Monday, March 14, 2016

Sermon on Philippians 3:2-14, for the 5th Sunday in Lent, "Surpassing Worth"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Sometimes in life it seems like we get obsessed with counting. There are all sorts of things we might count or keep track of, for all sorts of reasons. Maybe counting beans, maybe counting our money, balancing and checking it. Maybe we are counting the days—till we finish school, graduate, move somewhere, have a baby, find out who the new president will be. Maybe counting the achievements we’ve made, or the hurts we’ve felt, or the possessions we’ve acquired, with a sideways glance to seem how we measure up to someone else. We use numbers and quantities, measurements and comparisons. We search for advantage to ourselves, counting up our gains, our profits, our rewards. Or we count up our losses, and worry what to do about them.
Counting life this way can be exhausting. Or it can fill us with pride and arrogance. It depends whether we’ve counted up ourselves on the winning or losing end. Paul knew some counters who thought they were on the winning end. They were counting their achievements, crediting their obedience to God to themselves, stacking up reasons why others needed to be like them. But Paul decided to beat them at their own game, just to show them that it’s always a losing game anyways. Let me explain. In Philippians 3, Paul is dealing with boastful men who are trying to put the laws of Moses back on the Philippians. They’ve counted their righteousness up, and concluded that they have a pretty favorable standing before God. But Paul butts in and says, “If anyone else thinks he has reason for 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; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Paul is saying, if you’re going to count human reasons for boasting, I have more than all of you. I’ve got you beat at that game.
But then Paul takes a surprising turn, in verse 7, and leading into our reading with verse 8: “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.” Surprisingly, everything that Paul just said he had grounds to boast about, he now rejects in the clearest and strongest of terms. “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” Suddenly he’s done a mathematical switch, and everything he’d counted as a positive, is now a negative, a damage, a disservice, a loss! Why? For the sake of Christ. “For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” Suddenly all of Paul’s achievements, his proud ancestry, his law-keeping, his status, his self-righteousness, he counts as the lowest and most worthless of all things. Calling them rubbish. More than just something we toss in the trash that might become someone else’s treasure—the word rubbish means filth, scraps, or even excrement. Something of no redeeming value.
When Paul makes that statement: “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”, he acknowledges a total loss. But he counts that if he has gained Christ Jesus, he has gained something of immeasurable worth. To know Jesus Christ blows all the categories of counting, measurement, and quantities. Suddenly the equation and the math just can’t describe the reality anymore. Knowing Jesus Christ my Lord is something of surpassing worth. In the book of Ephesians, St. Paul launches into a similar litany of phrases, all falling short of describing how knowing Jesus is immeasurably greater than anything we could ask or desire, how God’s grace exceeds all of our comprehension. Except for infinity, math can’t grasp it.
But there is a shape and a form to this goodness of knowing Jesus. So what does knowing Christ equal? The verbs in our reading tell the story. Kids remember in school that verbs are “action words.” They tell us what’s happening. And if you search for all the verbs or action words, in our reading, you’ll come up with quite a few, that describe our relationship to Jesus Christ. Let’s pick out some of those phrases, and see what they tell us.
First is to be found in Christ. To be found in Christ is the positive result of us no longer being lost in sin and error. Paul defines being found in Christ as not counting our righteousness based on the law—that is, not building up our own righteousness—but rather receiving a given righteousness. The righteousness of God that is ours by faith in Christ. So out with the rubbish, the self-righteousness we would try to claim before God, and in with the freely given, perfect, complete righteousness of Jesus Christ, ours by faith. Having this righteousness, is being found in Christ. It makes our standing before God real and acceptable, because God Himself has declared it—not false and presumptuous, because we have declared our own righteousness.
Then in verse 10 Paul uses these verbs: know, share, becoming, attain. Knowing Jesus is to know the power of His resurrection. That Jesus Christ has defeated death, means you really ought to know Him! In Galatians Paul talks about knowing God, and then corrects himself: to be known by Him. Really knowing God comes about by Him first seeking after us, coming to us in Jesus Christ, and God making Himself known to us, and knowing us more fully and completely than we could ever know ourselves. Knowing Christ is not a matter of our needing to introduce ourselves to Him, or locate Him, but it’s a matter of Jesus coming to us, through His Word and Spirit, making entrance into our hearts and lives.
But along with knowing Jesus and His resurrection comes sharing not only in that resurrection power and glory, but also sharing in His sufferings as well. At first this might seem like all the positives and superlatives Paul is adding up, have run into a negative, something that should count as a loss. But Paul explains that in sharing Jesus’ sufferings, we become like Him in His death. In Romans 5, Paul explains that God actually has some positives that He can bring out of suffering: “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Suffering produces endurance, which in turn produces character, and ultimately hope—not a wishy washy hope, but a hope that does not put us to shame because of God’s love being poured into us. God does not run from us in our sufferings, He has not abandoned us in our sufferings or when we feel weakest and lowest. In fact we are closest to the cross and sufferings of Jesus when we go through the emptying and the humbling of our flesh. But God helps us to endure, to grow character, and to receive hope, as He proves His faithfulness and love to us again and again. Suffering, though it seems at first to be mainly a negative, is actually part of God’s testing us and increasing our worth, like gold refined in a fire.
All the while we are experiencing this suffering and growing in the likeness of Jesus Christ, God is drawing us to Himself. Paul reflects on this like an athlete striving and straining ahead for a prize—but he will not allow himself to boast of it or become self-secure. To do so would risk turning back to presumptuousness and pride. So sharing in his sufferings is so that by any means we can attain the resurrection of the dead. Paul admits he hasn’t already received this, or been made perfect, but he’s striving for it. Not that there is or can be any doubt about God’s promises, but again to make it perfectly clear that we are completely dependent on the mercy and grace of God, and that salvation is received purely and freely from Jesus as a gift.
With eyes on this goal Paul concludes the reading: “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus . Forgetting, straining, and pressing are the verbs here. Forgetting what lies behind. One thing we may count and recount in life, is our sins and failures. Counting them and weighing them may leave us crushed under a burden of sins, too heavy to carry. It’s not that the guilt isn’t real, but only Jesus can forgive it. Only God can declare that He will forgive our sins, and remember them no more. If God has promised to forget our sins, when we confess them to Him, turn from them, and ask for forgiveness, then we don’t need to remember them any more. We can forget what lies behind, and strain forward to what lies ahead. The future, the goal, the finish line is ahead of us. God is calling us to Him in Christ Jesus.
So we run to finish the race, not becoming quitters or dropouts, but getting up and competing, contending, struggling on. We don’t count any of the weaknesses or struggles or losses as handicaps or hindrances from completing that race, because we compete and we finish in the power and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Everything, say it again… everything is loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus as my Lord. If everything earthly is a loss, then I’m not gonna count it. It’s all a minus in comparison with the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord. All earthly advantages and disadvantages are stripped away, and I am left with Christ alone. And Christ alone is worth more than the world, worth more than anything to me. He finished the race first—He finished for us. Right now we’re in the race, running, sometimes stumbling, struggling, and we pull each other up, we listen to the encouragement of the saints who have finished before us. But most of all, we push on through it all, with our eyes fixed on finally coming face to face with Him—our Lord. In Him we’ll begin to discover what true worth is—surpassing worth. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.  

