Sermon: Encouragement for the Long Haul - Philippians 3

Paul certainly gained a new perspective on life. Once a persecutor of Christians, he was suddenly delighted to be part of the persecuted. His encounter with Jesus Christ had so profoundly changed him, it put a new perspective on everything in his life.

Scriptures: Philippians 3:7-14

Introduction

You talk about gaining a new perspective on what's important . . . A preacher dreamed he had died and was standing in front of the gates of heaven. As it will happen in such make-believe dreams, he came face to face with St. Peter, who was holding a big book and was ready to decide if this man - a preacher -was going to be allowed into heaven.

St. Peter gave him a surprise announcement. "You're going to need 100 points to get inside the gates."

"Well," said the preacher proudly, "I was a minister for 47 years."

"That's nice," answered Peter. "That gets you one point."

"One point?! That's all I get? Just one point for 47 years of service?"

"Yes, that's correct," said Peter.

The minister was concerned at the scoring system. He tried to think of other things he had done in life.

"Well," he said, "I visited shut-ins every chance I got."

"One point."

"I developed a number of recovery programs, and I took part in many civic groups in our city. People loved me!"

"One point. Now you've got three points."

"I worked with youth," said the minister, "and surely you must know what that's like!"

"One more point," said Peter, "and that makes four. You need 96 more points."

"Oh no!" the minister cried out in panic. "I feel so helpless, so inadequate. Except for the grace of God, I don't have a chance."

St. Peter smiled a big smile. "Ah . . . the grace of God! That's good for 96 points. Come on in!"

Paul certainly gained a new perspective on life. Once a persecutor of Christians, he was suddenly delighted to be part of the persecuted. His encounter with Jesus Christ had so profoundly changed him, it put a new perspective on everything in his life.

When we open Paul's letter to the Philippians, however, more than 25 years have passed. On the downside, Paul was dealing with the usual aging process and a painful "thorn in the flesh." But on the positive side of things, Paul possessed a maturity only time can bring. Part of that maturity was a new perspective, something that gave him encouragement for the long haul. He was determined to cross his finish line in a full run.

If you've been a Christian for a great many years, make it a point to model Paul's perseverance.

I. Perseverance adds proper perspective to life

There is a story, perhaps fictional, about the great industrialist Andrew Carnegie. He started his career with little money and power. Through shrewd business moves, he amassed one of the huge fortunes of history.

By mid-life, he stayed pretty much to himself. He traveled in his own private railroad car, and he allowed no one near him except an old black man, who served as his valet. Carnegie would board his train in the evening, get his favorite cigar and newspaper, and order the butler to remain silent. No conversation was to take place unless Carnegie initiated it.

One evening just as Carnegie had settled in with his paper and cigar, the valet approached timidly and said, "Excuse me, Mr. Carnegie!" Carnegie looked up and said, "What! Is the train on fire?" "No sir," said the valet. "Well, then, shut up!" Carnegie ordered.

A few minutes passed and the valet approached him again. "Don't say a word!" said Carnegie.

"But sir, you're going to have to get off of this car!" said the valet.

By now Carnegie was furious. He spat out the cigar and scattered the paper. He thundered, "And what is wrong with this car?"

"There ain't nothing wrong with this car, sir," replied the valet. "It just ain't tied on to nothing!"

The story goes that Carnegie broke up in laughter. Later, the incident caused him to take a good look at his life. He was wealthy, powerful, and mostly alone. In fact, he lived in a gilded cage. He never knew if someone liked him or just wanted his money. Having acquired so much through subterfuge himself, he suspected everyone else of the same intentions.

He realized that he was much like his private train car - he wasn't tied on to anything at all. As you know, Carnegie spent the remainder of his life giving away most of what he had acquired, and millions of people have benefited from those gifts. As he gave away more than $350 million in the early 1900's, his money established more than 2,500 public libraries throughout the world. His foundations have benefited teachers, world peace, and bravery. His construction of Carnegie Hall in New York City provided a world-class venue for great music throughout the 20th Century. As he grew older, Andrew Carnegie apparently found a proper perspective in life, and decided to use his resources to help others.

If Andrew Carnegie was rich in finances, Paul was wealthy in terms of Jewish pedigree. He had the right heritage, the best education, the right connections, and a brilliant future. After he met Christ, Paul set about the process of finding a proper perspective. In the end, all that he once valued, he considered rubbish.

The word translated "nothing" and elsewhere translated "rubbish" is "skubala" in the Greek. The King James cuts right to the quick with "skubala" - "I do count them but dung!" There's a sense that Paul's perspective on what he once thought important was pretty rough. "You might think you like it," says the aging missionary, "but I wouldn't step in that stuff, if I were you!"

It seems so tragic that we can't break the cycle. Younger adults focus on a great number of goals, only to discover later in life that they've put too much value in skubala. One of the clear values in persevering with Christ is simply living long enough to tell the difference between rubbish and things that have true value.

