Date: 03 Jan 2016
Text: Philippians 3:7-14
So, here we are in 2016 with a new year stretched out in front of us; a new date to try and remember when writing cheques, if you still do that and a new date to write on letters or application forms. We have a new diary full of blank pages ready and waiting to be filled in. There will be new opportunities, new people to meet, new careers to follow, new colleges to attend and new friends to make.
But, what about 2015? How was that for you? Was it a good year or are you glad to see the back of it. Internationally of course we saw the growth of ISIS and their murderous activities as they cut a swathe across parts of the Islamic world and as they committed atrocities in Paris in January and again in November as well as a number of other cities mainly in parts of Africa. Nationally we saw a new government elected and the election of a new leader of the Labour Party. I’ll leave you to decide whether or not those were good events or bad events! Locally of course we sadly saw the murder of Anne Dunkley and the tremendous sorrow that followed that dreadful and sudden event. How do you feel about all of those events? Are you trying to forget them and put them behind you or are you dwelling on them? One thing is certain, whether we would like to or not, we cannot change the past; those things have happened and cannot be changed. It would be wonderful if we could change some of the events in the past, perhaps especially in our own past. But; we can’t change history, as much as some Oxford academics may wish to, and it is the thought of not being able to change the past that I want us to consider this morning.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with reminiscing, we all do it and I’m sure we all enjoy doing it. The problem comes when we dwell on the past, about all the bad things and the mistakes and the missed opportunities. Doing that won’t help us and may even drag us down. That word ‘if’ is a very little word but with big consequences. Just as with reminiscing, it is something that we all do, we all keep saying ‘if’ as if we could do something about it now. We can’t erase or change the past no matter how much we may like to; we have to accept that and get on with today and every day that comes.
If you want an example of someone with a past that he might have wanted to change, then look no further than Saul. Saul was the most zealous kind of Pharisee that you could ever wish to meet. He gives us his pedigree in Philippians 3:4b-6 and as these things go it is very impressive. He says there, “If someone else thinks they have 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 righteousness based on the law, faultless.” Unfortunately when going through his credentials he leaves out all the bad stuff. He fails to mention that when Stephen was stoned to death by an angry mob, we read in Acts 7:58 that it was Saul who minded the coats, and we can then read in Acts 8:1 that, “Saul approved of their killing him [that is Stephen]”. He fails to mention that he persecuted adherents of The Way; that is, followers of Jesus as Lord and Saviour. He was more than happy to see their demise and how he achieved that and how he went about persecuting them didn’t bother him. We shouldn’t forget that at the time of his highly dramatic conversion on the Road to Damascus he was actually on his way to that city to weed out members of The Way and persecute them even more. Shortly before Saul departed for Damascus Luke tells us in Acts 9:1 that, “Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples”. Those are not the actions of someone with whom you would like to be associated.
When Saul talks of his qualifications he wasn’t lying as he was a very well educated young man and would have known the Hebrew scriptures thoroughly; and yet when Jesus challenged him and asked him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:5) Saul was more or less unable to answer Him. That encounter with the risen Jesus was the turning point in Saul’s life such that he even changed his name, or perhaps it was changed for him, and from then on Saul became known as Paul.
Following his dramatic conversion Saul became Paul and went from being a zealous pursuer and persecutor of Christians to being a fervent and hard working disciple of Jesus; you might say that he was poacher turned gamekeeper! After spending quite some time studying and no doubt meditating on all that Christ had done, he embarked on a long series of missionary journeys and wrote a huge number of letters, many of which form the backbone of the New Testament. Given his background it’s not surprising that he wasn’t immediately accepted into Christian circles and that many distrusted him. For example, immediately after his conversion Saul was temporarily blinded and God asked Ananias to find him, place his hands upon him and restore his sight. Just imagine that, here is God asking someone who was fully aware of Saul’s desire to wipe out Christians, to go and care for that persecutor. How would you feel if God asked you to find and then care for someone who had previously tried to kill you or have you killed? Needless to say, Ananias protested but God quietly told him that Saul was the one chosen to proclaim the good news of Jesus to the Gentiles. Ananias went away and did exactly as God asked him. By the power of God Saul had done a compete U-turn and was now to become a totally trusted disciple of Jesus Christ.
In a very short space of time Saul went from being a highly respected, and possibly feared, Pharisee, to being Paul, an absolute beginner as a disciple needing to win the trust of those with whom he was to work and having to convince people that his conversion was genuine. Paul knew that words weren’t enough and that his actions would speak far louder. He would not have been able to read James’ epistle but he would have understood the sentiment of James words, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” (James 2:18b). Paul most definitely put his faith into action in all that he did.
