Exodus 20:1-21, Philippians 3:4-16
October 2, 2005
Have you ever been on a carousel – maybe at a carnival or at the Jersey shore? Do any of you remember when they used to put out a long wooden arm loaded with rings? When you came around to that place on your horse, you leaned way out and tried to grab a ring with your finger. And somewhere in the steel rings there was a brass ring. And if you got the brass ring you got a prize. Do you remember doing that?
The last time I saw that happening was on the boardwalk at Ocean City. I don’t know how many years ago. (How many Ocean City-ers do we have here?) I don’t know if they do that any more. They probably aren’t allowed to. Their attorney made them stop, because somebody might fall off a horse and sue! Isn’t it amazing the number of things we used to do that we didn’t know were dangerous to us?
That’s the image I get when I read this passage from Philippians. “…straining forward toward what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” I have the image of leaning out from the horse, reaching toward that arm, straining toward that ring. I think that’s how Paul is describing the life of faith.
For some people, that’s not the case. I want you to think about this, and see if it describes you. For some people, the life of faith has become reserved and complacent. They’ve reached a point where they don’t feel like they need to take “leaps of faith” any more. They feel like they’re done with this idea of “working out their faith with fear and trembling.” They don’t feel like they need to do anything uncomfortable or adventuresome or “dangerous” any more. As far as they’re concerned, they’ve “arrived” in their faith, and they don’t have to be worrying any more about “the journey.” Sometimes they talk about “growing in their faith” but the fact of the matter is, they haven’t done any growing for quite some time. Does that describe you?
Some people are concerned only with the idea of “justification.” Do you know that word, Justification? It’s the word that describes our “being made right with God.” It’s a word that has to do with our “salvation.” It has to do with the grace God gave us through faith that brought us back from when we had strayed from him. It’s a great word! But for the most part, justification is a “one time thing.” Some people can even point to the very day it happened. Maybe you can. And that’s great!
The problem is that some people are stuck there. They’re stuck on justification. All they care about, all they think about, all they seem to ever talk about is that time they came back to God. They got on the train then, but the train never left the station! And they’re justified, their salvation is secure. That’s all well and good. Don’t get me wrong.
But there’s another word we talk about in conjunction with justification. That’s the word “sanctification.” Do you know that one? I remind you of it today. It has within it the word “sanctify.” That comes from the Latin “Sanctus,” meaning “Holy.” When you sanctify something you make it holy. You set it apart for a holy purpose. This is a “sanctuary.” It is a holy place. So “sanctification” means “being made holy.”
I have to interject a little word humor here, ‘cause it’s funny and I think it helps. One time at camp I was asking about a word with the same suffix. I was asking about the word “edification,” which means “to build up.” It contains the word “edify” or it’s similar word “edifice,” which means a building. So I asked the young people if they knew what the word “edification” meant. And I saw a smirk on my daughter Jenny’s face. I said, “Ok, what?” and she said, “Edification is the process of changing your name to ‘Ed’.”
Does that help with understanding sanctification? Unlike justification, then, which is often a one time thing of being made right with God, sanctification is the ongoing “process” of our being made holy. Sanctification is the “growing in faith” part. Sanctification is the “journey” with God. It is the daily struggles we go through to live out our faith. It is the triumphs we have when we reach certain goals. It is the joy we feel when we reach the mountain tops.
The idea is that we are supposed to have sanctification in our lives as well. But sanctification doesn’t happen if we don’t work toward it. I love the Christian experience as Paul tried to explain it to the Ephesians. He said, “It’s not about whether I have already obtained this [goal] or that I am already perfect, but I press on! …I do not consider that I have made it… I work towards it.”
This is Paul speaking. Remember how he started out this chapter. Go back and read it sometime. (Not now!) “If anyone has reason to be confident in faith,” he said, “it’s me.” “I was a good Jew. I was a priest – a Pharisee. I had the right ancestry. I was well respected in my religious community. I even had zeal and enthusiasm when it came to persecuting this new Church that was arising. I thought I was doing God’s work.”
In the Christian understanding, we see him in a similar way. We see him as one of the wisest and most understanding of the faith. He wrote most of the books of the New Testament. He knew it all! If anyone has “arrived” in their faith, it’s this guy. And here he is saying even he wasn’t there! He told them he was inadequate. He called himself “the chief of sinners.” He confessed that sometimes he couldn’t follow his own spiritual advice. He felt like he was still reaching for the goal. He was still straining for the prize. And if Paul, why not us?
If we’re living the life of faith, we will always be called to do things in that life that will “stretch us.” We will be called to do things and to be things that will sometimes be “dangerous.” There might be and their will be things that make us uncomfortable. And we’ll always have some kind of “spiritual board of health” or “legal eagles” telling us to avoid that. They’ll say it’s OK not to take with leaps of faith, because they might cause us to fall down. But that’s not good for us, spiritually. We need to be straining. We need to press on. We need to reach!
The other thing we need to realize is that God doesn’t always prevent us from falling. Eventually, as an infant grows, a parent will let go, and the child will fall. And in the process he will learn balance. And that process continues throughout childhood and adolescence. God does that with us. Like the parent with walking behind the toddler with his arms out ready to help, or like the fearful parent letting go of the adolescent in that adventuresome time of life, God is always with us!
So, we press on. We strain forward. We reach for the prize, confident that God is with us. Let’s strive to do that here. Let us take the steps of faith. Let us reach out from the carousel. Whether it’s listening for the conviction of the Holy Spirit, whether it’s taking a step of faith in the way we support the ministry of the Church, let us be bold in our faith. Let’s grow together. Let’s be on the journey of faith together. That is the upward calling of God.
Eternal God, help us to grow in spite of ourselves. Help us to press on in our faith, stepping out of our own way, taking the sometimes scary step of letting go and letting you work in us. Help us to feel the urging, the prodding, and the peace of the Holy Spirit. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.