St Barnabas and St Michael’s, 5th December 2010
Reading – Philippians 3:11-4:1
How many people here have ever dreamt of becoming a football manager? Maybe as you were growing up, you had this idea you would take over your hometown team after a glittering playing career. Or perhaps more realistically after you’ve seen your side lose at home for the umpteenth time, you’ve begun to think you could do a better job. Of course I realise some people here can’t ever imagine how anyone could ever dream like this. But this morning – whether or not we love the beautiful game – I want all of us to imagine just for a moment we are in charge of a football team. The team in question is not a particularly successful team, and it’s certainly nowhere near the Premiership. It’s the middle of the season and the results so far have been mixed. Your next game is against your local rivals, whom some people like to call “the enemy”. Your task as manager is to motivate the team so they produce a match-winning performance. What do you say to them? What advice do you give them? Has anyone got any ideas?
Well, I think there are five pieces of advice I would pass on:
Look forward not backwards. It’s no use dwelling on what has happened so far in the season. It’s easy to wonder what would have happened if we hadn’t missed that penalty, or we hadn’t conceded that last minute goal. But the past is the past. It can’t be changed. It’s time to move on and see each new game as a fresh start. When the game kicks off, it’s only the following 90 minutes that counts. That’s where your focus should be.
Maximise your performance. You’ve spent hours training and building up your fitness. Now is not the time to coast through the game saving your energy for the big occasion. This is the big occasion, and it’s up to you to make sure all that hard work pays off. Show what you are capable of, and give it everything you’ve got.
Remember what I have taught you. Hopefully I am a good enough manager to set you a positive example. Put into practice everything I have shown you. Don’t get carried away in the heat of the moment and lose sight of all the tactics and formation and discipline that I tried to instil in you. It requires every single one of you to stick to the game plan.
Remember who you are playing for. You’re not just playing for yourself, or for your team. You are playing for your city. One of the key indicators of how well a city is doing is how the team is performing. You have a responsibility to make others proud of what you do.
Remember what your ultimate goal is. If we do all these things, and we don’t get distracted, then we might just be in a position to achieve promotion. We’re not here just to make up numbers in the league. We want to be the very best. But you won’t get very far unless you aim high and look towards the end of the season.
Do you reckon that will do as a team talk? Of course, as I’m sure you are all aware, next week Plymouth Argyle are playing their arch-rivals Exeter City at Home Park. It’s an eagerly awaited fixture and the result will have a big impact on both cities. I have no idea what Peter Reid will say to the players, or how they will respond, although I know the team needs some good news at the moment.
But actually the five points I’ve just outlined don’t come from a manager’s team talk or indeed have anything to do with football at all. They come from our reading from Philippians this morning as Paul urges the team of believers there to put their faith into practice. So let’s spend some time going through each of them…
Look forward not backwards (Verses 12-14). We saw last week how Paul’s life changed dramatically when Jesus met him on the Damascus Road. Paul discovered in Jesus that peace and that forgiveness he had longed for, and from that moment on, nothing mattered more to him that knowing Jesus. His education, his religious knowledge, his family background were all rubbish compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Him. Jesus was His passion, His focus and His goal. And so he writes in verses 13 and 14: But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.
Now I don’t think for a moment Paul was saying that the past was unimportant, that he could simply sweep under the carpet his mistakes and his sins, as if somehow they didn’t matter. But I think what Paul had learnt to do was to leave all his failings at the foot of the cross and let Jesus deal with them. Because in one sense what has happened has happened. We can’t spent our whole lives wondering if we made the right choices or how things would be different if we had taken an alternative decision. Yes, we may well need to repent of the wrong we have done, and say sorry to the people we have hurt. But we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that Jesus still deeply, deeply loves us as we are, and wants us to move forward in our relationship with Him. In these verses Paul reminds us that as Christians we still need to keep our heavenly focus and base our lives not on what has gone before, but rather on the hope that still awaits us.
Maximise your performance (Verses 15-16). For some reason there are many books in the Bible where chapter 3, verse 16 is a memorable verse. Philippians chapter 3, verse 16 is no exception: Only let us live up to what we have already attained. It’s a verse of which all of us, I believe, should remind ourselves daily. Because one of the most common sins to which Christians fall victim is what in former times used to be called back-sliding. Not keeping up our daily walk with Jesus. Giving in to those subtle little temptations you once thought you have conquered because – or so you think – they don’t really matter. Coasting along in the Christian faith when everything else in life seems to be going along OK. We don’t talk much about the dangers of back-sliding any more, but in reality it is one of the most pernicious and most pervasive of sins that affects us all.
And maybe Philippians 3:16 should make each of us take stock of where we stand with Jesus this morning and ask: am I making progress in my Christian faith? Am I am putting in the time and the effort to know Jesus more deeply, or am I simply skating across the surface? I believe so often we see major crises and difficulties as presenting the greatest challenge to our faith. But experience tells me it’s often when everything is going OK, when there aren’t any real problems in our life, when, if you like, it’s mid-season, that we tend to drift slowly away from the Lord and lose our focus. Maybe it’s at times like this that we need to take stock and see just how far the Lord has kept and guided us over the years, and pray that we might continue to know Him more deeply.
