Press on to Our Heavenly Goal

Sermon 1797 Philippians 3.4-14 April 3, 2022

A few weeks ago a couple of you picked up on my being on my high school track team. I ran for one year, I think, because they didn’t have a miler. And I didn’t really apply myself because I also went out for tennis in the spring. Yeah, our school was so small in the spring you almost had to compete in two sports, because otherwise we didn’t have enough guys to field track, baseball, tennis and golf teams. I really liked tennis. Tennis is a great way to get out aggression. Track was not my favorite. I could never make myself run so hard that I threw up at the end of the race. Misguided or not, that was my standard of success. I couldn’t push myself to that point. I did, however, learn some good life lessons from track. It seems I am constantly being reminded what Coach Scriver instilled in us because running a race is a repeated image in the Bible, today’s text being a great example.

Press On to Our Heavenly Goal

1. Lose the baggage (4-6).

2. Focus on the one thing (7-11)

3. Don’t look back (12-14).

“If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put 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; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless (4-6).”

You know how some of these Olympic runners wear big gold necklaces and jewelry during the race? Well, that wasn’t new. We did it, or tried to. Our girlfriend’s class ring around our necks, a lucky rabbit’s foot, anything dangling around your neck showed you were cool. And wristbands! Beaded ones were big in the early 70s. Neil Scriver sees you walking to the starting line with that and he’d say, “Pieper, lose the baggage.” Off it came, thrown by the warm-up at the side of the track. No amount of arguing with him during practice could budge him. “It’s actually insignificant compared to my total body weight.” “As slow as you run, you can’t afford to carry anything extra!” We didn’t even wear socks, our track shoes fit so snugly. “You want to look cool? Finish first!”

It was all about the finish line with that guy. The Apostle Paul would have liked Neil Scriver. Paul was all about the finish line.

The Apostle Paul at one time in his life thought he was pretty cool, so cool, that he was earning his way to heaven. And a lot of people were agreeing with him. He was a Jew, living the life, from the day he was eight days old. A Pharisee, someone who took all of God’s laws seriously. No Sabbath only Jew was he. A tenth of everything he got, that was the starting point for his gifts to the Lord. There was not a thing he lacked in his observance of the laws of God or the traditions of the elders. So zealous was he, he even did the dirty work of persecuting Christians. He was earning his way to heaven! God owed it to him. So Joe Cool thought.

But he needed to lose the baggage. All that legalistic righteousness, good deeds designed to earn heaven, were doing just the opposite. Let Paul tell us about it.

Press on to our heavenly goal. Focus on the one thing.

“But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, 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 is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead (7-11).”

When Paul found out about Jesus, he realized everything he had been doing, everything he thought was cool, was for losers. It was useless baggage. It had to go. As long as he was buried in that garbage and rubbish, he didn’t even know who God was!

The finish line. That’s what’s important. Focus on the one thing that will get you there. For the miler it is getting your pace—controlling your breathing and extending the legs. The two were one. If that lucky rabbit’s foot didn’t help the rabbit, what could it do for you? Use what God gave you.

God gave us Jesus. He was the only one who kept all the law perfectly. Not only did Jesus do the right things, he said the right things and thought the right things. That’s where we all go astray. We think we have to be good most of the time and what we say doesn’t count and we don’t even consider our thoughts and inclinations. Then we are surprised when all sorts of fights and situations break out of our suspicious and jealous minds. By faith Jesus’ righteousness is given to us. What God demands of us he gives to us in Christ. Keep the law perfectly. Jesus did. By faith God counts Jesus’ perfection as our perfection.

To show it is not an imaginary righteousness or a mind game—you know, if you can just visualize it you can do it—Jesus rose from the dead. Wishing upon a star doesn’t do that. With power Jesus rose from the dead. The hold of sin was broken. To live forgiven, to live forever, that’s what the righteousness which comes from God gives us.

When we have that, well, who cares how much you suffer? It only shows you belong to Jesus! If the world tried to make life miserable for Jesus it will try to make life miserable for all who claim Jesus is their Lord. If Jesus entered into his heavenly glory through suffering—and that is exactly what he told his two followers on their way out of Jerusalem on Easter Sunday afternoon, “Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory (Luke 24.26)?”—then won’t we enter into our glory in heaven through the suffering of death here on this earth?

For us, getting to heaven by our own good deeds, all that baggage, is an unsolvable problem. But for Jesus, nothing is impossible. His good deeds have earned heaven for us. Through all our trials, no matter how bleak it looks, he will get us through to the resurrection.

Press on to our heavenly goal. Don’t look back.

“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (12-14).”

I was so psyched for my first track meet. I blew out of the blocks. I was ahead, way ahead at the first turn already. The sun was in my eyes, I could feel its warmth on my shoulders, breathing, extending. It was a wonderful experience for about thirty seconds. My pace was too fast. My breathing broke down. My stride shortened. I was starting to get passed. By the third lap I kept looking behind me. I was passed for the final time just before the final turn. I finished last. “It was because I started too fast,” I told the coach. “It was because you looked back,” he maintained. “That’s crazy—I was dying before I started looking back.” “Yes, but if you didn’t look back you could have beat that last guy.”

Regret makes us look back. We could have done this. We could have done that, if we had loosened up a bit. If we hadn’t been such, such, Christians. Look at all the fun we missed out on! Look at all that which is forever out of our reach now! Yeah, we could really be poster children for how the devil can cut our lives short and prematurely age us. We could pass for a member of the Rolling Stones! Regret leads to discontent, discontent leads to getting stuck and getting stuck leads to despair. If you don’t believe me just imagine the most-badly-prepared-for-childbirth mother in the world. The nurse finally says, “Get the surgeon and anesthesiologist—we gotta do a C-section.”

Paul wants a word with us. We haven’t finished the race yet. We’ve not yet been Christians all our lives. Don’t look back. Keep our eyes focused on what is ahead. That’s why Jesus came into this world, so we would cross the finish line and enter into our heavenly glory. It takes all our effort, our best effort, all the time. Even when things start to go wrong, it still calls for the best we can give. Scriver would say, “I can work with fast, but I can also work with determined.” Just keep moving forward. Every step is a step closer to that finish line. Don’t look back—there’s nothing for you there. Press on to our heavenly goal.

Press On to Our Heavenly Goal

1. Lose the baggage (4-6).

2. Focus on the one thing (7-11)

3. Don’t look back (12-14).

Thanks to Neil Scriver, I became a better miler. I won’t say a good miler, but a better miler. When he thought he had a miler in the incoming freshman class, he didn’t beg me to come out for track my senior year, which was fine by me. Even a good coach knows his limits.

The Holy Spirit knows no limits. The Holy Spirit is making us better Christians every day. He is committed to us, determined to keep us running the race of our lives. For the race we are running does not depend on the strength of a man’s legs or the swiftness of his feet. Victory belongs to the Lord and the prize to all who, by faith, receive it.

Press on. There is no other direction to go. Press on.

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