Sunday, February 18, 2007

What Price Glory?

Texts: 2 Corinthians 4:1-18; Luke 9:28-36

WHEN I WAS HERE LAST, I mentioned I was involved with the design of the Welsh Nationality Room to be built over at the University of Pittsburgh.

Before I moved to this area, I’d never heard of Pitt’s Nationality Room program. But now I know what a big deal that is and what an honor it is to be able to help design one. When it’s done, it’ll be a glorious thing to be able to say, "Yes, I designed that."

But this glory comes at a price. The sponsoring organization, the St. David’s Society, is a non-profit group. So there’s very little money in the budget for architects’ and engineers’ fees. But there’s lots of architectural and engineering work to be done. I mean, if you want the finished project to look like an 18th century barn-chapel, you can’t just put a couple lines on the paper and tell 21st century Joe Contractor to have at it.

So we did what had to be done. But as my boss put it, if this one little project hadn’t required so much unreimbursed work, everyone in the office-- we’re talking forty people-- could have received $3,000 a year raise in pay.

You don’t take on jobs like the Welsh Nationality Room because you think you’re going to make a profit. You take them on because it’s an honor. Because it’ll bring your firm glory. But oh, does that glory ever come at a price!

That’s the way it is. You have to put out and pay up to receive your glory. The athlete or the musician has to practice long and hard. The soldier in the war zone has to be ready to give his life. Even celebrities like Britney Spears or Paris Hilton, who seem to be famous for being famous-- they pay for their glory by giving up their privacy and doing the latest shocking and outrageous thing to keep them in the camera’s eye.

But that's the way it is in this world--you pay the price and you get the glory. You’d take the glory without paying the price, if you could, and for some lucky and talented people, it seems that’s the way it works.

But what would you say if someone told you that paying the price was the glorious thing? That there would be glory in it even if most people neither knew nor cared what we’d done, even if people criticized and berated us and covered us with shame because of it? What if the cost of glory isn’t just money or hard work, but submission and humility?

That sounds really strange, doesn’t it? What do humility and glory have to do with one another?

In this world, usually, not a lot. But in the kingdom of God, there is no glory without humility. In fact, in the kingdom of God, the humility is the glorious act itself.

In 2 Corinthians, St. Paul is talking about the ministry he and his companions have, of proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. If you read back into Chapter 3, you’ll see that this is a glorious ministry. It is the ministry of the Holy Spirit of Almighty God, that makes evil men righteous and makes dead men live! It is the good news of freedom, of unity with the Lord, high and exalted! The ministry of the gospel of Christ causes believers to reflect the glory of the Lord Himself! It transforms them into His likeness, from glory into glory!

This would be something to boast about, to glory in! It’s so wonderful, everybody should accept this gospel the minute they’re told it, right? And if you or I or any Christian tells someone about Jesus Christ, that person should think we’re pretty glorious, too, correct?

But Paul says that’s not how it works. He says, "Since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart." Lose heart, Paul? Why talk about losing heart? We thought you were talking about glory!

He was. But he was talking about the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ, which we servants of His always have to offer to the world in forthrightness, lowliness, and humility.

Paul says, "we do not use deception [when we preach Christ], nor do we distort the word of God." That is, we do not pretend that the gospel is something it is not. We do not pretend that believing in Jesus is going to solve all your earthly problems. We do not claim that becoming a Christian will give you perfect children or make you rich.

"On the contrary," Paul says, "by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God." He knew what it was like to have unbelievers tell him they didn’t need Christ because they did good works in the name of their own gods. But his duty as Christ’s minister was to show people their sin in the sight of the only God of the universe. He had to show them their need for God, not to improve their lives, but in order to save them.

But that isn’t good news to a lot of people. It isn’t good news to most people. People don’t like hearing that they fall short of the glory of God, and nothing they can do will make them pleasing to Him. And it’s the Devil’s business-- the business of the god of this age-- to blind unbelievers into thinking they’re good enough as they are. He wants them to think they can climb up to glory by themselves. He wants them to reject and disdain the crucified Son of Man and worship some made-up version of Jesus instead.