II. Perseverance brings fellowship out of suffering

People who suffer together have a fellowship like none other. When a woman has a miscarriage, there's no person on earth who can minister to her like another woman who's been through the same heartache. When a man is facing heart surgery, he pays particular attention to another man who's survived the process. When someone faces surgery for an ingrown toenail, every member of the ingrown toenail club pays close attention. While some listen to pain with head knowledge, others always listen with a kindred spirit that only comes from experience. There's fellowship in the suffering!

When Paul suffered, he felt a kindred spirit with Christ. When Paul was scourged, he remembered that the same thing happened to Jesus. When Paul was imprisoned, he thought of the night Jesus was imprisoned, before his execution. When Paul was run out places like Ephesus, perhaps he remembered the day when Jesus was thrown out of Nazareth. And in those experiences, Paul found power.

Ruth Baker was a servant to the core. As was her regular practice, she bought groceries for an elderly neighbor one winter day in 1990. In the parking lot, a car backed into Ruth, who suffered a broken leg.

While Ruth was recovering from the injury, her good leg began to hurt. A doctor ordered it wrapped tightly, so it was. Unfortunately, it was wrapped so tightly, for an entire night, the leg was actually ruined. A week later, all efforts to recover it had failed, and Ruth's good leg was amputated.

Ruth's ordeal wasn't over yet. While being moved to another hospital, orderlies were careless with Ruth as they carried her. When they dropped her, the leg was broken again! For nearly a year, Ruth underwent tests, and rehabilitation and excruciating pain. In time, her second leg was amputated.

I couldn't get over the way Ruth's ordeal had begun. She had run an errand for someone else. It was a good deed with a horrible ending. I visited her in the hospital, hoping to bring her some word of comfort. It was my first year of ministry, and I really didn't know what to say. What wisdom would you have for a woman who'd undergone so much suffering, so needlessly?

"Mrs. Baker, I just wanted you to know that our church has been praying for you a long, long time."

"Not every day can be a mountain-top experience," said the lady in the hospital bed. "In fact, you can appreciate the mountain tops more when you get down in the valley. And, you know what I've learned? God's promise was that he would never leave us, that he would walk with us through the valley of death. He's walking with me, now."

While I know the words of Psalm 23, Ruth Baker knew the reality of them. She knew the truth because of the fellowship of her suffering.

One of the problems of persevering is living long enough to have all kinds of suffering. At the same time, one of the benefits of persevering is living long enough to experience suffering. And in suffering, there is value. If you are suffering today, or if you find yourself in suffering tomorrow, don't miss the value God has in store for you.

III. Perseverance is the pathway to victorious living

Warriors know the truth. The simplest goal a soldier can have is to still be standing after the battle. If you can persevere in a life-threatening situation, victory is yours.

Paul wasn't the perfect man. He was a follower of the perfect man, trying to become more and more like Jesus. He had already realized that he was one of the rest of us, marred by sin and lost for eternity, if not for God's grace.

Paul's victorious living was due, in large part, simply to perseverance. "Forgetting what is behind me, I'm straining on toward what is ahead, pressing on toward the goal."

If you can't forget your past mistakes, you'll have a tough time with perseverance. Paul must have agonized over his role in the death of Stephen, and the families he'd persecuted before he became a Christian himself. Christians had suffered great pain because of Paul's work. He must have seen their faces countless times, and heard their agonized cries as he grieved what he'd done before he met Christ.

A person who perseveres must move past her mistakes. He must somehow forget the pain of past embarrassment, and move on with his purpose. Like Paul, you and I must come face to face with the grace of God, accept that grace, and run like an Olympic marathoner aiming for the finish line. Without perseverance, you'll never know victory. Without hanging in there and following Christ on a daily basis - for all the days of your life - victory is impossible.

With perseverance, victory is certain.

Conclusion

I like the story of Dack Axselle. In October, 1984, they held the annual marathon in Richmond, Virginia. Some 831 runners started the race, a race that would cover a torturous 26.2 miles. In about three hours, the winner had crossed the finished line, and only a handful of people knew 10-year-old Dack Axselle was still running.

What Dack was doing, however, wasn't really a run. It was more of a fast shuffle. Dack was born with spina bifida, and doctors were sure he would never walk - if he lived at all. But Dack did learn how to walk with heavy leg braces and crutches. He developed a love for running, and he aimed for the toughest race of all.

So as he swung those leg braces down the road of his marathon, more and more people heard that he was still running. Twice near the end he had to stop to change gloves and re-wrap the gauze around his forearms. But each time he got up to race again. Finally, he came to the finish. It took Dack 11 hours and 10 minutes to get there, and the race had officially ended an hour and a half earlier.

The officials, the helpers, those who had run the race earlier had all packed their bags and gone. But as Dack neared the finish line, word spread like wildfire. Officials found the finish line, and put it up again. And more than 1,000 people cheered wildly as Dack pressed on, and many wept when he finally finished his marathon.

More than half the runners with good legs couldn't finish the race, but Dack became the biggest winner of the day - simply because he pressed on toward the goal. It didn't matter that his time was so slow. It mattered only that he finished.

Andy Cook is the pastor of Shirley Hills Baptist Church in, Warner Robins, Georgia.