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Straining Towards What is Ahead

Thomas J Parlette

“Straining towards what is ahead”

Philippians 3: 4b-14


In his book “The Complete Disciple,” Paul Powell describes a painting of a scene from the old west. It is a picture of a wagon train. Nighttime has fallen. The wagons have been circled up for protection. In the center of the circle is a campfire and a group of rugged men are gathered around it. The wagon master, a muscular man with an uncut beard, has a map spread out before him. On the map is a heavy black line which zigzags across the map, showing the course they have traveled thus far. They have veered north for  part of the way, then south, but they keep heading west. By the look of urgency on the men’s faces, it seems that an argument has taken place over which way to go next. The wagon master has clearly taken control with one finger on the map and his other hand pointing toward some dark, hazy mountains in the distance. You can almost hear him saying, “We may have to go south around a mountain, or maybe north to find the best place to cross a river, but our direction will always be west.” That is how this wagon train will succeed, that is how we will reach our destination. Focus on our goal, and keep moving west.(1)

In this passage from Philippians today, Paul sounds like that wagon master as he shares some of his background and personal motivations for his spiritual life. As Paul says, “my goal is to know Christ and the power of the resurrection – so this one thing I do, I forget what lies behind and I strain forward to what lies ahead.” I may move all over the map sometimes, but I am always moving towards my ultimate destination – the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

If Lent is, among other things, a time to repent, a time to reconsider our life, a time to set aside distractions in order to focus on our relationship with God and Christ’s church, if it is a time to let the Holy Spirit work on us in order to remold us into the image of God – as individuals and as the body of Christ – then this passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi brings this Lenten season to its peak.(2)

This passage encourages us to take stock of our life. During Lent we discover the values that shape our lives. We look again at what shapes our identity and gives us security. We consider where we are going, and what is our ultimate goal. For Paul, it is to know Christ – and to know the power of resurrection and new life.

Paul begins by taking stock of his own life, reviewing some of his own life story. He was circumcised on the eighth day, as a devout Jew should be. He is a member of the people of Israel, the tribe of Benjamin, by the way. A Hebrew born of Hebrews. As to the law – a Pharisee. As to zeal – a persecutor of the church. As to righteousness under the law – blameless. Nobody has more reason to be proud of his history and accomplishments than me, says Paul.

But none of that is important to me. Nothing I have accomplished, nothing about my background brings me closer to God. The only thing that brings me closer to God is knowing Christ Jesus, my savior. Everything else I regard as “rubbish.”

Now, at this point of the text, we need to be very careful. Paul’s words here have, at times, been misused in the church’s history. Some have interpreted this passage as Paul dismissing  Judaism, and use it to support anti-Semitism. But that is not at all what Paul is doing. He actually values his heritage quite highly. He is very proud of his roots in the Jewish tradition – and Jesus’ identity as a Jew. Paul’s point here is to argue that a Christian did not need to first become a Jew in order to follow Christ. Apparently there had been some Jewish Christians who had come through Philippi – a non Jewish city – and had been preaching that everyone needed to be circumcised and follow the Jewish laws in order to be a proper Christian. Paul argues strongly against this idea. He is proud of his own heritage as a Jew, but every follower of Christ does not need to have that same heritage. The point, the final destination, the ultimate goal is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, not to follow all the laws of Judaism or to listen to whatever teacher was working his way through town. Paul’s advice for the church in Philippi, and for us today is – keep your eyes fixed on the goal, that is knowing Jesus.

But that’s not always an easy thing to do. It’s easy to get distracted. I remember an interesting news story came out about a year ago – actually it was a photograph, not really a news story, although lots of people commented on the picture as it made its way around Instagram. This photo showed the top half of a humpback whale emerging from below the water’s surface, just beginning to breach. It was a beautiful image – but it was what was happening in the background that got everybody talking.

There in the background was a man sitting in a little sailboat glued to his smartphone. He’s just a few feet away from this amazing sight, and he doesn’t appear to notice at all. He never looks up. The man who took the photo wrote later that he snapped about 5 pictures of that whale, and the guy in the sailboat is in every one – and he never looked up, not once.(3)

That picture struck such a chord because it describes so many people’s lives. We focus on things that don’t matter that much, and truly important things go unnoticed. To be successful at anything – school, work, relationships, even your spiritual life – you have to focus on the most important things first.

