, done with a cheap knife.
Instead of a “tin fiddle” circumcision which can’t by itself make a person right with God, Paul says in verse 3 that “It is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus and who put no confidence in the flesh.” He’s talking about a “circumcision of the heart,” as he describes in Romans 2:29, a piercing of one’s inner being with the fine cutlery of God’s Word about Jesus.
If you want to talk about tin fiddles, Paul goes on in verse 4, he’s got a drawer full of them. If you think you can trust human accomplishment, he’s nailed it all and lists it off in verses 5 and 6: circumcision; Jewish heritage; religious righteousness; passion for straightening out sinners. Paul has every reason, by traditional Jewish standards, to be confident in himself and in his own righteousness. For him that two-bit, plastic handled, stainless steel knife still looks pretty sharp.
Yet in verse 7, Paul dumps out all his tin fiddles, “whatever were gains to me, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.” He no longer has confidence in his heritage, in his accomplishments, in his own ability to be a good person and do the right thing. It was all junk, all useless, all—he considers it at the end of verse 8 with a vulgar word that seldom gets translated literally—“crap.” It all goes to the garbage bin or down the toilet so that he can have something better, something fine, something real, “that I may gain Christ.” Christ, instead of all the crap.
Paul doesn’t want a righteousness of his own, says verse 9. That’s junk. He wants the righteousness of Jesus, the righteousness God gives us when we trust Christ in faith. That’s the real thing, that’s the blade which will cut through all the deadness of our hearts and make us truly alive. That’s a gift you can trust, a sharp edge in which you can truly place your confidence.
As we continue in Advent, let’s try to lay aside the tin fiddles. That includes all the junk we ask for and buy each other, so much of it that will barely last a day or two past being unwrapped. Let us try to spend our time this season cutting away all that useless stuff we surround our lives with, and seek the real thing, the faith and love and righteousness that God gives us.
I would like to let go of worthless junk this Christmas. I’m trying to want less and give less of such stuff. I want to want what Paul wants here in verse 10, to know Christ and the power of His resurrection. It’s not easy. It hurts to give up things we’re used to having. Yet what we get in return is so much better than all that other stuff, all those tin fiddles.
Yet it still hurts. That’s why Paul says that the way to do it is to participate in Jesus’ suffering, become like Him in His death. Advent is a time to learn that. It’s a purple season, like Lent. It’s a penitential season. A time of excitement and anticipation to be sure, but also a time to let go and sacrifice, and look for something better, something in which you can be supremely confident.
And what you can trust, is that when you toss all the tin fiddles, throw away all the junk, and place your faith in Christ alone, the gift you receive will be life, real life, the life Paul and Christians ever since have called “the resurrection of the dead.”
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj