The Fifth Sunday in Lent
April 7, 2019
Get Ready for Easter—
Keep Your Eyes Focused on the Goal!
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 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 toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (NIV1984)
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
What do Michigan State University, Texas Tech, Auburn and Virginia all have in common? Well, for starters, back when the 2018-2019 college basketball season first started all four of these teams had the exact same goal— beat enough of their opponents so that they could earn a spot in the NCAA tournament. When they reached that goal they and their fans celebrated! Before that celebration was over, however, their new goal was to beat their next opponent so that they could make it into Round One of the tournament. Once they achieved that goal they and their fans celebrated! Before that celebration was over, however, their new goal was to beat their next opponent so that they could make it into Round Two of the tournament. Once they achieved that goal they and their fans celebrated! Before that celebration was over, however their new goal was to beat their next opponent so that they could be one of the Sweet Sixteen. Once they reached that goal they and their fans celebrated! But before that celebration was over they had a new goal— beat their next opponent so that they could be one of the Elite Eight. Once they reached that goal they and their fans celebrated! Before that celebration was over they had yet another goal— beat their next opponent so that they could move on to the Final Four. Once they reached that goal they and their fans celebrated! But before that celebration was over they had one final goal— beat their next opponent so that they could play in the championship game and be crowned NCAA Champions!
I couldn’t help but think of the NCAA tournament as I was preparing our sermon for today. Why? Well, it kinda helped that our television was very often tuned in to whatever game was on. But more importantly, our text for today reminded me of all those players, all those coaches and all those fans who had a very specific goal in mind— beat their next opponent so that they could become the champions! Here in our text for today the apostle Paul does not talk about “beating” a brother or sister in the faith so that we can become a “champion,” but he does talk about having a very specific “goal” in our lives as the children of God. Today then let’s study these inspired words under the theme: Get Ready for Easter—Keep Your Eyes Focused on the Goal! There are two things Paul encourages us to do as we continue to get ready for Easter by keeping our eyes on the goal. First, Paul encourages us to: Forget what is behind! Second Paul encourages us to: Strain toward what is ahead!
Paul was in prison when he wrote this letter to the Christians living in the city of Philippi. Yet, the predominant theme of this letter can be summed up in the word: Rejoice! Over and over again Paul encourages the Philippian Christians to rejoice in the amazing grace of God! The joy that Paul personally experienced because of the amazing grace of God is the joy that enabled Paul to say in the opening verse of our text, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”
What is Paul referring to when he says, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect”? We find the answer to that question in the verses that directly precede our text. In Philippians 3:10-11 Paul writes, “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 of the dead.” Even though Paul had come to know Christ and the power of Christ’s resurrection on the road to Damascus (Acts 9) Paul realized that he had a long ways to go as a child of God! Paul knew that his entire life would be spent “growing”— growing in his faith, growing in his knowledge, growing in his love for his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Even though Paul had already endured great suffering for the sake of Christ and the message of the Gospel (remember that Paul was in prison when he wrote this letter; also, see 2 Corinthians 11:16-33) at the same time Paul understood and willingly accepted the fact that there would be even greater suffering in store for him. Paul never allowed himself to think that he already “knew enough” and therefore didn’t need to keep reading and studying the Truth of God’s holy Word. Paul never allowed himself to think that his faith was already “strong enough” and therefore he didn’t need to receive the strength of the Lord’s holy Supper on a regular basis. Instead, Paul kept his eyes focused on the goal. Instead, Paul says, “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”
As Paul kept his eyes focused on the goal, as Paul “pressed on” in his life as a child of God he sets a beautiful example for us to follow when he says in our text, “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.” Let’s break this down step-by-step, shall we?
The picture that Paul uses here in our text is the picture of someone who is running in a marathon race. As this person is running it is absolutely essential that they keep their eyes focused on the goal— the finish line. Keeping one’s eyes focused on the goal, however, also includes “forgetting what is behind.” If a runner stumbles or falls down in the race, they need to get back up and put it behind them. If a runner has an especially difficult time making it through a certain part of the course, they need to keep on going and put it behind them.
