A lot can happen in a year.
I spent New Year's Eve 1999 with 4 friends. During 2000 things happened to them they never dreamt possible. One of them left Newcastle to move to Australia, one of them got engaged in November and another one got engaged in December. The fourth changed jobs and as part of her new job got the opportunity to mix with all sorts of celebrities – she even got to meet Nasty Nick from Big Brother! Unfortunately I was the odd one out in the group – the most exciting thing to happen to me in 2000 was getting a new electric blanket for Christmas!
But of course it is not just good things that happen. I recently read an article about a woman who was really looking forward to 2000. She intended to spend the year making her mark on the world by expanding her business. However her business struggled, her mother died and her long-term relationship ended. She is quoted as saying, "2000 was going to be my year when it all happened for me. Instead it all happened to me. In all my planning and dreaming I never thought that fate might have a different plan".
A lot can happen in 12 months, both good and bad. So this evening we are going to look at Philippians 3 and try and answer the question 'How can we keep going as Christians whatever happens in 2001?'. It would be helpful if you could open up your pew Bible at page 1180 for Philippians chapter 3 and there is an outline of where we are going on the back of the service sheet.
So how can we keep going in 2001? Have a look at Philippians chapter 3 verse 1:
Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you.
The basic principle in this chapter is if you want to keep going with Christ you need to be a joyful Christian. The idea of being joyful is something we normally associate with doing something we really like. But Philippians teaches that Christian joy only comes from strong confidence in Christ.
This chapter is all about how to become more joyful and it says three things: firstly, have no confidence in yourself; secondly, have all your confidence in Christ and thirdly, follow the Bible's pattern of living and we are going to look at those now.
First, HAVE NO CONFIDENCE IN YOURSELF.
Last week I listened to an hour long phone in on the radio all about boosting self confidence. The underlying message was if you really wanted to achieve things, be it getting a better job or giving up smoking or losing weight, the one thing you needed was lots of self belief. But in these first few verses the Apostle Paul, who wrote this letter to the Philippians, wants to discourage the wrong sort of self-confidence. Have a look at verse 3. Here he is describing the kind of people Christians should be and he says that they are people who,
"put no confidence in the flesh"
Self-confidence in itself is neutral. But when we are self confident before God about our own lives it is deadly. Paul explains why by talking about his life before he was a Christian. Have a look at verses 4-7,
"…though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless."
Before he became a follower of Jesus Christ Paul (or Saul as he was known then) was at the top of the religious establishment. If there was anyone who could be confident about his life before God, it was him.
He had the right heritage. He was circumcised as soon as the law allowed. He had been born into Israel, the chosen people of God. Even his tribe (the tribe of Benjamin) had a special status. When it came to his heritage Paul could legitimately call himself a "Hebrew of Hebrews".
More than the right heritage Paul also had the right way of living. He was a Pharisee. The Pharisees were devout in keeping the law. More than that he was zealous for his religion, which is why he tried to wipe out the church before he was converted. He could say with integrity, 'I am faultless when it comes to keeping those pharisaic laws'.
Paul was the brightest and best of his generation. He was the best Israel had to offer. In fact he was the best humanity had to offer. But he simply was not good enough. In fact he did not even come close. Have a look at verse 7,
"But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss"
Even Paul with his heritage and his life could not live up to what God wanted. Not even he could put any confidence in himself.
But how does knowing that help us as we face the year ahead?
Well this section of our passage turns the world's wisdom on its head. That phone in I heard on the radio this week told anyone who listened to it that if they really wanted to achieve something the one thing they needed was plenty of self-confidence. So if one of us had phoned that radio station and had said we wanted to stay faithful to Jesus Christ this year, what would they have said? Exactly the same as they told everyone else: go for it, you can do it, believe in your self.
But Paul says no, I've tried that and it does not work. You cannot impress God or remain close to God only by your own effort. And as we face a new year that should be liberating. The fact that we do not have to rely on ourselves should be reassuring as we face the year ahead.
So that is the first thing we need to remember as we face 2001 – have no confidence in yourself.
Secondly, and importantly, HAVE ALL YOUR CONFIDENCE IN CHRIST.
After explaining why he had no spiritual confidence in himself, Paul goes on to contrast his pre Christian life and thinking with what happened to him after his conversion. Look at verses 7-8:
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.
Twice Paul says everything he achieved before his conversion was nothing compared to what he had in Christ. And then, at the end of verse 8, he says it again to drive it home only putting it stronger – that his achievements were rubbish.
Which is such an odd thing for Paul to say. Remember what he had before he started to follow Christ – his heritage and his life meant that he could look forward to success, status and a prosperous future. He could have been a public figure, held in awe by Jews and respected by Gentiles. Yet by the time he wrote this letter this letter to the Philippians, Paul was despised and was stuck in a prison cell. Ultimately he would be executed for his faith.
So what is it that Christ offers that makes that worthwhile and the best the world can achieve look like rubbish? The answer is in verse 9:
I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ--the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.
One of my responsibilities here at JPC is helping with the Sunday Schools. The one thing I have learnt from working with children is that virtually every child I have come across thinks that if they follow certain rules and regulations God will be happy with them. In most cases no one has told them that, it is just what they assume is true about God. And in my wider experience it is not just children who think like that, the vast majority of the world's population think the same way.
And for the first part of his life that is exactly how Paul thought and lived. But then he was converted to Jesus Christ. And having to earn his way to God through what he calls "legalistic righteousness" in verse 6 looked like rubbish compared to what he gained. In his new life he was given a relationship with God by Jesus' death on he cross. That is what he is talking about when he speaks of "the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith" in verse 9. That is what makes everything else seem like rubbish.
