December 29, 2012

A New Year's Resolution

Philippians 3:10-3:14

As the new year of 2013 approaches, for many of us it is a time of reflection, a time when we take a look at our past deeds and future goals. When we take inventory. And When we do that, we inevitably start thinking about some changes we would like to make in the coming year.

One tradition in the western culture is to make resolutions for the new year; that is, a determination to make changes that will better our circumstances …we may set financial goals, decide it’s time to make that job change we have been contemplating, and, of course, typical resolutions such as to be more organized, to exercise more, and to eat healthier foods.

I’m not sure why, but someone paid for research about New Years resolutions, and a survey in the U.S. determined that 4 out of 5 people don’t keep their New Years resolutions. I’m not sure what the company that commissioned this research planned to do with this knowledge, but I would say the result is about what we would expect: most of us aren’t very good at following through on our New Years resolutions. I read joke just yesterday that illustrates this very well. (Question): What is a New Years resolution? (Answer): it is a plan for the first few days of January.

Maybe the reason most of us tend not to realize the goals we set as the new year dawns is that we tend to concentrate just on fixing the symptoms and the problems. That can be like mowing the weeds in the garden rather than committing to cultivate throughout the season, rather than deciding to make the kind of life we want even if it’s going to be hard to do. Mowing weeds is a temporarily fix. Any farmer will tell us that unless the weeds are removed, they will continue to sap nutrients from the soil, making the harvest less plentiful.

For the Christian, the harvest is to be like Christ in every way:
How we think
What we say
How we live
How we treat others
How we work
How we spend our time and money

God, through the writing of Paul, gives us the framework for accomplishing this in Philippians 3:10-14:

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Paul’s overall purpose is to know Christ, to be like Christ, and to be all Christ had in mind for him.  This took all of Paul’s energies. For us as Christians, if we are to put all our energies into one thing, our resolution for 2013 should be … to be like Christ.

“I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead."

(12) "Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, ..."

In this statement, we see not only Paul’s sense of honesty, but also his feeling of dissatisfaction. Being like Christ...starts with the realization that I am a work in progress, and while Paul’s goal was to be as much like Christ as he possibly could be, he admitted to his readers that he had not achieved that goal yet.

 “. . . but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”

The term “press on” that Paul uses was an athletic term and referred to the the sprinter’s extra effort as he or she strained every muscle in the effort to win the race. It also could be applied to the marathon runner exerting the supreme effort it takes for the final sprint for the finish in the last few hundred yards of the 26-mile race.

Paul says he is pressing on to “take hold,” that is, to make completely his possession, to take and own. And what is that he is pressing on to take hold of? He wants to take possession of Christ’s will for him—and Christ's will for him is that he be a reflection of Christ in his life and his teachings. That is Christ’s will for every Christian. Paul expresses this thought uniquely: he wants to take hold of Christ’s will just as Christ has taken hold of him. Christ sought him and chose him to be a reflection of Him.

Jesus chose each of us for the ultimate purpose of conforming us to His image. As Paul explains in Romans 8:29, “For those God foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of His Son.”

(13) "Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it.”

Again, he reminds us that Christlikeness is not something he completely possesses in his life yet. Paul’s emphasis is that we always recognize we are not 100% like Christ in the way we live, but that we continually strive to more closely conform to Christ.

 “. . . But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, …”

Forgetting our past can be our big hangup. It could have been a hangup for Paul, too, because before he was saved, his purpose in life as a Pharisee was the persecution of Christians. He was part of the crowd that stoned Stephen (Acts 7:58). And when Jesus confronted him on the road to Damascus, he was on the way to arrest the Christians in that area. As a dedicated Pharisee, he had arrested and caused the executions of hundreds—perhaps even thousands—of Christians.

So when he tells us to “forget what is behind,” Paul is not just tossing out some cheap advice. He has lived in such sin and rebellion that most of us have never experienced. Yet he also demonstrates for us something else that is in Christ’s will for him: that, regardless of the extent of past sins, we can know that God forgives, and we can leave them in the past where they belong, just as he has forgiven and forgotten them.

Like Paul, we must not allow our past sins and failures to become a roadblock to our faith. They are past. They are forgiven. And as far as God in His grace is concerned, they are forgotten.

Did you hear what God is telling us through the words of Paul? If you are struggling with your past, realize that those sins and errors are in the past, not in the present. Let me repeat...God has forgiven and forgotten.

Conversely, neither can we rely on virtuous deeds of the past—and those wonderful mountaintop experiences—to define our Christlikeness. To forget what is behind isn’t just to accept the forgiveness of past sins and rebellion against our Savior, but also to realize we can continually grow to reflect more and more of Christ in our lives.

(14) “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

The goal, Paul reminds us again and again, is Christlikeness. The prize? To be completely changed when we are present with Him in heaven. After a lifetime of serving Him and conforming more and more to His character, our Christlikeness sees its completion when we are with Him in heaven. Paul explains a few verses later in Philippians chapter 3, in verses 20-21: “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”

The upward call of God—the time when God calls each believer to heaven and into His presencewill be when we receive the prize. And that prize? Finally, we will be completely Christlike...not because of merit, but because of the transforming act of our Savior and Lord.

Paul describes our progress toward Christlikeness on this side of heaven as a race we run until the moment we see Jesus face to face. Nearing the end of his life, Paul wrote to Timothy ... “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

Strategies in running the race

To progress ever closer to reflecting all that Christ is in my life, I may need to change the way I think. I may need to learn to put others before myself. I many need to change the way I think of those less fortunate and then play my role in providing for them—widows, poor, hurting—in such ministries as the cancer ministry and the food and clothing ministry in our church. Perhaps I may need to become a servant; to want to serve one others, to pray for others, and to love others unconditionally, as Christ loves them.

Most of all, we need to learn to be singleminded…to put Christlikeness above every other purpose in life. We need to make sure we put Him above our financial goals, above our career objectives, above our desire for social position or popularity. In short, we may need to learn to put Christlikeness above every other goal of our life on earth.

In addition, we must make sure we see ourselves accurately and accept the fact that we are a work in progress, not yet a perfect reflection of Jesus, but also not an utter failure either. We can confess our past failures and know that they are forgiven and forgotten. If God can let go of them, then surely we can, too.

Remember that God has predestined us to reflect His image, and with His help we can continually get closer to His purpose for us. That means for the Christian that the only definition of success is that we are becoming more like Christ in our thinking, in our talking, and in our way of life. We must realize that we are valuable to Him and created with destiny and purpose…so valuable, in fact, that He died so we can have an eternal existence in His very presence.

And what about the world around us? Satan wants to steal our identity in Christ through the distractions of the world in every decision we face and through discouragement when we see we are less than perfect. But Paul is teaching us that no matter what happens to us, we want to push forward and become what God wants us to become.

We also may need to change the way we think about how God sees us. Because we are in Christ the old is gone. We are a new creature. We are not the people we were before meeting our Savior. We also must remember that God has forgotten our past and that in the place of our past sins and rebellion, God has a purpose and destiny for each of us. We can really trust in God, His word, and the plan He has for us.

So how do we break this “pressing on toward the goal” into workable pieces in our lives? Let me ask that in a different way…twelve months from now where do you want to be in your walk with God? What do you want to understand better? What life changes would be appropriate? As you read your Bible and pray every day, what areas would you want to ask for His special attention to guide you and empower you?