I preached the following farewell sermon in Vinebranch last Sunday using Paul’s words from Philippians about “pressing on to win the prize.” As I told the congregation, “I know I’m a better pastor and a better person now than I was six years ago. And the truth is, it’s mostly because I was trying to keep up with you.”
Sermon Text: Philippians 3:4-14
The following is my original sermon text with footnotes.
Some of you, I’m sure, will be running the Peachtree Road Race in a couple of weeks. I’ve run it several times in the past, and I’m struck by the “party atmosphere” of it: It’s a big celebration more than anything. It doesn’t really matter how fast we run it—or even whether we run it at all. The only thing that matters is that we cross the finish line—whether running, walking, crawling, sliding, skipping, rolling, or somersaulting—so that we can get the big prize: the T-shirt.
I know that in front of the 50 thousand or so who are running for the T-shirt there is a group of elite, world-class runners—probably some of Bill and Chat’s friends from Kenya—who are running for more than the T-shirt. But most of us, let’s face it, are in it for the T-shirt.
When you read today’s scripture, don’t you get the feeling that the apostle Paul isn’t the kind of person who would run a race just for the T-shirt? He would be running to win it.
In today’s scripture, Paul is worried about the harmful influence of a group of pseudo-Christians known as “Judaizers.” They’re going behind Paul’s back and telling Gentile Christians—non-Jewish Christians—that in order to become fully Christian, they need something more than just faith in Christ: they also need to become Jewish—which meant, among other things, that men had to be circumcised; and that all Gentiles had to follow Jewish laws and customs. In other words, when it comes to being in a right relationship with God—when it comes to being approved by God, accepted by God, forgiven by God—these Judaizers were saying that you’ve got earn it; you’ve got to have something to show for yourself; you’ve got to prove your worth to God.
In C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, a demon named Wormwood is receiving advice from his uncle Screwtape about how to destroy the Christian faith of a young man who has only recently converted.
It’s not hard, Screwtape says. Just distract his attention from his own sins, which are plenty, to the sins of other people sitting in the pews around him at church. Make him believe that they’re a bunch of hypocrites. After all,Screwtape says, the man hasn’t learned any humility yet. “What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot talk. At bottom,” Screwtape says, “he still believes he has run up a very favourable credit-balance in the Enemy’s ledger by allowing himself to be converted, and thinks that he is showing great humility and condescension in going to church with those ‘smug’, commonplace neighbours at all.”
In verses 4 through 11, Paul writes about his own efforts to run up a “favourable credit-balance in God’s ledger.” It’s impossible, he writes. But if anyone could do it, Paul says, it’s Paul. In verses 4 to 6, Paul points to his accomplishments before God, his spiritual status symbols, his tokens of religiosity. He said he used to view these as “credits” on his spiritual balance sheet. But when he came to know Jesus Christ as his savior and Lord, it’s as if he moved each of these items from the credit side of the ledger to the debit side. “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.”
If you saw the series finale of The Office, you know that Kevin Malone—not the brightest bulb on the tree—was finally fired for his incompetence as an accountant. Turns out that for years, when he couldn’t get the numbers to add up, he would simply insert a special symbol which he called a “keleven” to bring the books in balance. As Dwight explained, Kevin’s motto was “A mistake plus keleven gets you home by seven.”
I don’t know much about accounting but I know first-hand about debt—and I know that our spiritual balance sheet before God is deeply, infinitely, in the red. So… does God look at our sin and simply put a “keleven” on the credit side and call it even? Does God say, “Your sins are really no big deal after all, and I’m just going to pretend like everything is O.K. It’s true that back in the Old Testament, back when I warned Adam and Eve that they would die if they disobeyed me, I used to get worked up about sin, but now it’s no big deal.” I confess that many modern-day Christians—even some of my fellow preachers—sometimes speak as if this were the case. But this is hardly what the Bible, or Christianity, or the gospel of Jesus Christ teach.
See, after Paul encountered the risen Lord, he understood that, left to our own devices, we humans are all hopeless sinners who can do nothing to make ourselves acceptable to a holy God! There’s no delicate way to put this: God has what the Bible calls wrath toward our sin—which means he is righteously angry about it, and left to our own devices we would deserve only punishment from God, only eternal separation from God, only hell. And I know that sounds harsh, but not so fast: Paul says that God has placed something on the credit side of our ledger that more than makes up for all of our entries on the debit side. God solved the problem of our sin by coming to us in the person of his Son Jesus—who lived a faithful life on our behalf, who suffered on our behalf, who took upon himself all of our sins on the cross, who died the death that we deserved to die. On the cross, God made him who “knew no sin to be sin for us, that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Now, Paul says, when we stand before God, we who’ve placed our faith in Jesus no longer depend on our own righteousness to save us but on Christ’s own righteousness. Do you see what good news this is?
God has done something, objectively, once and for all, to solve our problem with sin. Because of the cross, there is now “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Because of the cross, nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love.” Because of he cross, nothing needs to stand in the way of Jesus saying to each one of us, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Does your heart ache sometimes when you think about the ways that you’ve hurt others and hurt yourself, and you think, “God could never forgive me”? Are there sins for which you feel deeply embarrassed and ashamed and you think, “God could never forgive me”? Do you think of all the ways you’ve let God down time and again and think, “God could never forgive me”?
