Exodus 32:7-14, Philippians 3:4-14
October 12, 2008
“I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Those are words of Paul to the Church in Philippi. And I would start today with the question I often reserve for the end of my message. Do we do that? Do we press on toward that goal?
That’s what I want us to think about today. And here again, this is one of those little phrases that I like to give you. I like to give you things that are easy to remember, and at the same time challenging. So, when you go home, put that one on your refrigerator! Maybe we should have a little tear off section of the bulletin. Or maybe a small insert with those words “Press on.” That way they can be easily removed and posted with a magnet!
In the meantime, think about that. Do you have that attitude in your faith? Do you “press on toward the Goal.” That’s the theme for our Stewardship campaign this year. And we’re going to be hearing more about it in that regard. But today I’d like us to think about it in terms of our life of faith. What does it mean to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
First of all, when I think about this phrase “pressing on,” I get the impression that it has to do with the word “perseverance.” So I looked up that word. And I was surprised to find that the word perseverance has a lot to do with things of faith. Several of the definitions actually used religious references! One even mentioned the teachings of John Calvin! (So in a way, the word perseverance is a Presbyterian word!)
Let me read you the first definition I found. Perseverance is defined as: “Steady and continued action or belief, usually over a long period of time, and especially despite difficulties or setbacks.” That’s exactly what I would have said. When I’ve thought of the word perseverance, I’ve often thought in terms of “persevering in times of difficulty.”
Just the other day, I was saying how sometimes when people think of how strong their faith is, it’s often related to how well things are going in their lives. Isn’t that true? Do we not tend to think of our faith as strong, when life is good? Do we not think at such times that we are being blessed by God in some way? We’ve talked about that before. But look at the witness of Saint Paul. He was imprisoned. He was persecuted. He was beaten. He was stoned. And it would be an understatement to say that things weren’t going so well for him. But as he said himself, he learned to be content in all circumstances. And he and the other Apostles learned even to be joyful – no matter what!
Now, I know there are people in our congregation who are hurting. I know that for some of you, things aren’t going well. In fact, for some it seems as though things just keep going wrong! But please know, and please hear me very plainly on this. The strength of our faith is not related to how well things are going – or not going! And(!) having good circumstances in our lives has never been a prerequisite for having joy in the Lord! “Rejoice in all times!” That’s what Paul would tell us!
Let me tell you something else I’ve heard many times in various church I’ve served. Sometimes people have said this. “I was going through a rough time, so I thought it would be better if I didn’t come to Church.” Folks, let me tell you. That’s exactly when we should be coming to Church. Church is a supporting community. It is a place to bring our burdens so that they can be shared, and it is a place where we can get the rest Jesus promised, and take his yoke upon us. Because his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Remember in that verse it doesn’t say, “Come unto me all you who are always joyful.” It says, “Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden.” (Matthew 11:29-30)
Now I know there’s a certain “embarrassment factor.” Sometimes the circumstances are such that we’re embarrassed to be around our friends. But let me tell you, if we can get past that, if we will remember and trust that this is a forgiving and gracious community. If we can get to the point that we can know that there is grace and acceptance here – and when we all learn to be gracious and accepting – then we will know that there is great comfort in this community! And this will be the place to come even when – and especially when – we are hurting!!
Ok. That’s the first thing. Pressing on means perseverance. The next thing “pressing on” has to do with is growth. When we press on, we strive to move “higher” in our faith. We look to the goal of the upward calling of God. We seek to move closer to what I’ve called that “Higher Level” of living. We strive to grow in our ability to be more gracious, more heart-felt, more loving, more Christ-like, in our thoughts and words and actions. That’s so important.
As God’s people, we shouldn’t let ourselves fall into the trap many people do, when they resign themselves to the attitude of “this is the best I can do.” “This is as good as it gets.” “Don’t ask me to go any further.” I’m sorry folks, but as God’s people, that won’t do! As your pastor, I will continually ask you to do better. I will urge you to grow, to move “Farther up,” as C. S. Lewis often said. I may even point out where you’re stuck, and where you need to consider some additional growth! And I pray that you’ll understand when I do that.
The last thing I’d like to say about “pressing on” is that we recognize that faith is not just an upward journey. It is an onward journey. It’s not a matter of “learning the faith,” and then settling down, immovable. Faith is about moving forward. We keep walking, we keep going forward with the purpose of arriving we arrive at a destination. And we keep going no matter how hard the circumstances, on our knees if necessary! And, that is the best attitude – the attitude of prayer!
