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.

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