"Make This Year Count"
A Sermon Preached by Mark D. Roberts
Irvine Presbyterian Church January 3 & 4, 2004 Text: Philippians 3:12-16
Copyright © 2003 by Mark D. Roberts
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As we begin this new year, we're finishing up our sermon series in Philippians, which I have called "Real Life." So far we've seen again and again that the fullness of life is found in Jesus Christ, in knowing him, serving him, imitating him, and loving him.
Our Scripture reading for today comes from Philippians 3. I'll re-read verses 7-11 as a set-up to our main passage, Philippians 3:12-16. Listen to God's Word.
Scripture Reading: Philippians 3:7-16 (NRSV)
7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. 16 Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.
Thinking About the New Year
Can you believe we're beginning another year together? It seems like 2003 just got going, but now it's long gone.
So how do you envision 2004? When you think about the year ahead, what comes to mind? What are your expectations? Your hopes? Your fears?
Perhaps your first thought is of the ordinary routines and demands of life, the daily pattern of work, school, family, and friendship.
Or perhaps your mind focuses immediately on the "big events" of 2004: a wedding, or graduation, or new baby, or retirement, or special vacation. I'm already thinking about the RV trek through Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons that Linda and I are hoping to make this year.
When I consider our church in 2004, I immediately envision our "big events." First, there's the building and, Lord willing, the completion of our new Administration and Youth Center. And then of course there's the capital campaign in the fall to help us pay for this building. I also think of the challenges that lie before us, things like hiring a new Director of High School Ministries and finding more effective ways to reach out to our community. In this regard I'm especially excited about our planned outreach in Lent, when we'll capitalize upon the release of Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ. What a great opportunity we'll have to share with friends and neighbors the truth about Jesus.
There is a downside to such forecasting of the future, of course. When I think of all that lies ahead, I can feel rather overwhelmed, pulled in too many different directions all at once. I'm well aware of the fact that I can easily get unfocused, spreading my energies too thinly and forgetting what's most important.
Like me, do you ever find that what matters most in life gets lost in the shuffle?
I believe we need to start this year with a reminder of what's most important. We need to clarify once again the primary direction of our lives, the goal for which we are striving. If we do, then we'll be prepared to make this year count, to experience life more richly and meaningfully.
Running for the Prize
Philippians 3:12-16 reminds us why we're alive. It fixes our gaze upon the goalpost of life. Before we get to this text, however, let's take a quick look at the context.
In chapter 3 Paul has warned the Philippians about those who would corrupt their Christian discipleship by imposing Jewish religious practices upon them. If anyone should take pride in Judaism, Paul confesses, he should, because he is an exemplary Jew. But his relationship with Jesus Christ has completely inverted his values. What Paul once regarded as treasure - his Jewish religiosity - he now regards as garbage. It's not that Judaism is so bad, far from it. What has radically transformed Paul's priorities is simply the extraordinary value of knowing Christ.
Now you might think, given what Paul says about the all-surpassing greatness of knowing Christ, that he's experienced all there is to know of Christ. Yet this is hardly the case. Paul wants to "gain" even more of Christ, to "know" him more fully (Phil 3:8, 10). In fact, a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ becomes the primary goal of Paul's life, that for which he strives with every ounce of strength.
Though it's a bit hard for us to hear it in English translation, the Greek original of Philippians 3:12-16 abounds with athletic imagery. This stands out in the English translation of verse 14, where Paul explains, "I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus." Goals and prizes, these we associate with athletic competition. But there's more. To help you taste the flavor of the larger passage, let me offer this amplified paraphrase:
Not that I have already claimed the prize of knowing Christ fully or reached the goal, but I pursue it and seek to claim it, because Christ has already claimed me as his prize. Beloved, I do not consider myself to have claimed the prize already. But this one thing I keep always before me: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead like a runner in a race with the finish line ever in focus, I press on for the prize that belongs to me because God has called me to himself in Christ Jesus.
What is real life? In this text we see that it's like a race in which see strive for the finish line of knowing Christ more completely. In light of this truth, I want to suggest three practical guidelines.