There is a story told about Bobby Bowden, the retired foot ball coach from Florida State. As it turns out, Bowden played baseball in college, but he never hit a home run. In fact, in his senior year at Howard College, he was the only player on the team NOT to hit a homer.

Then one day, he hit a line drive against Auburn. He rounded first, he came charging into second. As he approached third, the coach was waving him on. As he made the turn, he heard his third base coach shout – “you’d better hurry!”

When he touched home, the team went wild, slapping him on the back and shaking his hand. He had finally hit a home run. Meanwhile, no one noticed the first baseman yelling for the catcher to throw him the ball. When the ball was thrown to first, the umpire yelled “out!” It turns out, when Bowden was running so joyfully around the bases, he had failed to touch first. So his one home run didn’t count. Later in life, Bowden would tell that story as a reminder “If you don’t take care of first base, it doesn’t matter what else you do.” Take care of first things first.(4)

That what Paul calls us to do in this passage. Take care of first things first. And number one for Paul is to know Jesus Christ. That’s what matters most.

Then Paul boils it down to one piece of advice for the church in Philippi. This one thing I do, says Paul. I forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead. I press on…

There was once a student at Amherst College, who soon after arriving on campus for his freshman year, put the letter “V” on his door. Because of that “V”, lots of his fellow doormats made fun of him – but he didn’t pay attention to any of it, nor would he tell anyone what it meant.

But when graduation day arrived, everyone discovered his secret. This student did very well in his studies and was appointed to give the valedictory address for his class. And in his speech, the secret was revealed. The “V” stood for “valedictorian.” That letter on his door keep him focused on his goal. Every day, he saw that “V” – and everyday he kept straining toward what lies ahead.(5)

This passage begs the question – would letter, what symbol do you have on your door to remind you of the most important thing in life? Would it be an “M” for money. Maybe a “P” for position or power? Or maybe it would be a “G” for God. Or a “JC” for Jesus Christ. Or perhaps a cross to remind yourself of the power of the resurrection. I think a cross might be Paul’s choice.

Last year I went to a conference sponsored by Minnesota swimming. They brought in a lot of speakers and experts that talked about nutrition and training for young swimmers. They also had speakers to address the parents and how to handle kids in competitive and stressful environments. I remember one of the college swim coaches on hand told us that “Champions have short memories.” In other words, when you are in the car driving home from a swim meet and things didn’t go as well as your swimmer had hoped – don’t dwell on it. Talk about it – and then move on. Champions have short memories. Whether it’s a success or a failure, champion look ahead to what’s next.

That’s Paul’s advice for us here, as he says forget what is past and strain toward what is ahead.

I once read that on the Australian coat of arms, there two animals – an emu and a kangaroo. Not exactly the most majestic animals you could pick to represent your country – although they are both native to Australia. It is said that these two animals were chosen because they share a characteristic that appealed to the forefathers of that country – a country originally founded as a prison colony. You see, both the emu and the kangaroo can only move forward – they cannot move backward. The emu’s three-toed foot causes it to fall if it tries to go backwards – and the kangaroo can’t go backwards because of it’s large tail.(6) I can see why that would appeal to the forefathers of Australia – forget what is in the past – and strain towards lies ahead.

These are good words with which to close out the season of Lent. Next week, we arrive in Jerusalem with palm branches and a parade – and from there the days get dark very quickly. But as Paul points out – we keep straining toward lies ahead. We keep moving toward our final destination. We keep moving toward the cross and Jesus final victory over the power of death. From here on out, we keep our goal in mind – to know Christ, to know God’s love and grace and sacrifice, and ultimately, to know the power of Jesus’ resurrection and the gift of new life.

May God be praised. Amen.

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXII, No. 1, p. 66.

2.    Laura Mendenhall, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, p. 134.

3.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXII, No. 1, p. 67.

4.    Ibid… p. 67-68.

5.    Ibid… p. 68.

6.    Ibid… p. 70.