The gospel of Christ crucified for our sins and risen for our life is glorious, more glorious than anything we can imagine. But ministering this gospel to the world takes a lot of humility. It tells us to keep up our courage even in the face of opposition. It forces us to keep the focus off ourselves and on God. It makes us admit our weakness and frailty. It requires us to pay the price.

Why is that? Because Jesus paid the price for glory before us, and His glory was in the price He paid and the shame He bore. The cross wasn’t just something for Jesus to get through in order to get the prize. Rather, the prize-- for Jesus and for us-- lay in the cross itself.

Our gospel reading tells of a time when Jesus’ glory was open and apparent. But what happened on the Mount of Transfiguration didn’t happen for its own sake. It happened because of the greater glory He would achieve on the Mount of Calvary.

We have to see this in context. Eight days before this, Jesus had asked His disciples, "Who do you say that I am?"

Was He just a great Teacher or moral leader? Was He one of the prophets come back to life? Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Peter declared, "You are the Christ of God!"

Peter was giving Jesus the title of ultimate glory. We take the word "Christ" for granted, almost as if it were Jesus’ last name. But "Christ" or "Messiah" means "the Anointed One," and to say that Jesus is the Anointed One of God was to say that He is the Ultimate Prophet, anointed to speak for God. He is the Ultimate Priest, anointed to offer up perfect sacrifices for our sin to God. And He is the Ultimate King, anointed to exercise authority in the full power of God. Talk about a revelation of glory! This Jesus was not merely a good man or a great man, He was and is the Son of God, some to earth in human flesh!

But you know what it’s like when a bolt of lightning lights up the landscape, and then it’s gone and everything’s in darkness again? It seemed that just as soon as Jesus had revealed His glory to His disciples like this, He hid it again. He ordered them not to tell anyone who He was.
Not only that, He told them that He would have to be rejected and crucified, and then be raised to life. And if anyone wanted to be His follower and share His glory, that person would have to be willing to be crucified, too.

Could any glory, even divine glory, be worth the price of the cross? How would anyone ever believe Jesus was the Christ if He went to the cross? How could He expect anyone to follow Him if they had to bear the cross, too? This was too shameful for any reasonable person to accept. It was too high a price for any human being to be willing to pay. But Jesus tells his disciples, "If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory." The high price of the Cross would open the way for glory! The suffering of the Cross was the key to the Kingdom of God!

Eight days later, Jesus took Peter, John, and James and went up onto a mountain in that region to pray. And while He was there, He was transfigured before them. His face and clothing became incandescent. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. I used to think that the Transfiguration was kind of a special treat for Jesus and the three disciples. You know, an encouraging interlude before Jesus set His face towards Jerusalem and the Cross. But it wasn’t that at all. Moses speaks for the Law, Elijah stands for the Prophets. Both are ambassadors of the written Word of God.

And what do they speak with Jesus about? About His departure, or as the Greek puts it, His exodus that He was about to bring to fulfilment in Jerusalem. Jesus’ glory was revealed as never before as He is speaking about the Cross.

Was the Cross an unfortunate accident? Was it an unpleasant episode to be gotten over? No, the whole testimony of Scripture was that "the Son of Man must suffer many things and be killed and on the third day be raised to life." Moses and Elijah were there to demonstrate that this was so. Against all human reasoning, God predestined the Cross to be the means by which His Son’s glory would ultimately be revealed. It was the price of glory and the very means by which Christ’s glory would be achieved. And in case the three disciples didn’t believe Moses and Elijah, a cloud enveloped them and a Voice from it said, "This is my Son, whom I have chosen: listen to Him!"

Listen to Him, as He tells you and the whole world that you can be reconciled to God only at the cost of His blood. Listen to Him, as He tells you that your sins are so great, it took the sacrifice of the sinless Son of God to pay what you owed God for them. Listen to Him, as Jesus declares that only by faith in Him can you be saved.

This is a glorious ministry, but as Paul says, we pay the price for being its ministers. In troubles, in opposition, in ridicule, in inconvenience, in so many ways we carry around in our bodies and souls the death of Jesus. We are indeed like clay pots holding precious ointment. We are like plastic store bags holding precious gold and jewels. We go through hell to proclaim the mysteries of heaven, and we preach a crucified Savior to give to others the glory of eternal life. We do not lose heart, because the God who raised Jesus from the dead will also raise us. The God who revealed Jesus’ glory on the Mount of Transfiguration will someday reveal His glory in us. And it will be worth the price.

You may say, "I can’t pay that price. I’m not merely a clay jar, I’m a cracked pot!" But the witness of St. Paul in 2 Corinthians, the witness of the Transfiguration is that we can pay the price for divine glory. We can take up our crosses and follow Him! We can be the clay jars that pour out the glorious treasure of the saving death of Jesus Christ!

And how? Because Christ the Son of God Himself has paid the price of glory. He laid aside His equality with the Father and became a clay jar human being like us and walked among us. Jesus our Lord paid the price of being broken on the Cross, hanging in shame before the world, to bring many brothers and sisters to glory in Him.

Our Redeemer now entrusts this ministry to us, the Church, as frail as we are. By the ministry of the Holy Spirit the light of Christ shines in our hearts as He works in us and through us what we could never do of ourselves.

What price glory? The greatest price of all, the life of the Son of God.

Someday pain and suffering will be no more. Someday all mankind will see and acknowledge the glory of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Someday we will lay our crosses down and know the joy of Christ’s glorious resurrection; we shall be like Him, for we will see Him as He is. Until that day, hope in His promise, trust in what He has done, and rest in His love. And never, ever lose heart.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

How Not to Be a Hired Hand

Texts: 2 Corinthians 5:14 - 6:2; John 10:1-18

IT’S BEEN A LONG TIME, BUT you may remember watching Westerns at the movies. One common theme was the situation where a hired hand falls in love with the rich rancher’s beautiful daughter, and the rich rancher father doesn’t approve, and the hired man has to prove he’s worthy of her by saving the day in some heroic fashion or other.

I used to think that was very narrowminded of the father. Why shouldn’t he let his daughter marry the handsome, mysterious hired hand? That’s how the script writers want us to feel.

But when I look at it objectively, I have to admit the rich rancher father has a point. I mean, here’s your only daughter and the heiress to your fortune. Do you really want her to marry a drifter who showed up yesterday and may saddle up and go tomorrow? Do you really want her hitched to some guy who doesn’t really have any commitment to you or the business, he’s only there for the money? Do you like the prospect of your land someday controlled by a stranger from who-knows-where, who’s maybe just itching to sell off the livestock to raise money for whiskey and gambling and floozy women on the side? Come to think about it, the only way the hired man in these Westerns can prove he’s worthy to marry the heiress is by proving that at heart he’s not really just a hired hand after all!

In our reading from the Gospel according to St. John, Jesus talks about the ranching business. Sheep ranching, to be specific. He says He is the Owner of the sheep. He declares that He is the gate to the sheepfold for the sheep. And He proclaims that He is the good shepherd of the sheep.
What He is not is a thief, a stranger, or a hired hand. What’s more, Jesus wants us to have nothing to do with thieves, strangers, or hired hands. And certainly, when it comes to His sheep, He doesn’t want any of us to be a thief, a stranger, or a hired hand.

Of course when Jesus talks about sheep this we know He’s not talking about the woolly critters that walk around on four legs and go "baaa!" and keep the grass on Scottish golf courses so nice and short. He’s talking about the faithful people of God.

The Jews Jesus was teaching that day in Jerusalem should have understood that, too. God had been calling Israel His sheep for a long, long time. The Lord was Israel’s shepherd even before He brought them out of slavery in Egypt, ever since He called Abraham and his household out of the city of Ur. Didn’t King David sing, "The Lord is my Shepherd"? And didn’t prophets like Ezekiel declare that some day the Lord Himself would come and be Israel’s Shepherd in person?

But John tells us that as Jesus began this teaching, His Jewish audience didn’t get what He was telling them. It’s like they’re standing around thinking, "Right, Rabbi, everybody knows you don’t let just anyone into the sheep pen. Everybody knows that sheep recognise their shepherd’s voice and follow him. Everybody knows that the man who climbs over the fence is a robber and the sheep will scatter if he comes after them! Rabbi, you’re boring us. Tell us something deep and divine and theological. Tell us something new."

So Jesus does tell them something marvellously new. He says quite plainly, "I am the gate of the sheepfold." What does the sheepfold gate do? It shuts out the wild animals by night. It lets the sheep go out to good pasture by day. It completes the ring of protection around them and deters the thieves and the robbers.

What? How can a man be a gate? And how can this Man say that "all who ever came before me were thieves and robbers"? I think that’s when it dawned on the people that the Rabbi from Nazareth wasn’t talking about sheep farming. He was drawing on the old metaphor of Israel as God’s sheep. Jesus was actually declaring Himself to be the true Messiah and King that God’s prophets had promised from centuries of old.

"I am the Gate for the sheep," says Jesus. That is, "I, Jesus, am the way a man or a woman becomes part of the flock of God. I am the only way through which anyone can receive God’s care and nourishment. I am the door of protection between God’s people and the evils of this wicked world. I am the door to the kingdom of God."

All the false messiahs, all the lying prophets, all the bad kings Israel and Judah had ever known: they were all thieves and robbers. They didn’t care for the sheep. They didn’t love them. They only wanted to prey on them, to steal and kill and destroy. Anyone who trusted false shepherds like them would come to grief and destruction. Whereas if you come in through Jesus of Nazareth, you would be saved. You would have life. And you would have it to the full.

I wonder how Jesus’ hearers took that. I’d say they piously approved of what He said about the false messiahs, the lying prophets, and the bad kings. Maybe they even felt a thrill of excitement--Could this Jesus actually be the long-awaited messiah? He performed enough miracles to back up His claim!

But the messiah they envisioned would only be God’s representative and the bringer of God’s justice. They didn’t expect God literally to come shepherd them Himself! But now Jesus proclaims something entirely shocking: He says to them, "I am the Good Shepherd. I am the shepherd who owns the sheep."

Do you realize what that means? His Jewish hearers did! Jesus was claiming to be Israel’s Owner and Shepherd! He was claiming to be God!

And when He talked about the hired hand who does not own the sheep, who runs away and leaves them when he sees danger coming . . . It was clear whom Jesus meant. He was talking about the scribes and Pharisees, the chief priests and the teachers of the Law. All those men who should have been guarding God’s people Israel but who were really in it for themselves. All that sort of man who would give in and give up and give over whenever Rome said Boo! to them, because they feared Caesar more than they feared God. Shiftless, unreliable, mercenary hired hands, that’s all they were.

Not like Jesus, the good shepherd of His sheep. Not like Jesus, who would give up His life for the sake of His sheep. Not like Jesus, who would never be content and will never be content until He has added in every last one of the sheep His Father has given Him and brought them together in one precious flock. No, people of God, you want to avoid the hired hands. Most certainly, you want to avoid being one!

Now, when I think of myself as one of Jesus’ sheep, this passage gives me great comfort and peace. But when I consider my own role in shepherding God’s flock, I have to wonder, where does it leave me? Where does this teaching leave any of us who serve the Church of Jesus Christ?

Because in the church we have pastors and elders. We have deacons and trustees, missionaries and evangelists. We have lay people who work hard teaching Sunday School or organizing fellowship dinners. We have ordinary church-going Christians who show they’re in the sheep-tending business every time they tell someone in the unbelieving world about Jesus Christ or do a kind act in His name. We even have itinerant pulpit supply preachers like me, who go from church to church preaching the Word of God, and we’re not committed to any one congregation.

What about us? Are we all hired hands? Because that’s the contrast Jesus sets up in these verses. There’s Jesus, the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep. And then there’s the hired hand, who throws down his staff and runs for cover at the first sight of a fang or a claw. We can’t be Jesus, right? Only Jesus is Jesus. And we don’t want to be hired hands. What are we supposed to do?

Actually, we are supposed to be Jesus. If you’re a church officer, every time you carry out your required service, you’re supposed to be Jesus. If you’re a Sunday School teacher, or a member of a women’s fellowship and service group, or the person who vacuums the church floor during the week, or the clerk who types up the bulletins-- if you’re working to benefit the people of God or carrying the good news to people who aren’t the people of God yet, you are supposed to be Jesus. If you’re out on your job or doing the shopping or at home with your family, anywhere there are Christians to be encouraged or lost sheep to be brought home, you’re supposed to be Jesus.

But how can we be Jesus? Isn’t Jesus the one and only unique Son of God? Isn’t He the only Good Shepherd and Saviour of the world? Well, yes. But our reading from 2 Corinthians shows us the way out of our dilemma.

First of all, verse 14 of chapter 5 says, "For Christ’s love compels us."

Compels us to do what? His love compels us to spread the good news of new life in Him to everyone around us. Christ’s love compels us to spend our lives in His service. But not as hired hands. No.

The next verse says, "He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again." Who is it who died and rose again? Jesus Christ our Lord, our good shepherd, the righteous Son of God. Who is it who live? It is we ourselves, who trust in what He has done. We were dead in selfishness and sin, but now Jesus has given us new life in Him. So we no longer are to live for ourselves! We aren’t in the Christian life just for what we can get out of it. We shouldn’t do Christian service for the sake of material or social or psychological gain. We mustn’t be hired hands!

The world says that’s why you do good things-- for what you can get out of it. That’s why people in the world-- unsaved people-- are kind to others: So others will be kind back to them. That’s why unsaved people get involved in religion-- for what it will do for them. Never mind if it’s true or not. Never mind that there really is a sovereign Creator God who deserves all praise and eternal devotion. The hired hand mentality says, "I’ll do this for you if you pay me so much in return. If not, I quit." Have you ever heard someone say, "I believe in my religion because it works for me"? Maybe you’ve even heard people say that about Christ and Christianity! And if Christianity stops "working for them," if life stops being peaceful or their disease isn’t healed or if they no longer feel they have life under control, they’ll go find another religion that does work for them! That is regarding Christ from a worldly point of view. That’s thinking like a hired hand.

And before we come to faith in Jesus, we all think of Him in that mercenary way. But we do so no longer, because now we are in Christ! That’s how we can be Jesus Christ as we serve His church and the world. He has made us to be a new type of human being. We have God Almighty living in us in the person of the Holy Spirit. So when we serve and act and speak and love according to His will, it’s just the same as if the one acting and speaking and loving were Jesus Christ Himself.

Sounds a lot like "WWJD--What Would Jesus Do?" doesn’t it? But it’s better than that. The trouble with "What Would Jesus Do?" is, that slogan gets us thinking about what Jesus did in the past and then trying to run with it now on our own. That’s not what the Spirit had in mind when He had Paul write that now we are in Christ. The question really is, "WDJD-- What Did Jesus Do?"

He served God perfectly as a loving Son, that’s what Jesus did. He willingly laid down His life for us, His sheep--that’s what Jesus did. He took it up again in resurrection, that we might have new life in Him. That’s what Jesus did. He reconciled us to God and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, that’s what Jesus did!

And because of what Jesus did, what we now ask is, "What is Jesus doing in me, right now?" For you are in Him and He is in you, and He is in all of you as His body, the Church. As His new creatures, all you do should be done in identity with Him.

Say you’re an elder, and you’re sitting in a Session meeting and things are getting contentious: Remember, you’re not a hired hand. No, you are the presence of Christ the Good Shepherd to your fellow elders and they are His presence to you. He lives in you, and your words must be His words and His grace your grace.

Or suppose you’re on the board of deacons, and you’re all trying to decide the best ways to minister to the congregation and the community. Ask, "What is Christ in us directing us to do?" Remember, He does only what pleases and glorifies His Father in heaven. And He never operates out of self-interest or fear. How does Jesus want you to be His shepherding presence to His flock in this place? What is Jesus in you giving you the power to do?

