What is the most important thing to you? Maybe you’ve heard this kind of thing before, but if you’re house was on fire, what would you save? I mean, other than your family, and your pets, what would you try to take with you?
Here in Hurricane season, I wonder how many people have been forced to make that very decision. Hurricane Florence forced a million plus people to evacuate. I thought about those people deciding what to take with them. And of course, I wonder about those who chose to “ride it out.” What were the worldly possessions for which they willing to risk their lives?
With modern weather forecasting, with weather satellites, hurricane planes, and computer models, people have a lot more time to think about such things. So they have a lot more time to consider what’s most important to them, and what they want to save. But I don’t know, maybe having more time to think about it makes that kind of decision more difficult. Maybe it’s less complicated when it’s the kind of split second kinds of decisions that have to made in a house fire.
Ok, so I’ve given you a few moments to think about it. What would you save? What if the decision came on you suddenly? What if you had days to think about it? Would that make a difference? What would it be? Photographs? Bank accounts? How about the wads of cash you have stashed under your mattress? What would you take? What is most important to you in this life?
I asked my family that question when we were at the shore this week. “Just imagine,” I said, “Hurricane Morty (or Hurricane Billy-Bob) is bearing down on you. What would you take?” They said things like their computer, their banking documents, their pictures and mementos, maybe their valued collections of things they couldn’t replace.
What about you? What would you take? And would it make a difference if it were a house fire. You wake up suddenly to smoke and confusion, and you need to get out immediately. What do you grab? My family said things. Like their phone, their dogs, and their shoes. My sister said her glasses, so she could see to get out.
The reason I ask all of that, is that in this part of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, I believe he’s asking us to make the same kind of decisions. Here, he’s contrasting what the world thinks is important to what God thinks is important.
What is it that this world values the most? Tony Campolo once said that the three things of greatest importance in this world are “Wealth, Power, and Prestige.” Do you think he’s right? In this passage, Paul was thinking more along the lines of the latter of those two things – power and prestige. In a sense, he was asking “What peopleare the most important?” Who holds the most power or prestige in our world?
I think that’s a great question. Who are the people who are thought of as being those of greatest importance? Think about it. If “the big one” was about to drop, who do you think should be saved? (Maybe it will help to think about who gets paidthe most money!) Who would it I be? Government leaders? Industry leaders? Celebrities? Sports figures? The wealthy? Who would it be? I’m pretty sure on 9/11 I saw Air Force One flying over Kansas. That’s the President’s immediate place of safety. I”m sure there are plans in place to preserve our governments in times of crisis. That’s seen as being pretty important!!
Well, in Paul’s day, the people with the most influence and importance, the greatest power and prestige in people’s lives – other than the Romans – were their religious leaders. And that actually continued for a long time. Even through the Middle Ages, even though the world leaders and the kings of various regions were considered to the hold greatest power, it was the religious leaders, the clergy, who held a lot of power and influence. I’ve heard it said that, up until the Renaissance, if a person was educated and learned, they went into the clergy. After the Renaissance, the most learned and educated people went into the sciences and teaching and what became the “professions.”
I’m afraid to say, us “religious leader types” aren’t seen as having the importance they once had. But in Paul’s day, they did! So when Paul gives this description of himself, he was saying a lot about his former importance. “If any other man thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more! I was circumcised on the eighth day, 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.”
Those were impressive things to Paul’s readers! Those were things they would have seen as being very important in their world. Paul, or should I say Saul, would have been seen as a person of importance and influence in their world. That’s why I believe it was very hard for a lot of people during Jesus’ ministry! Because Jesus challenged the Pharisees. He stood in opposition to them. And for those people, those Pharisees, those religious leaders, were some of the most influential people in their lives!
Well, Paul is saying, “I was all that!” “I had the power and the prestige” (And probably the wealth, too!!) “But!” he says, “whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.“ And notice, this was notjust a matter of, “Here’s what I gave up.” “Here’s what I sacrificed.” No. He’s pretty clear about that. He’s saying, “Those things are well and good. But in comparison, thisis what’s reallyimportant.”
