Sermon 01-02-2022: “Pressing on Toward the Goal”

Scripture: Philippians 3:1-14

The seasons of Advent and Christmas are a difficult time for us pastors… Not because we’re busier than usual, although we are… but because it seems like every time we turn around some beloved parishioner is shoving casseroles, and cookies, and cakes in front of us… and bringing homemade candy and pastries by the office or parsonage—not that I’m complaining! 

Of course this doesn’t bother someone young like Josh Villars, who has the metabolism of a hyperactive squirrel, but suffice it to say, I no longer have that kind of metabolism! 

So I tried to fight against gaining weight in December, unsuccessfully, by putting in extra time at the gym… And let me tell you, I had plenty of elbow room at the gym last month! There were very few people there.

Sadly, however, those days of extra elbow room at the gym are now gone. If I go to the gym today, for instance, I expect that it will be much, much more crowded. Why? Because of New Year’s Resolutions… Because people are resolving, finally, to turn over a new leaf… to start a new, healthy habit… to get in shape… to lose those extra pounds… 

And me too! I’m right there with them!

So… since we have New Year’s Resolutions on our minds, I thought I would begin this new year by challenging us to add another New Year’s Resolution to our list. Are you ready? I want us to resolve to do what we see the apostle Paul doing in Philippians chapter 3. He says in verse 17 to “imitate” him, so let’s imitate what he’s doing here!

But first some background… Our chapter begins with a warning in verse 2 about the so-called “Judaizers.” These were people representing themselves as Christian teachers, who infiltrated Paul’s churches and told Paul’s flock that Paul’s gospel was deficient. In addition to trusting in Christ for salvation, they also needed to do a few things: for instance, these Gentile men needed to get circumcised, and everyone needed to follow Jewish dietary laws, observe special feast days, and follow other Jewish customs… in order to be fully Christian.

And Paul says, “No!”

This is why Paul feels the need to remind the Philippians of his credentials as a formerly strict observer of the Jewish law. No one could touch Paul’s resumé when it came to following the law! In verse 4, he writes: “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more.” In other words, if anyone has the right to teach people that righteousness comes in part by keeping God’s law, “it’s me.” Because no one followed God’s Law better than Paul! In Paul’s life before Christ, no one was more scrupulous about observing the law than he was! No one was more dedicated to the law than he was. And everyone knew it!

But in case they didn’t know it, in verses 4 through 6, Paul gives his resumé of his life before conversion: his credentials, his pedigree, his family background, his accomplishments, his recognitions and awards.

And you know what he says about them? 

All his worldly success means nothing. “In fact,” he says, “all these status symbols, all these trophies, all these accolades, all these attaboys that used to be so important to me—they are garbage to me now in comparison—in fact, worse than garbage”—the King James gets it right when it translates it as “dung” in verse 8. They are worse than garbage; they are excrement in comparison to one thing: knowing Jesus Christ!

Just listen to Paul’s words: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”

What about us? Of course our particular “resumés” won’t be the same as Paul’s—we’re living in a very different time and place, after all. But I bet we still have a personal resumé, at least up in our heads… even if, like me, we haven’t had to apply for a job or give a job interview in twenty years… I bet we all have a list of things about ourselves—other than our relationship with Christ—that make us feel good about ourselves, that make us feel valuable, that are a source of pride for us, that give our lives meaning. 

So with our particular “resumé” in mind, imagine doing what Paul describes in today’s scripture: imagine taking a spreadsheet, and in one column you list everything in the world that you possess and value besides your relationship with Christ. Your children, for example, right?—if you have children. They are something you treasure. Your grandchildren, if you have them. Your spouse, if you’re married. Your girlfriend or boyfriend, if you’re single and in love. Your friends and family. Your military service record. Your college degree. Your patriotism. Your career, your job. Your reputation. Awards you’ve won. Your accomplishments. Your money, your wealth. Your home. Your retirement nest egg. Your hobbies. Your toys. Your electronic gadgets. Your loyalty to your favorite sports team. Your political affiliation.

So that’s in the column on the left… And there’s a column on the right with one word—or one name: Jesus Christ. Are you picturing this spreadsheet that I’m describing? 

