Walking into the Future Facing Backwards is a Dangerous Thing to Do!, Philippians 3:4b-14

Sermon:          Walking Into the Future Facing Backwards is a Dangerous Thing to Do!
Scripture:        Philippians 3:4b-14
Preacher:        Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:         First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:                  October 8, 2017

You may listen to the sermon by clicking here.

There was a time in my ministry when I used to go to pastoral conferences but the same thing happened over and over again and I got tired of going.  You see, when you go a pastor’s conference you run into a bunch of other pastors which is not a bad thing, mind you, but then it begins to become all types of competition in the breakout sessions.  You introduce yourself and they do the same.  It immediately begins to devolve into some form of Freudian competition where he or she begins to brag about their church and its ministries, its size, and how impressive a pastor they are.  It got to be very old and I quit going to them.

This is what Paul is dealing with in the Philippian church, too.  There were people who were emerging as bigger, better, more theologically and doctrinally correct than Paul, or so they claimed.  They began to call into Paul’s credentials and credibility and Paul, and I can see his head and closing his eyes with a sigh, has to produce his resume and curriculum vitae. This leads to our text this morning.  Turn in your Bible to Philippians 3 beginning with the latter part of verse 4.  Hear the Word of the Lord!

Philippians 3:4b-14

4If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 

7Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8More 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 9and 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. 10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12Not 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. 13Beloved, 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, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.[1]

Paul is not preaching some prosperity gospel that if you live a good life or a certain type of life you will be blessed by God with material riches; on the contrary, he is reminding the people that the true path to God is by following Christ Jesus’ example. It’s not about living a life that follows every jot and tittle of the Law to complete some Divine scorecard; no, it’s about giving up one’s position of power and privilege to become a servant of the Master. It’s about cutting all cords to what we think is owed to us by others or society in general and rely on the gracious provision of God. It requires a Christ-Follower to make ethical and moral choices in a world where morals and ethics are now based on how a person personally feels at the time in how their behaviour or attitudes affect them over and against how their behaviour and attitudes affect others. Living as a Christian requires us to turn around and walk against the flow of the crowds indicating we are different and are heading to a better destination. He is telling them that to pledge one’s life and allegiance to Christ Jesus means one must rely completely on God’s grace and mercy as opposed to one’s own merits in living a “good life.” Paul then goes on to tell the church the only way they as a congregation and as individual believers can accomplish this shift; it’s a shift that will not be easy. Look at verses 13 and 14.  Paul says,

13Beloved, 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, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Forgetting what lies behind.  What did that mean for Paul? In his day, “to forget”, meant to release something or someone to oblivion. A few years ago, a movie was released with George Clooney and Sandra Bullock called Gravity. The story revolves around what happens when astronaut crew members on a space-walk outside of the International Space Station encounter a large asteroid shower pummeling the space station.  The space station begins to disintegrate and the only remaining survivors, Bullock and Clooney of course, tether themselves together as they float off into oblivion, total silence and nothingness.  This is what Paul is talking about.  When he says he is forgetting everything that lies behind him, he is saying that he cuts it off into oblivion, nothingness, lost.

He is a member of God’s chosen people, the Israelites.  It matters little to him now.

He is born from the tribe of Benjamin.  In Paul’s mind, so what?

He is a Hebrew of Hebrews. He cuts it off into oblivion.

He is a Pharisee, a scholar and strict follower of the Torah, the Law. It means absolutely nothing to him and its cast into oblivion.

He is passionate about his Jewish faith and goes so far as to persecute who don’t follow the rules. He recasts that former passion into the opposite direction.

He is totally blameless with his following the Law and is considered righteous by every Jewish standard of the day. For Paul, it means nothing at all.

Paul goes so far as to say that not only is he forgetting all those accomplishments and his spiritual and cultural pedigree, he counts all those things as pure rubbish. Our English word ‘rubbish’ makes us think of what we find at the local dump. In Paul’s time, the word ‘rubbish’ meant human excrement. And why is he forgetting all his achievements?  First, they were his own self-righteous achievements based on the notion that, “If I do certain religious activities I will be loved by God.”  Second, Paul has come to realize salvation is a gift freely given by God and there is absolutely nothing we can do to earn it. Paul knew all his accomplishments of the past meant nothing at all compared to the high calling of Christ Jesus his Lord. Forgetting what was in the past meant that Paul had to turn around and face in an entirely different direction. He would cease ‘doing religion’ and turn in the direction of Christ Jesus to live a life of sacrificial allegiance to the Lord.  Paul discovered a vital spiritual and life principle and it’s this: You cannot walk into the future facing backwards.

