JUNE 14, 2009

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            Is it OK to be ambitious?  Is ambition a vice or a virtue?  Shakespeare seemed to think it was a vice.  In one of his plays Shakespeare has Henry VIII say to Cromwell, “Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition: By that sin fell the angels ...”

            On the other hand, I think of a group of people discussing a young female applicant they were considering as a prospective pastor for their congregation  One person in the group voiced the concern that she probably wouldn’t stay long in their small church because she was very ambitious.  Another said, however, that her ambition was her best attribute.  He said that she would not be content with the status quo, but would push them to stretch and grow in new ways.  He concluded by saying, “God needs ambitious people.” 

            Well, I guess it all has to do with the goal of our ambition as to whether ambition is a vice or a virtue.  Take the Apostle Paul, for example.  He was fiercely ambitious.  If we define ambition as “the desire to succeed,” then the Apostle Paul possessed that desire in spades.  Before he was a Christian, Paul had been fiercely ambitious in his desire to persecute the church.   After his conversion he did not lose his ambitious nature, but its direction changed.  If anything, he was even more ambitious  In fact, he describes himself here as being like an athlete desperate to win a race.

            I think of Frank Horne, a great American track star of the past.  Today, sprinters use starting blocks.  Back in his day, they did not have starting blocks.  Instead, the runner needed to dig a couple of little holes in which to place his or her feet, to be able to push off at the starting gun.  Keep that in mind, “digging in” as we listen to Horne mentor a young man.  Horne said to him,


            Live as I have taught you boy.  It’s a short dash.  Dig your starting hole deep and firm; burst out of them into the straightway with all the power that is in you; look straight ahead to the finish line; think only of the goal.  Run straight, run high, run hard.  Save nothing and finish with an ecstatic burst that carries you hurdling through the tape to victory.


            That’s how Paul lived.  Throughout his life he ran straight, he ran high, he ran hard.  Prior to Christ his efforts centered on wiping out Christianity.  After coming to Christ the goal of his life, his ambition, changed.  Toward the end of his life look at what motivated Paul, got him out of bed each morning.  Verse 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, if somehow I may attain the resurrection of the dead.


            I want us to note a handful of things about the Apostle Paul this morning.  First note his goal, his overarching ambition in life.  His goal is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.  Let me tell you a little about the Greek word translated here as “to know.”  This particular Greek verb almost always indicates personal knowledge, and not intellectual knowledge, not the knowledge of certain facts or theories or even principles.   We may get a better sense of this word in how the Old Testament uses this verb.  Yes, the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, but after Jews were conquered by the Babylonians and taken off into captivity, living outside of Israel, over time they began to speak Greek, rather than Hebrew, as their native language.  So the Old Testament needed to be translated into Greek for these none Israeli Jews, and when we read in the Greek that “Adam knew Eve his wife; and conceived and bare Cain” (Genesis 4:1),  the Greek word in Genesis for “knew” was the same word used here by Paul.  In other words, this verb indicates the closest and the most intimate and the most personal knowledge of another person.  So, then, it is not Paul’s aim “to know about Christ,” it is his aim to personally know Christ.

            So that’s what gets Paul up in the morning.  He wants to know Christ intimately and to live daily in the power of the resurrection.  That’s his goal.  That’s what I wanted us to note first.  The second thing I want us to note about Paul is the fun mix of humility and confidence that we often see in him.  Verse 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.  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 toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. 


            He’s not there yet.  He has a ways to go.  He carries this humbleness about him, but he is also confident that he’s on the right track, that he’s running the right race.  Verse 15.


            Let those of us then who are mature (and he puts himself in this category, and most of us would put him in the mature category as well) be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. 


            By the way, I love that line.  “If you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you,” that is, “If you think differently than me, than us, well eventually God will set you straight.”  He’s confident he’s running the right race, that he’s headed in the right direction, so much so that he says next,


            Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example that you have seen in us.


            One biblical scholar translated Paul’s words here as, “Vie with one another in imitating me.”  I’m sure you have heard people say, “Do as I say, not necessarily as I do.”  Well, Paul says, “Do as I say and do as I do!”  When Paul was confident, he was confident, almost reaching arrogance, but not quite, just falling short.   When Paul thought he was right, well, I would love him on my debating team because he would confidently argue his position, our position. 

