13th Sunday after Pentecost
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, It happened almost to the day 13 years ago. I didn’t play football my freshman year of high school, but I did my sophomore year on our JV team. I had never played actual real football before that. And as most high schools do we started a couple weeks before school and I went to Luther Prep, which was a boarding school and so we lived on campus and our coaches, for the most part owned us for those couple weeks. Well, I remember one conditioning drill that we had during practice. It was called the “killer circuit.” I remember it being on the schedule and every day of practice getting closer and closer to it. I remember both JV and Varsity players discussing it over and over again. I also remember that August being very hot and humid. Well, the day arrived. What exactly was the “killer circuit”? I don’t remember all the details, but what I do remember, is it lasting at least an hour (at least it seemed), full pads, 6 or 7 different football conditioning drills, there was no stopping or standing, at the whistle we had to sprint to the next drill, and if someone wasn’t giving it their all, they would have to do up-downs after practice. Why? There was no place for laziness or laxness in football- you had to give it your all. I remember the pain, the sweat, the strain, the gasping for breath, but most of all the striving to the end to complete the killer circuit alive and to hear the coach say after practice, “Well, boys you survived the killer circuit.”
Such hard work, so much straining, so much dedication, so much concentration, so much pain, and for what? To survive a football practice drill. We do that don’t we? I mean, when we’re passionate about something, when we care about something enough, when we want something enough, we will strain and strive and struggle and suffer pain in order to get it.
But, then, what about when it comes to matters of eternal life? Thank the Lord that our salvation has been completed 100% by God. Long before we were even born, God promised a Savior, then God kept that promise alive through many centuries, then God sent the Savior Jesus, Jesus lived perfectly and died innocently on a cross to pay for all sins in full, then Jesus rose from the dead to prove that God accepted his payment for all sins, then God kept that gospel message alive for centuries, then God the Holy Spirit worked through the Word or Baptism to create faith in your heart to believe it. And furthermore God’s given to you the gift of eternal life. But the prize of eternal life isn’t in our hands yet. Although we can’t earn it, we can lose or forfeit the prize of eternal life. How so? By losing our focus, by taking a break spiritually, by becoming spiritually lazy or indifferent, giving in to sin’s temptation, etc.
And it seems that this spiritual laziness is what Paul was addressing in this section of his letter to the Philippians. He described himself as an example for them to follow: “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. All of us who are mature should take such a view of things.”
I don’t know that I have the stamina anymore to physically survive a “killer circuit” today. But ever since God brought us to faith our faith has been on a race toward a prize, a crown, an imperishable crown that will never perish, spoil, or fade. God never promised that the Christian’s life will be a slippery slide ride right into the bliss of heaven.
We have an enemy living right inside of us trying to slow us down on our race to heaven. Jesus said, “For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, etc.” We have an enemy living right inside of us that we must battle every day. We also have an enemy outside of us. The devil is described as a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. These enemies will zealously try again and again and again to convince you to “slow down.” What’s one of their biggest tactics? “Just take a break. You deserve it. Go on, be lazy for a little bit, let down your guard a bit, there’s no need to continually strive to live a Christian life, go ahead and indulge yourself a little bit, you know enough about God already, just take it easy, after all, look at all your years of attending church and doing good, you’re a ‘mature’ Christian.”
But was that Paul’s attitude? “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on… all of us who are mature should take such a view of things.” In other words, if you think you are mature in your faith, then you’re not. Christians who are mature in their faith will continually strain and press on to know God better and to live the way He wants more and more. But how can you do that? How can you build your faith?
The place to build your faith isn’t Snap Fitness, isn’t the fitness room at Peak Performance, isn’t the weight room or the race track. Here Paul referred the Philippians to his own example: “Join with others in following my example.” Not only the example that they remember from his own time spend with them, but also the example that he’s given them through writing. Paul was God’s own hand-picked inspired Apostle- that means what he wrote and what we have in God’s Word was not just for some believers in the 1st Century, but for us today. Where do we derive the strength and stamina to press on? Look in the Word. God builds our faith through the Word. He feeds our faith with the bread of life, He quenches our thirst with Living Water from the wells of salvation in His Word. He reminds us what He’s done for us. So how do you press on toward the goal? First, look into the Word- read it, study it, hear it, think about what it means, apply it to your life, and do what it says. Pattern your life after the directions that God gives you in His Word.
There’s still distractions. It’s not onlookers sitting in the bleachers, it’s not coaches screaming from the sidelines. It’s the sinful world in which we live. It’s people who claim they are Christian but really aren’t. It’s temptations that assault us from every direction trying to bring us down, trying to destroy our faith, trying to get us to throw in the towel and say, “It’s too much! The battle against sin is too hard! Just give in! Give in to hate and anger, give in to jealousy and envy, give in to lust and desire, give in to laziness and indifference about spiritual matters, give in to anything that will pull you away from God, from His Word, from His Sacraments! Focus your mind on earthly things!” And the sad fact is, many Christians have done that, they’ve become nominal Christians. Most likely that’s whom Paul is referring to here when he says they are enemies of the cross of Christ. They have set their minds on earthly things. But the end? It’s horrid, it’s destruction. Secondly, how do you press on toward the prize? Look out for the world.
The killer circuit lasted probably around an hour and it was probably one of the longest hours of my life. Our lives, too, can be exhausting: fighting temptations, striving to do what is right and God-pleasing in every instance, applying God’s Word to every situation. It can be tempting to become lax or to take a break. So God gives us something else to help us as we press on toward the goal: Look up to the Lord. “Our citizenship is in heaven and we eagerly await our Savior from there.” We know the goal of our lives, we know the prize that has been won for us. God whets our appetites for what lies ahead at the end- eternal salvation, life everlasting, no pain, no sorrow, no more struggling, eternal joy. And he will transform our lowly bodies and make them into a glorious body like his. You know, to hear the coach say, “You made it through the killer circuit” that was rewarding. But that’s nothing compared with hearing from Jesus after the race of life is over, “Welcome home my good and faithful servant!”
So let’s strain and strive and struggle to live our lives focused on Christ and what He wants for us. And why? Finally, because our Savior strained, and strove, and struggled in order to save us. There is no pain – not even the pain of a sports conditioning drill – that can match the pain of having the punishment of the entire world’s sins poured upon one person. Christ pressed on to the end, without stopping for a break, he suffered hell itself for you. Because he wants heaven for you! So let’s strain and strive to live our lives for such a Savior. Amen.