Straining Forward to What Lies Ahead

Posted By 
Sun, 01/01/2017 - 6:00pm

Philippians 3:4b-14, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, January 1, 2017 

            Although we know that all markings of time are artificial, and although we know that time is not a constant like the speed of light, it still feels significant to us when we enter a new year. We become conscious of the passage of time. “Who knows where the time goes?” we ask—and I’ve had Becca sing that song in church. God knows there are many people who are happy to be done with 2016, but there are probably as many filled with dread about what will happen in 2017.

            We cannot control what happens out there in the world, but we like to think we can control what we ourselves do. Well, perhaps we understand that much of our behavior is not quite under our supervision. That’s why we make New Year’s resolutions, and why we fail to keep them. Most of us have had experiences with resolutions that make us agree with Paul’s self-observations in Romans 7:

18I want to do what is right, but I can’t. 19 I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway….21 I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. (NLT)

Paul says that sin, or his fallen nature, is like an alien force living inside him that is at war with his mind. Freud might have said that the id is at war with the superego, our natural desires at war with the morality we absorbed from our parents. The good news that Paul gets to at the end of the chapter is that Christ has set us free from this wretched life of struggling with ourselves. It is the Spirit, Christ’s very life force operating in our lives, that sets us free and pulls us toward behavior that pleases God. The Christian understanding of why we don’t keep resolutions is not really to say we don’t have “will power,” but to say that our wills have been corrupted. They need to be purified or healed or transformed.

            Nevertheless, it’s clear throughout the Bible that making promises, taking vows, and establishing covenants are good things. Making decisions is a basic human activity and committing yourself to do what is good is at the heart of Hebrew religion. We can admit that we have been pretty bad at keeping resolutions while still understanding that we have choices to make. We make choices every day anyway, and the Christian life involves making those choices consciously and deliberately and with the intention of bringing glory rather than shame to the name of Christ our Lord.

            Have you made any resolutions yet for 2017? Most of ours are pretty mundane. Most of the time, God doesn’t really enter into the picture; we just think of things we can change about ourselves. I came across a statistical ranking of the top 10 New Year’s resolutions from 2015 (see if you can relate):

  1. Lose weight
  2. Get organized
  3. Spend less, save more
  4. Enjoy life to the fullest (that one’s a little surprising, based on the assumption that we are not enjoying life as we should)
  5. Get fit and healthy
  6. Learn something exciting
  7. Quit smoking
  8. (Another surprise) Help others in their dreams (nice!)
  9. Fall in love (as if you could just flip a switch)
  10. Spend more time with family.

A couple of those involve changes in attitude, but most involve developing better daily habits and using our time differently. Only enjoying life and helping others might be classed as spiritual questions.

            Compare this list of five spiritual resolutions that just appeared in Time (Dec 20, 2016) by Rabbi David Wolper:

  1. Engage with people more than pixels.
  2. Take your soul seriously.
  3. Increase your kindness.
  4. Choose someone to forgive.
  5. In forgiving, include yourself.

I like that list, but it’s not easy, either. Of course, it’s not a Christian list.

            If you want to find a rigorous Christian list, you might look at the Puritans, who were really into such things. Purity, holiness, and rigor were their hallmarks. The most famous list of resolutions was the one made by Jonathan Edwards when he was young, which he re-read every week and kept adding to until it had 70 resolutions. Here’s the very first one:

  1. Resolved, that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God's glory, and my own good, profit and pleasure, in the whole of my duration, without any consideration of the time, whether now, or never so many myriads of ages hence. Resolved to do whatever I think to be my duty, and most for the good and advantage of mankind in general. Resolved to do this, whatever difficulties I meet with, how many and how great soever.

That’s just for starters. Here are a few shorter ones that spoke to me:

5. Resolved, never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can.
6. Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live.
7. Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if it were the last hour of my life. 1
14. Resolved, never to do anything out of revenge.

34. Resolved, in narrations never to speak anything but the pure and simple verity.
52. I frequently hear persons in old age say how they would live, if they were to live their lives over again: resolved, that I will live just so as I can think I shall wish I had done, supposing I live to old age.

            Our scripture text today from Philippians 3 is one of my favorites—which is why I have preached on it more than once. It’s Paul’s testimony and his statement of where his life is headed. It’s not written for a new year, although New Year’s resolutions were already popular among Roman writers. I think the heart of his resolution is found in verse 10, where he lists what he wants:

  1. To know Christ
  2. To know the power of his resurrection
  3. To share in his sufferings
  4. To become like him in his death (so I can share in his resurrection).

