Sermon from Sunday, June 4, 2023
Speaker: Rev. Michael Cloud
Scripture: Philippians 3:7-14

Sermon Transcript

Our Scripture reading this morning comes from the book of Philippians, Chapter three, verses 7-14. Here are these words:

“Yeah, whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 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 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. I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the sharing of His sufferings by becoming like Him in His death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 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. 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, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Amen. This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.”

So the day is July 12, 2018, and the location is the Louisiana boardwalk in Bossier City. We arrived promptly when the boardwalk opened, and we immediately got in line for the promotion of this century: Build-A-Bear’s “Pay Your Age” one-day sale. That’s right, Mickey. I was two, Gabriel was a baby, and so for bears that start at $20 and only get more expensive from there, this was going to be a steal. You might remember the news coverage of that event. Build-A-Bear had drastically underestimated the insanity of parents and their kids. Many shots rang out of bears, and I had to turn away massive crowds of people.

But we were one of those insane parents. The line wrapped around the entire length of the ballpark, and this event was going to take all day. But on that day, I saw a dedication and a determination for stuffed bears that would rival every other allegiance in our lives. While in line, it rained twice, and nobody moved. So a couple of hours in, I had a decision to make: cut bait and walk away or lock in and finish the mission. Against all odds, what did I do church? Oh, I locked in 6 hours in. We are finally in sight of the store, and I get to remind myself why we came. By hour seven we had finally made it next door. We were handed number 35, and we were told, “Well, you can just kind of go your own way and wait. Now you don’ have to stand in line. Just wait till your number is called, number 35.” And after 9 hours, it was our turn to get off the sidewalk and walk into the store.

And let me tell you something. After 9 hours in line, we got the bears. We’re going to put him right here. And Kyle, that’s a Chewbacca, by the way. It was a Star Wars bear. Okay. That’s right. And so why is there something of this comedic family memory of a day where, you know, we bonded in probably one of the strangest ways possible, if you include the travel time here and the time in the store? This is easily a 12-hour day dedicated to the sole mission of saving a few dollars on some stuffed bears my kids don’t even play with. This is easily a 12 hour day dedicated to the sole mission of saving a few dollars on some stuffed bears my kids don’t even play with. And my wife and I had to figure out where they were for the sermon illustration. That’s ridiculous. And you’re all thinking of how crazy it is and that you would never do it.

And I agree with you. Don’t do it. There are so many more things we could have been doing as a family during that time. But as I think back on that day, I can still feel the resilience and the dedication and the joy that came through perseverance and a bit of pride in the victory of those bears wherever the other two are.

And if a day in the sun and the rain to get stuffed animals can bring such emotion and showcase the illogical veracity of love that parents have for their children, how much more will we experience the love and joy in the abounding grace of God? When we fix our eyes on Christ, we are really good about giving our time, energy, and focus to the things of this world that will not matter in eternity.

And I’m not saying that everything in this world is bad or sinful. I’m saying that even the good stuff will wither and fade. As good as some of the things in this life may be and as much joy and fulfillment as they might bring, the only thing that remains from everlasting to everlasting is Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Even the good stuff, falls short of the joy and love that God offers us through knowing Christ Jesus as Lord does. Just before our verse this morning, Paul says, “I have reason for confidence in the flesh: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the Israelite tribe of Benjamin, born a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet, whatever gains I had, I have come to regard these as loss because of Christ.” So notice the progression with me, right? Nothing wrong with anything Paul has listed here. And he’s right. If we’re going to judge our confidence, assurance, and worth before God as good and faithful Jews, this is a fantastic resumé. We could easily come up with something similar for Christians.+

But what does he say? Paul doesn’t just count them as loss compared to Christ Jesus. He says, “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” Oh, I had the gains, and they were good gains. I had the confidence and the assurance, and they were in good and noble things, and I was fulfilled by them.

But then I met Christ, and the more I got to know Christ and the more I began to fall in love with Jesus, the more these things paled in comparison. It’s not a matter of if it’s good or bad. It’s not a matter of whether this thing is sinful or not. If it’s not sinful and if it brings you joy, then it’s okay to pursue.

