Thursday, March 18, 2010

Running for the Prize

Athletic competition, and certainly Olympic competition, would be very different without the prize. As spectators, we anticipate the medal ceremonies… the national anthem playing, the look of joy, the congratulations and applause. When I was rowing crew in my college years, the reward most often received for winning was a t-shirt from the other team. That’s all we got, for the most part, but that t-shirt felt like a gold medal to us. Prizes and rewards have always been an important part of athletic competition…but is it right for us to live our lives in anticipation of goals and rewards from God? Paul leaves no doubt when he says in Philippians 4: 14, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” He’s talking here about the goal of spiritual maturity and resurrection glory. How do we pursue that goal? How are we to "press on" to the finish line of faith? Here are five things to consider:

To begin with, we must recognize the law of undulation. Paul wanted the Philippians to know that he knew he wasn’t perfect: “I have not already obtained this nor have I already reached the goal…” [lit. been made perfect]” (Phil. 4: 12a). The Greek word that Paul uses is teleios meaning "complete, full grown, mature." In others words, he hadn't reached the finish line, but he knew he was on the right track! Paul respected what another great Christian thinker would call “the law of undulation.” C. S. Lewis reminds us that as spiritual beings we inhabit the eternal world, but as physical beings we inhabit time…and so though our spirit can direct our bodies, passions, and imaginations toward God, they are also subject to constant change... physical and emotional ups and downs. “The nearest thing to constancy,” Lewis wrote, “is undulation" [C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Co, 1982) p. 40ff.].

U2’s Bono stated the law of undulation in a differerent way when he said that “Your nature is a hard thing to change… For all that "I was lost, now I’m found," it is probably more accurate to say, "I was really lost. I'm a little less so at the moment." And then a little less and a little less again. That to me is the spiritual life. The slow reworking and rebooting of the computer at regular intervals, reading the small print of the service manual. It has slowly rebuilt me in a better image. It has taken years, though, and it is not over yet" [U2 (with Neil McCormick), U2 by U2 (HarperCollins, 2006), p. 7 ]. In other words, “We haven’t arrived yet. We haven’t arrived at the goal of spiritual maturity and resurrection glory...and won’t arrive before Christ returns or calls us home. There’s a restlessness that’s a gift of the Holy Spirit…. a restlessness that says, “I haven’t arrived yet when it comes to my marriage, or in the way I conduct myself at school or work." A godly restlesness that says, "We haven’t arrived as a church…nor has our worship, our witness, or our service." That was Paul’s attitude, and by the grace of God that will be ours too.

Paul's second piece of advice for those who seek spiritual maturity, is to grab hold of the One who has grabbed hold of you. He goes on to say, “I haven’t already reached the goal, but “but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own" (Phil. 4: 12b). Paul literally says, “I’ve grabbed hold of that for which Christ has grabbed hold of me.” He makes it his life’s goal to take hold of the goal of spiritual maturity in Christ, but he does so in the knowledge that Jesus has already taken hold of him. In other words, Paul says, “I know I’m not perfect. I know I haven’t arrived. But I’m pressing on toward the goal of being more and more like Jesus every day; and I’m only able to do this because he has taken hold of me.” Jesus once said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me" (Matt. 11: 29). Jesus not only recruits us. He not only calls us. He promises to train us and transform us as we work under his guidance.

I’ve had the opportunity to do some rock climbing and rapelling. It's a lot of fun, but the time that sticks out in my mind was the first. I was repelling with a group of college students off a 200 foot granite point known as "the prowl" in the Minaret Wilderness. It was a starry night, pitch black. At the top, I have to admit that I was quite nervous, so when Brian, our guide, said to me “Steve, why don’t you go first” I thought "O great." Just then a brilliant comet streaked across the sky. It startled me with its beauty, shook me out of my fear, and gave me a wee bit of courage. I put my legs through the climbing harness, strapped on my helmet, and was locked into the rope. It all looked very sturdy…until I started walking backward over the cliff in to the blackness below. “Don’t worry,” Brian said as he prepared to belay me, “This rope can hold a small pickup truck!” I guess I looked nervous! Honestly, I didn’t care if this rope could hold a small pickup truck….what I cared about was that someone had a good grip on that rope! I was petrified, but as I went down the side of that cliff, following my guide's instructions, I was able to do something I had never done before, something I couldn’t have done without him…literally. He was my guide…he trained me, he prepared me. He told me what to do. But I still had to step out over that cliff, practice what he taught me and learn by experience that I could defy gravity as he held on to the rope and I followed his lead. You can’t grow into Christ likeness without taking a risk and a step of faith…but the good news is that Jesus gives us the will to do that. He grabs hold! It’s his grace from start to finish…and if you have that desire, and the will to follow him, that’s the first sign that HE is at work in you!

Next, forget the past and focus on the goal. "Beloved I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 4: 13-14). The word “forget” (from the Greek verb epilanthano) also means to “overlook” or “ignore.” Paul is basically calling us to “to refocus our attention on the goal”. Paul loved sport. No doubt he had seen the original Olympic Games in Athens or even the Isthmian Games in Corinth. His image of the foot race here comes straight from the Panhellenic foot races in which the runners focused their attention on the finish line, stretching forward toward the goal, and not looking back.