Guideline #1: Make Knowing Christ Your Primary Goal in Life
All of us confront countless demands upon our time and attention. Perhaps never before has life been so complex. If you want to see a telling, albeit exaggerated, picture of how crazy our lives have become, check out the movie Cheaper by the Dozen. I went to see this film with my children because it was the only one in the megaplex rated PG. I expected juvenile slapstick, and got plenty of it. But I didn't expect a movie that painted such a hilariously incisive picture of my own crazy life. In scene after scene, the father of twelve children, Tom Baker, played by Steve Martin, is being multi-tasked to death as he attempts to balance the impossible demands of work and family. Now I don't have twelve children, thank God, but sometimes I feel almost as out of sorts as Tom Baker.
When we've got so much going on in life, when voices all around us clamor for our attention, it's easy to lose focus. We can forget why we're here and what we're living for. We end up charging off in all directions at once, and arriving at none of them.
So here's the antidote to such a scattered and unproductive existence: Make knowing Christ better your primary purpose in life. Make it your primary goal this year to have a deeper, truer, closer relationship with Jesus Christ.
Lest this sound like the Christian life is only a matter of personal piety, let me hasten to add that the more you know Jesus Christ, the more you will be impelled to share him with the world, to live out your life each day as his disciple. Thus knowing Christ more intimately will transform your life in the world. You will act differently at work, at school, on the soccer field, and even in the market because you have a genuine, growing relationship with Jesus.
My friends, as I step back and think about my life, as I think about 2004, I would love to come to the end of this year being able to say: "I know Jesus today better than I did a year ago. I know him better in truth, in heart, and in daily experience. I know him better in my private devotions and in corporate worship. I know him better as I pray and as I live out my faith each day."
Make knowing Christ better your primary purpose in 2004!
Guideline #2: Invest Yourself in the Race that Matters Most
Years ago I had a friend named Robert. He was an associate pastor in a large church and a very eligible bachelor. But he had a hard time settling down in a relationship and tended to flit from one woman to the next. One day while Robert was busy, a couple of his friends played a trick on him. Without telling him what they were doing, they attached one of those license plate frames to Robert's car. It read, "So Many Women . . . So Little Time." For weeks Pastor Robert drove around, completely unaware of the statement his car made to those who were behind him on the road. Finally his boss, the church's senior pastor, saw the license plate frame. Angrily, he told Robert that this was inappropriate for a pastor's car.
If I were to put such a frame around my license plate, it wouldn't read "So Many Women . . . So Little Time." I love one woman and I plan to stick with her the rest of my life, thank you very much. In truth, my frame could read, "Only One Woman . . . But Still Soo Little Time!" On the other hand, I might attach a frame that read, "So Many Races . . . So Little Time." Can you relate? It's commonplace to say that life is a rat-race, but in reality it's much worse than that. Life is a whole bunch of competing rat races.
So what's a person to do? According to Philippians 3, the answer is simple: Invest yourself in the race that matters most. Follow Paul's own example when he says, "Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil 3:13b-14). Perhaps in our case we should forget, not only what lies behind, but also what lies alongside us - all of the other races - in order to put our whole energy into the one race that is most important of all.
Does this mean that we'll neglect our families, our work, our schoolwork, our service in the community? Hardly, though investing ourselves in knowing Christ may very well call for a change in our life priorities. I remember when my friend Walt stopped reading the newspaper each morning, saving it for later in the day. It's not that Walt didn't like the news. He loved it. But he realized that he was rushing through his time with the Lord each morning because he was so eager to get to the newspaper. Headlines and sports were taking the place of Walt's relationship with Christ. So he performed radical surgery on his priorities and stopped taking the morning paper.
My friends, if you invest your best energy in knowing Christ better, not only will you not neglect the things that matter in life, but also you'll have more of yourself to give to these things.
So how do you invest yourself in the race that matters most, in the quest to know Jesus Christ more completely? There's really no secret here. It's a matter of putting time and effort into the essential disciplines of the Christian life: daily prayer, Bible reading, worship, corporate fellowship, serving Christ in the church and the world.
You and I need to look honestly at our schedules, calendars, and to-do lists. Do these reflect a primary investment in knowing Christ? Do they really? Or does knowing Christ get the dregs of our time and energy?
