ChuckWarnock.com

Confessions of a Small Church Pastor

Sermon: Pressing on Toward the Prize


Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, Sunday, October 5, 2008. I hope your day is a good one.

Pressing On Toward The Prize

Philippians 3:4b-14

If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.
7But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. 10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

12Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Choosing A Story
This has been an interesting presidential campaign. Long, but interesting. If you have followed the campaigns since each party convention, you know that both the Republicans and Democrats have chosen a presidential candidate, and they each have chosen running mates. At each of their conventions, both the Republicans and Democrats adopted a party platform. But, that’s not what we’re voting on in this election.

Each party has their own favorite hot-button issues. But those issues are not what we’re voting on in this election. What we’re really voting on are stories — the stories of the candidates. And, they are all interesting stories.

John McCain. Former Navy pilot. Son and grandson of admirals. Known as a maverick both in the Navy and since. War hero. Prisoner of war. Torture survivor. A compelling story of honor and service to country.

Barack Obama. His father came to the US from Kenya during the Kennedy administration in the days in which our country sought to educate, train, and inspire hope in the world. A mother from Kansas, grandparents who raised him. College, law school, state legislature, and US Senate. A real story of the American dream and hope for even the most disadvantaged.
Sarah Palin. Hockey mom. Moose hunter. Mayor of Wasilla. Governor of Alaska. Highly competitive in high school sports, earning the name Sarah Baracuda. Maverick, reformer. One of the regular people who cooks for her family, drives to work, and juggles the demanding responsibilities of a family of five and running the state of Alaska.

Joe Biden. Three decades in the US Senate. Survivor of family tragedy when his wife and daughter were killed and his sons severely injured in a car accident between the time of his election and swearing in to the US Senate for the first time. Biden took the oath of office standing in his son’s hospital room. Survivor of a brain aneurysm. Commutes to Washington DC by train each day, like thousands of others who work in the Capitol. A story of persistence in the face of tragic loss, competence, and achievement.

Those are the stories we’re voting on. And, guess what? That’s what we’ve always done in selecting our leaders. For example, if I say George Washington, what story comes to mind? Might be the winter at Valley Forge, or crossing the Delaware, but probably the first story is the legend of the cherry tree. Historians have pretty well proven that the cherry tree story is not factual, but it still seems to represent the “Father of our Country” doesn’t it?

If I say Thomas Jefferson, what stories come to mind? Monticello, and Jefferson’s talent in the fields of architecture, farming, and gardening. Or, maybe you think of the Declaration of Independence, or the Bill of Rights, or freedom of religion. All of those define Thomas Jefferson for us.

Abraham Lincoln? Log cabin, humble birth, dry wit, a common man with uncommon wisdom. Of course, we think of Lincoln also as the Great Emancipator, when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. And, tragically, part of the story of Lincoln is his death at the hands of an assassin.

Personal stories capture our imagination and play a great role in who we choose to lead this country. And, that brings us to this passage today, in case you’re wondering what in the world the presidential election, the stories of past presidents, and Paul have in common. And the answer is — stories.

Paul’s Story
In this passage from Philippians 3, we get Paul’s version of his own story. It’s one thing to have someone else tell your story, but no one knows your story better than you do. Or at least, no one will emphasize the parts of your story you want to emphasize more than you will. What was important to Paul in his story? Well, just listen –

If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more:

  • circumcised on the eighth day,
  • of the people of Israel,
  • of the tribe of Benjamin,
  • a Hebrew of Hebrews;
  • in regard to the law, a Pharisee;
  • as for zeal, persecuting the church;
  • as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.
So, that’s it. Paul is telling us the parts of his story he wants us to know, the parts that are important to him. Or were important, but we’ll get to what happened in a moment. Here Paul takes us through his life from birth to adulthood, highlighting the parts that are important to him.

His life begins in the home of observant Jews, because when he is eight days old, he is circumcised according to Jewish law and custom. Then, he reiterates that he is a Jew, but not just any Jew. A Benjamite, a Jew with special heritage. A Hebrew of the Hebrews — outstanding, in other words. Perhaps Paul is referring to his time spent learning in the school of Gamaliel, one of the outstanding rabbis and teachers of Paul’s day.

Perhaps Paul meant that his family was a devout practicing Jewish family, and that as he grew up he learned and incorporated those values into his life as well. Paul does tell us that as an adult, he was a Pharisee. The Pharisees get a bad rap today, and the very word ‘Pharisee’ has come to mean hypocrite, legalistic, and hard-hearted. But, in Paul’s day the Pharisees interpreted the Law. They helped all of the Jews observe the myriad laws, and rules, and regulations with great precision. The Pharisees were the conservatives, the group who promoted a literal application of scripture, and the group that made sure the Law was being properly kept.
To be a devout Jew meant you observed the Law, the rituals, the feast days, the dietary regimen, and all the other strictures on Jewish life. The Pharisees, however, were also overbearing, pompous, self-righteous, and arrogant. But, hey, their job was to make everybody fall in line behind them.

Part of Pharisaic precision demanded that splinter groups, those who would dilute the faith, be dealt with. Christians were first viewed as a break-off from Judaism. All the followers of Jesus were Jews. They gathered in the Temple when in Jerusalem, they kept the Jewish dietary laws, and were basically observant Jews. Except, they kept teaching that Jesus of Nazareth was the Jewish Messiah — the Anointed One. Of course, that was ridiculous because Jesus had been crucified by the Romans, and buried. And, despite reports that he had been seen alive, Paul saw Christians as a nuisance and threat to the Jewish way of life.

