18th Sunday after Pentecost – 10/4/2020
The long-anticipated debate between President Trump and his rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, is now in the history books. Many of you watched at least part of it this past Tuesday evening. What did you think of it? Was it worth the time you took to watch it? We can all agree that whatever it was, there was no debate. It should have been billed as "The Brawl of the Century!" It was full of punches and counterpunches, name-calling, and character assassinations but very short on substance. In the four days since it was held, the political pundits have been working overtime to declare who was the winner and who would benefit the most politically from it in the days ahead as we march toward the November third election. I'm unsure who won, but the American voter was the biggest loser!
When we speak of losers and winners, it is safe to say that no one likes to lose, especially President Trump. In many of his political ads, he is known for facetiously saying, "We're going to keep on winning and winning and winning until you're tired of winning!"
But is losing always a bad thing? Remember the television reality show of a few years ago called "The Biggest Loser?" The show's premise was that the much-celebrated winner would be the biggest loser who lost the most weight. Losing the pounds was the whole point of the show.
Oddly, losing big time is also the winning ticket for the Christian. Listen once again to the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Christians at Philippi. He states: "But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord. For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish to gain Christ" (Phil. 3:7, 8).
Paul pictures the Christian life in this world as a race. It is strenuous and often quite exhausting. It's not for the faint of heart, nor even a sprinter. Yes, there is a finish line where there is a true and definite prize, but like a marathon, the way to the finish line is often long and arduous. There are impediments in the way. You will never make it if you are weighed down with the cares and things of this world.
Neither this race of the Christian life is something you nor I have chosen for ourselves. It was Christ Jesus who laid hold of us. The word Paul uses in verse 12 can be translated as "captured." Paul says in this race, "I press on to make it my own because Christ captured me." We know how dramatic that capture of Paul was. As he was on his way to Damascus to arrest Christians, the Risen and Ascended Jesus made a special surprise visit to Paul. He appeared to him in all his brilliance and blinding glory. Paul was immediately struck blind and had to be led by the hand the rest of the way to Damascus. There he was given a new birth into faith in Jesus by holy baptism. There was no escape for Paul. Jesus had captured him for His kingdom and set him on a course of apostleship.
You might think you're here today as a disciple of Jesus to worship Him because you chose to be. But you'd be wrong. Like Paul, you have been captured by Jesus. As Jesus Himself has said, no one comes to Him unless the Father drags him (John 6:44). Jesus reached out to you with the Word of His Gospel and His Holy Sacrament of Baptism and captured you. He set you on this course of Christian life in this most unchristian place. Oh, sure, you can drop out. Quit the race. Walk away from Jesus. But if you do, you will forfeit the prize already laid up for you by Jesus—the prize Paul calls the upward call of God in Jesus Christ (v. 14). That upward call is eternal life with God in heavenly glory. Who in their right mind would want to lose this prize?
How do we ensure that we will win this prize? The apostle tells us the winning formula necessitates counting as losses all that is behind in this world—all that is of this life. Therefore, the eternal losers are those clinging to the here and now—worldly happiness, worldly goods, earthly comforts, and earthly achievements. All such things might seem so important now, but they impede us from obtaining eternal life in the eternal scheme of things. On the other hand, the eternal winners, who receive the everlasting prize, are the ones who are the biggest losers from a worldly perspective. As Paul tells us, they are the ones who count (consider) everything in this realm as nothing more than rubbish in comparison to knowing Christ Jesus, that is, being found in Jesus and having the righteousness from God that comes through faith in Jesus (8–9).
Now, I don't have to tell you how hard this is, do I? Losing weight is challenging because one must count it as losing what he loves: eating sumptuously. He knows such indulgence is not healthy. He knows that staying trim means a whole new lifestyle—that the sweets and the carbs must go by the wayside—and that he must learn to seek comfort, joy, and peace elsewhere than from food. But it is hard to give up what he loves—and to suffer the hunger pangs that will come when he does.
