Tag Archives: Philippians 3:12-4:1

Pressing On

(a sermon for March 17, 2019, the 2nd Sunday of Lent, based on Genesis 15:1-6 and Philippians 3:12-4:1)

It was Mark Twain who said it:  “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

Now, I recognize that that’s an odd and somewhat counterproductive way to start a sermon (!), so allow me, please, to rephrase Twain’s words in a bit more of a theological fashion:  that it can be aptly stated that true faith and trust in God comes in understanding that God’s word is firm and secure, and that his promises are true, even when all appearances might suggest otherwise!

I mean, it’s one thing to believe in the providence of a loving, giving God when everything in your life is going well and the future looks bright with promise; quite another when the days are dark and grey and everything all around you just seems to be hurdling out of control. Difficult to find “good news” in the midst of bad situations; hard to find wholeness when there’s so much in this world that’s broken; seemingly impossible, at times, to hold on to a heavenly vision of peace and love when here on earth there are continually those who insist on acting out of hate, terror and pure evil: I ask you, how does anyone “keep the faith” in times such as these?

And yet, we do.

We’re here, after all; we’re gathered together in this sanctuary once again to lift up the holy name of God, to give God our thanks and praise, and to embrace his sure and certain promises of life and of unending hope.  We’ve come with our prayers and petitions, seeking wisdom and courage for the living of these days – indeed, for the facing of this very hour (!) – so that we might go forth from this place today after the manner of Paul in our text for this morning, “press[ing] on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”  And then, a cup of coffee or two later, we’re right back out there: back to the world and all the messiness and utter uncertainties of daily life, “pressing on” with faith and trust, all because somewhere deep within ourselves we have reckoned that what God has said and what he has promised is so, and that God should be counted as righteous.

Granted, that might sound a bit audacious, shall we say – I mean, who are we to decide whether or not God Almighty, the Creator and Heaven and Earth and the God of the Ages is in fact a righteous God – but I’m here to tell you this morning that maybe this is how we keep believing in times like these.  After all, in the words of the Rev. Dr. Sara Koenig, who is professor of Biblical Studies at Seattle Pacific University, “Belief is hard enough when there’s a delay between God’s promises and their fulfillment.  It would be nigh impossible if the God in who we believe is not trustworthy, is not [by our reckoning] righteous.”

Now, lest you think that what I’m saying here is another example of our garden variety post-modern skepticism, we need to understand that there’s actually great biblical precedent for this kind of discernment.  Consider the response of Abram to God’s call in our reading from Genesis this morning: “’Do not be afraid, Abram,’” says God to Abram in a vision. “’I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’”  But how does Abram respond?  “’O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”  Understand, friends, this is no simple answer; this is the biblical equivalent of Abram rolling his eyes before the Lord and saying, “Really?  Seriously?”

For remember, this is not the first time that God has made such a promise unto Abram: the first time, back in chapter twelve, God had already called him to go from country and kindred and his father’s house to a place yet to be determined!  “’I will make of you a great nation,’” God assures Abram, and “’I will bless you, and make your name great.’”  And, of course, Abram went (with his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot along with him); and at 75 years old, no less!  It was a difficult, if not altogether improbable journey; but they did go, by faith and bolstered in the assurance the promise made would soon be the promise fulfilled.

However, as we pick up the story today. a fair amount of time had passed by (about 10 years, in fact), and frankly, not much had progressed on that front – there’d been famine, a conflict with the Pharaoh of Egypt, a few inter-family struggles with his nephew Lot, and a whole lot of wandering around – but as of yet there was no sign of that “great nation” that God had promised.  And Abram… well, he’s starting to lose patience; after all, it’s not like either he or his wife Sarai were of child-bearing years to begin with when all this started, and now… well, it had gotten to the point where Abram’s thinking that the only chance he’s got for any heir at all is to adopt one of his servants for that purpose!  The truth is that right about now, Abram’s faith in God and in God’s promises was stretched to the limit; because, as we’ve said before, it’s hard to believe in what, but all outward appearances, just “ain’t so.”

Of course, the great part of this story is that God doubles-down on the promise! Immediately God takes Abram outside, points him to the sky, and challenges him to start counting stars “if you’re able to count them;” because Abram, my friend, that’s how many children you’re going to have!  Incredible; ten years out on this journey, not a single child yet, Abram and Sarai are getting older with every passing day, but still here’s God promising that “with the passing of generations the descendants of Abram and Sarai would number in the thousands or even the millions!”  Clearly, God was taking the long view here; but nonetheless, to quote Ralph Klein this time: “How like God,” he writes. “When the promise was hard to believe, God upped the ante.”