I mentioned earlier Paul’s genuine claims regarding his pedigree as a Jew and a Pharisee; he was a very important man within Jewish circles. Now, in Philippians 3:7-8 we read that, “...whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord, for whose sake I lost all things.” Paul had gone from being at the top of the tree to being someone who would, on numerous occasions, be persecuted for placing his faith in Jesus Christ. Could we do that, could we give up something that carried status and position in order to serve Jesus Christ? It is a tough call! Paul though was happy to do that for the privilege of knowing and serving Christ; in fact he describes all that he had in the past as “garbage” when compared to knowing Christ. The version of the NIV that we use has that word “garbage” in 3:8. However, the original Greek carries a much deeper meaning and it refers to dung or street filth. That is how Paul felt about his past. How do we feel about our past? Are we proud of it and have nothing to regret or do we join with Paul and regard it as mere dung?
Apart from serving Christ, Paul’s one objective was to be more like Christ. He wanted to share in the power of His resurrection and to share in His sufferings. He knew that despite all that he had done prior to writing this letter to the Philippians, he still had a long way to go. Being a Christian and a follower of Jesus Christ is always a work in progress; we will never be perfect until we join Jesus Christ Himself in paradise.
This thought of wanting to know Christ or God is not exclusive to Paul. It was a great desire of many in Old Testament times. Many wanted to know God personally, not just have head knowledge of Him, but know Him in a close personal sense. Moses was one such person and in Exodus 33:13 asked God, “If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favour with you.” God was pleased and promised Moses that He would be with him. The prophet Jeremiah recorded God’s words on this matter in Jeremiah 9:23-24a where he wrote, “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me...” How do we feel about that, do we want to “know Christ” as badly as Paul very obviously did? I’ve no doubt that our lives would be vastly improved if we did know Christ to that depth.
In Philippians 3:13-14 we come to the crux of the matter. Despite all that had happened in his past, both good and bad, Paul wanted to forget it and put it behind him. It no longer counted in his life and he knew that whether he wanted to or not, he couldn’t change the past. He had held a privileged position, he had been well educated, he had been both respected and feared, and yet he wanted to forget all that and only look forward. Paul didn’t want to dwell on the past; instead he only wanted to focus on the future. Are we like that? Do we dwell on the past or do we prefer to look forward to better things? Some years ago, a very good friend of mine, who is now Associate Vicar at my old church in Poole, told me to stop looking back as I couldn’t change anything nor could I redeem the lost and wasted time. He was quite right and since then I have never looked back at all the bad stuff, I have only ever looked forward and as a result I approach 2016 full of hope; I’m not even worried about a “major” birthday! I should add that I would never have dreamed when my friend spoke to me over 10 years ago now, that I would find myself here today.
I believe that Paul’s attitude was the right one. He decided to trust God and be led by Him. Having come to the decision to forget what was behind and in the past, Paul tells us that he was now “straining towards what is ahead” (9:13), and then goes on to add, “I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus”. That is what we should all be doing. God has called each and every one of us to be members of His family; that is a privilege and not a right; and as a result we should look forward to serving Him in whatever way He calls. We cannot do that by constantly focussing on the past, we can only do it by focussing on the future and on what lies ahead. Only God knows, of course, what lies ahead, and based on my experience I know that when He is ready He will tell each of us when and how we can serve Him.
Paul opens 3:14 with the words, “I press on...” which suggest to me that he knows that despite all that has happened and all that he has done, he has not yet arrived at his goal; he still has quite a way to go. It is almost as if Paul sees this as a race, not a 100 metre sprint but rather, a marathon. Greek athletes at the time always ran sprint races in a straight line and they only ever looked forward at the finishing line, they never looked back. When running a marathon they knew that they still had a long way to go and the thought of that finishing line somewhere ahead of them spurred them on to keep going. Of course in any athletics event there is only one winner, only one gold medal. The prize that Paul was seeking was to know Christ more intimately and join Him in heaven. That prize is available to all who accept Him as Lord and Saviour; there is more than one winner. Just as most runners will say, Paul didn’t look back; he kept looking forward and working “towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.” (3:14). God has called all believers to be part of His family and He has called all believers to join Him in heaven when the time comes. That is the prize that Paul was seeking and the prize that we should all be seeking.
In these few verses in Philippians 3, we see a wonderful picture of Paul and how he always strived to look and go forward. Prior to coming to faith in Christ Paul aka Saul had persecuted Christians for all his worth. After his dramatic conversion all that changed and he became an energetic and enthusiastic disciple of Christ. He put the past behind him and only looked forward; forward to the prize that awaited him, that of knowing Christ more intimately. That prize is available to all those who place their faith in the risen Jesus Christ. Let us all put the past behind us and look forward to a better year moving ever closer to Christ in our daily walk with Him.