Monday, October 06, 2014

Sermon on Philippians 3:4b-14, for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, Reformation 1, "Righteousness and the Reformation"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. During this month of October, we’re going to celebrate again a “Reformation Month” where we’ll take the opportunity to highlight some themes of our Lutheran Reformation heritage. We’re closing in on the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, which falls on October 31st, 2017. The Reformation played a large role in returning the church to the foundational authority of the Bible, and the centrality of faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. Today we look to the theme of “righteousness” to consider what Paul was teaching about it in Philippians, and how that informs our Lutheran understanding of our relationship to God.

Imagine for a moment that you were the most successful person in your field—whatever that may be. Maybe it was that you were the employee of the year, or the world’s best mom, or the winner of the beauty pageant, or the valedictorian of your graduating class, or you received the Nobel Peace prize, or whatever commendations and praise it might be that you aspire to. Let’s add that you were the undisputed winner, and your achievement was genuine. Any of these achievements might be profitable to you in various ways. Looks great on your resume; shows the respect and admiration of your peers, your friends, family, community; makes you famous; etc. You would probably feel great about yourself too. Could anything, then, make you count all of these accomplishments, and even your identity itself, as a loss, as rubbish, as nothing? Something worthless to you?

The thought is shocking—because these are all good and noble things. Why would you want to “trash them”? But just like this, Paul abandons all his own credentials and achievements. He began the reading by saying if anyone thinks they have a reason for confidence or boasting in their flesh—they should check out his “credentials.” First he points to his ancestry or pedigree, showing he was a true Israelite. Then, for the sake of making a point, he “boasts” of his achievements: his unparalleled righteousness and zeal for God. He would have been a top contender for any awards and prestige in his day. But then in a surprising move, he says, “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, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith…

All of Paul’s pedigree and achievements are worthless to him—not a profitable gain, but a worthless loss. Rubbish—or more literally, excrement. What could make Paul so “irrational” as to consider all his personal “best” as just so much dirt and trash—something to discard? It was the sight of something far better—infinitely better and more valuable. He was ready to cast it all off for the sake of knowing Jesus Christ his Lord, and finding a righteousness not his own by the law—by right, by merit or earning it—but the righteousness of faith—a gift, an invaluable treasure from God. Paul could so easily “toss away” what in earthly eyes looked desirable, valuable, and good—because he saw something of infinitely greater worth: Christ Jesus.

Martin Luther, 500 years ago, once stood in the Apostle Paul’s shoes, and came to the same realization about his own life. He saw that his good works and achievements amounted to nothing more than an anthill or a hill of beans when he looked up to view the lofty grandeur and beauty of the Mount Everest that is Jesus Christ. Luther realized, like Paul, that a stellar record of earthly achievements is poor and shabby—no, even worse, its filthy rags before God. But God desires to clothe us in rich clothes—He desires to clothe us with Christ Jesus, the Righteous One. If the choice is between my hill of beans, my rags, and the loftiest mountain or the robe of Christ’s righteousness—the choice is clear.

If you stand in Paul’s shoes, or whatever shoes (or slippers) you wear, I pray that you will also see that whatever stands to your credit in good life or pride of accomplishment, is nothing to hold up before God. You’ll want to echo what Paul said about Abraham, “If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God” (Rom. 4:2). It was not Abraham’s good works, but his faith that was counted as righteousness (4:5). So say it, “I have nothing to boast about before God...”  Now say, “But I am righteous by faith in Jesus!”

In both Philippians and Romans, Paul identifies two different kinds of righteousness. A Law-righteousness—based on earthly obedience and good deeds—and secondly, the righteousness of faith in Christ: a gift from God. The two are the difference between night and day. Loss vs. gain. Worthless excrement vs. surpassing worth. Mud pies vs. a real homemade pie, if you will. Counterfeit bills vs. genuine currency. The point is, that our own righteousness is so far from the righteousness through faith in Christ, that they’re not even on the same spectrum or scale. It’s not like our good works and best efforts are just pennies in comparison to a thousand dollar bill, or cheap clothing in comparison to rich brand name wear. It’s that they are dirty rags and excrement. Worthless; of no value.

This is the breaking point for our human pride. The realization that we can’t boost our own righteousness up to give us something to boast about before God; is where our heart rebels. Our sinful heart can’t tolerate such  terrible blows against all we’ve built up or stood on. All our confidence in the flesh. “That’s going to far! I worked hard for this! I deserve at least some inkling of credit!” And on and on our heart protests, until God’s law speaks its authoritative word, and every mouth is silenced before God. “Your sin has earned you death”—the law intones. “You are cursed if you have not done everything the Law requires”—the judgment rings harshly in our ears. God’s Law rains hammer blows down on our pride: “Your righteous deeds are like filthy rags”. To look up at this assault, we imagine a terrifying, angry God.

Until, that is, our pride is broken, and our blindness is made sight, and we see that God wants to trade us all the worthless empty things we’ve been clinging to, for something of infinite value and worth. Until we see the face of Jesus. When we see Jesus, we see the merciful face of God shining upon us and being gracious to us. We see God’s face lifting up to show us His favor and grant us peace. The storm cloud passes and we see that God was not after our destruction, but the destruction of our sinful nature—to put our sin and pride to death with Jesus on the cross, so that He can give us life. The joyous discovery of the Gospel is the thrill of knowing that everything you have, or are, or were, is as nothing compared to God giving you Christ Jesus. Jesus’ own righteousness. A gift by faith. Nothing you earned, but Christ in whole, poured out for you in life, death, and resurrection.