It’s the same even if you’re not ordained. It’s amazing what God can do in a congregation that’s living in the resurrection power of the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s wonderful how souls can be saved and the needy helped and evil and tragedy faced down when the Spirit of Christ the Good Shepherd motivates His people and leads them and sustains them in all they do!

All this assumes you’re hearing His voice as He speaks to you in the Holy Scriptures. Don’t bother asking what Jesus wants to do through you if the voice you hear is your own and not His! Jesus feeds you with His Word to make you strong and capable, and to incorporate you more perfectly into Him. He gives you the words to speak, and they are the words He spoke by His apostles and prophets. Everywhere you go, in every situation in life, you are Christ’s ambassador. You are called and commissioned to speak and act for Him. When people see you, they should see Jesus. When you speak in God’s service, it should be with the loving voice of Jesus. When people experience your patience and your care, it should be the care of the good shepherd Jesus.

Stop trying to do this on your own. You can’t. Don’t serve God so people will think well of you or to try to earn your way into heaven. That’s worse than useless, it’s an insult to the Lord who is the only Gate into heaven there is. But why attempt it anyway? You’re not a hired hand! You have been made one with Jesus Christ your Lord! In Him you have become the righteousness of God! You are a fellow worker with Him! You are one of God’s precious flock-- but to some person who needs you, to some lost and lonely sheep, you are also the voice and care of the Good Shepherd who is calling that soul back to Himself.

In the time of His favor God has heard you. In the day of salvation He helped you. He has brought you safe within His sheepfold and you are secure in Him forever. Relying on the love and power of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd of the sheep, serve and minister and love in His name, for He ministers and lives and loves in you.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Running for Daylight

Texts: John 9:1-7; Philippians 3:8-16

I DON’T KNOW TOO much about football.

I surprised myself once when an Englishman asked me to explain it to him, and I was able to give him the basics. But that’s all I could do. I don’t know beans about what a nickel defense is or who or what a "wide-out" is or where the Red Zone begins.

So when I’m watching football on TV, and all those guys in helmets and pads are mixing it up down there on the field, I couldn’t tell you if they’re following the patterns their coaches laid down for them, or if they’re making it up as they go along.

But occasionally something happens that’s so clear, even an ignoramus like me can understand. Like last year a little way into the second half of the Super Bowl in Detroit, when Willie Parker got the ball. The Steelers’ defenders opened up the hole and Parker broke free of the mass of players and headed straight for the Seahawks’ end zone. He knocked down one tackler, he pulled loose of another, it didn’t matter how many Seattle players were chasing him, he ran and ran and ran till he scored the touchdown. "Running for daylight," they call it. His eyes were open, the way was clear, and nothing was going to stop him short of that goal.

It’s so easy to use sports imagery as a metaphor for the Christian life, it’s almost embarrassing. The church I pastored in Nebraska hosted the local teen chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. There was one meeting, we sang the song "Drop Kick Me, Jesus, Through the Goal Posts of Life." Just for fun, you know. I mean, was the songwriter serious? Isn’t following Jesus too important to be compared to a game?

But you know what? The Apostle Paul wasn’t embarrassed to compare the Christian life to a game. He used sports imagery in his letters all the time! Meaning that the Holy Spirit, Who inspired Paul’s writings, wasn’t embarrassed about it, either!

When Paul uses sports imagery he’s generally talking about track and field, or sometimes boxing. I can imagine him sitting in the stands at the games, cheering the runners on, and wondering to himself what it’d be like to be one of those athletes; especially the one who stood on the victor’s podium crowned with laurel and fame. But I can also imagine the Holy Spirit saying to him, "Paul, you are an athlete running a race. You’re running the most important race of all: the race of the Christian life." And Paul would know that that’s true of all of us Jesus has called to be on His team. All of us Christians are to be like athletes who practice and train and press on and on towards the goal.