That’s a surface-level analysis of this life, and it goes about an inch deep in how God has formed us. The dedication of our lives is meant to run so much deeper because when compared to an infinitely holy God, nothing else measures up. Say it louder for the folks in the back. There it is. I have come to regard them as loss because of Christ, because in Christ, I find something of far greater value, and everything else I stack up against it amounts to rubbish: degrees, careers, accolades, orders, savings, security, stability, social standing, respect from colleagues and friends, righteousness that comes through the approval of the powers that be, my identity, and my purpose. I would gladly throw it all away for the surpassing value of knowing Christ and being found in Him.

The comparison is not about how bad these things are. The comparison shows us how good Jesus is. When you fix your eyes on Jesus and dedicate your time and energy to consuming yourself with God’s Word, when you are focused on what Christ would have you do over and above what you think is best, you will not be disappointed. And Paul’s argument here is that if you’ve really met Christ, if you really know Christ, it isn’t even a question.

But let us not confuse the easiness of making the choice with the easiness by which we live into that choice. Agreeing that Christ is more valuable than everything I have and everything I am is quite a bit more humbling when I have to give it all up as loss. And that’s why we see Paul use words like dedication, determination, and perseverance throughout all of his letters.

The honeymoon period phase, whatever you want to call it, is fantastic. But the hour is coming when your faith will be tested, and you’ll be asked if it was all worth it or if you made a horrible mistake. You’ll have to remind yourself why you came. Why are you there? Why did you say yes when He said, “Follow me?”

And this is what Paul is driving at in verses ten and eleven when he says, “I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the sharing of His suffering by becoming like Him in His death, if somehow I might attain the resurrection from the dead.” Now, we do not choose suffering and loss because it somehow makes us better Christians and shows our dedication. That’s the exact opposite of the gospel. Christ suffered and died so you wouldn’t have to. But Christ told us in John 16:33 that in this life, you will have trouble. But I tell you these things, Christ says, so that you may have peace and take heart, for I have overcome the world. Our sharing with Christ in His suffering comes through our being like Him in His death, and what is suffering and death if not the result of a loss?

So I count it all as loss in order that I may gain Christ. And that doesn’t mean giving up everything you’ve built for yourself doesn’t sting a little bit. It doesn’t mean that trading in the old for the new doesn’t come with a bit of heartache or remorse. It may. But as we share with Christ in His suffering and His death, we likewise share with Christ in His resurrection, and in the resurrection, we find so much more gain in this life and in the life to come.

That’s why the psalmist declares in Psalm 30 that weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning. “You have turned my mourning into dancing. You have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy. My soul will sing your praise and will not be silent. O Lord, my God, I will give thanks to you forever.”

And it’s at this point in the conversation that I always pause and say, “Well, that’s great, Pastor. But how do I get there? How do I get to the point in my life where I desire Christ above everything else? How do I obtain the disposition of the heart? Better still, what assurance do I have that I have these desires at all?”

Well, we unpack that in our Wesley lesson, and if you missed it during Sunday school, you can catch it again at 6:00 on Wednesday night in the confirmation room as we look at the way of salvation. But the short version is to say that we cannot come to this way of being on our own. We can only come to it by the grace of God, for we are saved by faith alone, in Christ alone, and is God alone who gives the gift of faith.

See, in our sin nature, our restoration cannot come from within us or anything that we created. It must come from our Creator and our Redeemer. There’s nothing within a sinful, fallen human being that allows us to choose good over evil, because before Christ, the dispositions of our hearts were turned to malice, deception, and wickedness. And when I say it that way, people  think, “Well, I’m talking about the worst of the worst.” I’m not talking about you good, fine people here in the room. Of course not. Okay, so fine. Let me say it in a way that encompasses all of you in the room so we can all be on the same page. Fair enough? Good. I’m gonna do it anyway.

Before Christ, even the best, most kindest, most peaceable of us have dispositions and desires that are not directed towards the glory of God, and therefore they cannot bring about the love of God to the ends of the earth. How could they? We are sinners separated from God with an inability to do good works without the love of God shed abroad in our hearts. But once the love of God becomes shed abroad in our hearts, we are not only born again by water and the Spirit, but God also gives us the ability to cultivate holy desires through our dispositions and responses to God’s grace and our active participation in what God is doing in us and through us.

And it all begins with God’s prevailing grace. God’s forgiveness and grace have gone before us to give us the ability to respond to the invitation of salvation through Christ Jesus. Without prevenient grace, we would go on in our sinful desires, choosing the things of this world over the things of God. (1 John 2:15-17) Without revealing grace, we would have nothing within us capable of turning towards the voice of our shepherd.

