Have you ever had a project that was so important you felt like your entire life was riding on it? Maybe a presentation you had to make at work? Or a job interview where you either were going to impress these people on the other side of the table . . . or not be able to provide for your family?
Imagine what it must be like to be a politician running for president, and facing that first televised debate with your opponent. What is Jim Lehrer going to ask you? Will the questions be hostile? Will the next ninety minutes sink your candidacy?
Even as Christians, who know that we’re saved by grace, we often feel like a lot is riding on our performance. If we mess up in the daily discipline of being believers, will we be lost in the end? Will others be led astray because of our Laodicean example?
Back almost three decades ago, there was a very special image, a visual treasure, near the end of the Oscar-winning spiritual film, Chariots of Fire, about a Christian and a Jew competing in the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. After Eric Liddell drops out, refusing to run on his Sabbath, Harold Abrahams is left to run for England in the 100-meter finals against American superstars Charlie Paddock and Jackson Sholtz. For years he’s sacrificed pleasures and foregone all kinds of treats and leisure activities. He’s trained hard, dominated all the meets, taken all the blue ribbons for Cambridge. But none of that will matter if he comes in second here in the Olympic Games.
And he confesses that to his trainer, Sam Massabini. “Everything I’ve worked for is in these ten seconds. What if I fail?” Finally there’s this long, quiet camera shot just showing the athletic running lanes. It’s slow motion, almost like an underwater scene; the crowd is still, waiting, tension thick in the air as thousands of people and a row of scared runners wait for the starter’s gun. One hundred meters away, almost so close you can touch it, is the tape. It’s right there, and with the tape comes a gold medal . . . if you get there first. If you are victorious.
And maybe the director of photography, David Watkin, had this unforgettable passage in Philippians chapter three in mind as he set up that meaningful camera shot. Because Paul seems to look down that long, narrow lane of competition as well. He sees the tape out there, the prize. He senses the nearness of the gold medal. And he declares his intention of going for it. Let me share verse 12 with you: “Not that I have already attained all this [knowing Christ],” he writes, “or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”
Then he makes this moment of confession to his Christian brothers and sisters: “I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it.” And now the line that makes us all think of the Olympics and the diligent effort that brought gold rewards in Beijing: “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.”
Here on this Sabbath morning, I want to say with awe in my heart: there’s so much in this passage we can scarcely take it in. “I know I’m not there yet,” Paul admits. “But brothers and sisters, this is what I’m going for. The Olympic gold ideal of completely knowing Jesus, of complete surrender to Him, absolute commitment. ‘For to me, to live . . . is Christ!’” Every athlete who endeavors to get to the Olympic Games has to just give everything! Hours and hours each day, practicing, lifting, stretching, running, sweating . . . reaching out for that gold medal. It takes total, unreserved commitment.
And I like this line: “Straining toward what is ahead.” If you’re old enough to remember back to 1981 and that film, Chariots of Fire, a vignette where the coach teaches Abrahams how to lunge for the tape at the last moment. You don’t look to the side, to see where your competition is. As you approach the finish, you simply throw yourself into the tape; you hurtle across the line with every muscle giving its all. God is looking for that kind of passion today from me and from you.
And there’s another vital expression of twin goals here in verse 13. Two things. First of all, “forgetting what is behind,” Paul writes. Let me pose this question: aren’t there things right now, today, in our lives that as Christians you and I should forget about?
Let me frame the question this way. Have you recently found yourself in a pit of discouragement because of something stupid or even sinful you’d been involved in? How could I have been so dumb? you lament. I can’t believe I made that same mistake yet again! I remember a wonderful book recently written by Adventist pastor Hyveth Williams, and it had this title: Won’t I Ever Learn? That’s the hundredth time I’ve blown it that way! Well, listen. Praise God for the miracle, the guaranteed, promised, rock-solid assurance of heaven’s forgiveness! Don’t look back! Don’t you keep thinking about something God has already promised to forget. The devil loves to keep us looking back, lamenting endlessly about the times he beat us. Don’t do it!
It’s the same with the old life of sin, the bad habits of last year. Don’t look back! True, things were bad, and perhaps, just like Paul, you have to honestly admit that you haven’t yet completely gotten on track in your new life with Jesus. But keep looking forward, not behind you! Keep your eyes on how things are going to be, and not on how they were.
Did your devotional life last week get sidetracked and derailed? Did you end up skipping your quiet time with Jesus? Did you forget to pray before lunch one day with your secular colleagues all around? Well, God invites us to do better next time, but look toward tomorrow and its schedule instead of yesterday’s wrong choices. Determine that your focus will improve as you go into a new week along with the rest of us.
How about last month’s resentments and arguments? Did you know that even Paul had some hot temper moments with fellow workers? In fact, one of his evangelistic teams split up for a while because they just plain could not ride together on the same airplane without arguing. But don’t keep looking back at all that. Determine to forgive your former enemies and get on with your Christian journey. Forget what is behind, and strain toward what is ahead: the second coming of Jesus, the eternal rule of our Redeemer, the spread of the gospel throughout the whole world.
So, first of all, don’t look back. Secondly, Paul encourages us to strain in looking forward, in stretching forward, reaching forward, even striving forward. There’s something wonderful ahead for every single Christian, and we need to be looking for it all the time.