Think about that for a moment. You cannot walk into the future facing backwards. Why is that? Well, imagine you and me go for a walk in downtown DeLand. Imagine the people on the sidewalk, the tables from the restaurants taking up space on the sidewalk, all the cars and intersections, not to mention the wares of the merchants positioned by opened doors and sidewalk sales. As we are about to take our first steps past Hunter’s Restaurant across Rich Avenue, I tell you, ‘Before we go any further, I need you to turn around and walk through town backwards based on what you think you remember is in the way.”  What do you think would happen as you made your way?  You will fall, trip, crash into things and people making yourself uncomfortable and the people you run into will be none-too-pleased either. What will those people yell at you as you walk into them backwards?  “Hey (insert your favourite derisive term), what are you doing walk backwards!? Turn around before you hurt yourself and somebody else!”

Walking through town facing backwards is a pretty silly and dangerous thing to do but let me let you in a little secret: All of us do that time to time in our own lives.  Instead of forgetting what lies behind, we cling to the past in unhealthy ways that inhibit our spiritual, emotional, or social growth.  Let’s look at a few examples.

Regret.  There are those people we have hurt or passed by, opportunities we have missed or ignored in the past we regret not pursuing. We get mired in, “I wish I did such-in-such back then because my life would be better now.” When we walk into the future facing backwards at our regret for what should’ve, could’ve, would’ve been or done, we miss the opportunities God has placed in front of us if we would only turn around!

Remorse. There are those moments in our lives we are locked up in remorse for what we have done or left undone in the past. Instead of swimming in the grace God bestows on us in Christ, we walk into the future facing backwards with guilt and remorse for what we did or did not do or say.

Anger.  Anger is another one of those feelings and attitudes that force us to walk into the future facing backwards. Someone or something has hurt us badly in the past; we have been emotionally, financially, or perhaps even physically violated.  We are consumed with horrible thoughts towards people who caused us this unfair pain and we seethe. The anger prevents us from developing new relationships, makes us distrustful of others, and leery of making or receiving commitments. Anger eventually turns in on itself and manifests itself as a deep-seeded depression. Walking into the future facing backwards at old anger and resentments means you are carrying a very heavy load that will cause you to miss your step and fall; all that we have to do is put the anger down and release it into forgiveness as we face forward to a lighter, brighter tomorrow.

Loss. Loss is another issue that keeps us walking into the future facing backwards. Instead of grieving and incorporating the loss into our lives, we grow sad or resentful because of it. It means seeing life as hopeless and hapless. All we have to do is turn around and walk forward and our sense of loss is bathed in the warm waters of Christ’s love and we can begin incorporating that loss into our lives resurrecting hope when there was none.

Nostalgia, also known as the “the good old days.”  The nostalgic dreaming of the good old days is a way to walk into the future facing backwards.  Nostalgia is simply a wanting to go back home or to a time that never really existed in the first place.  We create a past in our minds that help us remember redemptive and positive times.  “Oh, don’t you remember when the church did this or did that? Weren’t those days the best days of the church?”  Walking into the future facing backwards with nostalgic thinking will cause us to trip over new opportunities waiting for us in the future but we will miss them because we have fallen fanny-over-tea kettle on top of them.

The Peter-Pan syndrome.  This is a way we walk into the future facing backwards because we refuse to grow up and mature in our social, emotional, professional or spiritual lives.  Change is hard and so to escape the chipping away of old habits or ways we look at the world, we find it easier to stay stuck where we are.  We remained mired in either/or thinking, right/wrong thinking, you/me or us/them thinking instead of facing forward into the teaching of the Holy Spirit that your box, your world, your thinking is too small. Like Paul, we need to let go of the past and lean into the exciting mind and spirit-blowing power of God and see the world, people, and God with new eyes and perspectives.  This was Paul’s issue and if God can work with Paul in his stubborn ways, then there is great hope God will do the same for us!

Regret. Remorse. Anger. Loss. Nostalgia. Peter Pan syndrome.  None of these is bad in and of themselves; it’s the power they have at keeping us stuck in the past that is the problem.  What, beloved, is causing you to walk into the future facing backwards?  What do you and I need to let go of so that we can turn and walk into God’s glorious Presence in the now and in tomorrow? Let us let that question lean on us a little bit this week.

