"Seeking to Glorify God" - Sermon by Michelle Ellis on Philippians 3:10 - 3:16 - Nov. 7, 2021
I’d like to offer a part 2 to the sermon that Pastor Joe shared last week. He focused in on how God does all the work in making things right between him and us. Because the Reformation is so important to Reformed Christians, we often put a lot of emphasis on justification, on being made right with God, on how all we have to do is trust in Jesus, have faith in him to be in relationship with God. We don’t have to slave away all our lives to earn this. In fact, there is nothing we can bring to the table to earn or buy this. There is no “faith plus….”, like Joe said last week. It is purely a gift and that is a good, good thing!
What is also true is that sometimes we get a bit fuzzy on how to go forward from that place. Maybe you’ve heard the term ‘frozen chosen’? That’s a term that sums up the worst place that this posture can take Reformed Christians. We don’t have to do anything to earn relationship with God, so we sort of freeze in time. We just hang out until we die and then we get to go to heaven. This posture says that what we do doesn’t really matter, because it can’t earn us our salvation anyways, so we stay frozen in terms of our actions or any growth or change. It’s a fairly boring and stuck kind of place to be in. Not to mention, this posture might invite someone to seriously miss out on the adventure of following Jesus.
It also doesn’t reflect the posture that Paul has in our text today where he describes pressing on to the goal of knowing Jesus. There is strong activity on his part which he describes in Philippians 3:12-14. He uses the language of an athlete striving towards a goal. There is a lot of energy in that, much activity and purpose in that.
Maybe a helpful analogy in all this is the intrigue of marriage. Imagine a young guy who pursues a young lady. He would move high heaven just to be around her. He pursues her, he enters into relationship with her, he comes to learn more about who she is. One day, he asks her to marry him, she says yes, and they marry. Then imagine that they sort of freeze in that moment. Pursuing each other ends. Curiosity towards the other ends. Knowing one another doesn’t get any deeper. Spending time together doesn’t happen anymore. They’ve gotten married, they’ve arrived and now they just kind of wait out life with each other until they die. Sometimes from watching romantic comedies this is the impression you get. All the exciting stuff happens before the couple gets together and then it all gets rather boring after the fact. There is no more story to tell.
But marriage isn’t an ending, it’s meant to be a beginning. It’s the very beginning of an adventure. An adventure of doing life together, of growing deeper in union, deeper in relationship, deeper in knowledge of one another, respect for one another, love for one another, delight in the other. There are always deeper places to go in relationship, in being united with another person.
In case it’s not clear in this analogy, justification, or being made right with God is like the wedding. It is the place where our relationship with God is defined. When we receive God’s pursuit of us, we are his. This is a beautiful thing, one we don’t earn, but which is given to us out of God’s great love. Then, out of this place of freedom, of acceptance, of security, we can freely pursue knowing and loving God. We can pursue living in the joy of relationship. That’s the marriage piece. We don’t have to constantly pursue marriage, it’s already ours. Now is the joy of growing into who we have become, of growing more and more in knowing and loving God, that’s sanctification, the journey of becoming one with God, and looking more like him. Any striving that we enter into is not to gain the relationship, it’s not to earn God’s love. Instead, our striving is to enter deeper into the relationship that we already have. It’s a pursuit of growth, of union together.
That’s what Paul is talking about in this passage that we read today. The point of all this, the point of being made right with God, is to get to know him in a relational way, it’s to know him just as we are known, to love him just as we are loved by him.
Listen to Paul in Philippians 3:10, “I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing his sufferings, and becoming like him in his death.” I was challenged by Paul’s words here as I was reflecting on this passage. Is that how you would describe your heart in this moment? That at the heart of the matter, what you want more than anything is to know Christ?
Can you say that together with Paul today? Or maybe you are in a place similar to me as I write this. I recognize this desire, but it also feels a bit distant, a bit like looking at a picture of myself from a number of years ago.
Marriages and relationships can lose what they are about over time. You can assume you know the other person, or life can become about other things.
Do you remember the story of Moses and the Israelites in the book of Exodus? God brings Moses and the Israelites out of Egypt where the Israelites were slaves and he brings them into the desert. They are travelling there for quite some time. They are wandering in unknown territory. Everything is unfamiliar. The land is inhospitable and there are so many unknowns. They have had to leave behind all their regular ways of being and all their securities Even though God brought them out of slavery, the people rebelled and complained. As days turned into weeks turned into months in the desert, perspectives began to narrow in a serious way.
And in the midst of all this, Moses pleaded with God. Do you know what he asked him? Moses asked God to show him his glory. He asks to see him. He wants to encounter God.
Moses could have asked God a lot of things. He could have asked God to give him a timeline of when they would arrive in the promised land. Then he could tell the people to relax, if they just wait it out patiently, they’ll arrive in six month’s time, or whatever, and then everything will be okay. So just wait it out and stop making idols already! He could have asked God to get rid of the complainers. He could have asked God to make someone else the leader, so he could go back to taking care of sheep which had a really nice simplicity about it. He could have asked God to take them on a route that wasn’t quite so desolate. He could have asked God to make him a stronger or a wiser person, so he could handle all these problems better.
