Philippians

Overconfident

Philippians 3:4b-11 (NRSV)

The Apostle Paul, writing to the church at Philippi:

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.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 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.


 

The Apostle Paul was not a man clinging to religion for solace or validation after failing to find such comfort elsewhere. By human measures, Paul was a success long before he believed in Jesus Christ as Savior.

He was born to the right people, in the right kind of family. He had both a solid trade, and he also was a scholar. In the Jewish world where religion and politics were one and the same, he was a rising star, a great future ahead of him.

But having been confronted by the power and reality of Christ, Paul threw his resume and the benefits he had accrued away, calling them all “rubbish.” Such is the life-altering experience that can occur when we truly understand who Christ is.

This message should resonate in profound ways―perhaps even disconcerting ways―in a congregation like ours. We are a people who are, on average, better educated than most. We are a people who are, on average, better off financially than most. Many of us have track records of success.

That means we also are a people susceptible to the same trap that ensnared Paul until God whacked him with the heavenly equivalent of a Louisville Slugger. If you’re among the people here today who are thinking, “Hey, the preacher’s not talking to me―I’ve never felt like a success,” then consider yourself blessed, perhaps for the first time. As Christ told us, the meek shall inherit the earth.

“What trap?” the rest of you may be asking yourselves. It’s simple: the trap of self-reliance, of overconfidence. We are a people constantly in danger of believing that because we were smart enough to figure a few things out, we have figured everything out, including God.

Not so, Paul tells us. There is something new to learn. We worship a God who has turned the world upside through Jesus Christ, a God who places the last first, who gives hope to the hopeless, who transforms slaves into rulers in the kingdom of heaven.

The only way the strangeness of God can be grasped is if we first let go of the idea that we have everything figured out. No undergraduate or even graduate degree can save us. Faith is the only way to salvation.

I suppose the one comfort for the targets of this text is God clearly needs Christians with backgrounds like Paul, strategic thinkers with successful records. God did go to great lengths to make Paul his own. I wonder why?

Well, first of all, because God loves everyone, including the self-reliant and even the self-absorbed. He draws us all toward a relationship with him.

There’s a close second, I think: In this time in-between the cross and the final, general resurrection, the church still has to navigate a broken world. Jesus said his followers would have to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

For now, there’s a need for strategic thinkers, for planners, for people who can match wits with evil. Paul stood and fought brilliantly, enduring great harm to his body.

There is just an equal need, it seems, for those who do such work to do it with great humility, understanding that God’s wisdom, not our own, must be our guide. This is why we pray for guidance. This is why we submit to what we find revealed in Scripture, even when what we find troubles us.

Worldly success is fleeting. We are fragile creatures; wisdom and cunning can vanish with one blow to the head. We use our gifts, our talents and our blessings while we can in God’s service, but humble faith is what will sustain us for eternity.

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City of the Blind

Mark 11:1-11

The story of Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem proves it is possible to celebrate the right person for all the wrong reasons.

Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a colt. People lined the road, covering it with their cloaks and palm branches and crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

In other words, they greeted him as a king. In our day, we know this was appropriate. As people who understand the full story, we know that God in flesh, the very source of salvation, rode before them.

But at the same time, we must remember that the cheering crowd and the disciples who walked with Jesus were blind. The people were blind to what was about to happen, to the way salvation would be made possible.

Their blindness didn’t happen because Jesus had left them in the dark. Three times he had told his followers the truth: that the Messiah must be condemned, mocked, humiliated and killed before rising from the dead on the third day.

No one wanted to see this picture he had painted, however. Instead, prestige, power and instant gratification were on the minds of Jesus’ followers.

Jesus told the truth about where the colt was leading him, but not long before the ride, James and John instead tried to maneuver themselves into seats alongside the earthly throne they believed Jesus would soon occupy. I want to scream across 2,000 years and warn them, “Open your eyes, see what’s coming—blood and violence and a cross splintered by nails driven through flesh.”

Jesus told the truth about the road ahead of him, but during the ride, the crowds that would abandon him in just a few short days cheered him onward, believing he would conquer both the corrupt Jewish leaders and their Roman puppet masters. If only they could have seen Jesus’ humiliation and suffering to come at the hands of these earthly powers.

Jesus told the truth about the need for the Messiah’s death and resurrection, but not long after the ride, even nature failed him. Hungry as he left Jerusalem for the evening, the creator of the universe rightly expected a part of his creation, a fig tree, to provide him sustenance. The tree failed to see to the needs of the one for whom it was made, and withered under the creator’s curse.

Everyone had something he or she wanted from Jesus, but no one for a moment seemed to consider what God wanted through Jesus. What God wanted was a complete and total solution to the problem of sin, a repair to the gap between God and the people made in God’s image. God didn’t want Jesus to storm a fortress. He wanted Jesus to retake and ultimately remake the universe.