Guideline #3: Run the Race as a Claimed Prize
Every time I speak on this passage from Philippians 3 I get nervous. Let's face it. Many of us are Type-A, driven people. We work hard. We live hard. We strive and seek and press on. Then we read that the Christian life is a race for the goal of knowing Christ, and we can relate to that. We know all about competition and focus and workaholism and the like. And so we turn all of our tendencies toward drivenness into our faith. We adopt a new to-do list of Christian obligations, which we fulfill dutifully. But along the way, we easily forget the relational dynamic of life in Christ. We're chasing after him more than being with him. Moreover, we turn the life of grace into a the life of legalism. Knowing Christ better becomes one more thing we've got to accomplish by our own strength, and, by golly, we'll get there, even if the effort almost kills us.
Paul understood the danger I'm describing. That's why he spoke precisely in our passage about the priority of prizes in the Christian life. Let's go back to our text for a moment: "Not that I have already obtained [full life in Christ] or have already reached the goal, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own" (Phil 3:12). Did you catch that? I press on to reach the goal because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Or to use the paraphrase I suggested earlier: "Not that I have already claimed the prize of knowing Christ fully or reached the goal, but I pursue it and seek to claim it, because Christ has already claimed me as his prize." This is the sense of Paul's original language, and it's absolutely essential for us to grasp what he's saying here.
The Christian life is not at first a race in which you seek the prize of knowing Christ. Fundamentally, it is a race in which Christ seeks you as his prize. And this means if you're a Christian, then you've already been found. Christ has claimed you as his prize! Only on this basis can you properly run the race for Christ - as his own treasure, firmly grasped in his loving, nail-scarred hand.
Admittedly there is a paradox here. How can we run towards Christ as the prize if he has already claimed us as his own prize? Doesn't this mean the running is already over? Yes, in a sense it does. Once you have given your life to Christ, you have been found for eternity. Your salvation is secure in him. His Spirit lives within you. These things are set forever. But in response to these realities, you live so as to know Christ even better in this life, not to mention in the next.
I'm reminded here of my relationship with Linda. When I first met her, our friendship soon blossomed into something more - at least in my own mind. I desperately wanted relationship with her, and before long I wanted her to be my wife. This I sought with all the energy I could muster. For a while, Linda was not quite as gung ho as I was. Wisely, she wanted to make sure I was the right man for her. But in time she saw the light! We became engaged and then married. I had won the race, so to speak, and had claimed my prize.
But then I became confused. I had invested great effort in seeking Linda, and now I had her. In fact she had freely claimed me as her prize. I belonged to her and she to me in marriage. But now what? For a while I held back, fearful of losing myself in my marriage, unsure of what comes next. Winning races I knew something about. Growing into greater intimacy in marriage? This was new, unknown, scary territory.
In time, by God's grace and the grace of my dear wife, I realized that even though we were married, there was much more worth pursuing in our relationship. I learned - and, to tell you the truth, I am still learning - how to invest more of myself in knowing Linda better. After nineteen and half years of marriage, I can truly say that I want to know Linda more and to share more of life with her. Claiming her as my prize and being claimed as her prize wasn't the end of the process, but just the beginning.
So it is in your relationship with Christ. Before you do any seeking, before you run the race to know him better, be convinced of this: If you are a Christian, then Jesus Christ has claimed you as his prize, and he'll never let you go. Now, in light of this bedrock truth, strive to know Christ better. And if you're not a Christian, know that Jesus is seeking you even now. Perhaps he'll even claim you as his prize today!
Today we share communion together. The word "communion" comes from a Greek word that means "intimate fellowship." At this table we share in deep fellowship with Jesus Christ through the Spirit, and with each other, fellow members of Christ's body.
As you come to this table today, come in order to renew your commitment to seeking Christ above all. Come to reset your focus on knowing him most of all. But as you come, remember that you are already Christ's prize, his pearl of great price. That's why he died for you. His love for you will never let you go. And his love for you will unleash within you a godly, healthy desire to seek him more and more.
So come to the table as you press on to know Christ better. But come, most of all, to celebrate the fact that Christ has pressed on to know you. You are his prize. Jesus Christ has made you his own!