This life and the life of faith can be and often is hard! Sometimes we will feel like we’ve “hit a wall.” Let me tell you, that in distance running circles, that’s an actual expression. “Hitting the wall” has to do with that time in a long race where your regular energy stores are used up. You’ve been cruising along with the normal aches and pains and the general fatigue associated with a long race, and then “wham!” Hitting the wall feels just like it sounds. You’re whooped. You’re done! You feel like you can’t run another step!
I hit the wall badly only two times. Once time it was when I was in the Chicago Marathon. I was trying to break my own personal record that day, and I got in with a pacing group. A pacing group is a group that’s led by a runner who is good at running at a speed that will take him to the finish line in a certain desired time. Often there are several pacing groups. And the idea is to get in with group that’s going to finish the race in the time you want. Maybe that’s four hours, or three and a half hours, etc… And you a get special number to wear on your back. It’s very cool.
Well, I got in with the three hour group, which was a pretty fast group. And I kept up with that group for about 19 miles. And then I “hit the wall.” To this day I still describe that experience, that devastated state I was in, by saying that I saw Elvis in south Chicago – and he was beating me!! But, I kept going. That meant speed walking, trotting, stopping and starting again, whatever I had to do to get to the finish line! (I actually ended up with my third best time ever, which shows how well I had been doing before I hit that wall!)
Well, sometimes in our spiritual lives, we feel like that. We feel like we’ve got nothing left! Things have been so tough, and we feel like we’ve been “through the mill.” Or maybe we feel like we’ve strayed from God so far that it really doesn’t matter how we live. Because we feel like it’s all a sham. Well, Paul is telling us that in those times we need to keep going! We need to tough it out. We need to persevere. We need to press on! We need to keep our “eyes on the prize” – the prize of the upward calling, and we need to keep our feet moving. And we need to encourage others when they’re going through the same kind of tough times.
Let me tell you about the other time I hit the wall hard. It was in Boston in 1999. I hadn’t had enough time to train that year. And in the Boston Marathon there’s one set of hills famously known as “Heartbreak Hill” It goes for about two and a half miles and it comes at around 18 miles. That’s just about the time people’s energy levels are starting to run low. Normally I like running the hills. But this day, my lower energy reserves really showed, and by the time I got through Heartbreak I was done! I hit that wall! And I still had 6 miles to go!
Well, as I walked along the crowd-lined streets, people were cheering me on, encouraging me to tough it out. But I was still walking! Then, all of a sudden, a woman stepped off the curb and came over to me. She was about 25-30 years old, and she was fairly nicely dressed. She was wearing a nice jacket, pressed pants, and nice shiny shoes. And she got beside me and said, “Here, run with me.” There she was dressed nicely, running along Boylston Street. So I did too. I can’t tell you what an encouragement that was to have her run beside me for, I don’t know, maybe a couple hundred yards. To this day, I know I couldn’t have run again, if she just shouted encouragement. But coming out of the crowd and running with me was what made all the difference for me at that moment. I still hurt. I was still beat. But I ran, where I wouldn’t have otherwise!
Don’t we do that for each other, too? We step outside of our “comfort zone” to reach out to each other with encouragement and fellowship in times of difficulty. We come alongside one another – not in condescension, not in sympathy, “oh isn’t it sad,” but in fellowship – when fellowship is needed. That’s why, whenever we think to ourselves that our attendance at church event is not important, we couldn’t be more wrong! We need to know that others need us! Yes we are in that “great cloud of witnesses.” But sometimes we need to step out of the crowd and come alongside someone and show them that we’re willing to take the road with them. We may not be prepared. We may not even be appropriately dressed! We may be in street clothes when running clothes would be more appropriate! But we step out of that crowd anyway, and go along beside someone.
That’s why we are in churches together, and we don’t just watch church on TV. We are here for each other! We press on because we know we are not alone! We love and support each other because together we are the body of Christ!
So I end with the question with which I began. Do you press on toward the goal of the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus? Do you persevere? Do you seek to grow closer to God and live at that “higher level?” Do you keep moving forward in this journey called life, no matter what the circumstances? And do you encourage one another?
Eternal God, we thank you for each other. We thank you that we are not alone on this journey through life. We thank you that we can have joy and peace despite the circumstances. Help us to know that you are alongside of us. Help us to know your presence and your peace. Help us to be joyful people no matter what life might bring us. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.