This solution goes beyond earthly kingdoms, beyond who gets which title once Jesus takes control. It’s a solution no human could see because no human could imagine how far God was willing to go to redeem us and live in harmony with us.

We do know something of the mind of the man who rode that colt into Jerusalem. Philippians 2:5-11 helps. Here, we see the infinite mind humbled, reduced and emptied of any sense of entitlement.

The crowds cheered, but Christ knew he rode toward death. Did the trip into Jerusalem at any time give Jesus a clear view of Golgotha? The cry of “hosanna” must have contrasted sharply with the shout Jesus knew would come just a few days later—”Crucify him!”

But as I’ve said, the people lining the road and walking with Jesus could not see what was in the mind of Christ, and even his closest disciples refused to hear his words. They wanted what they wanted, standing as a cheering mass, thinking they knew everything but actually knowing nothing of God’s plan.

To understand, they would first have to wonder at a stone rolled away from a tomb and see a battered and broken body restored to life. Only the cross and the resurrection would allow them to “come to themselves,” to borrow a phrase from the parable of the prodigal son.

Let me ask you this:

Do you really grasp what God has done through Jesus? Do you know he rode to his death for you, for your sins, the sins committed years ago, the sins committed yesterday, the sins still to come?

Do you cheer and cry hosanna for the right reasons? Do you cry hosanna with every moment of your life, conforming yourself to the one who has saved you? Is your life now his?

Thank God for Easter Sunday and the blindness it heals.

Story’s End

Revelation 7:9-17

Every great story has a masterful ending. The magnificent story told in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation has the greatest ending of all.

Our main problem is teasing that ending out of Revelation, the most complicated book of the Bible to read. Before we get to that wonderful conclusion, a primer on how Revelation works is in order.

I should begin with what Revelation is not, as improper readings of this last book of the Bible have led to a lot of bad theology in recent years. It is not a type of literature otherwise familiar to us in Western culture—in fact, this type of literature existed among Jews and early Christians for just four centuries, from about 200 B.C. to about A.D. 200.

We now call this type of literature “apocalyptic,” and we know it does not follow what the Western world considers the normal structure of a story. For example, our stories tend to follow chronological order, with the exception of an occasional flashback to reveal details from the past, or some foreshadowing to hint at what is to come.

Time is not an important feature of apocalyptic literature. An event may be described once and then described from a different perspective later in the text.

Also, apocalyptic literature is highly figurative, where Western literature is by default quite literal, with forays into figurative language usually easy to detect. All of the resulting symbolism in apocalyptic literature functions in part like a code; for example, numbers and creatures usually point to something else, like the concept of completeness or a particular empire.

The people who wrote apocalyptic literature were heavily oppressed, and didn’t want others to understand immediately what they were saying. So, if you try to read Revelation chronologically and literally, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes, errant conclusions the letter’s original audience would never have made.

But enough of the primer. With all of that in mind, let’s look at that glorious story’s end.

Scattered through Revelation are images of humanity and God in full reunion, thanks to Christ’s infinitely powerful work on the cross. They are like snapshots of what is to come.

These images resolve the problem that arises early in Genesis. There, we see God’s desire for a relationship with his creation, and we see that relationship broken by willful disobedience, the kind of sin we all have committed at one time or another.

The rest of the Old Testament can be seen broadly as God’s efforts to woo humans back to holiness and a full relationship with their maker. The Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) in the New Testament reveal to us how God ultimately succeeded: He took on human form among us as Jesus Christ, becoming a sinless sacrifice to atone for our sins.

Christ’s resurrection is proof the plan worked. All we have to do is believe.

Those reunion images in Revelation are designed to give us great hope, reminding us that what is to come is so much better than what we experience now. One of those snapshots, found in the seventh chapter, beginning at verse 9, gives us a picture of eternal, ongoing worship, a glorious celebration of what has been accomplished by Christ, depicted as the Lamb.

The author of Revelation, known only as John, said that in one of his visions “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” He went on to describe the praise and singing by both the redeemed humans and the creatures of heaven.

He also gave us a hint of what we should be doing now, as we exist in the part of the story where we now live, a time of tribulation and ordeals brought about by evil’s death throes. In a conversation with one of these heavenly beings, John is told that those clothed in white “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

In more literal language, they symbolize the people from around the world who follow Christ as Lord and Savior. Yes, salvation is freely available, but this washing of robes symbolizes our need to pursue this relationship, to grow in our faith and live as people who believe.

As the Apostle Paul writes in the second chapter of Philippians, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Every individual Christian story intersects with God’s great story, leading to the same glorious ending.