Please read Tim’s talk on Philippians 3:10-21 or hear it here:
So earlier in the year Alex approached me and asked if I could preach at a valley worship service. I must admit that my first reaction was complete and abject horror. Whilst I am very comfortable in a work situation, standing up and talking to people about plants, the gardening industry, or our latest sustainability strategy, the thought of preaching to the Itchen Valley congregation, well I really did not think it would see me at my best! You see my own ambition to succeed or my fear of complete failure was making me question whether this really was for me. I very much contemplated my own Jonah experience and doing a bunk and heading for the nearest exit!
But of course those of you who know me well, will have heard me promise to commit to saying “yes” to anything that I am asked of here at Itchen Valley Churches – born from the frustration in myself of the many years of sitting at the back of churches and not getting involved. But I can assure you that the answer was not my normal quick fire yes in this case. However a little encouragement from Alex and being given the subject matter of ambition tipped the scales so here we are today!
So I can honestly say that the passage taken from Pauls letter to the Phillippians has been personally incredibly challenging for me, as I am an ambitious sort and the passage makes you deeply assess your priorities for your life and whether you have got it all right. The journey to prepare this has challenged me deeply but also brought me closer to God. So please do bear in mind that the words that are said here today are very much aimed at myself as well as you all.
Ambition is described in the Oxford dictionary as a “strong desire to do or achieve something or, a desire and determination to achieve something”. I am sure these are words that would feel very familiar to many of us within our working and home environments. Many of us will have a list of goals and ambitions that we wanted to achieve. Pass your A levels, get to university, buy your first house, buy a bigger house, be mortgage free, nice car, – do these seem familiar?. In our working lives we may well have a detailed career plan, glossy powerpoint presentations of 5 year strategies with concise and eloquent executive summaries. Does this all sound familiar or maybe that is just me!
However in the passage that we are covering today, Paul very much demarcates the difference between our worldly ambition and our spiritual ambition.
Paul was of course highly ambitious from the start. As Saul he was focussed on persecuting the church and followers of Jesus. He is described in Acts 9 as breathing murderous threats against the Lords disciples and he went to High priest to acquire letters to round up any Christians and take them as prisoners. He was a driven and highly ambitious man. Following his conversion this ambition did not subside and went onto form many churches throughout Europe and Asia Minor. God chose a high achiever in Paul, a strong leader, a mover and shaker of the first century.
So here is Paul imprisoned and writing to the Phillipians, the first Christian community in Europe around Ad50.
From the beginning of the passage Paul is crystal clear about his own ambition – to know Christ and to know his resurrection. There is absolutely no ambiguity here – this was his goal and his ambition. This of course is not something new to us as a congregation – we have heard this preached here many times but to “know God” in this passage can be described in three different ways:
- Firstly to know God as a husband knows his wife – a personal knowledge as opposed to an intellectual one. To know God in an intimate and exhilarating way. I found this quite challenging because it really made me assess my own relationship with God. I can still remember why I first liked my wife Karen – she has the most amazing ability to talk to anybody – I often have remarked that she could talk to a gate post if there was nobody else. For instance we were recently on holiday and there was a fantastic children’s playground next to the supermarket and as usual we divided and conquered – I went and did the food shopping whilst Karen watched the children in the playpark. You know when I came out to find them after shopping, there she was talking to some stranger as if they were long lost cousins. Well it is a gift and not one that I possess but this really challenged me because if I compare my relationship with God to my relationship with my wife, the reality is that I don’t spend any where near the time with him as I should. In fact arguably I don’t spend enough time with my wife either but the reality is I don’t consult God or pray enough and being real with myself I need to sort this out. I don’t know him well enough.
- Secondly to know the power of his resurrection – not as some historical event but as something that is live and living within each one of us today. To really know and have confidence that Jesus died and came to save you, and me and all the people living in our community. This is real, real today as much as it was 2000 years ago.
- Thirdly and the one that If I am completely honest, I have found personally incredibly challenging – to know God by participating in Christ’s sufferings. Wait what does this mean? I’m not sure I like the sound of this. How do I put this into our the delightful context that is the Itchen Valley? I can just see it know – taking a phone call from Alex, Tim I phoning to see if you would like to be involved in some suffering next Sunday? I’m not sure that I would like the sound of it! Well for some Christians of course true suffering and persecution is as real now as it was 2000 years ago but we are unlikely to find stoning or biblical persecution in the Itchen Valley today. (Give St Johns example) So what does this mean for us. Well we only need to look at the Who cares survey of 2017 to see that suffering is very real for many of us. Relationships are one of the biggest sources of pain and I can put my hand up to that and say that has affected me too. The most painful thing that has happened to me was to see my parents separate and divorce in my mid twenties. I cannot tell you how much hate consumed me for many years and the truth is I barely spoke to my father for 10 years but learning to forgive him has been a real blessing and we have a good relationship now.
Paul is very clear to put context to these 3 parts by saying that he has not attained all of this and that it is an ongoing journey for him. It is reassuring to know that even for someone so godly as St.Paul also considers himself as having to work towards this.
Now the second art of the passage is where it gets really exciting and Paul makes it very clear about how we should approach knowing God. There is nothing absolutely nothing tentative about Pauls approach. It is as if he gives it a three lined whip and cracks this message home.
In the passage He says “forget the past and strain towards what is ahead to achieve the goal”. This sounds exciting to me.
I consider one of the best sporting commentaries to be Ian Robertsons famous words when England won the rugby world cup in 2003 – (play commentary).
You can hear the emotion in Rob Andrews “yes” at the end. All those years of effort and toil, striving towards to reach their amazing goal. I like to think that is how we will be received when we attain our own resurrection – Yes!! In luke 15 it says
“I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent”.
The message translation reads as follows “Ive got my eye on the goal…. I’m off and running and I’m not turning back so let’s keep focussed on that goal.
Its as if Paul is laser focussed on knowing God.
One of the things I say to my team regularly is that you only here on this planet once, there is no rewind button and the question you need to ask is when you are on your death bed and looking back on you life what do you want to think. What do you want you do with your life, what is your ambition and how will you achieve this.
The same applies here, what is our ambition for our relationship with God. Do we want to look back and think could have done better, was a bit average, a bit lukewarm or do we want to shouting from the highest building “yes”, fully confident on our own salvation and with a firm eye to the future.
So to pull these strands together we need to ask “what is our own ambition towards God”. Are we well drilled and honed Johnny Wilkinsons at the top of our game and about to win our own spiritual world cups or are we the equivalent Sunday league versions that are trying to work off the previous evenings curry? This question is important, really important – important for ourselves but also important for the health of our church.
I finish with one last thought for all of us as I really believe that God has put this on my heart to share. I think he wants us to have a passionate personal ambition but also to have an ambition for this church. Whilst on holiday we visited the Reverend Richard Davies of Little Newcastle Parish in Pembrokeshire – Church of Wales as Karen was researching her family history. It’s a long story but it came to light that her ancestors may have attended the Baptist church in the town. So as you can imagine we were outside the Baptist chapel trying to look at graves stones!! Only problem was this was impossible as the brambles were so high and thick. When I asked if it was now closed the answer was no, not yet but will be soon as it is down to its last member and she is 96. It was incredibly sad to see what was about to become another redundant church.
None of us would ever wish that for this parish but the question I leave you is what is your ambition for your life with God and what is our ambition for this church? Are we in a camp of “could do better” or are we going to be laser focussed on God and known as a congregation on fire for Jesus?
10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Pressing toward the Goal
12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. 16 Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.
17 Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. 18 For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. 19 Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. 21 He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.