But we’d better know where that goal line is and how we’re going to get there. To listen to some people, you’d think the goal of the Christian life is to be nice and tolerant to everyone they meet. Or that the victorious Christian life is about having a good marriage and raising fine, upstanding children. Or it means following all the rules in the Bible and a lot of other ones your particular church has made up to add to them. And if you listen to these people, they’ll tell you that you get to that goal is by trying really hard to be really nice and following their Ten Steps to a Successful Marriage and being so good and holy God just has to reward you with the heavenly equivalent of a Super Bowl ring. But those people are wrong. The fact is, you do that and it’s like Willie Parker last year not running 75 yards to the Seahawks’ goal line, but 25 yards to his own. Oops!

That’s what St. Paul wants us to understand in his letter to the Philippians. Paul thought he was a winner when he was known as Saul of Tarsus. He thought he’d already crossed the goal line and the ring was his. But he’d been running entirely the wrong way. He says, "If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh [that is, in our own efforts], 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." He thought he’d not only crossed the goal line, he thought he’d been made game MVP!

But then, Jesus got hold of him. And Paul discovered that not only was he not a winner, he’d been playing for the wrong team. He says, "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 Jesus Christ my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things."

If you think you’re a winner because you’re a nice person, or because you try real hard and keep the rules, or because you have the perfect family, you’re running the wrong direction. You’re not running for daylight, you’re running into darkness. Saul of Tarsus thought he had a righteousness of his own that came from the law. He was self-righteous. But Paul the Apostle knew that all righteousness-- that is, all goodness, all kindness, all truth, all of what it takes to please God-- the only real righteousness there really is comes from God and He gives it to us through faith in His Son Jesus Christ.

As long as Paul thought he had the holiness game won, he was a loser. But as soon as he gave up all the so-called good stuff from his former life, Jesus could give him the really good stuff that only He can give.

We don’t have to knock ourselves out trying to keep all the rules! Jesus has kept them all for us! We don’t have to make people believe we’re living the perfect life! Jesus lived it for us! We don’t have to think of ourselves as nice people all the time! Jesus gives us something better than niceness, He gives us His perfect, burning goodness and love, the goodness and love that sent Him to the cross to die for our sins.

So what now? Can we Christians stop caring about how we live? That it doesn’t matter what we say and do in this world? That we no longer have to run for daylight?

That’s like saying to yourself, "Hey, God is merciful. I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that He died for my sins. Good! It doesn’t matter if I commit a few more from time to time. Who needs to work at this Christianity business? My room in heaven is reserved. Why should I sweat things now?"

But Paul insists there is sweat and effort we have to put in here and now. He says, "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings."

Over in Romans 6 he likens it to an employment situation. To keep our football metaphor going, it’s as if we’d been playing on the team of sin and death and the Devil, and we acted like it and we were getting the wages that sin always pays, which is death. But now Christ has come along in the power of His blood shed on the cross and forcibly taken us away from the Devil’s team. We’re playing for Jesus now, He’s paying us the astronomical salary of eternal life (which we could never, ever, ever earn), and He expects us to get in there and play the game the way He calls it. Not to pay Him back, but for our own good. That’s the only way we’re going to become strong and mature and reach the goal of becoming more and more like Jesus Christ.

Being a Christian isn’t a free pass to live however we want and Jesus foots the bill. That’s only another way of running the wrong way with the ball, as it were, another way of running into darkness.

But there’s yet another way we can lose sight of the goal. That’s when we say to ourselves, "Yes, God has called me heavenward. Jesus has saved me and brought me to the line of scrimmage. He’s my Example and my Inspiration. But now it’s all up to me and my own efforts to overcome the opposition and run for the goal of holiness and heaven." Like Peyton Manning might say, "Johnny Unitas was a great Colts quarterback. I can learn a lot from him. But winning this Super Bowl today is my job, not his."

Peyton Manning would be right if he said that about Johnny Unitas. For one thing, Johnny Unitas is dead. But the Holy Spirit says it’s definitely not that way with us and Jesus. As it says in verse 12, "I press on to take hold of that for which Jesus Christ took hold of me." If you want to push the football imagery a little farther, we can truly say that from God’s point of view, we’re not the ball carrier, we’re the ball!

