Fifth Sunday in Lent; Assurance; Isaiah 43:16-21; Philip. 3:4-14; Luke 20:9-20
Press on Towards the Goal!
March 25, 2007
Vicar Brian Henderson
“But 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 upward call of God in Christ Jesus..”[Philip. 3:13b-14]
ILLUSTRATION: A lot of people love to read biographies about famous or rich people to satisfy their curiosity, hoping also that they might discover the “secret” that made them great and wealthy. The story is told of a Father who anxiously attended his son’s grade school assembly on the day that an aged and famous doctor who at one time was the private physician to a President of the United States, was to address the assembly and reveal the secret of his long, healthy and famous life. The Father said that he sat there in awe with greater expectations than the students, hoping to learn the secret of a long life. At the climax of the doctor’s address, he revealed his secret, “Drink eight glasses of water a day and go to bed early!” What?! Is that all there is to it,” the Father thought? The Father said that he went away disappointed; he was expecting more.
INTRODUCTION: In Philippians 3, Paul is giving us his spiritual biography, his past (Phil. 3:1–11), his present (Phil. 3:12–16), and his future (Phil. 3:17–21). If we simply hear the words of a man, we may like the Father in the story go away a little let down, and unable to apply the words to our own lives. But, if we hear the Words of God, the Spirit and truth within the Words, we will leave satisfied and strengthened.
St. Paul writes to the Church in Philippi a pastoral letter meant to thank them for their Christian love, and also to warn them of a two prong attack which was quickly moving from church to church, with the aim of ruining their faith in Christ alone. This two prong attack was actually to different groups. One group of people were openly against the Law of God and the other group of people were trying to convince the gentile Christians that they must embrace Jewish culture and Levitical laws if they truly want to be saved. Today, these two groups still exist today, and they still are a threat to many congregations.
I. Against the Antinomians (Faith without works is dead)—In the preceding chapters of this letter, Paul attacks the doctrine of those who claim that God’s Holy Law no longer applies to Christians, and he provides perhaps some harsh truth to their lies. In regards to Christian service to our neighbor and each other Paul upholds God’s commandments and adds, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” [Philippians 2:3 – 4] And, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” [Philippians 2:5-8] But Paul does not stop there, he also says in regards to our Christian service we should “Do all things without grumbling or questioning,” [Philippians 2:14] and he adds that this can only be done because it is God’s will in baptized Christians, to provide both the desire and the ability to do good works.
What Paul is saying is this: True Christians will always do good works; they just can’t help it. Those who say that they are a Christian, yet turn around and have no proof or fruit of faith in their lives are in fact the proof that they are not what they claim to be; DO NOT FOLLOW THEM. DO NOT FOLLOW LAZY CHRISTIANS. Good works will always flow from a faith that trusts solely in God’s mercy as shown through His Son Jesus Christ.
ILLUSTRATION: The United States Senate has a tradition of talking something to death. It’s called a filibuster. Even when the talk is not officially a filibuster the spirit of the filibuster lives on in that place every day. Talk, talk, talk, and all the while nothing but self-serving legislation seems to become law, and what is the result? The people pay, while others play. Sadly, sometimes congregations can be reduced to something like a filibuster. People talk and dream about what the church should do, but very few are willing to put the ideas into practice. In the end, very little is done and needs remain unmet.
Our Lord speaks to those who profess faith without action in our gospel this morning when He says, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone? Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” [Luke 20:9-20] There will always be some who talk a good game, but have nothing to show for their supposed faith. In the end they will answer to Christ, who will say, “Depart from me. I never knew you!”
Paul said that good works and love for God and neighbor flow naturally from a Christian. In fact, Paul taught that a person led by faith in Christ should be willing to die performing acts of love towards God and neighbor rather than abandoning them. Listen to Paul’s own words concerning this very point: “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.” [Philippians 2:17 – 18] Paul was of course referring to his own death as a result of proclaiming and living out his faith in Christ.
Paul was not ashamed of Jesus, because Jesus was not ashamed to call him, and Jesus is not ashamed to call you and me as well. Jesus bore on His body the punishment you deserve. His good work of saving the world from sin looked like foolishness to the world in Paul’s time, and it looks the same to the world in our own time. Jesus said and did many things that the world would consider offensive. He called a thing what it was. He showed the Pharisees, the Jewish rulers, and the Romans what true righteousness was, exposing their lip service faith that lacked the fruits of repentance and forgiveness. His good work made Him public enemy number one. Even when He hung on the cross to pay for your sin He was ridiculed as a fool. Yet what looks foolish to the world is wisdom to the child of God. The words of the worthy prophets were proven true. God is near His people and not afar off. God is as near as the tree of the cross, the tree that bears good fruit. And it is to that tree that Paul stayed close to, even when he knew that it would cost him his life.
