This morning’s passage calls us to return to the joy and the basics of our faith. Do you remember when you first received Christ into your life? For some of you, the heaviness and the guilt from your life before were lifted, and you felt clean, inside and out. For others of you, being in God’s care and plan meant that you were no longer without meaning and purpose.
Still for others, your anxiety about death was replaced with the assurance of eternal life with your Creator in Heaven. You were at peace with God. Some of you experience an unconditional love and acceptance that you only dreamt about, but you never received from your friends, co-workers or family. And that brought comfort to your heart and tears to your eyes.
But somehow, over the months or years, the joy of receiving Christ and having peace with God turned into a boring routine or even worse, you returned to experiences you had before you received Christ. You again feel that you alone have to carry your burdens in life. You again feel you have to work off your guilt with sacrifice and good deeds. Some of you are trying to earn God’s love and acceptance again, because as you look around at other Christians who appear free of sin, you simply can’t believe that God would love you and accept you after what you’ve done. As a result, the anxiety about death returns, because you aren’t so sure that God’s promise of eternal life in Heaven applies to you anymore, since you haven’t held up your end of the relationship.
If what I’ve described sounds anything like what you’re experiencing, Paul wants you to return to the basics of our faith, which is also the path to the joy of our faith. Let’s begin by looking at this morning’s passage, Philippians 3:1-6.
I’m going to focus our study on verses 1-3 and glance at verses 4-6. Paul points out that what he repeats is a safeguard to the Philippians. In chapter 1, verses 27-28, Paul encouraged the Philippians with these words, "Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you."
The safeguard was against false teaching that entered the Philippi Community Christian Church in the absence of their pastor. The false teachers were probably Judaizers, who were teaching that a right relationship with God through Christ has to first meet the requirements of the Jewish laws, including circumcision.
In Genesis 17, God made a covenant with Abraham to be his God, and Abraham and all his descendents and their households would be God’s chosen people to demonstrate God’s goodness to all the other nations. The sign of those who belong to this covenant is circumcision. All male descendents of Abraham and their households, who are eight days old, would be circumcised to indicate they are among God’s chosen people.
By the time of Paul, circumcision no longer was a sign of an intimate relationship between the Jews and God, but this practice became a requirement in order to have an intimate relationship with God. This was an abuse of God’s original intent. Paul called the Judaizers dogs, evildoers and mutilators of the flesh, because they had turned God’s circumcision into a requirement for a right relationship with God.
Someone tells about a wealthy man’s wife, who was dying. She was a very wise lady, and her last wish was to have a portrait of her painted. But she wanted the painter to paint a tremendously large diamond ring on her finger. The diamond on that ring, if it had been real, would have cost more than the husband’s entire fortune.
Soon after she died, her husband got engaged to a young girl half his age. Before she would marry him, she required that he give her the diamond ring she saw in the painting of his wife.
The diamond ring, in American culture, is a sign of an existing intimate relationship moving toward marriage. But when the ring becomes a requirement for a relationship to move toward marriage, wisdom would suggest you don’t have a right and healthy relationship.
In the same way, the Judaizers turned the sign into a requirement when they required the Christians at Philippi Community Christian Church to be circumcised in order to have a right relationship with God. Paul responds to the false teaching by returning circumcision to its proper place, as a sign of a right relationship with God and not a requirement for a right relationship with God. In fact, Paul points out how he possessed all the outward signs of a right relationship with God, but he warns the Philippians that outward signs are not guarantees for relational and inward realities.
Just because you smile and say you’re fine on Sunday morning, doesn’t mean you didn’t argue with your kids or your spouse all the way from your home to church this morning. Just because you serve in the church or know the Christian terms doesn’t mean that you are in God’s will or you are growing in godly wisdom. And just because you carry a Bible and attend Church does not obligate God to forgive your sins and give you eternal life in Heaven.
This morning, Paul gives us two basic keys for a right and healthy relationship with God that leads to joy in that relationship. If we apply these two basic keys to the way we relate to God, joy will once again replace boredom, worry and anxiety.
The first key for a right and healthy relationship with God that leads to joy is to worship God by the Spirit of God. We find this in verse 3.
Most of us believe that we worship God in a location or with outward actions. We don’t say that’s what we believe, but our emotional reaction would suggest the following. Church is where we worship God. Singing, listening to a message and giving of our money and service is how we worship God. But God is Spirit, how can He be contained in a building or how can He benefit from our singing or our listening to His Word being taught? How can God benefit from our money or our service? After all, God, by definition, has not needs.
The church attendance and the various actions are the signs or outlets for our response to God. Because we are both physical and spiritual beings, we respond to God in worship through physical means as well. Worship of God without outward physical expression would be incomplete. Jesus said that if we keep quiet, even the stones will cry out to praise God. We are told to love God with all of our heart, with all of our soul, with all of our mind and with all of our strength.
I’ve encouraged individuals and the congregation as a whole not to come to church when you are sick, but I’ve never encouraged you not to worship God when you are sick. Worshipping God when you are sick may be one of the best things you can do for recovery. Nevertheless, there is Christ’s special presence when we gather together in His name that you won’t experience when you worship alone, but you can still have a joyful heart. Most of the time, we lose our joy when we confuse coming to a location with worshipping God.
