April 1, 2001
Fifth Sunday in Lent

LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary

Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8


 Lenten Series on the Gospel Lessons from 1998 ~ "In The Thick of Things"
V. John 12:1-8 "In the Thick of Deceit"

[ Read this week's texts at the Vanderbilt Divinity On-Line Library ]
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"God and the Religious Resume"
Philippians 3:4b - 14

Have you ever been a part of one of those discussions where someone asks, "What would you do if you knew you only have 24 hours to live?"

The last time I heard a discussion like this, I was getting a hair cut and overheard a woman and her hairdresser talking. (Shame on me for listening in huh?) In any case, the hairdresser asked her customer this question. I do not recall the exact words of the woman's answer, but it essentially was a statement that she would have to do some really nice things to make up for some not so nice things. Then she would have to spend her last few hours at church praying in order to try to make some headway in what she felt was a deficit in her prayers.

The conversation was not unlike a number like it most of have heard at one time or another. The basic sense many people have when they think of the prospect of coming face to face with God is that they need to "cram for finals" and quickly improve their religious resume.

***

Actually this is not such an uncommon thing. Throughout the scriptures there are stories of human beings like you and me who feel that they need to get their religious act together when the thought of an encounter with God arises.

Remember the rich young man who came to Jesus and asked, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" [Mk. 10:17ff] Jesus' first response dealt with the surface issue of a person's religious resume. "You know the commandments," Jesus told him, "You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother." Now the wealthy young man begins to point to the fact that he has done pretty well. "I have kept all these since my youth," he answers.

The greatest story in all of the New Testament about people trying to impress God with their religious resume is the one Jesus told in the parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector who both went to the temple to pray. The Pharisee was quite proud of his religious condition and his prayer is essentially a recitation of his resume. Listen:

"The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'"[Luke 18:10ff]

Amazing, isn't it? This fellow's prayer is standing before God giving himself a pat on the back. I especially like the rendition of the New International Version of the bible where Jesus describes the Pharisee by saying, "The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself..." The King James Version may even be better, "The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself..."  The implication is that God is not even involved in self congratulatory prayer!

The tax collector on the other hand, would not even approach the place of prayer. He did not feel himself worthy and could not even bring himself to look up toward the heavens. Instead of patting himself on the back, he beats himself on the breast, lowers his eyes in humility and asks God for mercy.

Guess who went home in a right relationship with God!

Jesus' story turn the notion of making ourselves good enough for God and better than our fellow human beings by our own religious enterprise turned his religious world upside down. This was not what people expected. When the rich young man found that his religious resume was not enough to make him a genuine follower, he sadly went away. Peter and the rest were stunned.

When Peter first had a close encounter of the spiritual kind - (The day Jesus commandeered his boat then led him to the largest catch of his life) - his reaction was like that of the tax collector. When Peter saw Jesus for who he was, he saw his own inner self. And he didn't like what he saw. He was struck by what he saw in himself and astounded by what he saw in Jesus. He fell to his knees and said, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" [Luke 5:8]

***

When we truly have a sense of who God is, we necessarily gain insight into who we are. The difficulty the Pharisee and those who trust their religious resumes for their relationship with God miss something crucial. Human nature can not possibly produce the kind of life that would put God in the position of being compelled to consider the person worthy of God's glory. The way Paul said it was this, "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God." [Romans 3:23]

You see, no matter how hard I strive to make myself pleasing to God, there will never be a time when I can consider myself to have arrived. Martin Luther the reformer, found himself absolutely in bondage with his attempts to pray hard enough and punish himself enough for his sin. He could not make himself "righteous" enough for God. No matter what he did to try and pay for his sins or make himself righteous, he felt further away from God. It was a spiritual "two steps forward, three steps back."

Perhaps it is the Apostle Paul who made the greatest attempt of all to make himself right with God. The earliest church suffered no little pain because of Paul's efforts. As a Pharisee, he did all he could to live a pious life in line with all the rigors of Jewish religious laws. As a defender of the faith, he did everything within his power to prevent the spread of early Christianity. He was present at the execution of the first Christian martyr Stephen and very likely had a role in it. The words are almost chilling. "And Saul was there, giving approval to his {Stephen's} death." [Acts 8:1]

It is hard to think of the Pharisee Saul as the same person who wrote the warm and tender letter to the church at Philippi and spoke of how he missed them saying, "I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. [Phil. 1:8]

What happened? What is it that caused Paul to turn away from everything that he believed would make him right with God, throw out his lengthy, hard won resume and start all over with nothing?

