10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, 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, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Dear Friends in Christ,
Maybe it’s the grandfather in me, but recently I came across a poem written by that great wise man that we all know and love so well, Dr. Seuss. It’s entitled “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” and it goes like this:
You’ll be on your way up. You’ll be seeing great sights.
You’ll join the high flyers who soar to great heights.
You won’t lag behind because you’ll have the speed.
You’ll pass the whole gang and soon take the lead.
Wherever you fly you’ll be one of the best.
And wherever you go you will top all the rest,
Except when you don’t, because sometimes you won’t.
I’m sorry to say so, but sadly it’s true.
Bang ups and hang ups can happen to you.
You can get all hung up in a prickly perch
And your gang will fly on and you’ll be in a lurch.
And you’ll come down from the lurch with an unpleasant bump
And the chances are you’ll be in a slump.
And when you’re in a slump, you’re not in for much fun
For unslumping yourself is not easily done.
We all know what it’s like to be in a slump, don’t we? We’re not exactly sure where they come from, these periods when the world around us grows dark and relationships turn sour and our attitude is cranky. But we sure know when we’re in one. Every step forward seems to be followed by two steps back. Everyone around us seems happy and sailing along smoothly through life which only adds to our frustration. We hear rumors of silver linings behind every cloud and lights at the end of the tunnel, but we haven’t seen either for quite some time. No doubt about it, slumps are tough, and Dr. Seuss was right: “Unslumping yourself is not easily done.” But it’s not impossible. And if you’re battling a slump this morning, you’ve come to the right place because I believe the Apostle Paul can serve as your source of inspiration in helping you find your way out of that slump.
Why Paul? Well, because if anyone was a prime candidate for a slump, it was he. Here he was in Rome where he really wanted to be preaching, but instead he found himself imprisoned there. Meanwhile, churches he had helped to start in Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, and Philippi were having problems and needed his attention, but all he could do was write letters. So that’s what he does. He takes a pen in hand and some parchment and he writes.
Now you’d think he’d be writing a letter of grievances, maybe listing all the bad things that have happened and continue to happen to him. But no, that’s not what Paul is doing. Instead, what he writes in that Roman prison cell is what you might expect to be written at summer camp or during the springtime when everything is in bloom. For what Paul writes to the Philippians has come to be known as his epistle of joy which contains one line after another of sheer, unbridled happiness. So even though his circumstances are bad, his attitude is good.
And maybe the first part of that statement that I just made describes you right now. Your circumstances are bad. Though you’re not in a prison made of stone and mortar like Paul was, you may very well feel as though you are imprisoned in a bad job or a bad relationship or a bad financial stretch or a body that needs a lot of care or a marriage that needs a lot of help. And usually our prayer at such times is, “Lord, change my circumstances,” which he sometimes does. But oftentimes he does not. Instead, his reply is, “Rather than change your circumstances, I think I’m going to change you.” That’s what he did with Paul and that’s what he can do with you. How? Well, let’s take a look at a couple of suggestions that we can learn from Paul in our text for today.
First of all, when we’re in a slump we need to re-examine and re-structure our priorities. In v.10 Paul mentions what his topmost priority is when he says “I want to know Christ.” Now you might have thought Paul would have had a different priority, like “I want to start churches.” “I want to preach the Gospel.” Or at the very least, “I want to get out of this prison.” But instead, Paul says that his #1 priority is, “I want to know Christ.” Now what exactly does that mean, to know Christ?
Well, a similar question might surface in a conversation between a couple that’s been married for about a year. The honeymoon has passed. The sizzle has started to fizzle. The romance is becoming routine. And the bride is beginning to feel a little distant and detached from her groom. So out of a heart full of concern, she sits him down and asks him: “Honey, do you know me?” And in true manly fashion he says, “Of course I know you. I married you, didn’t I? I know your name. I know your parents. I know your siblings. I know you like to shop.” But the bride says, “That’s not what I asked. I’m not wondering if you know about me. I’m wondering if you really know me – personally, deeply, intimately.”
You understand what we’re talking about here, my friends? We’re talking about the big “R” word: RELATIONSHIP. Not just knowing facts and information about the one we love, but knowing them on a deeper level – having a close intimate connection with them. That’s what Paul wanted to have with Jesus and believe it or not, that’s what Jesus desperately wants to have with us. The question is, how do we get to know Christ like that?
Well, how did you get to know him or her – the one you ultimately fell in love with? Remember the early days of your relationship? All you could think about was him. All you wanted to do was spend time with her. And if you couldn’t be together for an extended period of time, then you might do something really crazy like Marilyn and I used to do when we found ourselves in that situation before we got married and long before the days of Internet and email and cell phones we actually hand-wrote one another letters every single day. Put simply then, your relationship with the one you fell in love with was at the top of your priority list and more than anything, you just loved hanging out with each other, right?
