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The Best Is Yet To Be

Philippians 3:8-14

Today, we officially install as a minister of this congregation Dr. Tino Ballesteros.

The game of Trivial Pursuit is all the rage these days, and Trisha and I love to play it. As a matter of fact, we played it with some of you. But today, I want all of us to play it. I want to put before you now a trivia question just to see how alert you are. I’m going to list for you the names of some of the greatest attorneys and jurists in American history, and I want you to select from that list the name of the one who quit law school after his first year: Patrick Henry, member of the Continental Congress, governor of Virginia, hero of the Revolution; John Jay, the first chief justice of the Supreme Court; John Marshall, perhaps the most famous of all of the Chief Justices of the Supreme Court; Daniel Webster, one of our greatest jurists, later secretary of state. Remember, you are to select from the list the name of the one who dropped out of law school after his first year. Salmon Chase, senator, then chief justice, noted particularly for his defense of runaway slaves. Abraham Lincoln, attorney, 16th president of the United States. Stephen Douglas, congressman, senator, and you remember his name from the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Clarence Darrow, one of our most famous attorneys, noted for his work on many cases, but perhaps noted most of all for his work at the Scopes Trial in 1925. Now, of those eight, which one dropped out of law school at the end of his first year?

If you guessed Clarence Darrow, your answer is correct. He entered law school, had a miserable first year, dropped out at the end of his first year a complete failure. Now, of none of the other seven could it be said that they dropped out of law school at the end of their first year because, you see, not a single one of them ever went to law school. Now, isn’t that amazing? I mean, to think that some of the greatest pages in American jurisprudence have been written by people who never set foot in a school of law.

Now, how can that be? I submit to you it is because every single one of those men, without exception, every single one, they were all men of the highest character. The Oxford Dictionary defines character as the sum of all of the mental and moral qualities etched into a human personality. Well, these men all possessed something infinitely more valuable than education. They all possessed a high, noble character. They never aimed for anything low. They only struggled to reach the heights of mental strength and moral purity. And that, my friends, that was the secret of their greatness.

And I go on to suggest to you that that is also the secret of the greatness of Paul. Paul, who writes here in Philippians, “This one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind. I press on toward the high calling of God in Jesus Christ.” That is the mark of the true follower of Christ in our world: the one who is determined to grow in Christ; the one who is committed to building a Christ-like character; the one who never aims for anything low; the one who always struggles to reach the very heights of spiritual power. And Paul, here in the third chapter of Philippians, sets out the steps required for growth in Christian character. And that’s what I want us to focus on for just a few moments now.

The first step required is to believe that we can be what God calls us to be.

Paul says, “I want to know Jesus Christ and the power of His Resurrection and to share His sufferings, so that I may be like Him.” Oh, what a fantastic thought. We are to be like Jesus.

I think it’s accurate to say that the most widely-read book in all of Christendom is The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. I once thought that Pilgrim’s Progress by Bunyan would be the most widely-read, but no, I think not, because that book is read largely by Protestants. But The Imitation of Christ is a book which has floated like sweet incense through all of the aisles and the alcoves of the Church’s intricate history. And that whole book is built on one word of Jesus Christ, the Word where Jesus says, “He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness.” The whole book calls us to imitate Jesus Christ in our lives.

That’s the call that Paul issues to us here. We are to be like Jesus. And my friends, I do not believe that God would call us to be like Jesus if we are not able to be like Jesus. Many of you are aware of the fact that there is an age-long struggle between what we call the secular humanists and the theologians. It’s a struggle that’s gone on and on through history and comes to the surface here and there along the way, and it’s on the surface now. The secular humanists are those who say that we as human beings can do absolutely anything that we want to do. The theologians, on the other hand, say that apart from God, we as human beings are capable of nothing good, that without God, there is no hope for us or for the world. Now, obviously, I come down on the side of the theologians for a lot of reasons, among them this. I can’t stand the obnoxious braggadocio of the secular humanists.

But having said that, I have to go on to say to you that I’m also just a trifle uncomfortable with the theologians, because when the theologians talk about the utter depravity of men and women, somehow I keep remembering the fact that God so loved us that He gave His only begotten Son for us, and surely, that must mean that we are worth something.