He had been a star in his circles. "If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, 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. [4b-6]

Then comes the incredible, inside out and upside down, twist in his life. "But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish..." [7-8]

Paul came to consider his resume so much rubbish!

And it was an impressive resume to his colleagues when he was one of the church's greatest and most effective enemies.

Now he longs to be with a tiny group of Christian believers who are themselves persecuted. He will spend years of his life in prison and under persecution for someone he once despised.

It all defies explanation. In the logical human mind it is as astounding to us today as Jesus' words about the rich young ruler and his resume were so long ago.

***

Understanding can only come as the Spirit of God graciously gives us insight into these words. Paul's words go to the heart of what it means to go from a relationship with God based on our religious resume to a relationship based on God's grace and the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

Listen again:

"...I regard them (all those accomplishments on his religious resume) as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. [8-9]

Here is the heart of what Paul discovered about "God and the Religious Resume." When he tried to do enough to please God and make himself acceptable, he was trying to produce righteousness from within his own frail human system. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." [Matt. 5:48] That is, of course, not possible for mortals. The words pointed out the absolute standards of God and leads the soul to confrontation with humanity's need for God's grace.

Paul came to a point in his spiritual journey where he had to give up faith in his ability to produce a life that would be good enough to satisfy the holy requirements of God. Instead he placed his faith in the life, death and resurrection of Christ and depended upon the righteousness of Christ to place him in a right relationship with God. He goes on to affirm that he does not consider himself to have arrived in a spiritual sense. It is Christ who has arrived. His task now, is to press on toward the completion of a life that is pleasing to God.

All of this is not to say that we do not attempt to live a life that is pleasing to the Lord. It is more that our attempts are not what produce our relationship with God, but rather it is God's grace which enable us to boldly live that is pleasing to God. Because we do not fear rejection for failure, but grace for renewal and a new beginning each day, we are able to live with joy instead of dread.

The genius of the life Christ calls us to is expressed in these words from the Apostle who gave up everything he had ever gained for the sake of everything Christ had gained for him. "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, I press on..."

Beautiful.  Yes?

All of us have experienced failure. Sometimes bone crushing, breathtaking failure that can bring us to despair. But we have also experienced good times when we accomplish the very thing we set out to accomplish, give ourselves away in a selfless act that brings joy to our spirit, or experience a day when all things seem good.

And yet, the struggle to do it on our own - by ourselves - day after day and year after year - is a lonely struggle. Imagine the Apostle Paul trying to deal with the fact that he had participated in the execution of a vibrant, God-loving, self sacrificing servant of Jesus Christ. Without the grace of God and the goodness of Christ, it would have been impossible.

But because of God's grace and the forgiveness made possible through Jesus Christ, Paul is able to, "forget what lies behind," and "... Press on toward the goal..."

It doesn't stop with Paul and the New Testament. It continues to this very day when you and I gather in the name of Christ almost 2000 years since the words of the epistle lesson were written. We come today to lay our personal spiritual resumes aside and reach out in faith for the resume of Jesus Christ. The wonder and mystery of the Christian faith is that this resume of the one and only Son of God becomes our resume. So that...

We too may, "forget what lies behind," and "... Press on toward the goal..."


 

Discussion and Reflection on the Texts

Connections in the Texts

The text from Isaiah, the Psalm for the day and the epistle reading all point to the newness of life and refreshment of spirit that are gifts of God's grace. It is God who, "Makes a way in the sea..." or, "...restores the fortunes of Zion..." and makes it possible for us to, "...know Christ and the power of his resurrection."

"I am about to do a new thing..." Some of the most powerful words in Isaiah in that they point to the grace of God's forgiveness of the people of God and the promise of restoration. The results of the new thing are seen in the life and ministry of the apostle Paul who discovers the futility of trying to bring himself into a proper relationship with God and the power of embracing the forgiveness and renewal offered through Christ.

The gospel lesson from John does not easily relate to the other lessons - except for the fact that Judas does not "get it.

 

Isaiah 43: 16-21

There is powerful emotion in this text if we will open our spirits to the anguish that must reside in the heart of God when the crown of creation - namely Adam and Eve, "Ish" and "Ishsha" - leave fellowship with the divine and peruses a course that leads to self destruction. Then a people is formed for God through the covenant with Noah, then, Abraham, then David - and still - the joy of fellowship with God is destroyed by the persistent self destructive choices of the people of God.