Okay, now imagine printing it out, taking a red pen, and writing the word “loss” over each item in that left column. “I count this as a loss compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” In my case… my daughter Elisa—loss. Townshend—loss. Ian—loss. My wife, Lisa—who has proven that she loves me as unconditionally as any human being could love someone—loss. My career as a pastor—loss. My identity as a preacher of the gospel, which is incredibly important to me—loss. My Georgia Tech degrees—which I don’t use anymore, but you know how proud I am of my alma mater—loss.

You get the picture…

Would I be willing to do that? Would I be willing to say that all of these things are a loss compared to the “surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”? That all these things I value and love, which are so important to me, don’t come close to surpassing the value of my relationship with Jesus Christ…

That late, great Christian singer-songwriter from the late-’70s, Keith Green, was a newlywed when he wrote these very romantic words about his beautiful new bride, Melody Green. He sings, “As I told her when we wed/I’d surely rather be found dead/ Than to love her more than the One who saved my soul.” How romantic! But Keith Green understood today’s scripture… that nothing comes close to “surpassing the worth” of knowing, of being in an ongoing relationship with, our Lord Jesus!

And I’m sure some of you are thinking, “This sounds so hard! I’m not like the apostle Paul! I don’t value or treasure Christ like him! I can’t do that, even if I know that Jesus is supposed to be that valuable to me!”

If so, I want to try to inspire you with a vision… 

One of my favorite contemporary preachers—whom I just absolutely love—is John Piper. His preaching has blessed me tremendously in recent years. He’s retired now. But Piper is famous, or infamous, for saying that we need to become “Christian hedonists.” To be a “hedonist” means to be someone who is committed to the selfish pursuit of pleasure and happiness. And by all means, this word is usually associated with sin, right? We sin because it feels good; it brings us pleasure; it makes us happy. So we hear the word “hedonist” and think, that’s the opposite of what we Christians should be about. And Piper knows this; he knows he’s being provocative by using the word “hedonism,” but he’s using it to make an important point: if Christ is our treasure above all earthly treasures, if we love him so deeply that all other loves—according to Jesus in Luke 14:26—will seem like “hatred” by comparison—then being a Christian, and following Christ, and putting him first, and treasuring him above all, and counting as loss everything and everyone else in comparison—doing these things ought to bring us pleasure! Being so committed to Christ ought to make us happy—far happier than anything else we can experience or pursue in life! 

So yes… I am committed to the bold and provocative idea that following Jesus ought to make us deeply happy, deeply satisfied, deeply contented. I know this is true! I have experienced enough of Jesus to know this is true. And in this new year of 2022, I want you to experience Christ like that as well! When I say I want us imitate the apostle Paul and make a New Year’s Resolution, what I’m saying is, I want us to to resolve to be happy in this new year—the only way that true and lasting happiness is possible. I want us to say, along with the psalmist, “Oh taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man [or woman] who takes refuge in him!”1

In a way, this should be the easiest New Year’s Resolution ever! Because, if Christ is our greatest treasure—if by knowing him we experience more happiness and joy than by knowing anyone or anything else—is it really so hard to “count as loss” those things that don’t bring lasting happiness and joy? Because if what God’s Word is telling us this morning is true… it’s not you who’s doing the heavy lifting—I mean, if you want to get in physical shape, you go to the gym, you got to slide those plates on the barbell, and get to lifting. Or you got to go to the treadmill and turn that speed up, turn the incline up, and get to moving!

But this New Year’s Resolution isn’t like that… if you’re going to find true and lasting happiness by “counting as loss” everything and everyone other than Christ, it’s going to take faith—not in yourself, but in Christ! He’ll do the heavy lifting for you! The heavy lifting is called grace!

So allow me to share three principles from today’s scripture that will help us imitate Paul and treasure Christ in the way that Philippians 3 describes… But let me preface these words by saying that these principles only apply to those who’ve already trusted in Christ as our Savior and Lord and have been born again through faith in Christ. In other words what I’m about to say applies only to us who are already Christians. If you want them to apply to you, I invite you to trust in Christ and be saved! Okay?