That is Paul’s goal, but he says right away that I have not yet reached this goal. Still, he presses on to make this goal his own.

            What is the goal? You could argue that it is the resurrection or life in heaven. But it seems to me that in this context, the goal is to know Christ—that is, to know Jesus fully and deeply, intimately, in a way that is only possible through shared experience with him, including sufferings. In the Good News Bible, verse 10 says “All I want is to know Christ.”

            When I realized this years ago, it blew me away. I grew up an evangelical who was used to asking people “Do you know Christ?” The assumption behind that question was that knowing Christ is like an off/on switch. You either know or you don’t. But here is Paul, as much my hero as anyone besides Jesus, saying at a late stage in his life that he has not yet reached the goal of knowing Christ—because that knowing includes the experience of power and suffering and transformation. It finally became clear to me that Christ is not an idea or a fact which you accept as true. Christ is a person, and knowing a person is different from knowing a fact. This knowledge is relational. This knowledge happens through love. One person can never know another person fully. After 38 years of married life, knowing my wife is still a goal and not an accomplishment.

            That verse, “All I want is to know Christ,” became a kind of resolution for me—not at the turning of the year, but when I thought I could have died and wanted to tell myself what the focus of my life was. There is a story you must have heard by now, but it’s just us today, so I will repeat the story of the time when Philippians 3:10 became precious to me.

I was working as a campus minister in Birmingham in 1982. It was the first week of school. We were setting up on a campus plaza for an outdoor concert, and I was working on a Mountain Dew trailer to dispense free soft drinks. It was getting dark, so we needed to plug the thing in to get some light. Someone ran an old extension cord all the way from the theater out to the middle of the plaza where I was. I picked up the extension cord in my left hand and the cord from the trailer in my right hand and suddenly the electricity began to flow—in my left hand, across my chest, down my arm and out my right hand. All those muscles contracted and I was unable to release the wires. I jumped up and down trying to get those snakes to let go and even yelled out, "Help, I'm being electrocuted!" With the electricity flowing through me I looked over at that Mountain Dew trailer with the hillbilly on the side saying "Yahoo!" and thought "Is this it? Is this how I die?" At first the students thought, "That Steve, what a funny guy!" but finally one of them saw what was happening, picked up the extension cord and yanked it out of my hand. My hand was bleeding, one arm was paralyzed, but when I got to the emergency room they were worried about my heart—it could stop beating any second. As I lay there in the emergency room, I thought about what really mattered in my life. I was so full of plans and goals for the new school year, but they could come tumbling down like a house of cards at the merest puff of God's breath. This verse came to my attention at that time, and I realized what I really wanted in life: "all I want is to know Christ."

            Perhaps you’ve had experiences like this. Most of us have brushes with death which cause us to re-evaluate our lives. I talked about this one focus and passion to my students for a while and put more time into my devotional life.  But before long I began paying attention to the expectations of others, and my life became cluttered with many goals. I lost the singleness of mind I had when a sore shoulder was a constant reminder of my mortality.

             New Year’s Day is not a brush with death—although we’ve seen enough celebrities younger than us die suddenly this year, and we lost a neighbor that way this past week. But this moment is a hinge in time. We can resolve to do what Paul did. He said, “I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.” (vs. 13-14 CEB).

            What was it that Paul put behind him? It was not his sins. It was the things he used to consider his assets. Paul put playing church behind him, all the righteousness he thought he had earned by being a good boy and following the rules. In order to gain Christ, Paul lost his religion. He gave up his pride in being part of his nation. All of that was like sewage to him now compared to the value of knowing Jesus Christ. In a sense, what Paul put behind him was trying so hard to be accepted. He learned that he had been accepted in spite of his blindness and meanness, and that he was being called into God’s life forever.

            What was ahead of Paul—the prize on which he kept his eyes—was being one with God in Christ in the next life, in the new age in which this body (which he calls “the body of our humiliation” in verse 21) will be transformed into a glorious body like the risen Christ’s. What was ahead was the kingdom of God in which everything was subject to Christ. What was ahead was everything the prophets longed for and everything Jesus promised. What was ahead was the restoration of all things.

            I can’t imagine a better resolution for myself than to put behind me my sense of accomplishment and entitlement, as if I deserved what I have received, and to keep my eyes on the future Jesus is creating for me and for the world. What is it that you need to put behind you? What is it that God has in mind for you that you still need to reach for? Let that be your resolution: to do that one thing.