Oh, do not misunderstand me. There is sin in all of us, terrible sin. I would be the last to deny that. But you know, somehow, I think that maybe the truth lies out there between those two, that God loves us with this great undeserved, unmerited grace because God sees in you and in me what we cannot see in ourselves. I think that’s revealed in that individual who gives himself more and more to dependence upon God. When a person does that in life, out of that life, there comes magnificence. And as the magnificence grows, the person does not become more and more dependent upon self, no. Exactly the opposite, the person becomes yet more and more dependent upon God.

The two things seem to work together into some kind of marvelous unity. So the call of the Scriptures is simply this, that we, you and I, are to be like Jesus. And I do not believe that God would call us to that kind of magnificence in our living if we were not able, either in time or beyond time, to reach that goal. And that is why one of the continuing themes of those whom God has called to be ministers in this church is going to be that you are special, every single one of you. You are special. God has made you with His very own hands. He has planted within you the possibility for sheer magnificence in your living. You are God’s masterpiece, every single one of you. You are special. You can be like Jesus.

But that leads, I think, to the second step required for growth in Christian character. We need to believe that God can bridge the gap between what He calls us to be and what we are.

Paul writes, “I do not have a righteousness of my own, but only that which comes through faith in Jesus Christ, the righteousness that comes from God.” Paul is saying that God is working in us, and so we can be like Jesus because God is working in us and through us.

I remember one day, it was out on our back porch. I was watching my little four-year-old niece. She’s a rather precocious young lady, and she was in the process of trying to move one of those folding card tables. And her mother said to her, “Brooke, you can’t move that table. It’s as big as you are.” And she stopped, and she turned around, and she looked at her mother, and she said, “Yes, I can, Mommy, because I’m as big as it is.” You know, there are some people in life who look at the problems of life and who say, “I can’t do that, because it’s as big as I am.” But there are other people, people like Paul, who look at the difficulties in life and who say, “I can do that, because I’m as big as it is.” Those are the people of faith. Those are the people who know that God is working in us and through us. God’s power is resonant in us. That is faith.

So many times, it seems to me, people come to me, and they say, “How can I find faith? How can I experience the faith? I’ve prayed about it. I’ve gone to Bible study groups. And yet somehow, Jesus never seems very real to me. How can I experience that kind of feeling?” My answer’s always the same. We have to be living the faith before we can know the feeling of faith. We have to be practicing the presence of Jesus in our lives before we can ever experience the presence of Jesus in our lives. If we live the faith, if we practice the faith, then ultimately we shall be led to the feeling of faith. You know how it is. If you and your friend have a falling-out, at that particular point, you don’t feel very loving toward your friend. But you know that if you go on, even though you don’t feel like it, and if you act loving toward your friend, then in time the feeling of love returns. That’s the way it is with faith. If we live the faith, if we practice the faith, if we practice the presence of Jesus in our life, then the feeling of faith will come.

I could lay out for you now a whole list of suggestions of things that you might do in your life to begin to work toward that kind of feeling, that kind of conviction. Let me give you just a few of them. First, this. Start to think more about the promises of Christ than about the problems of your relationship with Him. Or do things for others which you would do for them if you really loved them. Or perform whatever duty is yours, however unpleasant it may be, with absolute faithfulness. Or when you are tempted with some explicit evil, immediately give yourself to some specific good. Or talk to Jesus Christ every single day. Even if you don’t feel that He’s there, talk to Him anyway, just as casually and as easily as you would talk to your best friend.

It was Newman who said that faith is the habit of your soul. That’s true. You see, just as drink after drink after drink after drink will make a drunkard, so obedience after obedience after obedience after obedience will ultimately lead us to the conviction and the feeling of true faith. That’s what Paul’s trying to say to us, that God is working in you and in me, that if we are walking and talking and acting and living the faith, then God’s spirit is going to work through us, and we shall experience the reality of His presence.

