Eyes on the Prize

5th Sunday of  Lent
Philippians 3:4b-14                   
17 March 2013
Elizabeth M. Deibert                   

We are coming near the end of Lent, a season of struggle, of challenge.   If you haven’t challenged yourself much this season of Lent, I hope you will at least work on it between now and Easter.   Two weeks.  Press on, get with the program.   Put some muscle, some effort, some devotion into your Christian life.  Commit to more prayer, more scripture study, more sacrifice for others, more fruit of the Spirit in your life.  Keep your eyes on the prize.  If life is throwing you some hard punches, keep your eyes on the prize. This Christian faith is not just about feeling good; it is about being changed, transformed into Christ-likeness.   Whatever you are going through is an opportunity for growth.

And I don’t know about you, but I am not so much like Christ.   I need more than a few minor adjustments.   No, when my eyes are not on the prize, they are getting distracted by many things, usually self-serving things.   Following Christ is tough work, like scaling a mountain when you barely can walk.   But we have help.   We have the power of Christ’s Spirit at work in us.   We have the mutual encouragement of one another, especially when together we take this Christian life seriously.  But that means faith more than skin-deep, more than a cross around my neck, more than showing up for worship once a week because we like the people here.   

No, if we’ve learned anything at Peace, it is that the journey has its curves and twists.  But the journey is worth the struggle because of the joy set before us.  We  will never give up, because we know God has a good plan for us.  No matter how hard it gets, we’re pressing on.   Whether you’re in prisons of your own making or whether life has thrown some curve balls at you, never stop moving forward toward Christ.   

Let us pray using another portion of St Patrick’s Breastplate Prayer:  May the strength of God pilot us, the power of God uphold us, the wisdom of God guide us, and the way of God lie before us.

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more:  5 circumcised 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; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.  8 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   9 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. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death,  11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.  12 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.  13 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, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.   (NRSV)

Paul wrote this letter to the Philippians from prison, possibly in Rome.   When you read Acts 16, you also learn that Paul was at one time imprisoned in this town when a miracle occurred.   In this part of chapter 3, He is telling the Philippians that following Christ is all that really matters.    Everything that mattered so much before matters not at all anymore.

Scottish-born St Patrick had his conversion while he was taken as a work prisoner/ a slave for six years in Ireland.  He became the patron saint of Ireland for after escaping, returning to Britain, training for the ordained ministry and returning to Ireland for 40 years of sharing the Gospel.  In the civil rights era, MLK spent some time writing from prison.   A spiritual which came to me yesterday morning, became well known in the 60’s and 70’s.   Even people like Bruce Springsteen sang it.   The first couple of verses are about Paul’s imprisonment in Philippi with Silas.  
Before I sing it, I want you to practice one part with me.   Everytime I sing, “Hold on” please sing it back to me.   Hold on.  Hold on!  Keep your eyes on the prize, Hold on!   
Paul and Silas thought they were lost.  The dungeon shook and the chains fell off
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on (hold on)  

Hold on (hold on) Hold on (hold on).
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on (hold on).
I got my hand on the gospel plow.  Won't take nothing for my journey now.
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.
Hold on (hold on) Hold on (hold on).
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on (hold on).
The road is hard and the road is long.   Keep the faith and you’ll be strong.
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on (hold on)
Hold on (hold on) Hold on (hold on).
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on (hold on).

Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.   Keep what is most important, most important.   Put your large rocks in the jar first and then all the little rocks can fit in the small spaces.   Keep your eyes on the prize.   

We tend to admire people who keep their eyes on the prize and succeed in their chosen field, especially if it is something athletic or entertaining or lucrative, even when their success comes at great loss of family stability, even creates idolatry, we admire people who succeed.    But Paul takes his worldly success and his heritage and throws it to the wind.   He calls it excrement.   He says the only thing that matters is following Christ.   My mother would not approve of my using that four letter word that starts with cr and ends with ap in a sermon, but Paul uses a Greek word to communicate just how worthless and even foul it is to put stock in our credentials, in our upbringing, in our success, in our wealth, in our strengths and abilities, in anything other than knowing Christ deeply and becoming more like him.  And knowing Christ mean identifying with him thoroughly.