And the best part?  Abram believed!  He believed; and in fact, this account from Genesis makes a point of saying that not only that he “believed the LORD, [but] that [he] reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  And that’s where this story gets really interesting: you see, there’s always been some question on exactly how this verse ought to be translated.  On the one hand, it can be rightly assumed that because Abram believed the LORD, thus the LORD reckoned that belief of Abram as righteousness, in that he trusted God with everything in his life and because of faith was worthy of the promises made.  However, the original Hebrew in this verse really only translates this as to how Abram believed and how he reckoned it as righteousness, suggesting that it might well be that Abram was reckoning God as being righteous; in other words, because God was intent on making his promise unto Abram even greater than before, Abram knew that God was worthy of faith and trust, and thus could believe, and press on to where God was leading him.

Granted, there’s a fair amount of ambiguity in that admittedly very small piece of translation, but the point is very clear and unalloyed:  that God is righteous and that his promises, however delayed or unfulfilled they might seem to us at times, are sure and certain.  It was because of the certainty that God would make good on his promises that Abram could believe, and so it is for you and for me today; ours is the God who is worthy of our trust, and thus we press on… no matter what.

Though I can in no way relate to it personally (!), I’ve always been drawn to the rather athletic imagery that Paul uses in the reading we’ve shared this morning from Philippians; that idea of “press[ing] on toward the goal,” that is, the heavenly call of God, being something akin to a race; as The Message translates it, “I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward – to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.”  It’s an apt comparison, to be sure; a life of faith, as in the running of a race, is marked by a sense of movement toward something more, and the urgency to get there; to reach the goal, to win the prize.  And yet, is it not also true that the race is not merely to the swift; it also matters how you run the race.  As Paul himself points out, it means “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead;” it requires a certain maturity of mind, body and spirit, as well as the ability to “stay on the right track,” as it were.  And perhaps above all, it takes staying wholly focused on where you’re headed; and yes, as the saying goes, it means keeping “your eyes on the prize!”

You don’t have to be a marathon runner to understand that! In fact, I remember as a young man spending time out in the Maine woods with my father, and how he used to tell that if I ever found myself “turned around” out there in the woods – which was the term we used for getting lost in the woods (!) – the key was never to panic and certainly never to just start wandering aimlessly; but rather to take out your compass, calmly figure out what direction you should be heading and then take a bead in that direction on some very nearby landmark: a rock or a fallen tree; any location that’s clear and attainable.  And then you walk over to that tree or rock, you stop and you take out your compass once again, and take another bead toward another nearby landmark; repeating this process again and again until eventually you find yourself back on the familiar pathway that leads homeward.  It might take you awhile; and for a time along that journey the way will almost certainly seem unfamiliar at best.  But if you stay true to the point of the compass, pressing on in the right direction as opposed to backtracking or going around in circles, you will eventually, if slowly, reach your true destination.

I’ll ask again:  how does one keep the faith in times such as these?  How are you and I to be pressing on toward the goal of living our lives with faith and integrity when it seems like everything around us and often within us would seek to tear us away from what we believe?  Well, it certainly begins with believing God and believing in his righteousness; understanding, in every good and lasting sense, that there is more to our lives than the here and now, and that the troubles of this world, of our lives and of this age are not the end of the story, and that God’s promises will come to pass in fullness in God’s good time.  Like “Father Abraham” before us, we need to remember that even if at times we have trouble believing a promise, God is ever and always at work making the promise even better.

But as much as we are to believe in God’s great providence in leading us to the promised land of our life and living; it is also crucial that we stay focused on the journey itself.  For life is indeed filled with all manner of “bad situations” that can easily get us “turned around” along the way and away from where God would have us go.  It might be the stuff of sin and guilt, of unresolved conflict and old hurts that have never healed.  It could be the kind of worldly ways and means that do weigh heavily in keeping us on track:  money troubles, health issues, broken relationships; and this is to say nothing of the constant barrage of anger and hatred that would daily challenge our belief in a perfect love that casts out all fear. There is so much in this world and in our lives that would seek to tear us away from God’s righteousness and our heavenly call in Christ Jesus; and that is why it is so crucial not only in these moments of prayer and worship, but even more so in all the moments yet to come, to stop… figure out where we are and then, slowly, deliberately and above all, prayerfully take a bead as where we go next; preparing ourselves to press on with love, and peace, and the otherworldly joy that comes from true righteousness; all the while standing firm in the Lord along every part of the journey.

