Fifth Sunday of Lent - Return To Me: Pressing On

Today is the Fifth Sunday of the Season of Lent, and also the fifth and final installment of our sermon series, Return To Me.

This series is inspired by a phrase that is found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures--a phrase that is closely connected to repentance but is also much deeper and all-encompassing than mere penitence.  

The key verse for our particular journey, however, comes from Joel 2:12-13, which reads: 

12“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, weeping, and mourning.” 13 So rend your hearts and not your garments, and return to the LORD your God. For He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in loving devotion.

I've always been moved by this passage, mostly because of the way verse 13 starts off, "So rend your hearts and not your garments."  In other words, don't go through a big show of your piety, when your heart still might not be in the right place. 

And so this series will help us retrace our steps back to faithfulness, and enable us to discover the meaning of true repentance for the things we've done and left undone that have strained our relationship with God and others. 

Today we're going to talk about how our return to faithfulness might look a lot like moving forward from the comfort of what was to the discomfort of what will be.   

Have you ever met someone who suffered from I-Coulda-Been-A-Contender Syndrome?  

Let me explain a bit about that reference.  It comes from the classic film On The Waterfront starring Marlon Brando, a promising young boxer who is convinced by his brother to throw a fight in order for a mob boss to fix the match, and make some money.  

Terry tells his brother: 

I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it.

This quote used to be used more often than it is now, but still.  It's the thing or something like it that people say when they believe they were at their best at one point when they were younger perhaps, but those days are gone.  

Some things are a stereotype for a reason.  

Once when I got injured when I was coaching my son's football team, my wife reminded me of a saying we have in our family: Your mind was writing checks, your body couldn't cash.  

And if all that wasn't enough to make the point, let me reframe this a bit for the younger folk in the crowd.  This can also be called Uncle Rico Syndrome, as well.  

Uncle Rico is the character in Napoleon Dynamite, who does very little except dream about the glory of his high school days.   

This is my favorite Uncle Rico quote:  

How much you wanna make a bet I can throw a football over them mountains?... Yeah... Coach woulda put me in fourth quarter, we would've been state champions. No doubt. No doubt in my mind.

Or this one: 

Uncle Rico: Back in '82, I used to be able to throw a pigskin a quarter mile.
Kip : Are you serious?
Uncle Rico : I'm dead serious.

The temptation to live your life looking in the rearview mirror is pretty high, especially when our present isn't all that awesome, and the future is pretty uncertain, and maybe not looking all that great.  

Sometimes we live in the past because we're stuck in it.  We imagine that yesterday was better because times were simpler, we were younger, the world wasn't as messed up, there wasn't internet, social media or a 24 hour news cycle...  Okay, that last part is kind of on point.  

But what do we do when we can no longer imagine that our best days are ahead of us?  

Here's one of the truer things that you'll ever hear.  You can't go back to the past.  Looking back to it all of the time won't help you move forward, mostly because you aren't going that way.  Time is bendy and relative and all kinds of things, but we haven't yet figured out to travel back into it, and until that happens the only way is ahead.  

So what do we do?  

Well, according to the Apostle Paul, no matter how uncertain the future looks, you keep going toward it.  You keep pressing on, letting go of the past and all of your past glory.  

And honestly, it doesn't matter who you were.  Who you are is so much more interesting, and who you will be is even more so.  

As long as you keep living in the life-giving and liberating truth that this day is all that you have, and you have to live it to the fullest, you will find the defiant hope to embrace tomorrow without fear.  

Here's what I want us to hang on to today in the sermon:  


Philippians 3:4b-14

The context of this letter---written to the church at Philippi, a pretty Roman city.  Paul had a fondness for this group, who defied the odds, and the Empire, and who also took such good care of him.  

He writes this letter to them literally while he is in chains, perhaps even chained to a guard as he awaits trial in Rome, where eventually he will be executed by Nero.  Despite all that Paul has been through he still has people trying to discount him, discredit his ministry and to teach the people Paul has taught to live in freedom to live by the law.  

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 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; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

Paul does a little bit of humble bragging--lifting up his Jewish cred and accolades.  He basically is saying, "You want Jewish?  I got."  He reveals that he had a promising career ahead of him, and that the very zeal that he showed to uphold the law drove him to persecute the church, which is kind of a shot at the people who are criticizing him.  

He came from the right tribe, the right rabbi, the best schools, he was minted.  

7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in[a] Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 

The word that Paul uses here that is translated as "garbage" is the word skubalon, which literally translated is "dog fesces."  Dog poop.  

Paul says, all of that stuff that I thought mattered, that maybe even some people still think matters, all of those accolades, the right resume, the cred... all of it is dog poop compared to the life I've had in Christ.  

Dog poop----ever found some dog poop when you're walking somewhere in your bare feet?  
Yeah... that's the image here. 

10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 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, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 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, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Think about this for a moment.  The life that Paul is talking about is one where he suffered all manner of hard things---he was stoned, shipwrecked, snakebit, beaten half to death, falsely imprisoned, flogged, and for pretty much his entire ministry he had people following him around telling the churches he founded that he was a false teacher.  

And he was chained up to a Roman guard, and was going on trial for his life and the Emperor hearing his case was a narcissistic madman with a penchant for wanton violence. 

Paul knew that things were about to go south, but he kept pressing on anyway because he knew that no matter what was ahead, God was already there, just as God had been there all through his past, guiding him, leading him, teaching him the true meaning of success couldn't be found in who he was before his life got turned upside down by Christ. 

Paul wanted one thing and one thing only, to follow Jesus even if it meant following him to his own death.  Paul figured if that's what it was going to take, then he was willing because Jesus had been willing before him.  

You've got to admire that kind of optimism, right?  That's some serious "now and not yet" kind of saintliness.  

So how do we learn to live with that kind of serenity?  We return to faithfulness.  And in our returning we learn some things:  

1.  Nothing you've done in your own name matters more than what you do in Jesus' name.  

Years ago, I was in a graveyard in England poking around at the various graves, reading about the people who were buried there, and I stumbled across one that was almost all but covered up by weeds.  I kicked them away, and read these words, "Gone, but not forgotten."  

If you live your life with the intent of living it for affirmation, accolades, money, success, status, you name it... all of that will be forgotten.  Jesus himself told his followers that they shoudn't put all of their resources into things of this earth, which meant that he wanted them to invest in things that last... the things that matter to God... justice, mercy, love, forgiveness, gratitude, generosity, grace...  

2.  You ARE NOT DONE—you aren’t disqualified, too old, too young, too anything except too loved and too called. 

If you have been listening to this sermon and have been thinking, "I am too old... I have less good days in front of me than ever."  Or you have been thinking, "I'm damaged goods. I disqualified myself from ever really being the kind of person who does great things in Jesus' name."  

Know this---you are not done.  You aren't too anything except too loved and too called.  Come on!  Stop living in the past, you aren't going back there.  Embrace the now, and live in confidence that the not yet is all in God's hands, and your job is to just keep doing the things that make your heart sing.

It's not easy to do this.  You might get uncomfortable, but honestly the only way that we grow and move and change the world is when we find ourselves uncomfortable and filled with holy discontent that God's kingdom isn't more visible. 

And so we make it visible with our words, deeds and forward motion.  



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