Sunday, March 19, 2006

Confidence. A sermon preached in Dromore Cathedral on 19th March 2006 Philippians 3:4-14

How confident are you? Perhaps, like me, you are more confident in some things than in others. So, for example, when driving, I'm a lot more confident than I am when learning Greek. Or for you it might be that you're most confident in knitting, or your job, or singing.

And what about when it comes to the future? How confident are you when you think about the future? Do you look forward to what is coming, or does it all fill you with fear? Or what about confidence when approaching God? Are you right with God tonight?

In our reading, Paul writes about confidence, as he talks about his testimony. We'll see that he moves from confidence in himself and in his own achievements, to confidence in God, and what he has done for us in Jesus. We'll then look at what that confidence meant for Paul, and how we too can be confident for the future.

For most of his life, Paul had put his confidence in the flesh. He thought that to be right with God, you had to follow all the rules, and that it depended on what he did. And he does indeed have an impressive list of qualifications. The list at the start of the reading details all the things he originally had confidence in.

They all combine to show someone who was deeply concerned with doing his best, and making sure he was right with God. He first had confidence in his race, emphasising that he was born of Hebrew parents (despite being born in the 'foreign' city of Tarsus) of the people of Israel and tribe of Benjamin, and that he was fully made a member of the race when he was circumcised.

He also had confidence in his religion. He was a Pharisee, one of those who took the Law of Moses seriously. In fact, they made it their aim in life to follow the law so carefully that no detail of life could be overlooked. And in Paul's case, in order to defend his religion, he made sure to attack the church when it was founded, because he saw it as a threat to his religion. This surely proved his devotion to the religion, and to the Law.

But even more than this, he had reached the very top. He had confidence in his righteousness. He says that 'under the law' he was considered 'blameless.' He isn't saying here that he had never sinned, but rather, that through following the law's demands, he had done all he could to take away his sin, and could be considered perfect.

As one writer puts it, 'If there had been a Pharisee of the Year competition, Paul would have won it.' All his energy went into trying to be right with God, to be pleasing to God.

Paul's confidence was all in himself, and in what he had achieved. But that situation changed dramatically and suddenly when he met the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. And now, years after, Paul could see that his confidence had been misplaced. He had been doing it wrong the whole time. He had been building on sand.

Now, Paul's confidence was not in himself, but rather, in what God has done for him in Jesus. We find it in verse 9, where he gives the grounds for his righteousness. 'not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.'

Paul's confidence was in what Jesus achieved on the cross, as Jesus paid for his sins, and brought him peace. Paul could approach God with confidence, because Jesus had made him right with God. And that approach could only be made by faith.

In many ways, Paul's testimony is like the parable of the two men in the temple. Jesus told the parable 'to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt' – Jesus' hearers were putting their confidence in themselves. And so Jesus tells the parable: '10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

And what do we find? The Pharisee, the one who had confidence in himself, who boasted about the things that he did, wasn't justified in the sight of God. He hadn't lied in what he said, he told the whole truth, but he wasn't praying to God – he was talking to himself. His confidence was in what he was doing. That was how he thought he could get right with God, and be acceptable to God.

But the tax collector's confidence wasn't in himself – he knew how bad he was. His confidence was in the mercy of God, as he prayed 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner.' And the end result was that he was justified. God accepted his humble cry, and had mercy on him.

The challenge for us is the same. As we come before God tonight at Communion, what is our confidence based on? Do we come thinking that we're good enough to approach God, that we deserve his mercy because of what we do for him? That we're doing God a favour by being here? Or do we come, knowing our weakness, knowing our failings, knowing that we have sinned, and that we come only through the merits of Jesus, having confidence in his death for us?

Perhaps when the time comes tonight, we will have a pause before the Prayer of Humble Access. That will give us the chance to fully think about the words we say – words which are so familiar, they can trip off our tongue without engaging our mind. And through them let’s remember that we can only approach the Table through God’s mercy, and not in anything of ourselves.