Liz Bailey used to tell the story of a friend of hers who was on her way home from a night out in Newcastle with friends. After she had said her goodbyes she went to the Metro station at Haymarket. When she got there she realised that she had lost her purse. She had a choice, either she walked back to West Jesmond or she risked getting on the Metro without paying. She decided that it would be safer to risk getting caught on the Metro without a ticket.
When she got on the train she discovered to her horror that the carriage was full of ticket inspectors. She explained what had happened but the inspector said he was sorry but she had broken the rules and he had to fine her £10. And that was that – she had done something wrong and he had to punish her. When she got off at West Jesmond she started to make her way home. To her surprise the inspector came after her and gave her a £10 note to pay the fine. She had broken the rules but the inspector paid the punishment.
In the same way when Jesus died on the cross he was punished for Paul's wrongdoing and he gained the freedom from punishment that Paul had always strived for and could never achieve. And just as he died for Paul, Jesus also died for each of us who follow him. And our response should be the same as Paul's – to cast aside our rubbish attempts to impress God and accept this free gift.
Most people here will have done that but I am sure there are also people here who have not. If that is you remember the Bible says trying to earn your way to God does not work. So please don't think that Christianity is all about obeying rules and regulations – it isn't. It is all about Jesus Christ and the free gift he offers.
But again how does that help us as we face the year ahead? Have a look at verses 10-11:
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
In these verses Paul explains how this free gift transformed his way of looking at life and death. He knew what Jesus had done meant that he had a glorious future in heaven ahead of him. So instead of being fearful or unwilling to face death he could say that he wanted to know Christ in his death.
What is the worst that can happen to you in the next 12 months? I think most people would say that the worst that can happen is for them to die. But if we follow Christ even that worst-case scenario is positive because we can be certain of what we look forward to. In turn that should transform the way we look at everything we face each day. Nothing is so awful that it can deprive us of our heavenly future and nothing is so good that it can outshine our heavenly future.
So secondly have all your confidence in Christ, remembering his death on the cross and the future in heaven that awaits you. But what practical steps should we take in the light of this? To answer that we need to look on to our third point.
Thirdly, FOLLOW THE BIBLE'S PATTERN OF LIVING.
In verses 12-14 Paul outlines a pattern of life and it has four basic elements: Element number 1: be realistic. That is at the start of verse 12:
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect…
The first element is be realistic about what the Christian life involves. Jesus Christ brings great peace and meaning in the lives of every one who follows him. Many will testify that following Jesus is the best way of life around. But Jesus said that people who follow him would suffer.
The basic mistake many people make is forgetting that and thinking that the Christian life on earth is the same as the Christian life in heaven. It isn't. This life will involve suffering and sin. By contrast life in heaven will be perfect in everyway. But if you mix those up the Christian life on earth can quickly seem a disappointment – you expect perfection but quickly find that you aren't and nor is the world around you. So Paul says, 'Be realistic'.
Element number 2: be forgetful about the past. Look down at verse 13:
Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind…
In verse 13 Paul is using imagery from athletics to explain the pattern of life we should live. In the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich there were high hopes for a young runner from Finland called Lasse Viren. He was the favourite to take the 10,000 metres title. About half way through the race he tripped and fell over another runner. Everyone assumed he was out of the race. Against expectations he got up and started running again. He went on to win the Gold and break the World Record. Lasse Viren is an example of what Paul is talking about here. Instead of dwelling on his mistake and his fall, he got straight back up and started running. He did not allow anything to take his mind off the race, which brings us onto…
Element number 3: be single minded. Look again at verse 13:
Brothers, 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
Paul is single minded in his devotion to Jesus Christ. And that should be the same for us. Listening to interviews with some of the Gold medal winners from the British Olympic Team you get a picture of what that means in practice. Steve Redgrave gave this account of his daily training routine for the 4 years running up to Sydney 2000:
"I would get down to the rowing club for 7:30 in the morning and start with about an hour to an hour and a half of endurance work on the water. The second session would be muscular so I'd spend some time on the weights. The third session would again be endurance, either on the water or in the gym. When we were on our intensive training program, the number of sessions a day rose to four and a couple of times a week we would even add a fifth!"
And he did that every day of the week, every week of the year. He is a fine example of single-minded determination. We should be the same as we follow Jesus Christ.
Element number 4: be focused on heaven. Look at verse 14:
I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
What was it that kept Steve Redgrave going? It was his goal – the prospect of winning a fifth Gold medal. In the same way our goal of heaven should keep us going. In fact we have even more incentive than Steve Redgrave. An athlete can only hope that things will go their way on the day. If the British boat had been just a few seconds slower there would not have been a fifth Gold medal. Whatever happens to us, heaven is an absolute certainty.
After outlining this four-part pattern Paul writes this in verses 15-17:
All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained. Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.
To be realistic, to be forgetful about the past, to be single minded and to be focused on heaven is the normal pattern for mature, joyful Christians. So thirdly follow the Bible's pattern of living.
Our time is nearly up. Have a look at chapter 4 verse 1:
Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!
The great concern of this chapter is that people should stand firm and keep going in their faith and the promise of this chapter is that if you follow what it says you will stand firm whatever happens.
The problem with the sort of things we have been learning about this evening is that they are very easy to forget, especially as life gets busy. Perhaps the best resolution we could make this New Year is to simply remember these three things:
Have no confidence in yourself – in your ability to impress God or live for him by your own efforts; Have all your confidence in Christ – because his free gift is a relationship with God and a certain place in heaven; and Follow the Bible's pattern of living.
If you remember those and live in the light of them you will keep going with Christ whatever happens to you this year.