Don’t you believe it for a moment! Every sin that you’ve ever committed in your life—past, present, and future—was nailed to the cross with Jesus. As Paul makes clear in today’s scripture, no evil thing that you’ve ever done comes close to undoing the good thing that Christ did for us through his suffering and death. I mean, who do you think you are? Your sins, no matter how great, are no match for God’s love, which was poured out for you and me on the cross!
So, once we believe in Jesus and repent of our sins and accept God’s gift of forgiveness and salvation, we do what Paul says we’re supposed to do here: We “forget what’s behind,” what’s in the past, and “strain forward to what lies ahead.” That doesn’t mean we don’t take seriously the sins of our past, but it does mean that we leave them in the past. We repent and move forward. That’s what God wants us to do. We don’t need to dwell on our sins. We don’t need to beat ourselves up with guilt about them. We need to remember the cross and move forward.
On this last Sunday of ministry with you, there is nothing more important that I can say to you than this: God loves you. Remember I said earlier that Paul’s opponents thought that we had to “prove our worth” to God. On the contrary, God proves our worth. And God has shown that we are of infinite worth to him because God paid an infinite price for us—his very life on the cross—so that we could be forgiven of our sins; so that we could be given power to resist doing these harmful things to ourselves and to others; so that we could be accepted by God; so that we could become part of God’s family—a child of our heavenly Father and brother or sister of our Lord Jesus; so that we could experience eternal life—which not only means life without end on the other side of death, but also a different quality of life now; so that we can know true happiness and joy.
Do you want this? God is offering you these gifts this morning. I pray that you’ll receive it, if you haven’t already.
As you can imagine, my family and I have been packing up the house, getting ready for the big move. It involves taking a lot of stuff to Goodwill and throwing a lot of stuff away. A couple of days ago, Lisa found an old trophy of mine—from back when I worked in sales for a large corporation. It was called a “Millionaire’s Club” trophy… No, it didn’t mean I was a millionaire by any stretch. By any stretch! But I won it for exceeding my annual sales quota by an impressively large percentage. Lisa found this dusty old thing—I haven’t seen it in years—and said, “Keep or throw away?” I said, “Ahh… Throw it away.” If you knew me 15 years ago, you would be surprised by this. For a while, that trophy was very important in my life. I based so much of my self-worth and self-esteem and self-confidence on accomplishments like this. I so desperately wanted people who passed my cubicle at work to see it and admire it. I so desperately wanted their praise, their applause, their recognition.
I wanted to say—without coming right out and saying it—“Look what I did!”
Now God knows I still have a terrible ego; God continues to combat this sinful pride within me… But the longer I live this Christian life, the more I grow and repent and change and become the kind of person God wants me to be, the more I want to say—through my words and actions—“Look what Jesus did!”
When I think back on these past six years of ministry with you, I am so incredibly grateful for what Jesus did through you and for me.
Paul compares living this Christian life to running a race. While we’re not running the race in competition with one another, we are running the race together. Because, as anyone who’s run a race knows, we run faster and better together than we do by ourselves. We’re also less likely to get lost. You remember my pastor friend Julie Schendel? She ran the Methodist 5K in Athens last Wednesday, and she said she would have won the race—except the final turn of the race wasn’t clearly marked. And since she was all by herself way out in front, she couldn’t just follow the people in front of her, you know what I mean? By the time she found her way, someone had caught up and passed her. Isn’t that depressing? Which just goes to show you shouldn’t run the race too fast. Just kidding!
Anyway, my point is, we’re in this together. We help one another. We learn from one another. We challenge one another. We inspire one another. We grow by following the examples of people who are running the race better than we are.
Brothers and sisters, running the race with you these past six years has made me a better pastor and, more importantly, a better person. You demonstrated for me what Christ-like love looks like. You know I never went on a mission trip before coming to this church? I didn’t even want to! Then a month after I got here, this church made me go on one! To Mexico, with the youth group. And the teenagers and the adult chaperones and the missionaries there inspired me. And I went on another mission trip and another—and, well, I’ve told you before that Bill and Chat are two of my heroes, and you helped make that work in Kenya possible!
And you challenged me. You motivated me constantly to step out of my very small, very safe, very—um—comfortable “comfort zone” to be a better preacher and teacher. You inspired me to do crazy things like have you text me questions during the sermon time; or to teach the Christmas story through the Grinch and It’s a Wonderful Life; or to communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ through the music of a group of people who weren’t even Christians! You challenged me through Bible studies by asking great questions and forcing me to think things through. You inspired me to start my blog, in which I can deal at length with some of these questions. Sometimes, you even told me when I was wrong, and I didn’t like it one bit—but you know what? I had some rough edges that needed to be smoothed over, and God used you to do that! Thank you! And thank you for being patient with me and forgiving me when I was out of line.
You taught me how to pray more faithfully and effectively. You taught me how to trust Jesus more. And there are people who are not here this morning—who have joined the Church Triumphant—who taught me how to face death like a Christian!
I know I’m a better pastor and a better person now than I was six years ago. And the truth is, it’s mostly because I was trying to keep up with you. I was just trying not to lag too far behind you. I was trying not to eat your dust because you guys were running the race very well.
Thank you. I love you so much. And I’m carrying you with me in my heart when I go down to Hampton.