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Read Philippians 3:2-9. Paul is dealing with false teachers who are afflicting the Philippian Christians, and boasting of their law-keeping. How does Paul say he measured up (on a purely human level) against these antagonists? Why does Paul count all of these things as worthless?
  2. Why is knowing Christ Jesus as our Lord, of surpassing worth? Ephesians 1:17-19; 2:5-8; 3:8-9; 3:14-21; 1 Peter 1:7, 18-21
  3. Paul speaks in Philippians 3:8-9, about not having a righteousness of his own that comes from the law, but a righteousness from God that depends on faith. What is the difference between these two kinds of righteousness, and how they are received? What is the difference in how they mark our standing before God? See Romans 3:19-4:5; 11:6
  4. Though Paul dismissed his “positive” human achievements in v. 2-9 as worthless to him, now in Philippians 3:10, he is eager to gain not only the knowledge and power of Jesus’ resurrection, but also to share in His sufferings and be like Him in His death. Why can the Christian rejoice in sometime like suffering? Romans 5:1-5; Matthew 5:10-12;
  5. In Philippians 3:10-14, is Paul expressing doubt about whether he will receive the promised resurrection, or salvation? How certain are Jesus’ promises? John 11:25-26; 1 Peter 1:3-9. Since God’s promises are certain and He does not break them, why are humility and “honesty about our limitations and utter dependence on the grace of God”, entirely appropriate for believers? 1 Corinthians 10:12; James 4:13-16.
  6. Philippians 3:13-14 uses the imagery of pressing on toward the goal, or straining forward, like an athlete competing to finish a race. Is our race like a sprint or a marathon? What does it require in order to finish? Who has finished ahead of all of us, and won the prize for us? Hebrews 12:1-2. Who also stands at the finish line, encouraging us?
  7. What is God’s grace for us, in “forgetting what lies behind?” See Jeremiah 31:34; Isaiah 43:25; 65:17ff; 2 Corinthians 7:10. Why again, is the righteousness of God that we have by faith, so superior to anything we could do or earn on our own?

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