I don’t go out of my way to pepper with sermons with Greek words, because it’s been so long since I was at the seminary, all of the Greek I know now I learned in restaurants. But one commentary pointed out that the word diôkô, for “I press on,” or “I follow after the prize,” is sometimes used as a hunting word. “I pursue.” That gives it a life-or-death feel, doesn’t it? And in Bible times, this word was actually used in terms of foot-races and the ancient Olympian games. Even back then, before the invention of Gatorade and Nike footgear and the value of Wheaties box endorsements, these athletes knew about singleness of purpose, and pressing on toward the prize.
Back in verse 12 is a subtle nuance it might be easy to miss, so let’s backtrack for a second look. “I press on,” Paul writes, “to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”
And we say, “Wait a minute! I’m grabbing for the prize; I’m taking hold of the gold medal. What’s this about Jesus taking hold of me?” But this is the most beautiful metaphor, where, as we strain and push toward victory, lunging for the tape, Jesus Christ reaches down, Paul tells us, and pulls us toward Him. He joins Himself to our human efforts. And the same thing in verse 14: “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” The Clear Word, which is a loose paraphrase done by an Adventist pastor, puts it this way: “So I keep pushing ahead, going after what Christ had in mind when He first got hold of me.”
And here’s what we make of this. Because you know, you and I might be pretty lousy runners—in spiritual terms, that is. We’re stumbling along on that track, with a lot of super-Christians passing us by like we’re standing still. There are scrapes on our knees and our shoelaces are untied. Believe me, it’s the same for me. I look at great spiritual giants who have written commentaries, who have powerful prayer lives, who have preached in the massive stadiums of the world or who have commandeered the airwaves for the Lord. But for those of us who are lowly of heart, it’s good news that as we go for the gold, we discover that when we take hold of Jesus, even more He has taken hold of us! Remember, the goal, the gold medal, is fellowship and friendship with Him! And He meets us more than halfway; we find that He seeks us much more than we can ever seek Him.
All through Philippians, where Paul makes us nervous when he writes about perfection and attainment, this is where it’s such beautiful truth that Jesus has taken hold of us. He’s put Himself in charge of our running abilities, our performance on the course. Our success in the journey of life is His responsibility, His divine project.
Even in the little daily duties of life, we can rejoice in the promise that God will see our striving and add His divine empowering. Think of the scene on the hillside where one young person brought five loaves and two fish to share. Jesus added His miracle touch and five thousand people were fed. I think of the great gospel song which says: “Little is much when God is in it. Labor not for wealth or fame. There’s a crown and you can win it . . . if you go in Jesus’ name.”
In his book, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis wonders along with us why the race is sometimes so hard, why we fall and fail so much? Why does God permit the hardships of daily Christian life? Here’s his observation about it all: “We must not be surprised if we are in for a rough time,” he writes. “When a man turns to Christ and seems to be getting on pretty well (in the sense that some of his bad habits are now corrected), he often feels that it would now be natural if things went fairly smoothly. When troubles come along — illnesses, money troubles, new kinds of temptation—he is disappointed. These things, he feels, might have been necessary to rouse him and make him repent in his bad old days; but why now?” And now notice this: “Because God is forcing him on, or up, to a higher level: putting him into situations where he will have to be very much braver, or more patient, or more loving, than he ever dreamed of being before. It seems to us all unnecessary: but that is because we have not yet had the slightest notion of the tremendous thing He means to make of us.”
In the old football book, Instant Replay, Jerry Kramer, an offensive line guard for the Green Bay Packers, tells about his rookie year, way back in 1959, and how in practice coach Vince Lombardi just pushed him and drove him and screamed at him. And Jerry was all beat up, absolutely exhausted. He was sitting in front of his locker one day, too tired to even take off his pads. Things had gone so badly that day in scrimmages, and the defensive team had zoomed past him to sack quarterback Bart Starr so many times, he was about ready to quit football and go sell shoes somewhere for a living. And Lombardi, who had been pushing him so hard, walked up and said quietly: “Son, one of these days you’re going to be the greatest guard in the league.” Jerry writes in his diary: “Man, I was ready to go out and practice four more hours right there.” Because he caught the vision of what the coach was going to make of him: a Super Bowl champion who would make one of the most talked-about blocks in playoff history.
Folks, it’s that way with us. When things are hard out there on the 100-meter track, remember that Jesus has taken hold of you. He has in His divine mind a picture of you as a glorious runner, a winner, an Olympic champion. It’s His dream to make you perfect, to make you a restored son or daughter of the most high God. Despite the bruises and the aches and pains, He’s going to make you the greatest guard in the league, the athlete who stands on the top platform during the flag-raising ceremony, and gets to hear the national anthem.
Which maybe should be: “Amazing Grace.” Shall we pray?
Lord, we’re so prone to get mired in the failures of our past apart from you. Help us not to do that. Please keep our vision and our focus on the prize of being a part of Your eternal kingdom, and the challenge of being a champion in that cause. Thank You for adding Your success to our efforts; help us to strive with confidence and gratitude. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Submitted by David B. Smith. Better Sermons © 2005-2009. Click here for usage guidelines.