Well, you know what, my friends? You might find this hard to believe, but God wants to hang out with you. He wants to spend time with you getting to know you better and he wants you to spend time with him getting to know him better. Now I know what some of you are thinking: “Oh, but Pastor, you don’t understand. Time is one luxury I simply do not have. I mean, I’ve got kids to raise, a career to pursue, a home to take care of. I have all these things I have to tend to.” I believe Jesus knew we would raise that objection which is why I suppose he gives us this challenge in his Sermon on the Mount. In Matt. 6:33 he says, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
Now granted, for most of us, it would take a major re-ordering and re-structuring of our priorities if we were to truly seek first his kingdom and his righteousness – if we were to make that our #1 priority in life – but if we did that, I think we would discover that it would be well worth it. In fact, one author has put it this way: “Time spent seeking Christ gains time for everything else.” Repeat. How can that be, you might ask? Well, if you spend time in the faithful presence of Christ, then there’s a good possibility you’re not going to waste time later on worrying about certain things because you’re trusting in his faithfulness. If you spend time in the forgiving presence of Christ, then you won’t waste time later on feeling guilty over something you did yesterday or yesteryear. If you spend time in the focused presence of Christ, then you won’t waste time later on dealing with the wrong priorities because he’ll help to keep you focused on what is most important. He’ll be your best friend who keeps you pointed in the right direction. Like Prov. 3:6 says, “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.”
Believe me, my friends, nobody wants you to be a better husband or wife than God does. Nobody wants you to be a better mom or dad or child than God does. Nobody wants you to succeed at your job more than God does. The psalmist put it this way in Ps. 37:4: “Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart.” So make it a priority to spend time with him getting to know him better and see what kind of a difference it makes in your life. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised, especially when you find yourself in a slump.
So Paul’s 1st suggestion for dealing with a slump is to re-examine and re-order our priorities. His 2nd suggestion is equally good and effective, and that is, release your past. How many of you have a day in your past that you wish was not there? Or maybe it’s a week, a month, a year, or even longer. Whatever the case, it has haunted you and hounded you for far too long. And you’d give anything if you could to just reach in and extract it like a bad tooth that’s causing you pain.
Well, if you’ve ever felt that way in our text Paul speaks directly to you when he says,“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.” What do you think Paul had in mind when he wrote “Forgetting what is behind”? I don’t think there is any doubt that he was thinking of his own past mistakes, and believe me, he had a whole catalog of them. Before he made disciples, he killed them. Before he preached the Gospel, he tried in every way imaginable to silence the Gospel. By his own admission in I Tim. 1, he was the chief of sinners. Yes, Paul’s past was full of bad memories.
And what about your past? Do you have similar memories? Oh, I know none of you have ever persecuted or killed Christians, but I’ll bet we’ve all done things that to this day we are still ashamed of? How about the time or times you had too much to drink? Or the time you became involved with that man or woman who wasn’t your spouse, maybe not physically, but emotionally – what we sometimes call an affair of the heart? Or what about the times you caved into temptation and allowed pornographic images into your home by means of the Internet? Or the time your marriage failed? Indeed, we all have skeletons in our closet, ghosts from our past that continue to haunt us.
So I want you to do something right now. I want you to think back to that one thing that you are most ashamed of in your life and though you may not be able to forget it, as Paul encourages us to do in our text, I want you to picture yourself taking that shameful act and laying it down at the foot of the cross. Then I want you to step back and watch as the precious blood of Jesus flows over that sin and completely covers it. Now I want you to picture God the Father reaching down from heaven, scooping up that blood-covered sin, and tossing it into the deepest part of the ocean where it will sink to the bottom, never to rise again. For that is precisely what the prophet Micah tells us God does with our sins in chapter 7:19 of his book when he says, “…you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.”
In the light of what we’ve just been talking about, I really wish we were having Communion today, but since we’re not, let me encourage you with these words. The next time you partake of the Lord’s Supper don’t let it be just another routine reception of the Sacrament. Instead, let it accomplish for you what Christ intended it to do. As you receive his body and blood with the bread and the wine, let his grace, his mercy, his forgiveness just spill over you. Let it cover you and completely wash away any guilt, any shame you have ever felt. And then as you leave the Communion table and return to your pew, do so with a heart full of gratitude and praise and with the realization that if God could take a former persecutor of the church like Paul and use him in such powerful ways, then he can certainly take a feeble sinner like you and me and use us for his good and mighty purposes.
You know, with God’s help and the suggestions that we’ve looked at this morning, the best of your life can be the rest of your life and the slump you may be in right now can quickly become nothing more than a distant memory. Let’s pray:
Father, there are some here today, perhaps many, who are mired in a slump. Though I don’t know who all of them are, you do. And I pray for them and ask you to visit them with the comforting presence of your Holy Spirit. Help them to follow through on the advice that Paul has given us today – to re-examine and re-order their priorities by making their #1 priority that of spending time in your presence and getting to know you better. And Father, if their slump is caused by guilt or shame over past mistakes and sins, help them to know that whatever they lay at the foot of the cross is not only covered and paid for by the blood of Christ, but it is also cast into the sea of your everlasting forgetfulness. Help us all to be more like Paul and to find joy in the midst of our adversities and peace in the midst of our prisons. We ask this in Jesus’ name.