But when we hear that voice calling us out of the wilderness and into the pasture, we come to know that Christ died, even for me. And when we meet Christ in the waters of baptism and at the table of Holy Communion, like we will do later this morning, everything changes. Therefore, it says in Philippians 2:12, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Why? Because, Philippians 1:6, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

And so, just to be clear, in case you missed the lesson this morning, we do nothing; it is God who does it. We respond to it. You do not work to earn your salvation, but you can work because you have been saved. In fact, because you have been saved, you must work. And this work is not the toils of the ground that cursed Adam in the garden. Our subsequent responses and the good works after Christ are the works of God within you, enabling you to work toward His good pleasure. (Philippians 2:13)

It’s almost like Paul knew where all this was going, so he put it all in one letter and shipped it off to the church. Amen. Alright, I have learned not to cough into the microphone. So it should be with all this that we’ve talked about; it should be less of a mystery, then,  why Paul moves from counting everything as loss that we might gain Christ to sharing in Christ’s suffering and death and resurrection, to pressing on towards a higher calling in verses 12 and 13, so that we may obtain this goal.

We ask ourselves, “Well, what is this that Paul has not yet obtained? What is this goal?” I can read either way in the English, and that’s where the sentence structure in the original language helps us out a bit. I won’t give you the full show, but here are the pieces. So, the Greek word goal (and some of you may have a footnote on this in your Bible: read thosefootnotes, by the way) is “teleios,” and it’s better translated as “perfect” or “perfection.” So, in Greek, it says, “I have not yet obtained this or already been made perfect.”

And I belabor it because Christian perfection is a core tenet of what it means to be a Methodist. And so, the term “perfect” in the Bible, from the Greek, doesn’t mean no mistakes. That’s what we’re thinking about. Well, that’s Latin. Well, the Bible is not written in Latin; it’s written in Greek. And this Greek word, “teleios,” this Christian perfection that Wesley would talk about, means further growth and improvement is possible. We become complete by knowing God more fully and being consumed with God’s love more abundantly. That’s the goal as Christians, and that’s what Paul is encouraging us to in all of his letters. We persevere in our lives for Christ, and Christ is perfecting us unto the image of God.

So again, the scriptures here take us deeper than the question of actual death and resurrection. Yes, we can have assurance about our hope that all that will happen, but the goal is not merely resurrection. The goal is Christ and knowing Christ more abundantly, even with the assurance of the things to come. The example that Paul sets for us here, and that he asks us to model after him, to imitate (verse 17), is the one where we cultivate our desires and our passions for the presence and the promises of God to manifest among us here and now, not just there and then. That will happen. That will come. But it’s also available to you here and now as a present reality. Think about it this way with me, right? So when I go to a town, do I wait until I get back home to talk to my wife and my kids? Well, you know, I’m not fully present with them, so I’m just going to wait until I can be fully present with them because nothing else matters.

Noi! I call them, FaceTime them. “Hey, how are you doing?” Even if it’s for a fleeting glimpse of my kids as they run past the screen, I’m going to interact with them even at that distance, and I’m going to cherish everything I can get, if only a glimpse of their goodness. The incomparable riches that we will receive as we sit around God’s throne and worship for eternity is of little necessity if a passion does not yearn within us to desire Christ in such a way that we come to regard everything else as loss, and to know Christ so intimately and passionately that the incomparable riches of Christ Jesus fill our hearts and minds and drive the totality of our being here and now.

God is not after our meager attention. God is after our total affections. Christ does not send out angels, armies to build the church and make disciples, but instead, He trains up born-again believers to run the race that has been set before them because God walked among us in Christ Jesus and sent His Holy Spirit. We are pressing forward not just to know God face to face there and then, but we are pressing forward because we can know God here and now. And the work that we do in this life towards that higher calling of knowing God more fully and loving our neighbor more abundantly is only possible through the gracious work of Christ, who transforms our dispositions and desires, brings us from death to life, and gives us the Holy Spirit to lead us and guide us as we grow.

So, brothers and sisters in Christ, because we live in between the already and the not yet, let us take hold of and passionately pursue that which first took hold of us because no name or no one else under heaven or on Earth has been given by which we shall be saved.