            And one last thing I want us to note about Paul in addition to his goal and his mix of humility and confidence.  I want you to note his soft side this morning.  Verse 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.  Their end is their destruction; their god is their belly; and their glory is in their shame (I think of reality show participants here or folk on the Jerry Springer show); their minds are set on earthly things. 


            You know, the Apostle Paul was a tough guy.  Sometime next year, I think we will work our way through the book of Acts, and we’ll see that.  We will see him flogged and tortured, but he won’t see him cry in the book of Acts.  Instead, after being flogged and tortured he will sing hymns of praise.  Sometime next year we will also see him imprisoned, shipwrecked, and at times in anguish and despair and suffering from many a sleepless night, but none of that reduced him to tears.  Yet he sheds tears now, not in self-pity but for those who have rejected Jesus Christ, those whose bellies are their God, their shame their glory, and whose minds are set on earthly things.

            Sometimes, preachers move beyond preaching to meddling, and Paul does that here, and sadly, what was true of Paul’s day is also true of our day.  One only has to look at popular magazines.  I had a dentist appointment a couple of weeks ago, and I picked up a magazine in the dentist’s office that I don’t normally read.  I won’t name the magazine, but it was a women’s magazine and almost every page was devoted to sex, food, clothing, exercise, drink, perfume, and jewelry.  It was all about the body: how to clothe it, exercise it, feed it, decorate it, and make it smell good.  Sensual pleasure dominated virtually every page.  I was so taken by the magazine I asked the receptionist if I could borrow a paper and pencil so I could right down what I read.  Shoes were advertised like this:


            Slip into something more comfortable.  Feel the lycra caress every contour of your skin, as you float along ... go on, show your feet you love them, and give them a hug.”


            An ad for skin cream read,


            “With its millions of droplets, even smaller than liposomes, the microcrystal textures as thin as muslim enticing and amazing, will make you experience new sensations.”


            Put that skin cream on and you will need to take a cold shower.  I’m not done.  A vacation spa promoted itself as a “body holiday.”  It read,


            “Give us your body for a week and we will give you back your mind.  It’s all your body could ask for.”


            Some advertisements suggested that their products had a god-like quality.  A vodka was described as “absolute perfection.”  A perfume was called, “Eternity.”  An ad for ice cream was downright honest.  It was “dedicated to pleasure.”

            Now there is nothing wrong with our bodies.  They are a gift from God, but when our bellies become our God, when our lives directly or indirectly revolve around satisfying our bodily desires, we are in trouble.  By the way, that same magazine where I found all those advertisements included an article about Mick Jagger, who is over 60 now and a grandfather.  Since I grew up enjoying the Rolling Stones, I read the article.  I found out that Jagger is in the top 100 of Britain’s richest people.  He owns four houses some in Britain and some in the United States.  He is a friend of the rich, the titled, the famous.  He has five children by three different women.  His girlfriends between marriages have included some of the most beautiful women in the world.  Yet his friend and fellow Rolling Stones band member Keith Richards said of him,


            Ninety-nine percent of the male population of the Western world would give a limb to live the life of Jagger, to be Mick Jagger ... and he’s not happy being Mick Jagger.” 


            The article ended by saying their hit song, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” is the story of Mick’s life.  If Jagger would have been alive in Paul’s day, Paul would have shed a tear for him.

            Let’s finish reading our passage for this morning.  Verse 20.


            But our citizenship is in heaven and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.  He will transform the body of our humiliation (even better than those products in the magazine) 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.  Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.


            Paul ends with an invitation.  In this passage Paul underscores the fact that everyone is on one of two paths.  One leads to heaven, the other to destruction.  There are two powers at work: the power of the resurrection and the power of bodily appetites.  There are two possible lifestyles: those willing to share in Christ’s sufferings and those who want a lifestyle of ease and comfort.  There are two possible gods: our Lord Jesus Christ and our stomachs.  There are two possible attitudes toward Jesus: either friendship at an intimate level or an enemy of the cross.  Ultimately, there are only two ambitions: either God’s glory or our own glory.  Paul says in effect, “I have changed my ambition.  Will you join me?”

            His invitation still stands.