And now through the prophet, the amazing steadfast love of God breaks through to declare that all which has transpired will be forgotten and a new thing will be done. The same God who destroyed the bondage of Egypt on behalf of a rebellious people will now put away all the former things, (unfaithfulness, rebellion, ingratitude and the worship of false gods) and make a new way for his people.

In this text is our purpose - "The people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise."

Think about it. We are very capable of joy, celebration and praise for our favorite football team when a championship is won, a high school athlete who brings honor to her or his team, or a child who manages an "A" in a tough course.

But - we are sometimes so reluctant to be forthcoming with our praise for a God who breaks bondage, makes a way in the desert or by grace makes us one with the family of faith of all ages who have found redemption in Christ. The "wild animals will honor me - the jackals and the ostriches..." but praise for God among us is sometimes so difficult to find. 

 

John 12:1-8

This gospel reading is the subject of your alternate full text sermon John 12:1-8 "In the Thick of Deceit

In addition, we would suggest some thoughts about the place of Judas in this text as illustrative of our thought in the sermon on the Philippians text.

Judas does not understand grace. There are some who exonerate Judas to a degree by suggesting that he was simply trying to force the hand of Jesus. When Jesus was arrested and condemned, they reason, Jesus would bring on the Kingdom of God and crush Rome. Even in the best light, however, Judas does not grasp the notion of the grace of God.  He hides behind the righteous idea that the cost of the expensive ointment the woman wasted on Jesus could have been contributed to the poor.

But - the gift is one of pure grace - the one who could in no way have been able to afford such ointment - now seems to throw it away in an emotional display. There is no room in Judas for abundant grace.

There is a place for reflection on some words of Jesus in this text. "You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me." This isn't a comment on social policy or welfare reform. It has to do with the joy of the presence of Christ. You might point folks to what it would be like to be, "without Christ."  What would my life be without Christ?  It is a bit of a "jump" from the text, but a worthy question for we moderns who can not imagine life without the name of Christ.

 

Philippians 3:4b-14

When we examine the role of Saul / Paul in the earliest church, there is the most amazing transformation. The one who was the chief enemy of the church becomes the chief apostle of reaching beyond parochial walls. Paul overcomes the barrier between Jew and Gentile and brings the love of God and grace of Christ to those who are the sinners, tax collectors and outcasts of the ancient world.

As a Jew who was dedicated to the eradication of the church and the vision of gentiles as "dogs" - Paul became the messenger of grace and builder of Christian community. Though he once hoped to put a stop to the gospel of Christ,  he became the father of churches who had a deep longing to be with those he once regarded as not worthy of God's love.

To understand the true nature of the love of God, the ministry of Christ and the meaning of redemption, one has to understand the power that brought about the transformation of Saul of Tarsus - the Apostle Paul.


 Worship Helps

A Call To Worship

Leader:   Let us be together, O People of God, in the giving of our hearts in worship.
People:  Let us praise the Holy Name of God with all that is within us.
Leader:   The Lord our God reigns over all, the splendor of the Lord surrounds us.
People:  May the glory of the Lord come upon us,
Leader:   May the blessing of God fill this place,
People:  And may our hearts be filled with the peace of the Lord.   Amen

 

Confession of Sin

We come in humility O Lord.  We come trusting that your mercy is sufficient to cover our sin, for our hearts would fail under the burden if Your were not the gracious God You are.  We have spoken badly of others, your children in the Body of Christ.  We have been silent when we should have spoken for You.  We judge others and often place ourselves above judgment.  We pray that You would forgive us our wrong and help us to so embrace Your love that we will become courageous followers of Your Son Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

Friends, the word of the Lord assures us that if we confess our sin, God is faithful to forgive our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  Open your hearts to receive the grace of God and the forgiveness of your sin.  May you be in peace.

A Prayer of Thanksgiving

Loving God, we thank You for the countless ways you nourish and sustain us along the way.  You are there even when we are unmindful, you are watching over us when we are oblivious to Your presence.  In these moments of worship we gain a glimpse into the brilliant light of Your Eternal presence.  We gain a foretaste of glory divine.

As we venture even further into the days of this new century and peer over the threshold of a new millennium, we can not imagine moving forward without You. O fill us with Your glory dear God, and send us from this time with You filled with the power of Your Spirit.  Help us to dedicate our lives to Your praise and glory for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Prayer of Dedication

We are blessed, O giver of life, to even consider bringing these gifts to You.  How can we give to the One who has given us life, forgiveness of sin and hope to sustain us through all the days of our lives.  Thank you Lord.   Receive these gifts as the tokens of our hearts.  Amen.