Sermon from January 3, 2021 from the Revs. Megan and David Collins
We were reading a story from an athlete and they wrote “It is a bizarre, painful and scary experience. Your brain shifts to prioritize self perseveration and sends loud signals that you can’t keep going anymore. Everything hurts. You lose some sense of time. You become emotional.”
Without context this could feel like any of us as we keep moving through this crazy time in human history. What it actually comes from is a marathon runner describing what it feels like to “hit the wall.” Hitting the wall happens (apparently) to marathon runners somewhere in the last part of the race. You have come so far. You have pushed your body to run miles and miles of the race. Perhaps even harder you have pushed past the mental obstacles that you can’t keep going. When you started it didn’t seem so bad but now you aren’t sure you can go another step. You hit the wall.
Hitting the wall sounds about right for us now. We are nine months in to this craziness. We can almost see the finish line now if we squint into the distance. But the hardest few miles are still ahead of us. Now, more than ever, what you need is perseverance. We are going to spend the whole month of January looking at perseverance in the letters of the New Testament together. People in the early church had their own share of difficulties and challenges. They were facing dark times and danger and uncertainty. But over and over again they are told to keep going, to not give up, to keep running toward the finish line like athletes in the final stretch of a long race. Today we will read Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. Let’s look at Philippians, chapter 3, verses 1 - 14. This passage will lay the entire foundation for our study on perseverance.
“To write the same things to you is not troublesome to me, and for you it is a safeguard. Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh— even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh. If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 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; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
The first thing Paul does is outline all the ways he is great. In fact, he is so bold to start by saying in essence "if you think you have something to brag about, I can top it." His list of accomplishments include circumcision, family lineage, religious leadership and being a perfect follower of the law. When you think about perseverance, you start with thinking about all the things you might bring to the table. Your list will look different from what Paul thought was worthy of bragging rights. For you, maybe it’s that you are smart or rich or strong or well educated or healthy. Take a minute, right now, about think what the things are you bring to the table that would make you especially prepared to push through the last few miles of the race. Are you thinking about them? Then Paul says:
"Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ."
All those things I bragged about, Paul writes, I have realized they don’t matter. All those things you bring to the table? Set them aside. Not because they aren’t good, not because they don’t make your life better in some ways, not because they aren’t things you can use to serve God. But because they aren’t the things that will give you the power, the perseverance, you need. Why? These things convince you that you can do this on your own, that you are a team of one, that you don’t need anyone else’s help. But at some point all of those things that convince you to do life on your own will fail like a muscle that gives out before you cross the finish line. To have the kind of perseverance that will make it possible for you to finish strong over these next few months, you’ll need more than what you can do alone. Take all those things that buffer up your pride, Lone Ranger, and set them aside. Because, as is always the truth, God has something better. Let’s keep reading:
"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 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. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead."
In other words:
If you can set aside what you can do, you make room for what God can do.
This is what it means to “regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ.”
Maybe you’re thinking “I’m doing just fine.”
Maybe you are. Maybe your own strength has gotten you this far in life. Maybe you have been able to rely on your intelligence or your money or dumb luck to get this far. But if you haven’t already, at some point, you’ll hit the wall. It might not happen all at once but one day you’ll feel like you can’t do this anymore. You’ll feel your body or your mind start to stumble. You’ll wonder how you can keep going another day. When that time comes, you’ll start to set aside all those things that told you you could go it alone.
Because the good news is . . . . you don’t have to.
Jesus wants to give you His righteousness.
Jesus wants to give you His power.
Jesus wants to give you his strength.
When he does, you can persevere to the goal. Look at the last part of the passage from Paul:
"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. 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, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus."
Forgetting what lies behind (your stuff that got you this far) and straining forward to what lies ahead (the future God has prepared) we press on toward Jesus. This is what perseverance looks like. You can persevere not because of who you are but because of who God is.
Over the next few weeks we will look at specifically what this looks like in difficult times with a pep talk from 2 Timothy. We’ll talk about how we do this with one another in the cloud of witnesses from Hebrews. We’ll talk about the end goal that keeps us going and then finally the maturity we will find through all this.
But your homework for this week is to invite Jesus in.
Maybe you can keep going on your own. But you sure don’t have to.