God calls us to run this race of the Christian life, because Jesus His Son is running it with us and in us and for us. That’s what He sent the Holy Spirit to live in us for. Paul says in verse 10, "I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection." We have a risen Saviour who loved us so much He died for us! He rose again in power! And we can and must draw upon His resurrection power if we’re going to make any headway at all.

That’s our goal--to know Christ and the power of His resurrection. How can we ever expect to reach that goal if we treat Jesus like a dead legend or like some old-timer who’s not in the game any more? The victory is His and His alone. If we’re not out there living life in His righteous strength and wisdom, we may as well admit defeat here and now.

This takes discipline and self-denial and being willing to take the hits. Paul says he wants to know the fellowship of sharing in Christ’s sufferings and become like Him in His death. Suffering? Death? Well, Paul, if you want to be a martyr, be our guest. We pray that God will never make us suffer for our faith!

But God can’t say Yes to that prayer. He loves us too much. The resurrection cannot come without the cross.

It may be that God may call you and me to follow in Christ’s footsteps and suffer physically at the hands of evil men, for righteousness’ sake. From time to time we’ve all had to suffer emotionally or socially for being faithful members of God’s team. But knowing the "fellowship of sharing in Christ’s sufferings," goes beyond that that. Christ’s sufferings included the total submission to God that enabled Him to go to the cross and bear our sins for us.

We may not have to bear torture and hardship for the sake of Christ. But Christ does call each and every one of us to deny ourselves and take up our cross daily and follow Him. To say, "Your will be done, O Lord, and not my own." Self-denial is a necessary part of the Christian life. No resurrection without the cross; no glory without the shame.

And we have to deny ourselves perfectly, as Jesus did. Can we do that? Are we skilled at saying ‘no’ to our own wills and ‘yes’ to the will of God? No, every day we find ourselves intending to do what God wants but going our own way instead. We’re like football players who keep on playing the way we did in the schoolyard, instead of running the plays the way the big league coach tells us to.

But doing things Jesus’s way and in His power is the only way we’re going to win. Getting to the point where we do everything Jesus’ way and in Jesus’ power is what it means to win.

But even as we strive towards that goal, we fall short again and again. And guess what? Paul says it’s the same with him! "Not that I have already obtained all this," he says, "or have already been made perfect." He knows there’s a groove where the power of God is always flowing and it doesn’t matter whether one says "The Holy Spirit did it" or "I did it," because it’d be exactly the same thing. But he confesses that so far even he doesn’t half know what it’s like to be there.

Even so, there’s no way Paul’s going to sit down and say it doesn’t matter if he reaches the goal. Jesus is the Light of the world, and our whole purpose is to live in His light and be like Him as children of light. That’s what being a Christian is all about--for Paul, for me, for you, for all of us who are drafted to be on God’s team. So strain forward to grab hold of real life in Jesus Christ, because Jesus has already grabbed hold of you. Be like that running back who breaks free with the ball and heads for the goal line, for Jesus has you in the crook of His arm and He’s running there with you.

Run for daylight, because Christ has given you everything you need to reach the goal. He has given you His blood, which washes away your sins. He has given you His Holy Spirit, who lives in you and works through you, to do God’s will and bring you to maturity in Christ. And He gives you this meal we are about to eat. The bread and wine of the Lord’s Table is Christ present with you and in you. Here you can touch and taste the power of His death and resurrection, making you strong to press on to reach the goal of life eternal in Him.

Who knows what’ll happen in Miami this evening. Whatever happens on the field, remember that you, Christian, are a player in a contest far more important that any Super Bowl ever can be. You are an athlete on God’s own team and your player-coach is Jesus Christ. As long as you live, your aim and goal should be nothing less than to be like Him. Jesus is the resurrection power helping you run. He is the holy self-denial that breaks the tackles of complacency and sin. And He is the goal you’re running toward. Forget what’s behind, strain forward, and run for daylight. The prize is nothing less than perfect fellowship and resurrection life in Jesus Christ, the Light of the World. Keep your eyes on Him, because in Him, with Him, and through Him, the victory will be yours.