10.08.2017 Preaching Text: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” (Philippians 3:7)
Awhile back one of our members shared a very funny story with me. It took place at the community golf course in Florida where he spends his winters.
Turns out, there was a woman of some “prominence” who approached the manager of the golf course, a retired police chief (I believe) from somewhere here in Massachusetts.
She wanted to rent a golf cart. The manager politely informed her that all the carts were out and unfortunately didn’t have one to give her.
She became adamant, however, and vocal, insisting that he produce a cart for her, despite the fact there were none to be had.
Raising her voice indignantly, she haughtily demanded, “Do you know who I am?”
Without skipping a beat, the retired policeman got on the public address system and said, “Will someone please come quickly to the pro shop? There’s a woman here who doesn’t know who she is!”
This story is perhaps notable only because the woman’s sense of entitlement is so overt. Yet doesn’t this sort of thing happen all the time, albeit in subtler form?
After all, status-seeking is hardly new. In fact, it just may be the most common form of self-regard out there.
In Philippians, Paul outlines the all ways he could brag about his status. He is, after all, the cream of the crop. He has the best bloodline, the best education, the highest social ranking, and is among the most accomplished and revered members of society. In short, he’s really quite something.
But then he throws us a curveball. After listing all the ways he is able to distinguish himself from others, he announces this whole elite persona to be mere “rubbish.” That’s because, he says, he’s found a new way of living in Christ.
In light of the “surpassing value” of knowing Jesus Christ, in other words, his sense of identity has been wholly redefined. He even considers the things that once gave his life meaning as “loss,” things he once perceived as “gain.”
His point, to state the obvious, is that the Christian life holds to a different standard. It contrasts with what “the world” most values.
In our Exodus reading, we’re confronted with the issue of idols, something most of us spend little or no time thinking about. The reason is that we tend to think of idols as statues representing the pagan gods of antiquity.
Years ago, in a Bible study at my home church, the pastor asked if anybody knew what an idol was. I offered that I had several in my wallet. Modern-day idols, in other words, can be anything.
Paul Tillich, the German theologian who taught for many years at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, once defined an idol as anything other than God we make our “ultimate concern.” This might include otherwise good things, such as family, friends, the law or morality, and yes, even how we do “church”!
By definition, then, whenever we take anything God has created and treat it as if it were God, we have created an idol.
As some of you know, one of my favorite quotes comes from John Calvin, the great Protestant Reformer. He said that “the human mind is an idol factory.” For me, this says it all. For we are continually inventing things which function as the most important aspects of our lives (our ultimate concern).
Linda’s mother, years ago, once said: “People can always find the time to do the things they really want to do.” Whatever it is we “really want to do,” then, risks becoming an idol.
Here we betray unconsciously what we truly think most important, and find time for, despite what we outwardly profess. (Think for a minute about our many excuses as to why we don’t go to church or pray to God, for example.)
Idol worship, therefore, is not solely directed to some ancient statue dedicated to some long lost god of antiquity. Instead it’s alive and well, and relates to any number of aspects of contemporary life.
And one of our favorite forms of idolatry is…status. Status, after all, sets us apart, sort of like God is set apart (that is, after all, what the word ‘holy’ means!). Status would appear to offer us a sense of self-worth, of affirmation. Ultimately, status promises nothing short of that which we most desire – love.
A curious but undeniable fact of life is that we are born insecure. In our existential state, we are both vulnerable and anxious.
The reason is that we are finite, as opposed to infinite. We are creatures and not the Creator. In our most basic state, then, we are both radically dependent on God and radically interdependent with others. By ourselves we are miniscule, a veritable bundle of nerves.
So what do we do? How do we find comfort and peace? What must we do to attain a sense of well-being?
The obvious answer is love. In love we were made, and in and through love we have our being. But where do we go to find it? Too often, as the song says, we look for it “in all the wrong places.”
What Paul discovered was that the only love that matters is revealed in Jesus Christ. It’s the kind of love which is rooted in our souls. Indeed it is God’s love for which we truly yearn. Having found perfect love in Christ, Paul rejects all lesser loves, not least the love of status.
As such, he self-confidently rejects his former life, one characterized by the ephemeral joys of status. He now realizes, in light of the love of Christ, how shallow and vapid his former loves had been. As I say, he now considers these loss, rubbish even.
At root, status-seeking is born of desperation. It’s rooted in insecurity. It constitutes an all-consuming obsession to ward off feelings of smallness and insignificance. And it’s hard work (with minimal payoff).
The love of God in Jesus Christ does not make us any less small (in the grand scheme of things) but rather enables us to accept our state, which, after all, is the way God made us. We discover there’s nothing wrong with being small.
We also discover that in the midst of our smallness and vulnerability, we possess the greatest gift of all – God’s unconditional love. We discover that God made us and that God’s love for us is greater even than that of our most cherished friends and family.
In Christ’s love we discover there is nothing lacking in us, and additionally, that nothing in all of life can ever separate us from this same love.
As such, we are no longer forced to search for love, or come up with desperate strategies to obtain it. That’s because we already have it. We’re already loved, completely and wholly. Amen.