If our former “righteousness,”  if you can even call it that, had no “currency”—was worthless before God—this righteousness that you have in Christ Jesus is the real deal. It is Christ’s own righteousness of immeasurable worth. And this immeasurable worth was everything to Paul—to know Jesus, to gain Him, to be found in Christ Jesus with His righteousness. And it was everything to Martin Luther, it’s everything to me, and I pray that the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus is everything to you. I pray that sinful pride will never hold back even one of you from being found in Him. And your new life and new identity in Christ Jesus now has “currency” before God. You are precious and valuable to Him, not because of anything of your own, but because of Christ Jesus. And in that faith, all the life you live and lead for Christ is to His honor and glory, and for the service of your neighbor.

One of Luther’s great insights was that our old sinful nature is stubborn and persistent, and always looking for ways to insert our own pride or effort back into things. Pride wants our righteousness under the law to count for something before God. But Luther warned that any amount of credit that we try to steal for ourselves, however small, only serves to diminish or take away the glory and honor of Christ Jesus. The full credit and glory and honor belongs to Jesus Christ alone. So we must constantly keep the old sinner in check, humble him and put him to death through the drowning repentance of baptism, and rise daily before God to live as the new person He has made us in Christ Jesus.

The great fear of opponents to the Reformation, and a fear of many Christians today, is that if our good works aren’t counted for our justification before God, or even in some small way to put us in God’s favor—that people will give up striving and give up doing. People won’t have any motivation to do good, and will just turn into slackers and backsliders. The Apostle Paul knew this charge too: “Shall I sin more that grace may increase?” Paul answers, “By no means! How can we who have died to sin live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:2). In today’s reading he also shows that this fear is unfounded, for to know Christ Jesus is also to be conformed to Him. God has already begun transforming us into Christ’s image. We share in Christ’s sufferings and in His death, but we’ll also share in the glorious new beginning of His resurrection.

Paul then closes the reading by acknowledging how he’s far from perfection, but he’s striving and straining forward and pressing on like a determined runner in a race—to reach the prize of God’s heavenly call for us. It was easy for Paul to cast off all his works, achievements, and credentials as nothing and loss. And it didn’t stop him from doing good and seeking to live after Christ Jesus. In fact it the real freedom to do so out of genuine faith and love. And it shouldn’t stop you either. Just like a child who learns that mud pies aren’t edible has no trouble becoming a real baker when the loving mother washes her clean and teaches her how to make the real deal. God has prepared good works for us to do, and He’s already willing and working in you to do them, as your sinful nature never could before. So strive and strain and run for the goal. It’s not that we give up striving for excellence, but the reason why we do has changed from doing it for our own glory, to doing it for the glory of God and the service of our neighbor. But the foundation of your faith and your salvation is not any works of your own—neither before nor after your salvation—but the foundation of your faith is Christ Jesus, and His perfect righteousness that is ours by God’s gift through faith.

And one final thing—about how we see God. True love and worship of God—true trust and obedience to God, doesn’t come from cowering in fear and begrudgingly obeying because of threats. That is not God-pleasing obedience. Rather it comes from knowing God in Christ Jesus. True love, worship, trust, and obedience to God comes from knowing the merciful and loving God who gave up everything, even His Only Begotten Son to die for us, so that we could become His treasured possession. Seeing and knowing God in Christ Jesus, and becoming conformed to His Son, makes us into the new person transformed by joy and delight in the God of surpassing worth and greatness. Accept no imitations! Trust only in Him! In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points

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  1. In Philippians 3:4b-14, Paul counts up all his “reasons for confidence in the flesh”—anything that he could boast in, if he had a mind to boast about earthly accomplishments. What about your identity or your achievements would you be most tempted to boast in?
  2. Why does Paul count all these things as “rubbish” or “loss”? What would he far rather have? Why are those things all empty to him?
  3. Paul speaks of two kinds of righteousness in v.9. What are they? What is the difference between them? Romans 3:21-22. Why is the second kind so far superior to the other? How do you get either?
  4. In the Reformation, the primary concern of the Lutheran Reformers was that a righteousness of the law was being taught in the church, instead of the righteousness by faith. They rightly saw this as a danger for human pride, for wounded and troubled consciences, and for diminishing the glory of Christ. How does the proper Biblical teaching of righteousness by faith correct those three dangers?
  5. In what ways do we become like Christ? Philippians 1:27; 2:1-8; 3:10-12, 21; Ephesians 5:1-2. Who makes this happen in us? As we are conformed to Christ, how does this change us in relation to the world and our flesh? Romans 12:1-2; 1 John 2:15-17.
  6.  How can we give full honor and glory to Christ Jesus? What will it mean for you to live as though all your earthly accomplishments and identity are as rubbish or nothing, and that Christ is everything? What is the surpassing joy of knowing Christ Jesus?
  7. How does knowing Jesus change the “face” of God toward us (compared to how we would know Him through the Law alone), so that we are able to truly love Him and worship Him?

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