That’s it! This is a comparison. This is perspective. This is a determination about the relative importance of things. So this isn’t about diminishing the importance of things of this life. It’s about trying to get perspective on them. And that’s a hard one for us. We sometimes get caught up in the importance of “things” and we have a hard time seeing their relativeimportance. Our perspective gets “out off whack!”
Did you ever have one of those times as a parent when one of your kids has something that belongs to the other, something the other hasn’t played with, or even thought about in a long time, but at that momentthey must have it? Maybe you even heard then shout that irritating word, “Mine!!”
Aren’t we all like that at times? Don’t we all have times when “hang on to things?” Don’t we have times when weyell, “Mine!” And don’t you think our Heavenly Father cringes – just like wedid when wewere the parent? Don’t we all have times when we’ve lost the ability to see the relative importance of things. And there are a lot of reasons for that. There are so many “things” in our world that demand our attention. They try to tell us theyare the most important! I know that feeling, too. Just joking about it, I sometimes say, “I’m going to the store to see if there’s something I didn’t know existed, but I can’t live without!”
That’s what Paul is saying here, and I believe he’s using “hyperbole” – exaggeration to make a point. What he’s saying isn’t so much that we are to diminish the importance of things in this world, but ratherwe are to raisethe importance of the things of God’s kingdom above them – wayabove them!
Think about it. This life God gave us is pretty amazing! As tough as things can be, sometimes – and it can be! – still, the living, breathing, seeing, loving, sharing… It’s all amazing! And I hope we see it that way! I hope we stop and give thanks for this life, because that helpsus to see how amazing it is!! But as amazing as this life is, as important as things and even people are to us – when we really stop and take stock – there’s more! And that “more” is so much more! It is so much more, that Paul said he “counted it all as loss for the sake of Christ!!” That’s how great Christ and his kingdom is!!
I’m not sure a lot of people know that. I’m not sure Iknow it often enough. You really have to stop and think about it. Life and its wonders – or life and its woes – will grab your focus. It will lock your vision into what’s now, what’s in front of you, what your experiencing at any given moment.
Of course, the trick is to be focused on the good. Paul knew that, too. In a few weeks, we’re going to read, “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8) He would tell us to “Look for and encourage the best in people, as opposed to looking for and criticizing the worst.”
That’s important. But the trick is also- and maybe most importantly – to step back from the now, the immediate, and to think of eternity. It is to know, as I said a few weeks ago, that we are primarily spiritual beings, not physical. The physical beings we see and feel and are“now,” are only for three score and ten years – or four score, or five score. But the spiritualexistence – if we believe in that – is much longer!. And, as Paul would tell us, thatpart is much more glorious!!
That which is important now – power, prestige, wealth – are nothingin comparison. And I’m not saying we should do away with them. I’m not saying we should see them as something less than they are – especially the people part of this life! We need to see their importance more and more! What I amsaying – and Paul is saying – is that we should learn, and continue to learn, that God’s kingdom is even greaterthan any wealth, any importance, any status, we may have in this life.
And notice – “continue to learn” is important in what I just said. Getting perspective on things in this life is a lifetime’s learning. We can’t learn that in a day. (Unless by that we mean everyday!) It’s something that grows in us, if we let it. So, I encourage you to wake up every day, take a deep breath, and strive to know the God who gives you that breath. Know that what you have and what you know and what’s important to you is all a gift. And appreciate that as a gift. Hold each person you see each day as precious, a unique, creation of God. Know that, no matter what happens that day, good or ill, that God’s kingdom is greater, and that youare God’s people!
Eternal God, maker of all things, we rejoice in this life you have given us. Help us to appreciate what we have, and help us to see the beauty in all of your creation, even your unique creation in those around us. Help us to grow in the perspective of your kingdom, this and every day. For we pray in Jesus’ name, and for the sake of his kingdom, Amen