The journey continues, beloved… may it truly be a blessing as we go; and may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on March 17, 2019 in Epistles, Faith, Lent, Life, Old Testament, Paul, Sermon


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For the Love of It All: A Home


(a sermon for February 21, 2016, the 2nd Sunday in Lent; second in a series, based on Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 and Philippians 3:12-4:1)

The older I get and the longer that I continue on in this vocation of ministry the more I have come to understand that to be a pastor is to be something of a gypsy.

By that, I mean that it is sort of the nature of this job to move around; oftentimes a lot.  For instance, in thirty-plus years of ministry I’ve been blessed to have served five churches in three states; but what that also means is that at least on five different occasions, our whole family has had to pick up and move to a brand new place: to a new church, yes, but also to a new community in a new house; with new schools, new stores, new traditions and new routines.  And let me tell you, folks, that’s a real challenge for everyone involved; honestly, I don’t know how military families do it, and with all due respect to other church traditions, that’s why I’m very glad to be in a denomination that doesn’t automatically transfer you every few years!

The upside of all this (and there are a great many “upsides”) is that to experience the church in all its multi-faceted tradition and glory cannot help but be spiritually enriching! Moreover, our moving around afforded each one of us in our family opportunities we wouldn’t have otherwise had; I’m a big believer that God puts us where we are for reasons we can’t begin to imagine at first.  But if there’s a downside, in all honesty, it has to be that living the pastoral life often makes it much more difficult to be settled and to put down roots.  Oh, certainly, wherever you end up being called, you have a home: you have a beautiful place to live; you have a neighborhood with friends and colleagues; and hey, you’ve got a built-in church family that loves you and that you love!  It’s all good – very good! – and it’s the wonder of God’s call on your life, and truly, the glory of being able to bloom in the beauty of where you’re planted (!); but still sometimes you wonder where, after all is said and done, you’re going end up; when after you’ve gone where you supposed to go, where you’re going to live and what’s going to be home for you!  It can all be rather distressing; and that’s one reason why, back when my daughter was in college and we were just moving here, when someone would ask where she lived she’d answer, “My family lives in New Hampshire, but I live in the moment!”

I say all this so that you will know why I can also say I understand why Abram responded to God the way he did in our Old Testament reading this morning.  “’Do not be afraid, Abram,’” says God to Abram in a vision. “’I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’”  And how does Abram respond?  “’O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”  Understand, friends, this is no simple answer; this is the biblical equivalent of Abram rolling his eyes before the Lord and saying, “Really?  Seriously?”

For you see, this is not the first time that God has made such a promise unto Abram: the first time, back in chapter twelve, God had already called him to go from country and kindred and his father’s house to a place yet to be determined!  “’I will make of you a great nation,’” God assures Abram, and “’I will bless you, and make your name great.’”  And, of course, Abram went (with his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot along with him); and at 75 years old, no less!  It was a difficult, if not altogether improbable journey; but they did go, by faith and bolstered in the assurance the promise made would soon be the promise fulfilled.  However, as we pick up the story today some time has passed and Abram is not above questioning the motives of the Almighty!  As The Message translates this, “God, Master, what use are your gifts as long as I’m childless… see, you’ve given me no children, and now a mere house servant is going to get it all.”

We answered your call, Lord… we did everything you asked!  We’ve faced famine, there’s been a war, there’s been some family issues along the way… but we’ve stuck with it!  So where is this reward you keep talking about?  The question, of course, is why Abram would deign it proper to speak to God in such a way: maybe it’s a bit of disbelief creeping into to his weary mind, or perhaps it’s genuine curiosity on Abram’s part as to how God’s possibly going to pull this one off!  Either way, what’s clear is that Abram and Sarai, at a time when the both of them really ought to be savoring the twilight of their years, are instead now in the thick of a long journey with no particular destination; and they want to know where they’re going to end up, and how this “great nation” God keeps promising is ever going to be, given their current trajectory (not to mention their demographic!).

At the heart of it all, you see, all Abram wants to know is simply if they’re ever going to have a real home…

…which, come to think of it, is a question we all ask sooner or later.