Quiet times in prayer, studying and applying God’s words to life are outlets for expressing worship to God. Giving financially and serving through the church are also outlets for our expression of worship. But when we confuse our outlets for expression with our inward desire to worship God, our expression no longer brings us joy.
When we don’t have the inward desire to worship God, outlets become burdens. And burdens over time become boredom or barriers to true worship. Prayer moves from two lovers sharing their joys and sorrows with each other to an individual reading off a shopping list of needs and wants to God. Studying and applying God’s words to life move from reading a love letter from God with wisdom for enjoying life to reading a list of dos and don’ts from an unwanted and irrelevant Book. Giving financially and serving through the church move from opportunities of partnering with God in demonstrating His love to the world to obligations for sacrificing our possessions and time.
Three men were carving stones on the sidewalk. When the first one was asked what he was doing, he replied, "Can’t you see I’m chipping away at a rock?" When the second person was asked what he was doing, he replied, "I’m working to provide for my family." When the third person was asked what he was doing, he beamed and replied, "I’m building a cathedral in honor of my God."
We worship God not by obligation, not by tradition, but by the Spirit of God. I’m not suggesting that we let our feelings determine whether we pray, study the Bible, give financially or serve. In fact, when we pray, study the Bible, give and serve, we are more likely to encounter God because these are the avenues He chooses to reveal Himself. What I am suggesting is that if you do these things, and you don’t experience the expected joy of encountering God, you may want to check if you have confused the outlets or avenues with the true worship of God.
The second key for a right and healthy relationship with God that leads to joy is to glory in Christ. We also find this in verse 3.
To glory in Christ means to give Christ the credit and to trust Him to be sufficient in restoring our relationship with God. We were able to experienced tremendous joy when we first received Christ because the burden of being right with God was no longer on us. We no longer needed to do the impossible, to bridge the gap between a Holy God and our sinful selves. We understood Christ gets the credit for our restored relationship with God and our eternal life in Heaven.
There are only two beliefs about salvation in this world. The first view is that we work to save ourselves, even if the effort is made toward ignoring the need to face God and to be accountable to Him in the end. The second view is that we can’t save ourselves, and unless God reaches down to save us, we would never be able to be restored to Him. Christians hold the second view, which is the reason for trusting Christ and glorying in Christ.
Yet, whether because of false teaching or false observations, many of us come up with a different conclusion over time. We say we trust Christ to be sufficient for our right standing before God now and at the final judgment, but when we fail to live up to God’s standards, we go back to making our own effort to impress God or to persuade God to accept us. Or in some cases, we play God, and we punish ourselves with destructive behaviors or horrible guilt trips.
After all, that’s what we observe taking place in our human relationships. When we don’t live up to our teachers’ standards, we have to make up the work or fail to move ahead. When we don’t live up to our parents’ standards, we lose their affection and we feel guilty. When we don’t live up to our employer’s standards, we receive a reprimand, or we are fired. And the months and years of relating in this way with one another leads us to inaccurately conclude that these human responses to failure are the same response to our failing God.
Yet, God is saying to us, "What are you doing? Don’t you know, don’t you remember that you trusted in Christ? You don’t need to rely on your flesh or your moral, mental and physical achievements. If you could restore our relationship in the first place, I wouldn’t have sent my Son to die on a cross for your failures!"
And so we lose our joy and regain our guilt and anxiety, until by God’s grace, we come to our senses and glory in Christ, not putting any confidence in our fleshly efforts or achievements. Sometimes our pride will cause us to trust in ourselves rather than rely on the finished work of Christ on the cross. Michel Quoist, a French priest, understood the power of pride to keep a fallen man down. These were the words of his prayer and his reflection on God’s response:
"I have fallen, Lord, once more.
I can’t go on; I’ll never succeed.
I am ashamed; I don’t dare look at you...."
And the Lord answered:
"Come, child, look up.
Isn’t it mainly your vanity that is wounded?
If you love me, you would grieve, but you would also trust....
Ask my pardon and get up quickly.
You see, it’s not falling that is the worst,
But staying on the ground!"
A father caught his 10-year old son smoking. The father told his son that if his son ever did that again, he would belt him three times on his rear. Like most of us, the son soon gave into the temptation again, and the father caught him smoking a second time.
The father sent his son to his room. An hour later, the father made his way to the son’s room and asked if his son would like to join the family for dessert.
As the family enjoyed the dessert together, the father explained, "Son, I said if you smoked again, I would give you three smacks across the rear. You only got sent to your room; that is mercy. The ice-cream you are having now is grace."
If we got what we deserved, we would all be dead. The fact that we are alive even though we have sinned against a Holy God is the result of God’s mercy. And if our relationship with God depended on our own effort, we would not even have the chance of a snail at Doug Lee’s home during dinnertime. (Doug loves to eat snails.) The fact that we can have a right and healthy relationship with God through Christ is the result of God’s grace.
We didn’t earn it, but we need it. And it’s ours to take home.