So… First principle: Nothing you’ve done in your past—literally no sins you’ve committed in your past, no great failures in your past, no mistakes you’ve made in your past—can prevent you from knowing and experiencing Christ the way Paul does—as your greatest treasure… and your source of deepest happiness and joy. I hope that sounds like the good news that it is!

God is not mad at you. He’s not disappointed in you. He’s not holding a grudge against you. God has forgiven all your sins and will continue to do so, so long as you continue to confess and repent and turn to him in faith. In fact, the Bible says in a few places that when God forgives us, he no longer even “remembers” our sins; it’s as if he’s forgotten them; he will bring them to mind no longer. 

Look at verse 9: Paul says he does not have “a righteousness of [his] own that comes from the law”—that’s what he was pursuing in his life before Christ. But now he says he has a righteousness “which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” In other words, when we place our faith in Christ, we receive Christ’s own righteousness in return, as a free gift. So we now enjoy the same standing before God that Christ himself enjoys. God the Father sees us as holy and as righteous as he sees his own Son Jesus.

From God’s perspective, it’s as if we had never sinned at all! That’s how God sees you right now, right now, if you are a Christian!

And listen, that’s good news for Paul, too… Look at 6: Paul says, “as to zeal, [he was] a persecutor of the church.” As you can read about in Acts chapters 7 and 8, prior to his conversion, under the authority of the high priest in Jerusalem, Paul had Christians arrested and even killed—executed—in his so-called “zeal” to be righteous. Elsewhere Paul writes, “This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’—and I am the worst of them all,” Paul says. 1 Timothy 1:15.2

If the sins, failures, mistakes—outright evil actions—of Paul’s past didn’t prevent Paul from experiencing Christ as his greatest treasure, from being immensely happy in Christ, from being the greatest missionary and evangelist the world had ever seen, why do you think your sins could prevent God from making you happy and fulfilling his purpose in your life?

So… Principle Number One: Nothing you’ve done in your past can prevent you from knowing and experiencing Christ as your greatest treasure right now!

Principle Number Two: Learn to reinterpret your regrets… Learn to reinterpret your life’s regrets.

Do you remember the movie, starring Richard Dreyfuss, called Mr. Holland’s Opus? The movie came out 26 years ago, so… spoiler alert if you haven’t seen it already. I’m giving away the ending. But Dreyfuss plays Mr. Holland, an ambitious young man who is a classical music composer… only he can’t make a living that way yet… so he’s got to find a way to support his family and pay his bills in the short run… He’s a starving artist who doesn’t want to starve. So he compromises his high ideals he puts his dreams on hold, just temporarily, by taking a job as a high school band teacher. And he hates it. The job is beneath him… These kids don’t share his passion for music! They don’t care about the things that matter to him most—he may as well be talking to a brick wall. But he does it anyway; he’s got to make ends meet, after all. So he works full-time at the school and composes in his spare time—but he doesn’t have much spare time because life just sort of gets in the way, as it usually does. 

Soon months become years, which become decades… and his dream of becoming a world-famous composer seems like a sad joke… To make matters worse, because of budget cutbacks at the school, there will no longer even be a music program… which forces Mr. Holland to retire a bit earlier than he planned.

And of course he’s enjoyed his career to some extent, he’s found meaning in some of his work, and he loves his family… but still… he’s mostly filled with regret: Whatever happened to that ambitious young man and his dreams?

At least some of us can relate to his situation, right?

And then, spoiler alert, at his retirement party, dozens or hundreds of former band students assemble in the high school auditorium to honor him on his retirement, by playing his unpublished symphony. And thousands have gathered to hear it. And he realizes, or course, that through his seemingly boring, unremarkable career he has touched the lives of so many. 

Most of his life he couldn’t see or appreciate the difference he was making. But now he can!

Now let’s connect this to Paul’s experience… Notice verse 8: Paul writes, “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” When Paul says he’s suffered the loss of all things, he’s hardly exaggerating! In fact, as he’s writing these words, he’s doing so from prison, likely in Rome… And it could very well be that he never gets out of prison again. It could very well be that he will soon be executed by the Romans… We know from history that that’s how Paul dies. It could very well be, when Paul is writing today’s scripture, that his missionary career—his purpose in life, his main ambition, his deepest dream—is over. His life is tragically cut short.

