Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 13, 2016, St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, Texas
Sermon Text: Philippians 3:8-14
Sermon Theme: “Nobody Is Perfect, So Leave Me Alone!”
(Sources: Brokhoff, Series C, Preaching Workbook; Emphasis Online Commentary; Emphasis Online Illustrations; Anderson’s Cycle C Preaching Workbook; original ideas; Online Funny Christian Jokes; www.goodreads.com)
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
All theologians agree that no one is perfect except God. However, there was one nine year old Sunday School student who did not agree with her teacher’s assurance to the class that God can do everything.
When the child shook her head, the teacher asked her, “OK, so tell me what can’t God do?”
“He can’t please everyone,” came the reply.
While it is true that no one is perfect, except God, and that we are saved by grace through faith alone, not by our own works, spiritual perfection must still be our goal. It would be foolish to think, “Well, I’m saved by grace through faith alone, Jesus gives me His righteousness, so I can just do whatever I please, — sin big, because forgiveness is easy!” I hope no one thinks like that!
It is true, however, that many members of many congregations hold their pastor to a higher level of perfection than they hold themselves to. Recently, a computerized survey taken among numerous congregations turned up some incredible expectations member have of their pastor. When they put together all the things expected of the perfect pastor, these are the results they came up with:
The perfect pastor preaches exactly 12 minutes. He frequently condemns sin, but never upsets anyone. He works from 8 a.m. until midnight and is also janitor for the church. He makes $60 a week, wears nice clothes, buys good books, drives a very nice car, and tithes half his income to the church. He is 28 years old, but he has been preaching for 30 years. He is wonderfully gentle, never stressed out, and always eager to take your advice.
He gives himself completely but never gets too close to anyone to avoid criticism. He speaks boldly on social issues, but never becomes politically involved. He is active in ministry to the teenagers, and spends all his time with senior citizens. He makes 15 daily calls to parish families, visits shut-ins and the hospitalized regularly, spends all his time in evangelism to the unchurched, and is always in his office when needed.
Those were the results of an actual survey. Like God, the pastor must be perfect. Yeah, right!
Many people grew up with an understanding that when we had repented, cleaned up our lives, were measuring up fully, etc., then we could finally be called Christians. Unfortunately, when we were honest with ourselves we knew we never did meet standards. Therefore, we were always making justification. In our sermon text, Paul turns the matter around.
Paul begins where all of us ought to begin. With admission of the truth. Paul knows who and what he is. So do we. And, we are reminded it is okay to admit it. I like what Michael J. Fox said about this, “I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God’s business.”
Of course, we are not meant to just be pious or self-justifying and let it go at that. We are to take the next step and pursue the GOAL of perfection, even though it is always receding, evading us. Paul says of himself in our text, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own.”
More than once, Paul described the Christian life as a foot race, the foot race apparently being his favorite sports event. “Forgetting what lies behind,” Paul continues in our text, “and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
You see, the motive is already there. Jesus has already claimed us, made us His own, and, out of gratitude, we are moved to respond with newness of life.
We must not rest on the good done, or spend all our time regretting the bad. No, we must forget the past and press on. In other words, the GOAL is the “upward call,” says Paul. What does that mean? That means the target is not some locked-in-place, stalled out, goal to be attained so we can sit down and glory in it. There is no resting place; no retirement date set. Forever the call will remain, and that call will require our all, as long as we live.
Some of you may remember from Eleventh Grade English in high school the story of “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The central character is a newly married man who is quite convinced that many in his Puritan community and church, including his wife Faith, are without sin. Some of the others he considered perfect were his pastor, his catechism teacher, the deacons of the church, and his grandfather. He believed these people were so devoted to God in every aspect of their lives that they were spiritually perfect.
Then one evening, Goodman Brown has a walk with the devil and he is shown the reality of those people’s lives. He gets to witness their unspoken secrets, their pettiness, and the offenses they committed against others. This shocking revelation causes Goodman to realize that even the best Christians, with the best intentions, are never completely without sin, no one except God is perfect, — an awareness which overshadowed the rest of his life.
Saint Paul tells us that Christians are not to brag about their character traits or good deeds of the past, but to remember that “he who is faithful unto death will receive the crown of life.” As a popular saying goes, “It’s not over until it’s over.”
Paul assures us that the past is to be considered rubbish, that at the present, we have Christ by faith, and we look to the future by straining forward for the goal. You see, a Christian never “has it made.” He is a Christian in progress, growing from sinner to saint. There is much, much to be done; only our physical death stops the onward and upward progress.
Paul even goes so far as to say that we are to give up and lay aside everything which would stand in the way of Christ’s being the focal point of our whole existence. Our goal must be to know Him more and more and to put Him first in our lives above all else. This still won’t make us perfect; because of original sin, it’s impossible for us to be perfect. If that weren’t true, we wouldn’t need Jesus, would we?
It always gives me a great deal of joy to baptize babies in our church, because the baby’s baptism is the beginning of the foot race Paul is talking about.
After twelve year old Tommy observed a baptism in his church, and not remembering his own baptism when he was two weeks old, Tommy asked his grandmother what this baptism thing really meant.
Grandmother told him that his baptism was an assurance by God that his sins were forgiven. Jesus, by way of the Holy Spirit, would lead and guide him, inspiring him to be a faithful follower of Christ the rest of his life.
“So,” Tommy asked his grandmother, “being baptized isn’t the end of it? I am to try to keep the faith the rest of my life?”
“That’s right,” his grandmother replied, “it isn’t easy to be a Christian. There will be hard times, which will test your faith. God always wants to know if you are serious about your discipleship. You need always to be aware that you must press on regardless of circumstances that may be discouraging, even greatly so. Nobody is perfect, so we need God with us as we press on.”
Whenever Martin Luther was faced with enormous difficulties, as he was so many times during the Reformation, he would blurt out loud, “I am baptized! I am baptized! I am baptized!” He would say this, not out of some sense of being washed in pixie dust, but out of the sense that his baptism was the beginning of the Christian’s foot race, and this was no time to drop out, but instead, a time to live up to his baptismal vows.
In this crazy world we live in today, with Christians being persecuted everywhere, even in the United States, it is much harder to continue to run the race; in fact, for some to even start the race. Thus, we need to hear and heed Paul’s closing words in our text, “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Amen.