Remember what I have taught you. (Verses 17-19). Isn’t that exactly what Paul is saying in verse 17? Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. I guess that for some of us all I have said so far this morning about effort and progress sounds like rather hard work, as if the Christian faith is really rather a solitary slog. But of course Paul’s commands throughout this passage aren’t addressed just to a bunch of individuals, but to a church, and he recognised that we grow in the Christian faith not simply by our own individual efforts but also by learning from the example of others. Because when you get alongside someone who has known and loved the Lord for many years you can learn so much from them. The stories they share of how Jesus has helped them in times of trouble; of answered prayer; of the goodness of God despite their own difficulties and struggles. As I look back on my own Christian life, I can’t, if I’m honest, remember much of the teaching I received when I was young, but I can remember those key people who took time and trouble to lead and guide me in my faith.
So if you here today as someone who has known the Lord for many years and has a wide experience of the Christian faith then perhaps it is right for you to think how you can encourage and come alongside those here who are new to the faith, or have only recently started coming to church. Of course you may well not feel as confident as Paul that you have an example of living that others can follow. But that’s OK. Share something of the struggles you have faced, the times when in spiritual terms you have fallen flat on your face. Because the chances are, the other person will be facing exactly the same issues. Surely there is no greater encouragement to keep on with the Christian faith than to find someone who has faced exactly the same issues as yourself and yet can testify that God in His wonderful mercy and grace has not given up on them yet.
And if you are here as a new Christian, or wanting to find out more about faith in Jesus, then I would encourage you to spend time getting to know those long-established members of the church who have been walking with the Lord for many years. Sadly, you see, just as in Paul’s day there are Christians who do set a bad example, who live as enemies of the cross of Christ. They may try and confuse you a prosperity gospel that promises untold blessing to those who ask, or a healing ministry that guarantees physical healing for anyone who has enough faith. God however doesn’t you to struggle on your own to work out what is right and good and true. He has given you the gift of the Holy Spirit, and He has given you the gift of older, wiser believers who can help steer you away from a cheap, counterfeit Christianity and into a true, living faith in Christ crucified for us. Talk to them; listen to and learn from them. And the chances are you will bless them in their own faith as well.
Remember who you are playing for (Verse 20). I don’t know if you have ever realised it, but the moment you placed your faith and trust in Jesus you were transferred, so to speak, into a new team. That’s what Paul means when He says in verse 20: Our citizenship is in heaven. It’s as if you have been given a new passport and new identity as a member of God’s kingdom and as a representative of heaven here on earth.
Now in many ways this new identity is a wonderful privilege. There is after all nothing more precious than knowing Jesus and knowing yourself as a child of your loving Heavenly Father, is there? And I firmly believe that we should rejoice and celebrate more often than we tend to the wonderful fact that we have been adopted into God’s family and nothing can ever separate us from His love.
But we need to recognise that this new identity also brings with it a new responsibility. Because as a citizen of heaven we are given a mission to represent Jesus here on earth. You see, the way I choose to live out my faith doesn’t just impact on me and my relationship with Jesus. It also impacts on those around me, the people I bump into at work, at home, in the street. After all, I may well be the only Christian that my neighbours ever meet. And they will form an opinion about who Jesus is, and what it means to be a Christian, not so much from my words, as from my actions, from the fact I am as grumpy on Monday morning as everyone else, or rather more positively the fact I don’t swear when something happens to go wrong.
This again is why it is so important to realise that we live our Christian faith as a team. Because even though we may not bump into each other during the week, and while we may lead very different kinds of lives, we need to be supporting one another in prayer, meeting wherever possible for fellowship, keeping in touch with all those wonderful modern gadgets so that we can help one another live out our calling to be citizens of heaven. So that when folk do look at the people of St Michael’s and St Barnabas they say to one another, “You know, there’s something really different about them. I wonder what it is”.
And finally: Remember what your ultimate goal is. (Verses 20-21) Because there is a real sense in which we too are looking forward to promotion. Not promotion to a higher league, or to a better position in the table, but promotion to glory when one day we will bow before Jesus and see Him face to face. Are you looking forward to that day? Is that where your focus truly lies? Because, if not, all that I’ve said this morning will seem like rather a dull chore, a rather mechanical exercise in putting your faith into practice. But if like Paul in verse 20 you eagerly await a Saviour from heaven the Lord Jesus Christ then it is more likely you are doing all these things already. You will be looking forward, not backwards. You will be making every effort to maximise your performance as a Christian. You will be learning from and sharing your faith with other members of the team. You will be striving to live as a citizen of heaven. In other words, if you are heavenly-minded then you will in Jesus’ eyes be of the greatest possible earthly use.
All this, then, takes back once again to the theme of Advent, to consider not just what we are looking forward to, but how the hope of the Advent season shapes and moulds our lives. After Paul has given his team-talk in chapter 3 he concludes: Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends! So, are you standing firm on the hope of glory? And if so, how does this hope shape and mould your life?