Oh, we need to know that. Back in 1801, Napoleon and his troops were engaged in a disastrous retreat from Moscow. Many of the French soldiers were dying in the icy Russian snows. The most detailed account we have of that retreat was written by a man named Caulaincourt. He was the Duke of Vicenza. He describes what happened on that occasion, that as they were marching along, the soldiers would stumble out of the ranks and fall into the banks of snow there to try to fall asleep. And Caulaincourt would go to them, and he would try to wake them up, try to get them up and moving, because he knew that if they ever fell asleep, that they would freeze to death. And when he would come to them, they would push him away. They would beg him in God’s name to let them be. But he wouldn’t let them be. He wouldn’t let them sleep. He got them up and got them moving because he knew if he didn’t, they would surely die. Oh, I can’t let us sleep, either. No. We must be up and moving. You and I must be walking and talking and acting and living the faith of Jesus Christ, for it is when we are practicing the faith that God’s Spirit begins to move in us with life-giving, life-growing power.

And that’s why one of the continuing themes which those who have been called by God to be ministers in this church, one of the continuing themes we shall sound is this. Practice your faith every single day that you live. Live the Gospel out there in the world between Sundays. Give yourselves to the things of Jesus Christ in your life every single day.

Oh, but that leads us to the third step required for growth in Christian character. It’s this. We need to believe that we must never stop trying to be what God’s called us to be.

Paul writes, “This one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind. I press on toward the high calling of God.” I played basketball in college. One year, we had a terrible record, absolutely awful. We lost nearly every game, and after every one of those losses, there was one of the fellows on that team who would say, in the locker room, same thing every time. He would say, “Well, guys, we did our best.” I hated it when he said that. I hated it then, and I hate it now, because it wasn’t true. No. We hadn’t done our best. And by his saying that we had done our best, you see, he was tempting us to stop trying to do our best. That’s so true in my life. I haven’t done my best. No. To this point in my life, I have not yet done my very best. Many times, far too many times, I’ve failed.

But you know, that’s not so bad. Oh, I don’t mean that it’s not good to fail, or that doing your best is not the thing you – no, that’s not what I – what I’m saying is that when you recognize that you have not yet done your best in life, then that means that best is yet to be. The most splendid of all is still out there ahead. And that’s true for me, and I guess, I guess, yes, it’s true for you.

But what I do know is this. It’s true for this church. Oh, yes. In the past, this church has been a great church. But also in the past, this church has experienced failures, and it’s experienced setbacks and defeats and tribulations. You know what Jesus says about tribulations? He says in the world you will have tribulation. And you know, the word that Jesus uses for “tribulation” is the word that literally meant pressing the grapes to make wine. And later on, when that was translated into Latin, they changed it to the word for threshing, separating the wheat from the chaff. And so Jesus is saying to us, in the world you’ll have tribulation. You are going to be pressed and threshed and separated and pulled apart. But out of that will come your greatest advance. “Be of good cheer,” He says. Out of the trials and the troubles and the tribulations shall come our greatest strength. The best is yet to be. And that’s true for this church. Oh, yes, our past is glorious, and we celebrate it. But like Paul, this one thing we do, forgetting what lies behind. We press on because the best is yet to be.

Well, in Boris Pasternak’s novel, Doctor Zhivago, there is a young man named Galitsin. He’s arrested by the Bolsheviks and convicted and lined up to die by a firing squad. And there, he suddenly cries out, “Forgive me, comrades! Please don’t kill me! Listen, I will do anything you want me to do, anything. Just please don’t kill me. I haven’t lived yet!”

Oh, my friends, I take to this pulpit today to say to you that if you have not yet surrendered your will and your way to Jesus Christ, if you have not yet offered to Him the very best that you have and the very best that you are, if you have not yet said to Him, “Lord, I will do anything you want me to do in life, anything,” if you haven’t said that, then you haven’t begun to live yet.

That’s the testimony of the Scriptures. That’s the witness of the church. That’s the word of the communion of the saints. That is the truth. I cannot tell you a lie. I cannot do it. I love you too much. I love you very, very much, and no one, no one could ever offer me enough for me to tell you a lie. And this is what is true. There is no life on this earth which can begin to equal a life lived in obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s all I know to say. But that’s all I need to say.

Let us pray. Oh, God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, lead us in the way of Jesus, the Christ. Amen.

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