Summary: A new year’s challenge to faithfulness

As many of you know, I don’t follow sports teams closely. And football is not my favorite sport, but I do try to find out who is playing in some of the bowls on New Year’s weekend. This year I heard that Ohio State would play in the Fiesta Bowl, not in the Rosebowl where they would like to have played. They lost 2 games this past season so they ended up in 7th place playing Kansas State. But that was better than what happened 4 years ago when they didn’t even make it to a bowl play off.

What has happened since that low point? According to Jim Naveau in the Lima News, the team has changed its image and its attitude. It has gone from a team that couldn’t win to one that expected to win. One of the players said, “We’ve made the standards so high that not playing for a national championship is looked at as disappointing. Expectations have been raised. Winning the national championship is a realistic goal every year.” Those players have learned what it takes to be on the winning team.

When Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, he urged them toward “the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” He wanted them to be on the winning team.

The image he used was not that of a football game, but that of a race, possibly a foot race. You can see in your minds’ eye the runner, feet pounding the track, leaning into the wind, going flat out for the tape across the finish line. That is the way Paul wanted the Philippian church to run. And that is the way we are to run.

If we are going to press on, there are three things we need to do. First, we need to look forward. Those of you in sports understand that you must look forward toward the goal, not behind you to see who is coming. You know that you can’t waste time or energy looking back. You must keep your eyes on the prize. You know that just because you won the last race doesn’t mean you will win this one. You can’t rest on your accomplishments.

Paul wanted the Philippian church to under-stand that followers of Christ must forget what they have done and remember only what they have to do. Paul’s words here are all goal oriented. “I press on.” “Strain forward.” The references to the past are just that – things to let go of, to release.

Some people get stuck in the past. Maybe they have achieved well and because they have done better than someone else they aren’t motivated to go beyond that.

Warren Wiersbe (The Bible Exposition Commentary, Vol. 2) tells the story of Harry, a salesman who came out of the manager’s office with a dismal look on his face.

“You didn’t get fired, did you?” the secretary asked.

“No, it’s not that bad. But he sure did lay into me about my sales record. I’ve brought in lots of orders. I thought he would compliment me, but instead he told me to get with it.”

Later the secretary talked to the boss about Harry. He chuckled and said, “Harry is one of our best salesmen and I’d hate to lose him. But he has a tendency to rest on his laurels and be satisfied with his performance. If I didn’t get him mad at me once a month, he’d never produce.”

Some Christians compare themselves with others and stop trying. They think they are good enough. Paul compares himself with Christ. He knows he has not yet arrived at complete maturity. “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal,” he says.

Some churches get satisfied with themselves, too. Maybe they have celebrated their centennial. Maybe they have welcomed new members or installed a new bathroom or sent a bunch of kids to camp. Does that mean they have achieved all that God wants them to? Paul wanted the Philippians to know that they needed to press on. They couldn’t rest on what they had done, no matter how good it was, and neither can we.

Some people get hung up on their past failures and bad experiences. Maybe a relationship has gone sour. Maybe their finances have gone down the tube. Maybe they have made bad choices and they have trouble forgiving others or forgiving themselves.

The wonderful thing about God is that he is the God of a second chance. What happened yesterday doesn’t have to determine what happens tomorrow. If Paul had dwelt on what he used to be, he would never have become what he was.

If this congregation only considered where we have been rather than what we can become, some of you might not be here today. All of us have experienced discouragement. We pass out flyers and no one responds. We see opportunities but we don’t have the resources to take them on. But you know what? God’s adequacy is more important than our inadequacies. And we press on toward the goal that Christ has placed in front of us.

2. If we are going to press on, we need to be singleminded. Some of you know that if you are going to succeed in sports, you need to focus your efforts. If you are going to do your best in that race or that game, you need to set aside your worries about your grades or the squabble you had with a friend, or who you are going to take to the prom. Those things will distract you.

Paul said, “This one thing I do…” Single-mindedness is to do one thing. Last spring I retired from teaching so I could focus more energy on the church. Since then, I have been surprised at the number of requests I have had to say no to. Several times people and organizations have come to me to ask if I would do this or that and in most cases I had to say, “Sorry, that does not fit into my goals at the present time.”

I believe with all my heart that the local church is the hope of the world and that God has called us to build A vibrant, diverse congregation of people who have purposed together to continue the work of Jesus by exercising their spiritual gifts and sharing their financial resources for ministry in His name.

That is the singleminded purpose for which I live. And if you are like I am, you pray for this church. You give your time for this church. You give your money. You give your life. The ministry of this congregation is never far from your thoughts. You have internalized its mission. You identify with its purposes. As a result, you prioritize your life differently from people around you. And if you need to re-evaluate your priorities, your stewardship, your service, this is a great time to do it. I urge you to get into conversation with God about the ministries he wants you to carry out in 2004.

3. Because, in order to press on, we need to keep eternity in view. When Paul talks about the prize, he has in mind an eternal reward. We are not in this race for personal fame or financial gain. We don’t run this race to please the crowd, but to obtain the crown that Christ himself will present to those who are faithful.

Bill Hybels, in his book Courageous Leadership, (p. 249) uses this illustration. He has a sailboat and every summer his sailing crew and he have to deliver his sailboat by water to various harbors around the great lakes for regattas. Some of them are a long ways away. Sometimes he runs into storms along the way. And more than once he has wondered if he was going to make it.

But then he reminds himself of another pers-pective. Bill got his pilot’s license as a teenager and has flown across Lake Michigan often. Flying across the lake gives quite a different perspective. If you are up high enough you can see the entire lake. So when he is on a boat on Lake Michigan in ugly conditions, he tries to put himself in a pilot’s perspective. He says to himself, “From up here the other coastline is already visible. From up here the harbor is in clear view. The waves appear manageable.”

He says, “Believe it or not, with that viewpoint in mind, I can hang in there. I can keep going. I can believe that I’m going to make it, providing I persevere. But I need that other perspective to give me hope and renewed determination.”

Heroic Christians throughout history have looked at the difficulty of their short-term struggles against the backdrop of eternity. Paul said in 2 Cor. 4 “For the light, momentary afflictions that we bear are producing in us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison.” Paul is suggesting that when the difficulties of life appear overwhelming we need to think more like pilots than like sailors. We need to look at the waves from above them rather than in them.

And what were Paul’s light momentary afflictions? “I have been afflicted, confused, persecuted, hunted down, threatened to be killed for the cause of Christ.” But, he says, “I will not lose heart.”

We may face hard times personally. We walk in the midst of challenges as a congregation, but if we have the right perspective, we can endure.

Paul wrote in I Cor. 15 “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain if it is in the Lord.” Paul is saying, “Decide in advance that you will press on, always looking forward. Decide in advance that you will press on with singleminded devotion. Decide in advance that you will press on, keeping eternity in view.”

We don’t know what opportunities and challenges we will be faced with in this new year, but this is the time to decide that we will press on.

Sue and I know we don’t have all the answers, but we have been called to lead the congregation. We regularly take time out to pray, to consider where we are going as a congregation, and to ask God where He wants us to go. We share ideas and hammer on those nuts that seem hard to crack. And your church board takes time to pray every time they meet, not just at the beginning and the end, but at other times as necessary.

I believe that God is asking this congregation to look forward, to be singleminded, and to keep eternity in view. Today I’m asking you to join Sue and me in pressing on through 2004. I’m asking you to recommit yourself to continuing the work of Jesus as God enables us as a congregation by signing our covenant and placing it in the offering..