II. Against the Judiaizers (Jesus Plus Nothing)—Now on to the second threat to the church at Philippi—those who felt that Christ’s sacrifice, His grace was not quite enough to ensure someone a place in heaven at Jesus side. They said, “You must include with your faith in Christ the fulfillment of certain acts or Laws. In Paul’s day it was the Jewish Christians who demanded that all gentiles be circumcised, in our day it is any person or organization that presents a doctrine called Faith in Jesus PLUS! It could be faith in Jesus plus tithing; faith in Jesus plus acts of contrition; or faith in Jesus plus faithful church and Sunday School attendance. Paul call’s these kinds of people in his day and ours Judiaizers and mutilators. They want to cut the skin but God desires that their hearts be cut. He wants them to be cut to pieces over their sinfulness. He wants them to see how lost they are and how badly they need a Savior, but these mutilators only like to impose pain on others, while ignoring their own hopeless condition. St. Paul warns the church at Philippi about these people when he says, “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. [Philippians 3:2] St. Paul is warning them, and he is warning us, ‘Look out for anyone who brings to you a gospel that is Jesus plus this or that. Look out for anyone who brings you a gospel that includes anything but faith in Christ alone!
III. Living for the moment and for the future—The true gospel is always that which reveals God’s love and mercy to those who deserve neither. It is foolishness to the world because it has been provided by a man who was also God, Jesus the Christ. Yes it is foolishness to those who are dying—those who persist in ignoring God’s Holy Law and those who wish to add to Christ’s gift of grace, but to those who believe it is amazing.
In our Epistle reading this morning Paul began with a fairly impressive biography about his early adult life. He did this to silence the voices of the dogs that were prowling to attack the church at Philippi. At first glance he appears to present himself as a super-human, one who far surpassed the phony credentials of the false teachers, but then he says something incredible, he says that all of his accomplishments were rubbish, mere trash compared to the unfathomable wealth he had acquired once he knew Jesus Christ. He gladly traded his own accomplishments for those of Jesus Christ, who was crucified on a tree. Why? Because of God’s gift of faith! Paul said that through faith, he gladly suffered the loss of all things in order that (he) may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of his own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, so that He might know him and the power of His resurrection.
When Paul wrote this epistle, he most likely got to a certain point and thought, ‘Will these good people in Philippi think that I am now finished running my race in life? Will they believe that my walk of faith is finished and I can now “glory” in my accomplishment?’ That was not the impression that Paul wanted to make, and to be sure that this did not happen he wrote: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own. Brothers I do not consider that I have made it my own.” Paul made it clear from his prison cell that he still had much to do and teach concerning the Christian faith and his own Christian walk. His message is that while it was God who worked salvation for him, he must continue working out that reality; he must become what God had already declared that he was—perfect! Paul made it clear that he must continue his walk of faith, which was also many times a walk of pain and testing, because he also considered it a walk of joy! It was all joy, because he knew that his life of faith was really a walk through the same veil of tears that Jesus walked. It was all joy, because he knew that the closer that he came to his goal the sooner he would receive the prize.
CONCLUSION: St. Paul closed our epistle lesson this morning with these words, “I press on toward the goal—for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Do you know what that upward call of God in Christ Jesus is? It is the promise of victory over the grave, it is the promise God made to you in your Baptism that you would one day rise from the dead just as he had. To those who are burdened with fear of sin and death these are the sweetest words one can hear.
ILLUSTRATION: Last Saturday, I officiated a memorial service for a man who was well loved and respected within the Law Enforcement community. He was a kind and gentle man by all accounts. The only problem was, throughout most of his life, he did not know Jesus. He was baptized but never learned to live out his baptismal faith. I was blessed to have ministered to that gentle man for 3 months before his death to prostate cancer. During that time, that man, my friend learned to cast his burdens, his fear, his worry, his death, his sin, upon the Lord Jesus Christ. By God’s grace he received faith to believe that because of what Jesus had done for him upon the cross, all of his sins were forgiven. He wept the day he knew that God’s promise of forgiveness was for him. I asked him if he was crying because he was afraid, and he responded, “No. I’m crying because I don’t deserve this. I’m crying because it is such a mystery to me how God can still love me after I turned my back on him all those years. It’s a mystery, but somehow I believe it, and it gives me peace.” My friend lasted several days after that confession of faith. All who visited him to say goodbye said that he didn’t seem afraid to die. To those friends who still did not know Jesus, this seemed strange to them, but to his Christian family his joy in the midst of death made perfect sense—He had his eye on the goal of his Christian walk—eternal life with his Savior Jesus Christ—he was pressing onward to his prize, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting! My friend has now completed his race and like St. Paul and all the saints that went before and after has received all that the Father has promised—for Christ’s sake! AMEN!