You see, it doesn’t matter whether we’ve spent the years moving from place to place, or if we’ve spent our whole lives living in one town or even one house. Moving takes place in a wide variety of ways in this life, and eventually, all of us come to the point of wanting to know… needing to know… where it is we’re really going and what it’s going to be when we get there.  Recently, I heard about someone who’s retiring at the end of this week after many years at work at the same job; and this woman’s got plans!   Next day after she’s officially retired, she’s going to visit their grandchildren; next it’s off to Florida for a while; and then there are plans to sell her home and come to New Hampshire full time.  She has a life to live, you see, and it’s just beginning! Contrast that to the father of an old friend of mine who, after over 50 years working in the same office at the same job, quite literally got his gold watch, packed up his personal belongings, went home… and never really did anything else ever again, except pass the time!  There was no longer any drive in him nor any purpose in his life: sadly, for him there was no place left for him to go, no journey ahead for him; and in truth, it killed him!

The point is not that everybody has to have a grand scheme of how retirement’s going to work out, nor should any of us ever know exactly how life will unfold; that’s part of the “sweet mystery of life,” and its joy.  But we all need and yearn to have a purpose for that life, a destination, if you will; even if we don’t know exactly, as of yet, how we’re going to get there. And we are lost without it!  This is particularly true of our spiritual journeys, friends: what’s the old expression?  Socrates, I think: “The unconsidered life is not one worth living.”  Well, there is much to consider when we live unto faith, from matters of day to day morality and personal ethics to the bigger questions of what it all means, and where you and I fit into the expanse of the cosmos.  And the thing is, once we think we’ve got one question answered, there’s always another question to take its place!  There are always questions, and the fact is, even if we’re walking with God – especially if we’re walking with God – the answers we seek are going to take us in directions we don’t expect, nor for which we always feel particularly equipped or prepared!

That’s why it is good news, indeed, that “for the love of it all,” God never lets go of the promise, nor does God leave us alone on the journey.

It is for me one of the most beautiful moments of Abram’s story: in which God brings Abram outside and says, “’Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’” (I love that little qualifier!) “’So shall your descendants be.’”  Don’t worry, Abram… you’re going to have a big family, just wait and see.   And later on in this story, you also have this vision given to Abram of a land “from the river of Egypt to the great river… [of] Euphrates” given to his descendants.  In other words, this might not happen all at once; this plan, this vision will likely take time to come to fruition.  But it will happen; and I will be with you and your children as it does.

We’re told that Abram “believed the LORD, and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  What’s interesting here is that in the ancient Hebrew, the word that’s used here for “believed” is emunah, which actually translates better as “trusted,” and suggests a faith that is steady and persistent.  So in other words, Abram trusted God for the long haul; knowing that even though the way ahead would still be fraught with dangers and uncertainty, Abram would move ahead with the certainty that God’s promises would be fulfilled; and this was considered by God to be the truly faithful response.

We also see this in our Epistle reading this morning from Philippians, in which Paul is writing about his own journey of faith; his determination to live his earthly life with a “citizenship [that] is in heaven,” living ever and  always in expectation of “a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”  For Paul, it is a journey that has its own share of “unknowns,” and as it is for any one of us who seek to adhere to the model of Jesus Christ in our own lives, it can be an arduous one as well.  “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal,” says Paul, “but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”

In other words, as believers (or as those who trust, if you will), there is a pathway we follow, and a destination we seek; that of a life truly lived in God’s light and glory.  But though the way may be difficult at times, and the pathway might seem to us to meander far from where we expect, we stay on course, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead… press[ing] on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Jesus Christ.”  Keeping on the journey, walking and living as we have been called to do, secure in our salvation and the sure and certain promise, extended to us from the very beginning: that by God’s grace and endless love, there will always be a home for us.

As some of you may know, last spring we discovered over the winter just previous, a rather large tree had fallen on the roof of our camp in Maine; which not only set us on the task of repairs, but got us all thinking about that time when, way down the road (but not quite as far as it once seemed!), we’ll be retired and that place could potentially be at least a three-season home for us.  So we’ve got ideas, and plans… and very creative dreams (!); along with the full knowledge that not every one of our ideas will come to pass in exactly the way we’re expecting.  It’s quite a process, and one that is ongoing, but however things unfold, there is incredible comfort in knowing that when the time comes, we’ll have a home.

In the meantime, however, we have this journey of life, living and faith on which God is leading us; and as we go, we have this promise from God that we will not be alone on that journey; that we will have the strength we need for when the way is difficult, the hope that will sustain us when we begin to feel as though all has been lost, and the joy in knowing that in God’s infinite love and care, made real to us in the person of Jesus Christ our Savior, we’re never lost completely, and best of all, as we like to say here in the United Church of Christ, wherever we are on life’s journey, we’ll be welcome… and we’ll always have a home.

Such a great promise, and a wonderful gift God gives to us “for the love of it all.”  So what else can we say in response but…

…thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN.

c, 2016  Rev. Michael W. Lowry


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