If so, if Paul spends months or years there before his execution, will he think that all that time in prison will have been wasted? Will Paul be filled with regret because of the way in which his hopes and dreams had been derailed by tragic circumstances? 

Not at all! First because God is still working through Paul’s prison experience to accomplish his mission through Paul. Paul mentions at the beginning of this letter, in Philippians 1:13, that elite Roman soldiers, known as the Imperial Guard, are guarding him 24/7. They are chained to him around the clock! And what’s he doing? Telling them about Jesus. And some of them are getting converted. And then… at the end of this letter, I invite you to turn to Philippians 4:21 and 22. Paul is sending his final greetings:

Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you [now pay attention] especially those of Caesar’s household.

Especially those of Caesar’s household? You mean, there are now Christians inside the household of the most powerful and important man the world had ever seen? The gospel of Jesus Christ has penetrated even there? These saints in Caesar’s household will now have the power to bear witness for Christ at the highest echelon of power and influence in the world! How is that possible?

Only because Caesar made the “mistake” of putting Paul in prison, and chaining Paul to members of Rome’s most elite military force. These soldiers are getting saved and they are witnessing to members of Caesar’s own household, some of whom are also getting saved and bearing witness!

It’s unbelievable how God is transforming what looks like a great failure, a great setback, in Paul’s life into an unprecedented opportunity to fulfill Paul’s purpose and accomplish his mission!

God promises to do those same sorts of things in our lives as well—even through our setbacks, our failures, our disappointments, our mistakes, our sins. God is always at work in our lives—as with Mr. Holland, even invisibly, even imperceptibly, even inconspicuously—to fulfill his purpose for us. We may not even see what God is up to. And we may never get our “Mr. Holland moment,” at least until heaven. But it will be clear by then, if not before, how God has transformed even the things we regret in life, and has used them for his glory and for our good!

And not only that, God has used them for our ultimate happiness.

Paul says in verse 8 that he has “suffered the loss of all things,” ultimately, for one overarching reason: “that I may gain Christ.”

Gaining Christ, from Paul’s perspective, is not a one-time event that happens at conversion: it’s a lifelong relationship in which we get to know Jesus better, we trust in him more completely, we experience his presence more intimately, and we fall more deeply in love with him as time passes. And Paul says, “I’m suffering in this way—ultimately—so that I can have more of my life’s greatest treasure… more of the greatest thing that’s available to us human beings… more of Christ!”

This means, as I indicated earlier, ultimately God is using even these setbacks in Paul’s life for Paul’s happiness.

So why should Paul regret anything? Why should we?

We go to the gym at New Year’s wanting and expecting guaranteed results… And we’re often disappointed because we don’t get the results we seek. But if God’s Word is telling the truth this morning, and it is, then I’m talking about guaranteed results… God promises to use the events of our lives for his glory, for our good, which means ultimately for our lasting happiness!

So let’s reinterpret our regrets!

Third and final principle; this won’t take long: Failure is to be expected! It’s okay that we still often fail to live the way Paul describes in today’s scripture, to treasure Christ above all, and to “count as loss” everything and everyone other than Christ. We’re going to fail to do that! Because Paul himself tells that he fails, too. Look at verse 12: “Not that I have already obtained this”—by which he means, “obtained the relationship with Christ that he covets”—“not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect…” 

I like the way J.B. Phillips’s translation puts it: “I do not consider myself to have ‘arrived,’ spiritually…”

“Pressing on” the way Paul describes is not like a New Year’s Resolution: We know going into it that we will fail. But we press on, not so we can become more “spiritual, not so we can “earn favor” with God, not so we can be accepted by God—remember, God already favors us because we’re in Christ; in Christ we’re already spiritually perfect; we’re already perfectly accepted by God; God couldn’t love us more than he does—so long as we’re in Christ. No, we “press on” so that we can experience more of the best thing we can know… so we can receive more of what our heart most deeply desires… so that we can be happy in a lasting way… so we can receive more of Christ, our greatest treasure.

Do you want that in the year 2022? Will you say, “Amen”?

[Close with Wesleyan Covenant Prayer…] 

  1. Psalm 34:8
  2. 1 Timothy 1:15 NLT

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