In Paul’s case, forgetting the past meant leaving behind past failure; his efforts to earn God’s approval, and to destroy the church before he met the Risen Christ. For Paul to move forward, he needed to let go of the past in repentance, reconcile with those he injured, and begin to see himself as Christ saw him. But Paul not only left behind past failure, he also left behind past success! We learned last week that Paul had much to boast about when it came to his former life; yet he considered it garbage compared with knowing Christ. We’re not called to deny our victories, but we shouldn’t dwell too long on them either…. One of Olympian Apollo Ono’s gifts as a short track speed skater is his ability to narrowly dodge the chaos of jockeying and colliding skaters which is so much a part of the sport. In one heat he was clearly behind everyone in the pack…but then two skaters collided, knocking out a third. He barely missed joining them as he stepped across them. But he didn’t dwell very long on that near disaster. He kept his eyes on the prize…and to everyone’s amazement…he won. Yesterday’s failures and successes can be an obstacle course of distractions that crowd out any thoughts about God, spending time with his people, or growing in our spiritual life. By his grace, may we learn to let go of those things which hinder us from running the race of faith…and refocus our attention on him.

To help us do that, we need to look for models; and choose wisely. “Join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ…Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is their shame; their minds are set on earthly things” (Phil. 4: 15-19). These days we’re very skeptical about authority figures of any kind. Some Christians proudly declare, “I don't recognize the church's authority or my pastor's. I follow Jesus.” But Paul argues that to do that God has placed spiritual role models in our lives to help us. Certainly there are some very poor spiritual role models -- and there has been much religious "abuse" in the church. We need to choose wisely. Along those lines, Paul warns the Philippians of the false teachers who live as enemies of the cross of Christ…whose minds are set on earthly things; not the things of God. What’s important to note here is that Paul says “their end is destruction.” There is a way that leads to destruction and death and separation from God! “Their god is their belly” Paul says: In other words, the road to destruction is the road that indulges every desire except the God-given desire to know him and have a relationship with him. Jesus came that we might have that relationship…this is what Paul discovered and what Christians through the ages have also found. And so as Paul followed the Savior, so he says…watch me, imitate me, follow my lead.

Again, we all have teachers and mentors, so choose wisely. Find those who know Jesus and walk with him…and ask them to pray with, encourage, & teach you. One of my dearest spiritual mentors both in high school and then again after college, taught me an important lesson: that discipleship flows from community. In other words, Jesus disciples us as we are in close knit community with each other…his Body. What athlete would ever try to succeed without a coach, without team mates and back up? Michael Jordan is a great ball player…but even he needs coaching, mentors. The game can’t be played alone! You simply can’t learn to follow Jesus all by yourself…you need the gift of close-knit community.

Finally, aspire to be a colony of heaven until Jesus comes. “But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory….” (Phil. 4: 20-21). The final point that Paul wants to make regarding our goal of Christ-likeness is the reminder that we are citizens of heaven; citizens in the same way that the Philippians were citizens of Rome. Remember Philippi was a Roman colony, whose task was to expand Roman influence on the Greek peninsula. Paul reminds these Philippians that they should have even greater pride in their role as a colony of heaven; and their loyalty to this world’s rightful King, who promises “to transform our physical bodies into glorious bodies like his own.” On the sign outside our church, we read the words “St. John’s Presbyterian Church” but in truth our first goal is not to be a Presbyterian Church or St. John’s Church. Our number one goal is to be a church that Jesus would be proud of, a colony of his heavenly kingdom!

About 1600 years ago, John Chrysostom said: “It’s the mark of the perfect man not to reckon himself perfect.” That was Paul's attitude precisely, and it should be ours as well -- to be able to say, I haven’t arrived yet; but I’m following the One who has. I haven’t arrived yet but I’m forgetting the past and focusing on the goal. I haven’t arrived yet, so I’m choosing role models to help me get there. I haven’t arrived at heaven’s gate, but I want to be part of heaven’s work. I haven’t arrived yet, “But thanks be to God who assures me of the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ"!

Risen Lord, when we fail and fall short, help us to remember that we will not arrive at the finish line before you return or call us home. Still, we press on, thanking you for the assurance of your strength and love – for you have called us, you have claimed us, and you have promised that you will complete in us the good work that you began. We therefore lay aside the sin, guilt, and shame that weighs us down, confessing where we have wronged you and others, asking for your forgiveness, and pressing on toward the goal of spiritual maturity. Bless us with mentors who can guide us in the Way. Help us to tell others about you, so that those who reject your saving grace might turn from death to life and follow you. In all this, empower us to truly live and work as a “colony of heaven” here and now…giving glory and honor to you daily, our Crucified and Risen Lord. Amen!


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this message Pastor Steve. It is great. We touched on the importance and value of risk taking in the class I just finished up at CSULA.
It is so true that yesterday's successes and failures can be an obstacle course of distractions and we must not focus on them, but continue to press forward in faith.
The brilliant comet that shook you out of your fear and gave you courage is a special story and I truly believe it was a special sign from God that he "had your back!" ~Amal

Anonymous said...

This was such an encouraging sermon. Thank you Pastor Steve for sharing this. It was really satisfying to know that we still haven't arrived but God is at work with us and will guide us to our goal. - Jequaline