Sermon

Philippians 3:4a-14

The Prize

By The Rev. Dr. James D. Kegel

MAY THE WORDS OF MY MOUTH
AND THE MEDITATIONS OF MY HEART
BE ACCEPTABLE IN YOUR SIGHT,
O LORD, MY ROCK AND MY REDEEMER.

Julian Huxley, the British scientist was in Dublin for a meeting of the Irish Association. He arrived late at the station, threw himself into a taxicab and called out to the driver, “Drive fast.” Away the cab went over the cobblestone streets of Dublin until at last Huxley called up to the driver, “Do you know where you are going?” “No,” the driver replied, “but I’m driving fast.”

A man who was a frequent visitor to this country from abroad said that the first time he visited America, he thought the main aim of Americans money; the second time he thought that the main aim was power; and the third time he thought the main aim was speed, and that the third impression remained.

Drive fast, walk fast, talk fast, hurry up, keep a move on, get going. When we interviewed a pastoral candidate last summer, she said she wanted to move to Eugene because she thought it would be laid-back, a relaxed place to live and work. It may be that but not when a person is driving on the streets and roads. Every morning I drive on the Delta Highway coming to church and every morning I feel like I am being run off the road by people who can’t abide going the speed limit. Sometimes the other drivers honk or flash their lights telling me, move over, get out of my way. Our neighborhood is petitioning to put speed bumps in the street to slow the cars down. I hope the destination is worth the speed used to get there!

What I would like to look at today is not how fast we go on life’s journey, but the destination and goal. St Paul had a clear goal to his life as a believer. In our text from Philippians, he confesses the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ as Lord, the goal of life being to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings and finally to receive the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. The goal of the Christian life is to know and love Christ now and have fellowship with Christ forever. The prize of life with Christ is even worth a great deal of loss.

Look at our text. The word “loss” appears three times. Paul says that whatever gain he had, he had come to regard as loss for the sake of Christ. What may these have been? They are listed for us – Paul has more reason to be confident in who he was and what he had done than anyone. He was circumcised and a member of the people of Israel of the tribe of Benjamin. He was a Hebrew born of Hebrews, a Pharisee and rigorous in keeping the Law. He was blameless under the law and a zealous persecutor of the church. He would have been highly regarded by his people and religion. But all the good breeding and education and honors were only so much loss compared to knowing Christ. In following the Lord, he gave up income and status and became an itinerant preacher and tent-maker – he suffered the loss of material goods and security to become a follower of Christ.

The early Christians were not rich or powerful. They were the poor, humble, outcast, sick, sinners. They could not pay Paul or offer him a comfortable living. It was the loss of all things, and what many considered the good things of life, he counted as rubbish – the Greek word is dung – for the sake of knowing and gaining Christ. Following Jesus brought Paul in contact with suffering and finally death. When we choose to follow Jesus and make him our goal in life, we also choose a life of rejection and suffering and death. Following Jesus is a worthwhile goal for us but know that in choosing this as life’s purpose we too will follow our Lord to rejection and suffering.

A classic of Christian literature is The Imitation of Christ by Thomas from Kempen. It was written in the middle ages by this brother of the common life. Many people have read this book through the years and still do. We who follow the Lord are called to imitation him in his kindness and love and care for others, in his devotion to the Father in prayer and also by suffering for his name. We are called to count as refuse, rubbish, what the world outside counts as good things for the sake of the better part which is knowing Christ and receiving the prize of eternal life in his name. When we follow Jesus we are not only asked to give up harmful and destructive things but may be asked to give up what is good and honorable and precious.

Paul never despised the fact that he was educated by one of the greatest teachers of the time, Gamaliel, that he was born Jewish and knew the Scriptures from childhood, had qualities that made him honored and respected by his people, that he was also a Roman citizen and fluent in Greek. We need not be ashamed of our talents and abilities. They are gifts given to us by God. We can thank God if we have grown up in good, loving families, if we have friends and the respect of colleagues, if we have received an education or training that is useful. The Bible includes all these things as our daily bread that we can and should pray for and give thanks for. But nothing, not even the best things, should come between us and following the Lord. If they do, they should be regarded as loss because of Christ.

There is also something in this text which speaks to each of us about the past and about the future. The image is of a race. We are running a race in life with the goal being the prize of eternal life in Christ. In a sense we are already beneficiaries of that goal – Christ is with us now in our race. As Paul put it, “I have not already reached the goal but I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” When we were baptized we were made people of God and have received the spirit of Christ in our lives.

But we have not reached the final goal which is eternal life, the resurrection from the dead. As long as we are living we are in the race. But we press on – and we do not look back but forward. I remember my father telling me as a little boy that he was in an ice skating race. He was about to win that race but he decided to look back and see how his competition was faring. When he did that, he broke his stride and ended up losing. It is pointless to dwell on past mistakes and shortcomings. What we have done in the past can not be undone or what we have said, unsaid. We can not live the past over and it is not helpful to be so focused on what has been that we do not focus on the present moment and what is to come.

This summer we will be watching the Olympics in Athens, Greece and we will see those runners and athletes pressing forward to do their best, completely focused on the goal they have of winning a medal. Past races are of little account – what matters is the race or athletic event the athlete is in. Anne LeMotte once said, “Forgiveness is giving up hope of changing the past.” We can not change the past but we can forgive others and ourselves for the past and move forward. It is what St. Paul means when he talks of straining forward to what lies ahead, because we know what lies ahead – victory with Christ.

James Barrie the English author told how his mother lost a son she loved very much. “That is why my mother got her soft eyes,” he said, “and that is why other mothers came to her when they too lost a child.” We can grow through trials and temptations, grow in our dependence upon God and become more like Jesus Christ. Paul certainly suffered for his faith in Christ. He talked of a “thorn in the flesh” and we don’t know what that was, malarial fevers or eye trouble, but he prayed and prayed and it was never taken away. Even Paul had his concern that he would somehow fall away from faith – notice how he put it, “sharing in Christs suffering by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” There is no idea of eternal security here but instead constant training for righteousness. We can never become complacent in our life’s race. The danger of life is that to the very last moment of it, disaster can come. John Bunyan in his Pilgrim’s Progress saw that there was a road directly from the gates of heaven down into hell. It is only those who endure to the end who will be saved. Until the end of the race, there is always the possibility that temptation will lure us away from the goal which is knowing Jesus Christ as Savior and winning the great prize of eternal life.

What sets us apart from the busy people all around us speeding and rushing is that we have a goal to our race. It is to receive a prize that will make whatever we suffer and lose so much refuse compared to the glory that is ours in Christ. We press on toward the goal of the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus, to eternal life in his name. Amen.

Copyright 2004 James Kegel. Used by permission.