Forgetting what lies behind, let’s strain forward to the wonderful life ahead awaiting us in Christ. And all of God’s people say, Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

The Message: Gospel-worthy Living; Philippians 1:20-30

Sermon:       Gospel Worthy
Scripture:    Philippians 1.20-30
Preacher:     Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:      First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:              September 24, 2017

You may listen to the Message by clicking here.

Let me set this morning’s message up with this:  It’s not about me!  Repeat that together, “It’s not about me!” That’s correct, it’s not about just you because it’s about us!  So, is this about “you?” “No, it’s not about me!”  Good!

not about me

Last week we began considering the book of Philippians and noted straightaway individual words in a letter are never wasted.  We focused on the first three verses of Paul’s greeting to the church in Philippi he penned while he was a prisoner in Caesar’s prison under the supervision of the Imperial Guard.

Do you remember what Paul’s words were?

From Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus, to the saints (i.e. set apart ones) in Christ Jesus in Philippi.

Paul is reminding the church who Paul and Timothy work for and who their ultimate responsibility is invested in: Christ Jesus. This is a theme he repeats throughout the letter as Paul is trying to remind the church that there are many opinions and theologies floating around in the Church, and regardless of what people think of him or Timothy, they are bondservants of the Lord and not the people.  This realization frees up Paul and his colleagues because they are not going to take to heart personal attacks on their faith, character or work. You see, they know all too well it’s not about “me!”

Today, we are picking up a little later in chapter one after Paul has acknowledged there may be some divisions in the church because of rival gospels being shared.  One version of the gospel circulating there says you must follow Jewish customs of circumcision and the likes in order to be a Christian while another rival group says those Jewish customs are not necessary. Paul also says how there are some preachers and teachers in the church who preach Christ for selfish gain as well as preachers and teachers who teach for the genuine purpose of proclaiming the Good News. At this point, Paul declares it doesn’t matter if Christ is preached with pure or impure motives but that Jesus the Christ is proclaimed in every single way possible![1]  Paul trusts the Holy Spirit will work the motives and the Truth to the surface just as long as Jesus is proclaimed. This is where we pick up today.  Turn to Philippians 1:20-30.  We will be focusing on verses 27 and look at the Christian propensity of keeping spiritual score.  Hear the Word of the Lord!

Philippians 1:20-30

20It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death.

21For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better;24but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. 25Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith,26so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.

27Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel,28and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. 29For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— 30since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have. [2]

The key sentence for us is verse 20 which is the fuse that blows this text up.  It is where Paul declares that it is his expectation and hope to speak with all boldness that Christ will be exalted and lifted up. It’s all about Christ and not about Paul. This is all that matters to Paul and Timothy. Sure, he would rather rest from his earthly labors and struggles and be at One with the exalted Christ in glory but Paul knows his call is not about his wish dreams and desires; his life is all about what God wants from him to accomplish for the Gospel’s sake, even if it means he must go through human suffering and discomfort to get it done. After all, in Paul’s mind, why should his life be any different from the suffering Jesus’ went through? He knows it’s not about “me.”

Built upon his appeal to exalt Christ, Paul then shifts focus and directs his appeal to the members of the church; in other words, Paul is speaking to you and me.  Slide your finger to verses 27 and 28. Let’s drill down a bit. Let me give you a very literal reading of these verses:

Only, live and act like a citizen whose behavior is congruous with the Gospel of Christ Jesus; whether I’m physically there or not, I will hear how you are not giving up a single inch in your reflection of the very spiritual nature of Jesus, a community that is synchronized and dancing to the same spiritual tune with a singularly pulsing Jesus-centered life; and don’t be scared of those in the church and world who set themselves up to oppose you.[3]

Paul has just given us the definition of a Gospel-worthy life. We often think a life worthy of the Gospel means exhibiting certain our moral or ethical behaviors to the world; it’s interesting to note that Paul is telling us that Gospel-worthy living does involve the displaying of certain behaviors but they are not the ones the Christians tend to focus upon. We Christian-types like to look at the bottom line behavior of folks:  Are they good or bad? Are they moral, immoral or amoral?  Are they ethical or unethical?  We like to measure Gospel-worthy living with a pietistic scorecard with points added or deducted based on our “good Christian behavior.” We tend to make it all about “me” and how “I” behave or misbehave.

Let’s say you cuss in front of your children or grandchildren, you deduct two points on your spiritual scorecard.  If you lust after someone, that’s an automatic deduct of 25 points!  Give a street person a manna bag with water and basic provisions, however, you get 10 points added and if you actually stop and speak with that homeless person making him or her feel like a real human being, you get a bonus +15 points!  At the end of the day, God tallies up the score and then places it in a heavenly Excel spreadsheet so at the time of death, God can average out your cumulative spiritual score. This kind of spiritual thinking makes our faith “all about me” instead of our allegiance to God. Friends, so many Christians do this and all it results in is a mass expression of missing the point through self-focused musings.