Having confidence in Jesus brings some changes. For Paul, it meant the complete change in his thinking and priorities. No longer could he trust in his own achievements, nor have confidence in what he was doing himself. It was only when he realised that he wasn't good enough by himself, that Paul could find confidence in God. And the things that he had previously trusted in? He counted them as worthless, as a loss, as rubbish, compared to knowing Jesus.

The same is true for us. If we have previously found our confidence in our race, or culture, or religion, or our outward righteousness, then we need to forget those things, and count them as a loss. Because if our confidence is in Jesus, and we are made right with God through him, then nothing else really matters.

Are there things that you have been building your life upon? Are there things that you have confidence in, to make you right with God? Are there things you need to change?

Having confidence in Jesus also brings hope. We read that Paul was simply bursting with hope, which was one of the reasons why he keeps reminding the Philippians to rejoice, to be joyful. And what was his hope?

Paul's hope can be found in verses 10-14. He was looking forward to gaining Christ, knowing him, being found in him. And at the end of all things, he was looking forward to the resurrection from the dead, and to the 'goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.'

Quite a lot to unpack! For Paul, while his hope looks to the future, to the fulfilment of all things in the resurrection, his hope is firmly grounded in what has gone before. It is only through Jesus' death and through having faith in Jesus that Paul can look forward to the resurrection, to the time when he will be raised from the dead, perfected, to be with Christ forever.

And having this confidence in Jesus, with the hope it brings, also leads to changes in how we live our lives in the meantime. Because, as Paul says several times – God isn’t finished with me yet… ‘Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect’ (v12), and ‘I do not consider that I have made it my own’ (v13). The Christian faith is not solely concerned with this life – there’s more to come.

You see, so many preachers, and especially some of the tele-evangelists preach a message of prosperity. They try to tell their hearers that God’s blessings consist only, or mainly of wealth and riches in this world. And so they promise all sorts of things if you support their ministry, and pledge money to their campaigns. But they miss out on the fact of eternity, and eternal life with God after the resurrection.

This world is not all there is. And so long as we’re in this life, we should be looking forward to what is to come, and preparing ourselves for what is to come. We aren’t yet perfect, and so God hasn’t finished with us yet. While we are still alive, we have so much still to do, as we become more like Jesus. And if the prize is still to come, if we haven’t finished yet, then how should we live our life?

For Paul, with the prize ahead, he aims to run to win. The image is of the Olympic athlete, straining forward to win the prize. Now, we don’t have the Olympics on at present, but the Commonwealth Games organisers were very gracious in having them right now. Have you been watching the games at all? Would the athletes take it easy in a race, and not push forward as much as they could to win? After putting in so much effort to train for the games, they will surely push on as hard as they can, in order to win gold for their country.

In the same way, Paul says that he presses on to take hold of the prize awaiting for him. But even more than this, he runs to win, because he is sure of the prize awaiting him. We read, ‘I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.’ Or, in stronger words, as the NIV puts it, ‘I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.’

It's almost as if he is saying, because of what Jesus has already done, and what Jesus is going to do, then how can I do anything else? If the end is promised and secure, then I'm definitely going to run in order to make the end. He is confident of the prize, confident of the hope, confident of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus, because his confidence is not in himself, but is rather in God, and in what God has done in Jesus.

So just as Paul framed his life around the hope set before him, let us, too, run in such a way to win the prize. As we find in Hebrews 12: ‘let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith’ (Heb 12:1-2).

And let us face the future with confidence, as we live our lives worthy of God, confident that he will enable us to win the prize.

And so I ask you tonight, do we fully realise the hope that we have? The future that is promised to us as sure? That we too will share in the resurrection from the dead, and will have the upward call of God in Christ Jesus? And all because of our confidence in Jesus, and in his promises!

Let us put our full confidence in Jesus, and in what he has done for us, and therefore, live in such a way as to win the prize, looking forward with confidence to our resurrection, and the fulfilment of his promises.

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