In ten days, America will vote for the future of our country. Some of you are nervous about who will win and what that will mean. Others have given up caring because they believe no matter who wins nothing will really change. Whatever happens on November 3rd Paul letter reminds us that we don’t have to let that steal our joy which God has given to us in Christ Jesus.
It’s not been easy for Paul to know Christ and live out the power of his resurrection. He has been beaten more times than he can count, he’s been arrested, ridiculed, shipwrecked, and now he sits in prison awaiting what will be his death sentence. In spite of all this, Paul presses on. “Forgetting what is behind him and straining towards what is ahead…the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” This is similar to the “running a race” analogy that Paul used in another letter to encourage the Christians in Corinth to “Run in such a way as to take the prize.” (1 Cor. 9:24)
I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back. ~ Philippians 3:12-14 (MSG)
As a kid I used to run sprints, which meant I ran at full speed for just a short distance. I was pretty good, and won a lot of blue ribbons to show off. If you’ve ever run like this, you know that going at a breakneck speed will only take you so far. You run out of track as quickly as you run out of gas.
I believe Paul is telling us that we need to train for the long haul. Like a marathon runner who pushes through the pain by visualizing and staying focused on finish line. As Christ followers, this doesn’t mean we look only towards the rewards of heaven when we die.
Running is an active sport that requires us to be very present in the moment. If you run on the street, you have to be mindful of the traffic. If you run on trail there is the uneven ground, rocks and other obstacles to look out for. Faith is the same. We live it here, in the present where there are many challenges to face. Christ has called us to be mindful in the world if we are to live out the gospel in such a way that people get a glimpse of God in their lives.
We also need to be faithfully present because this is where God meets us to strengthen and encourage us beyond the sprint - to go the distance to where the fullness of God’s glory is reveal to us.
After a 35 year hiatus I took up running again. Only this time with a slower pace and a more purposeful goal of going longer distances. Although I never run as far as I’d like, I still I press on...pushing myself to reach smaller goals I’ve set for myself.
There are days when it’s hard to breathe or too easy for my legs give out. I have a choice, I can allow myself to stop (which sometimes I do) or I summon the strength to press onward. On those days when I have to stop and walk home the joy is sucked right out of me. But on those days I push on, when I come running down the alley, panting and sweating in full stride, I fully rejoice because I made it home alive.
Through his struggles, the pain and anguish that Paul endured, he kept his eye focused on the goal; running a spiritual race totally committed to winning the prize. Paul could have given up, dismayed that he hasn’t yet reached his goal. But he knew that this isn’t a foot race or a presidential race. It’s a holy race. One where God is always a step ahead leading the way to the finish line.
As the psalmist once said, “The signposts of GOD are clear and point out the right road. The life-maps of GOD are right, showing the way to joy.”
Paul has a reason to rejoice. There’s holiness in his dissatisfaction because, as Tom Holliday pointed out, “God is making stuff happen... even in our times of wait.”
While Jesus was in a tomb for three days, God was busy changing the order of the entire world through his mysterious resurrection. Leaning into the power of Christ’s resurrection, Paul rejoiced knowing God was working on the signs that will point him to the finish line.
Whatever trials we are facing we can rejoice too by looking forward to the goal Christ has set before us. Take a moment to think about what has God placed in front of you to help you push our faith onward and upward towards Christ. Maybe it’s a person you’re angry with or don’t see eye-to-eye. Maybe it’s a situation that is difficult too handle. In those moments, you must never lose sight of what God is working out in and through you. God is always one step ahead.
Now, when I run I look for certain visual markers, like traffic lights and streets, that let me know how far I’ve gone or how much further I need to go. For example, the last mile of my run is often on a beautiful tree lined street. No matter on how far I’ve gone that day, I always narrow my focus on this small beige square in the distance - the wall of an apartment complex near my house. When my breathing becomes harder, and my legs throw a temper tantrum, I focus on that square, knowing the bigger it becomes the closer I am to ending the pain and suffering that I have imposed on myself.
Paul encourages his friends in Philippi to keep their eyes set on something – the everlasting joy of being forever with Christ. With Christ in our sights, we can keep living out the gospel knowing it only brings us closer and closer to our goal. The more Paul remained focused on that prize the easier it was for him to find joy and rejoice...even in his own pain and suffering.
The same is true for us. In the most difficult of circumstances, Paul committed to the race by committing to Christ. So should we. These three verses provide us with a good reminder of why we are running this race in the first place.
If we choose to follow Christ with heaven as our prize, then we have commit to live a heavenly life here and now...one that mirrors Christ. We must be committed to the race of ... giving people a glimpse of good living and the living God.
Yet we have to also remain very present in this moment where the world has its sights set on knocking us down, leaving us to feel dismayed and dissatisfied.
Think about how hard you strive to do the right thing while constantly battling pushback from others. It can be frustrating and make you want to give up. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to quit and walk away. But we can’t. We have to keep running the race.
Maybe you feel unsatisfied with your faith journey because you feel like you’re doing nothing more than running on hamster wheel, going nowhere. You struggle to live into your Christ-likeness, and yet still heaven feels so far away.
No matter how hard you work for peace and justice and equality, people continue to hate and harm one another. No matter how much time you give at the food pantry, how many bags of groceries you put together or how much money you raise, people are still going hungry in your community. Yet, we have to keep running the race.
Remember what I said at the beginning of this sermon series...when life kicks the joy out of you, God kicks it back in. God is working for our victory. So let us not to lose hope, but instead rejoice knowing this is a spiritual journey, a holy marathon. It’s a divine race where God is one step ahead of us being victorious with and in and through you.
By allowing God to be present in us, we receive God’s trophy, the prize of Christ. And so we have to keep running the race. Because we’re not running for our glory but so that the glory of God may be seen in us.
Paul had a heart to honor God’s glory, it was the goal he focused on. A goal so great that not even imprisonment or death would stop his commitment to running that race and moving closer to Christ. Thus, Paul rejoiced constantly.
Tom Holliday wrote, “Paul pressed on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called him. He had a visionary commitment and the vision wasn’t based on what he could do. Paul’s commitment was based on the understanding of Christ’s vision for his life.”
I believe God has a specific purpose for your life. So keep running the race. I believe you’ve been called for something greater. But you have to keep running for it to be constantly revealed to you. You may not see it yet, and you may not believe you’re experiencing it right now, but never forget that God is one step ahead preparing the way for your victory.
Stay focused on the goal. Stay committed to it like Paul did. If only because God is focused on and committed to you.
One last thing for us to remember. Joy is not automatic. It is a discipline, a daily choice we must make faithfully. We have practice it and exercise it so we can build up the spiritual muscles and endurance we need to find joy in all circumstances .
This is especially true at the end of life’s race when we lean in and bust through the tape at the finish line - completing the race and claiming our prize of our divine belovedness in Christ.
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”