For Paul and Timothy, a Gospel-worthy life is not one based on personal moral do’s and don’ts per se. Lest we forget, Paul is writing to a community, a group.  We read his words at home by ourselves and think he’s writing to “me;” never mind the “you” in our text is plural and not singular! Gospel-worthy living is less about personal behavior as it is about a communal expression of the Spirit of Jesus Christ to the world. So, what does Gospel-worthy living look like? Verses 27 and 28 hold the key.

To begin with, a spiritual community’s life is Gospel-worthy, it’s living a life worthy of the Gospel, when it’s lived congruently with the type of community Jesus was trying to establish.  What type of community is that like?  Jesus developed an upside-down community where the poor are blessed and the rich are humbled. It’s a community where those in power give it up and enable those from the margins to get to the front of the line.  It’s when a community seeks to work together helping a person change from the inside out in order to make the entire community stronger and more spiritually fit.  It’s when a community tells one another, “I’m sorry and I love you” as opposed to “I’ll never forgive you and I hate you.”  A Gospel-worthy life is expressed when the community turns its gaze from within itself to the dying world outside her boundaries. It’s a community where people move from being tight-fisted to one knowing that everything it has is God’s and is a gift from God. It’s a community that speaks Truth in Love. It’s a community that measures success not in size or numbers but in its reliance on Jesus through the Holy Spirit.

Furthermore, a spiritual community’s life is seen as a life worthy of the Gospel, i.e. Gospel-worthy, when it refuses to give up a single inch in its reflection of the very spiritual nature of Jesus. The waves of the world and Western culture batter the church of Jesus to the point where the Church acts like it is more in retreat than it is advancing. The Church is more likely to adapt to culture than insisting the culture adapt to the Gospel-worthy life of Jesus Christ. For the sake of being seeker or user-friendly, the Church has lost the meaning of sanctuary, i.e. a place that is safe and is instead being morphed into place where the cut-throat ways of the corporate world with alliances, cliques, secret deals are being made to the exclusion of other members. On the contrary, a Gospel-worthy life is one that reflects the spiritual nature of Jesus in community but sadly that is a nature that can only be assumed through hard work, effort and sacrifice. It means reading your Bible which most Christians in the Church don’t do.  It’s means serving others even when it’s not convenient. It means learning with others what it means to a spiritual change agent in the world in lieu of trying to figure it out on one’s own. It means a community that is not hasty but seeks to listen to the needs of the broken around them.

Third, a Gospel-worthy community is one that works together in spiritual and relational synchronicity towards a singular purpose of being more like Jesus.  It’s not a Church that promotes programs but one that provides ministry opportunities to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ in a broken and hurting world. Churches today seem to compete against one another as opposed to being unified in a singular purpose of establishing the Kingdom of Heaven in our midst. Instead of the Church of Jesus Christ acting as the Light on the Hill in our world, it has contented itself to simply becoming singular fireflies that only come out one season of the year and occasionally flash light for those who happen to see it. A Gospel-worthy community puts Jesus first, in the center, at the top!

Finally, a life worthy of the Gospel is a life in community that is expressed when the Church lives without fear. What can the world do that God cannot overwhelm or overcome? The Church doesn’t have to fear the State removing the 10 commandments at the courthouse because it has taught and planted those commandments in the heart of her members. The Church does not have to live in fear of being marginalized by society, the news, or other cultures; a Gospel-worthy Church will always be attacked and humiliated by people in the larger world. If Jesus’ own family thought at one time he was crazy we can guarantee our neighbors, the news, and the politicos will think we are, too! Personally, I am all too happy to be seen as an iconoclast!

Beloved, personal piety is important – please don’t misunderstand me; but personal piety for the sake of personal piety is spiritual narcissism. It’s only when I take my spiritual giftedness and add it to yours, and yours, and yours that we become One in Christ Jesus. The question before us is what each of us is individually bringing to the larger community called First Presbyterian that highlights to our neighborhood, DeLand, Volusia County and beyond that we are a Gospel-worthy community? Gospel-worthy living is more about how to live in community being a Light on the Hill than it is being a sporadic, flickering firefly that comes and goes.

This is what Paul was getting at in our text today.  Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] See Philippians 1.15-18.

[2] The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[3] This my personal translation.