Being a Christian and running the race behind Jesus is extremely difficult. There are a lot of pounds to shed and many earthly losses to suffer. The pounds formed by our earthly idolatries, fleshly indulgences, and securities in our works impede us from the upward call of God in Christ. We know this, but these worldly things are accessible, and God and our eternal life seem so far away. The devil, the world, and even our flesh make material goods, concerns, and pleasures so inviting that denying them for Christ's sake seems too difficult, unthinkable, or expensive to pay. Who wants to suffer to win?
The other day, I heard a man on TV who had just written a book about Americans say that people from different countries consider Americans weak because they feel they don't know how to suffer. I'm sure there is an element of truth here. We Americans have things pretty easy compared to many people around the world. We live pretty comfortably. As a whole, we don't have to work as hard or as long as others. There is very little that we lack. Even during crises like the COVID pandemic, the shortages we experience are usually short-lived and not life-threatening. We tend to think that we are entitled to be free of suffering. All the rioting and pillaging in many of our major cities have proven that. Even when our bodies and property are threatened, we tend to avoid confronting those causing the damage by sticking our heads in the sands of acquiescence.
When suffering for being a Christian, we often do the same thing. We're on fire for Jesus as long as we are blessed to enjoy earthly comforts, our lives are hassle-free, and we do not have to experience any losses to our health, property, or family members. But, oh, how we recoil, complain, and even get angry with God when losses to such things occur. Yet, as comfortable and enjoyable as such earthly and physical things might make us feel, they will not lead us to heaven. They tend to capture our hearts away from Jesus and lead us down the primrose path to eternal destruction away from God. If we are to win the race, we must count all these earthly things as garbage that we are glad to lose if it helps to ensure that we remain captured by Jesus.
The losers are the winners! The apostle Peter wrote: "But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed."
In our text this morning, however, the apostle Paul speaks about another loss the Christian must be prepared to suffer to win eternal life. It has, over and over again, proven to be the most brutal loss of all to suffer. It is our sense of righteousness. You see, in that pride and arrogance we inherited from Adam, which has now infected our very nature, we take it for granted that somehow we can do something or be someone who can earn or obtain a righteous standing before God.
As Paul tells us here, no one knew that better than him. He wrote: "If anyone else thinks he has a reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless" (3:4-6).
Who could point to a higher set of credentials for righteousness than his? Certainly no Gentile, and, as Paul claims, no Jew either. Humanly speaking, his credentials are impeccable. However, when appearing before the perfect God and Judge of heaven and earth, it matters not a whit what we humans consider good enough. What matters is God's standard of righteousness. Here's what Jesus says in the face of Paul's boast: "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of God" (Matt. 5:20). Paul discovered, as we all must understand, that no matter how good or righteous we think we are, we all "fall far short of the glory of God" (Ro. 3:23) and all our "good works are as filthy rags" (Is. 64:6). There is only one righteousness that avails before God, and that is the righteousness of God Himself that comes to us only through faith in Jesus Christ (v. 9), which God, in His grace and on account of Jesus' bloody sacrifice, is gracious to freely give us in His Word and holy sacraments to be received by faith alone.
Yes, it is tough to consider everything we have in our lives and our world as loss—rubbish! But think how hard it will be on the last day to believe that your life, good works, and goodness will ensure your entrance into God's most holy presence, only to hear the LORD say to you, "Depart from me, O worker of iniquity! Receive the reward you earned in the fires of hell!
And then think how wonderful it will be to stand before the Lord on that final day as the biggest losers in this worldly realm, having suffered the loss of everything this evil world has to offer, and yet to hear from Jesus' blessed lips, "Welcome, you who are blessed of My Father." "Come up to me to take possession of the prize I won for you through my loss of all things for your sake!"
Yes, fellow losers, despite how things might appear, you are winners in Christ. This life is no cakewalk for you but is a marathon of trials and losses. But join your fellow loser, St. Paul: "Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." Oh, how sweet is the victory that awaits you!