And here’s the most scandalous part – identifying with Christ means suffering.   Oops, I didn’t sign up for that one, did you?   Paul says, 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death,  11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Even with all Paul has done to share the Gospel, to live sacrificially like Christ, he doesn’t consider that he has done enough.   He says, “Not that I’ve made already, but I press on to the heavenly calling.”   The trouble with most of us is our complacency.  Do we accept a cheap grace, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer challenged against?   Do we take for granted God’s amazing gifts?  

The interesting thing about the new life we have in Christ is that death was defeated, but not removed from our experience.   Christ died for us, but we still have to suffer and die ourselves.   We live in the hope of the resurrection, but not without the suffering and death.   We don’t get a pass on the suffering, but we get a new life that comes through our suffering.   In fact, the more we love like Christ, the more we bear the sufferings of others because of the love God has poured into our hearts.   But our suffering is not in vain, it has the potential to draw us closer to the One who suffers with us and raises us up in glory.   Hold on (hold on)   Keep your eyes on the prize hold on (hold on).  
St.  Patrick preached the Gospel in Ireland for forty years when he could have been living a comfortable life in Britain.   Patrick returned to the land, where he had been forced into slavery to share the good news he had discovered while enslaved.  Sometimes our hard times drive us to faith in Christ.  St. Patrick feared nothing, not even death, so complete was his trust in God, and of the importance of his mission.  He had learned as a teenager to trust God, so his courage was fortified by faith.  After years of living in poverty, traveling and enduring much suffering he supposedly died on March 17, in the late 5th Century.   
Our journeys of faith are not as dramatic as Paul’s or as Patrick’s or as Martin Luther King’s, but we too have been called to take our past, our credentials, our successes, our failures, and set them aside, so that we might strain forward to follow Christ, as God calls us.   We cannot spend all our time in this life’s journey looking in the rearview mirror.   Rearview mirrors are good for taking a glance, but if you look in them constantly, you will have an accident.
 We are to press on into the future, even when it is an uphill struggle, even when it seems like all odds are against us.   I have been inspired this week by stories of Presbyterian mission co-workers who have pressed on toward the high calling of Christ.   Shelvis and Nancy Smith-Mather, whom the senior highs heard at Montreat a couple of years ago,  serve in the Congo and were scheduled to come back to the States to give birth to their first born in the fall, but when their son was born prematurely, he nearly died.   Their dramatic story found its way to a morning news show on television.   The physicians, Les and Cindy Morgan, whom several of us heard speak this week, live in an extremely crowded and impoverished city in Bangladesh, where they practice medicine and teach Christian spiritual disciplines. The stories of their faith and their healing hands in dangerous places were truly inspiring this week.   The Trimble family (Doug and Margy and three kids) wrote to ask for our prayers for safety this week as there was considerable violence (burning of homes and churches) just seven miles from their home in Lahore, Pakistan.    We got a call from a Presbyterian missionary who has served in Kenya for twenty years.  I hope we can help her find a place to live with her 13 year-old daughter this fall.

When I consider all the worldly comforts and all the conveniences and all the safety these families have sacrificed, I am overwhelmed by their commitment to spread the good news of Christ’s healing love to dangerous places.   

The Gospel lesson which we did not read today is the story of Mary pouring precious perfume over the feet of Jesus and Judas complaining about the waste of money.  Judas was a rational, logical person.  Mary’s love for Christ was beyond rationality.   She ignored her duty to help her sister because she was hanging on every word that came from Jesus’ mouth.   Mary had her eyes on the prize and the prize was a whole-hearted devotion to Fairest Lord Jesus.   She might have sung, “Thee will I cherish.  Thee will I honor.   Thou my soul’s glory, joy, and crown.”