Rome allowed conquered territories to keep their local religions, as long as it was not a threat to the empire. Jesus was clearly a threat, because the Romans killed him. Paul was very interested, as a Roman citizen, of making sure that the Christians did not get all Jews in trouble by talking about and promoting the memory of the rebel Jesus. The best way to handle that was to stamp out this renegade sect before they caused more trouble.

So, Paul gathered letters from the Chief Priest, letters of introduction, allowing him to travel into Jewish communities in cities outside of Jerusalem, to look for and actively persecute Christians. That’s what Paul means when he says, “As for zeal, persecuting the church.”

Then, Paul adds — “As for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” In other words, Paul kept all the rules. All of them. Faultlessly. And, gave himself great credit for doing so.
The Center of Paul’s Story
Paul’s story revolved around Paul. The story Paul told about his own life was about his privileged birth, his national heritage, his superior education, his rise to power among the Pharisees, his relentless zeal in pursuing Christians, and his faultless observance of the Law. Paul was Paul’s best advocate. Nobody knew Paul’s story better than he did, and nobody could tell it better.

And, that is the story he would have lived out, except for one thing. Jesus. Paul is traveling, about his business of seeking out and killing Christians. He has already had a hand in stoning Stephen, one of the first deacons of the church. Now, Paul is on a mission to wipe out all the Christians. He is on his way to Damascus with credentials in hand, to continue his mission.

But a blinding light and a booming voice stop him cold. Paul cries out, “Who are you?” And Jesus answers, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” And all at once, everything about Paul’s story changes.

Paul is no longer the center of Paul’s story. Paul is no longer the best of the best, a Hebrew of the Hebrews. Paul has come face-to-face with this rebel, this Jesus, whom he now knows to be the risen, living Messiah of God. And, everything changes.

Paul’s story, which to him was a volume by itself, quickly becomes just a footnote in the story of God. For Paul did not realize that his story, the story of which he was so proud, was contained in a much bigger story, the story of God.

Remember when your kids or grandkids were little. They thought the world revolved around them. When they cried, someone grabbed a bottle or a diaper, or both. When they laughed, everyone smiled and laughed with them. When they said something cute, it got repeated until everybody they knew had heard it. But, then they went to school. And there they found out that they were one of 25 or 30 other kids, and that the teacher only had so much time, and everybody had to take turns, and you couldn’t always be first. And, then they went to high school, where you had to compete for a place on the football team, or cheerleading squad, or debate club because there were lots of kids who were talented and capable.
And, so the story goes. As we grow, we adjust our story to find our place in society.

Well, Paul had to adjust his story, too. Where Paul had once been the center, now Jesus was. Where Paul’s thoughts and desires were once the purpose on which he acted, now the words and life of Jesus gave Paul’s story new purpose. Paul’s understanding of his story changed when he found himself inside the story of God.
New Stories Bring New Hopes
Paul says he counts everything as loss, worthless, rubbish for the sake of knowing Christ. The story of Jesus changed everything for Paul. Now, Paul has a new purpose. Paul has new friends. Paul has a new agenda each day. Paul has a new vision — to be like Christ in his life, in his suffering, and in his death.

But, the story of Jesus isn’t just about living and dying, it’s about resurrection. And for Paul, this is the best part.
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
The resurrection of the dead — the promise of life with God. The resurrection of the dead — the evidence that death does not have the last word, but that the story of God is the biggest story ever because it encompasses not just life and death, but life, death, and the defeat of death, ushering in the kingdom of God in all its fullness. Paul knows that is not yet a reality, but he also knows that God’s Kingdom is closer than it’s ever been, and Paul wants to be part of it.

This is the same Paul who thought he had it all figured out. The same Paul who knew the rules, and knew them so well that he could enforce them and preserve the true faith. Until he met Jesus. Now Paul has a new story, because he has found his place in the story of God. Listen to what Paul says now:
12Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Christ Jesus took hold of Paul so that Paul could find himself within the story of God. The prize of which Paul speaks is not heaven — it is the heavenly call of God to faithfulness to Christ, to finding your place in the story of God, to expressing the image of God in which you are made.

In the ancient games of the Greco-Roman world, runners strained for the finish line to win the laurel wreath. It was not that the wreath itself was of value — it would soon fade and wilt. But the winner’s wreath was placed on his head by the emperor himself. That was the tribute of a race well run.

For Paul, the victor’s wreath was not the culmination of his life’s story; it was the confirmation from the King whom he served that Paul had found his place in the story of God and had played his part faithfully.

The Story Before Us
We have today a story before us on this table. A story in bread and wine, symbols of a broken body and of shed blood. Symbols of self-giving and love. Symbols of sacrificial death. But, these symbols are also symbols of life — Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” And, for his first miracle he turned water into wine.
So, the story before us in these simple elements is both a story of sacrifice and of life. Of death and of hope. Of sorrow and of joy. For we do not enter the story of communion today alone. The risen Christ is here, standing at this table, inviting us into the story of his life, death, and resurrection. Reminding us that he is with us now, until he comes again later. That he has set both a memorial meal and a festival before us. Our sorrow must give way to joy, and our mourning to hope. For we have found ourselves in the story of God, and we are pressing on toward the prize.

Let us pray.

Categories: Lectionary Yr A, Philippians, Resources, sermon, Sermon Illustrations, Sermons, Worship

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