It’s not difficult to see how “forgetting what is behind” applies to a child of God, is it. For example, if Paul were to look back on his own life what would he see? He would see two things. First, he would see a life that was totally and completely dedicated to working one’s own way in to heaven. As a Pharisee Paul (then known as Saul) was absolutely convinced that he had “earned the right” to enter into heaven because of the righteous life he had lived. In Philippians 3:6 Paul says that when it came to “legalistic righteousness” he was “faultless.” How could God not be impressed with that! At the same time, when Paul looked back on his life he saw a life that was unparalleled in its zeal to destroy this new religious movement that is now known as the Christian church. Paul (then known as Saul) was willing to do whatever it took to literally hunt down and get rid of as many of these “Christians” as he possibly could. That’s the type of thing that Paul had in mind when he said that keeping his eyes focused on the goal included “forgetting what is behind.” That’s the part of his life that Paul now considered “rubbish” when compared to the “surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:7-8).
What does “forgetting what is behind” need to include for you, my friends? What part of your past does Satan love to hold before your eyes in an effort to prevent you from keeping your eyes focused on the goal? What personal weakness does your old sinful nature love to fan into a flame in an effort to convince you that you can play with fire and not get burned? Whatever it is— leave it behind! Whatever it is— consider it rubbish! Whatever it is— let the cross of Jesus Christ (Pointing to the cross) assure you that it has been paid for, that you are forgiven, and therefore purely by the amazing grace of God you can “forget what is behind” and let the past stay in the past!
The second part of keeping your eyes focused on the goal is found in Paul’s words, “…straining toward what is ahead.” The word that is translated here as “straining” can also be translated as “stretching toward what is ahead.” Picture once again a runner who is “straining” or “stretching” toward the finish line. Every muscle in their body, every ounce of their energy is focused on that one goal. They are determined to make sure that nothing and no one keeps them from crossing that finish line and completing their race!
Isn’t that a beautiful picture of our life as a child of God here on this earth— “straining” or “stretching toward what is ahead”! Unfortunately, it doesn’t always seem to work that way, does it? Unfortunately, all too often it is so easy for us to get caught up in the “rat race” of this life. Like a dog chasing its own tail we run around in circles all day long and then drop into bed completely exhausted at night— only to get up and repeat the same silly scenario all over again tomorrow! What have we accomplished? Where are we headed? Where does it end?
Keeping our eyes focused on the goal, straining and stretching like a runner striving to cross the finish line keeps us from simply running in circles until we drop dead— whether that be figuratively or perhaps even literally. How can keeping our eyes focused on the goal keep us from running around in circles here in this life? The answer to that question is quite simple— especially when we stop to remember that for us, for the saved children of God, the “finish line,” the “goal,” the “prize” is none other than a glorious eternal life in heaven!
I once read a hypothetical conversation that takes place between a Christian and a non-Christian. It goes like this: The Christian begins: “What will you do after college?” “Go to grad school.” “Wow. Then what?” “Probably get a job.” “Then what?” “Get married probably.” “Good. Then what?” “Have kids.” “Then what?” “Get a house.” “Then what?” “Get a bigger house.” Impressive. Then what?” “Get a cabin on a lake.” “Sounds warm and cozy. Then what?” “Probably retire.” “Then what.” “Well, I guess I’ll eventually get sick and die.” “Oh, really,” says the Christian. “Then what?”
Heaven gives us the ultimate “Then what?” my friends. When our eyes are focused on the goal of heaven, life here on this earth becomes so much more than just a job or a house or a cabin in the mountains. Keeping our eyes focused on the goal of heaven, forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead doesn’t turn us into “day-dreamers.” To the contrary, keeping our eyes focused on the goal of heaven, forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead provides us with a clear view of the ultimate destination— the destination that gives true meaning and purpose to our life, the destination brings everything in this world into clear focus and puts it into proper perspective!
If you watched the games last night or caught the news this morning then you know that there are only two teams left with the exact same goal— beat their final opponent and be crowned the 2019 NCAA Champions! Those two teams are Texas Tech and Virginia. While they and their fans are celebrating there are many many people who are very very sad because they failed to achieve their goal. Praise God, my friends, that our quest as Christians does not work that way! We don’t need to “compete” against each other; we don’t need to “beat” our fellow Christians so that we can become “champions.” Instead, we help and encourage each other; we support and pray for each other so that we all reach the very same goal!
May the good Lord grant that as you and I continue to get ready for Easter, as we keep both the cross and the empty grave of our Savior clearly in view that we will indeed follow both the encouragement and the example that Paul gives to us here in our text for today. Forget what is behind, my friends. Let the past stay buried in the past. Strain toward what is ahead. Keep your eyes focused on the goal remembering that purely by the amazing grace of God the Lord Himself has called you heavenward in Christ Jesus your Lord!
To God be the glory!