But in this moment, Moses doesn’t ask God any of these things. Moses asked God to show him his glory. In the middle of all this uncertainty, all these complaints, all these doom and gloom forecasts from everyone around him, all this disagreement about how to go from here, what Moses longs for more than anything is to encounter God. He wants to be close enough to God so he can see him, so he could maybe even reach out and touch him. He asks to encounter God in this place, to know him.
I ask God for a lot of things. I often ask him to help solve problems or to give guidance or wisdom on something or to be with particular people. I know you ask God about these things, too. And it is good and fitting to do that. I also wonder whether these requests are sometimes out of balance with my request and desire to know God, to encounter him, to know him more in a relational way, not for any other reason than to know him. But as I read this passage today, I recognize how deeply I share this longing. That somehow, that’s what I really want, to know him more.
Moses and Paul are expressing the same longing. They share this longing that is at the centre of what being a child of God is all about. They, in the midst of everything, have not forgotten their first love. They long to know God. For them, that is first. They are grounded in knowing that this is the heart of it all. That is the reason we are here as expressed in the Westminster catechism:
“The reason we are here is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”
The point of being made right with God is not first that we become better people who are able to follow the laws better. It’s not first that we become more moral people. It’s not first so that we can fix whatever may be broken with us. It’s not first so we can have security when we die knowing we’ll go to heaven. It’s not so that we can avoid hard things in life. It’s so that we can be freed to know and love God starting today, just as deeply and widely as we are known and loved by him.
Listen as well to the two ways Paul names that he wants to know Christ: (1) He wants to know the power of his resurrection, and (2) He wants to know the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death. These are the two movements in Jesus’ story, the two movements that become the pattern for our lives as Christians.
It might make most sense to read Paul saying this: I want to get to know Christ, and this is how I want to get to know him, this is the path to getting to know him, experiencing the power of his resurrection, and sharing in his sufferings. That’s how you grow in getting to know Christ.
Followers of Jesus are invited to know him in many ways,
by the witness of his presence living in us by the Holy Spirit, and also by walking in his steps, by following ourselves the pattern of his life, following the pattern of dying and rising. Dying to selfish desires, dying to ambivalence about others, dying to ingratitude and rising to the new self that God is calling out in each of us. We are invited to know him through praying and reflecting on his words, his story in scripture and through action, through our lived experience in loving others.
Being invited to share in Christ’s sufferings means to feel the pain of the world as Jesus experienced it. Has God ever invited you to know your own suffering through this lens? That when you grieve for what is broken, you are coming to know God more in being invited to join with him in feeling the pain of the world? Coming to know Jesus will mean knowing his resurrection, his new life in you and in his world and also his death, his suffering for the sake of the world. So often pain is something we want to run away from or rush through. But it can be a way we are invited to enter into deeper union with Jesus. Might there be a way that God is inviting you to know his heart for the world through your own pain or your pain on behalf of another? Could it be that God might be inviting you into deeper union with him through your pain?
Pursuing knowing Christ means entering deeply into your own life with the trust that Jesus is weaving your own story into his. It means offering your own losses and griefs in trust to God, knowing that Jesus also experienced much loss and grief, that dying to yourself is part of knowing Jesus, part of being in fellowship with him, being in union with him. It means looking with him and trusting with him for the signs of resurrection, the places he is at work bringing about new life in unexpected places. And ultimately it means trusting that one day, because of Jesus’ work, all things will be made new, all will be well and all manner of things will be well if not now, then certainly when he comes again.
I remember a moment of experiencing deep loneliness. I had just moved to Vancouver, knew not a soul and felt starkly alone and unknown, even though there were good and kind people around me. In the midst of that, God invited me to see that Jesus knew loneliness in a profound way, in a deeper way than I would ever know. There was no one like him. He was totally unique, so misunderstood, so set apart. And God was inviting me to see and to experience that he both knows me, he knows what it is to be lonely, but also that I was invited to know him in a new way, in a deeper way, in one I didn’t know before. He was inviting me into deeper union with him through what I experienced in the moment as pain.
That’s just a very small picture of how God can use what feels like death to us to redeem our pain, to use it as a way to know him, to be closer to him. Just as he can take moments of deep joy, of renewal to give us a picture of resurrection, of what it will look like one day when all things are made knew, when we will know fully, just as we are fully known, and when we can see not darkly, as through a mirror, but face to face.
Lord, we long to know you. We want to see you. We want to be close to you. Renew us with your presence. For those of us who feel far from you today, stir desire in our hearts. Fill us with longing for you and fill us, Lord, with yourself. Lord, we also ask that you would give us the same single-hearted focus that you gave to Paul. Help us to press on in our pursuit of knowing you, so that we may attain the prize, the prize of knowing you, of being known by you. Show us what that looks like. Invite us into knowing you through our pain. Invite us to know you in experiencing the new life that you work out in us. Thank you for freeing us to know you, for inviting us to know you, to know you not primarily with our minds, but in our lived experience, that you invite us to know you in a relational way. Lord, may this pursuit for us begin now, may we pursue knowing you with everything we are. There is nothing worthier of us, Lord. No better pursuit for us. In the name of your son, Jesus Christ, whom we long to know, whom we long to see, we ask. Amen.