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Christian Excellence: The Alternative to Worldly Success: God Cannot Pour His Riches Into Hands Already Full

Philippians 3:8-14

Given the circumstances, I suppose it is understandable why the fellow told me his joke. I had just announced to my congregation in Arkansas that I was accepting a call to become the minister at the First Presbyterian Church of Orlando. Afterwards, the fellow said: “Preacher, since you are going to Orlando, you need to know this story.” Here is what he told me:

It seems that the richest man in the world was dying and he summoned his three sons to come to his bedside. He was planning to give each of them whatever each desired as a last gift. He asked his 35-year-old what he would like and the son replied: “I would like a yacht.” The father picked up the phone and bought him the most magnificent yacht in the world. The 25-year-old son then indicated that he would like to have a Ferrari automobile. The father picked up the phone and bought him four, all of the number that had been produced in that variety for that year. Now the last son was the son of the father’s old age. He was only five years old. He was somewhat confused by what was happening. So when his father said: “I want to give you one last gift. What would you like for it to be?”, the boy replied: “Daddy, there’s nothing I want, I have everything.” The father insisted: “There’s bound to be something you want.” The boy said: “Well, okay, I would like to have a Mickey Mouse outfit!” The father responded: “All right, if a Mickey Mouse outfit is what you want, that’s what you’ll have.” The father picked up the phone and bought him the First Presbyterian Church of Orlando!

Well, I want you to know that I have not for one moment found that to be true. There’s nothing Mickey Mouse about a company of people committed to Jesus Christ, committed to each other in Jesus Christ, and committed to live for Jesus Christ in the world. There’s nothing Mickey Mouse about a fellowship of God’s people who are serious about discerning God’s will for their lives and are equally serious about pursuing that will with everything they have and are. There’s nothing Mickey Mouse about a band of Christ’s disciples who want to climb higher and higher in the things of the Spirit. That’s why, if I could characterize this congregation at this moment in our history, I would use Paul’s words from Philippians: “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, (we) press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

That’s a great verse, isn’t it? And if you and I are going to continue to be a company of Christ’s disciples committed to living with excellence in the world, then we need to write that verse upon our hearts. You see, I believe in positive thinking, yes. And I believe in possibility thinking, yes. But I also believe in principle thinking. I believe that when you positively run out of possibilities, you can fall back upon the principles taught in Scripture. Now there are a lot of those principles in the Bible and I am trying to build my life upon them. These are not ideas that I have; they are ideas that have me. Today I want to share three of them with you. They are drawn from Christian Excellence: The Alternative To Worldly Success.

Philippians 3:13-14, and to help you remember them, I want to express them in little rhymes. Here they are:

First, there is the Biblical principle of perspiration—we need to perform before the storm.

Paul says that we are to “press on.” The word literally means “strain ahead to the point of exhaustion.” To put that another way, we achieve Christian excellence in life through perspiration, through sheer hard work.

Remember Noah? He built his boat while the sun was shining. He obeyed God before the storms of difficulty came. He didn’t have what we call “foxhole religion.” He didn’t wait until disaster struck before he began to do the work God called him to do. He built the boat before the storm. The point is that the people who experience Christian excellence are the people who do the hard things during the good times. It’s not hard to get religious during bad times. But you show me people who obey God during the good times and I’ll show you people who can bring God and good into the bad times.

One of the most unforgettable stories I have ever encountered was told of John Dyer in his book The Snowshoe Itinerant. He was an itinerant Methodist preacher back in the mid-1800’s. He carried the Gospel out to the wild, untamed land of the Rocky Mountains. Drawing from his remarkable experiences on the frontier, he told of a young couple who headed west and staked out a plot of land in the wilderness and built a home and started a family. As John Dyer wandered about in the region he introduced this young family to Jesus Christ and helped them in their spiritual growth. Now in order to survive out there in the middle of nowhere, the father in the family, once a month, would hitch up the horses and the wagon and go into the nearest town for supplies. He would be gone for several days. One time while the father was off securing supplies, his wife stepped out into the tall grass near the cabin and she was bitten on the leg by a large rattlesnake. What was she to do? She knew that she would die, but her first thought was for her children. She prayed that God would show her what to do. She then gathered the children together, and, since she did not want to alarm them, she told them that she was going to be taking a long nap. She needed to cook for them and they needed to help her and there were chores to be done and she would be giving them instructions to follow. She started a fire and she began cooking everything she could find. She was working furiously, directing the children in the things they needed to do and having them write down instructions for later. As she worked harder and harder it got hotter and hotter. The perspiration began to stream out of her body as she felt the poisonous venom beginning to sap her strength. But she didn’t want to frighten the kids so she kept at it. At last when she felt that all the right preparations had been made, she made the children promise that they would do everything she had told them to do. She then stretched out on the bed and soon lost consciousness. At the end of the next day, the father returned. The children said: “Mama’s asleep.” Sensing something was wrong, he rushed to her bedside. She was desperately ill, but she was still alive. He gathered her up in his arms, put her and the kids in the wagon and drove as fast as he could to the nearest country doctor. During the next two weeks, the doctor worked to nurse her back to life and health. Later on, the doctor recorded it as his most unusual case. By all rights, she should have died from that snake’s venom, but her love for her children caused her to work so hard that she literally sweated enough of those toxins out of her system to save her life.

Sisters and brothers, we are living in a world where there is every kind of toxin imaginable—toxins of the mind, body, soul, and spirit. The world is choking to death on all kinds of smog and all kinds of smut. Only one thing will save us—that is, if our love for Jesus Christ causes us to work so hard for Him that we’ll sweat all of those toxins out of the system. That’s the first principle. Perspiration—perform before the storm.

Next is the principle of inspiration—we need to go before we know.

Paul says “Forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead.” To put that another way: we need to shake off the things that hold us back in life and with an inspired faith in God head into the unknown future.

Remember Abraham? He was rich. He had all the money and possessions and success anyone could ever desire. God called him to go but didn’t tell him where—and Abraham went. He didn’t say, “Look, Lord, I’m doing quite well here. I can’t give up all the good things I have.” He didn’t say, “You’ve got to give me more details about this.” He didn’t say: “Lord, you’ve got to guarantee me that I will be safe and well through all of this.” No, the Bible says: “He got up and went.” You see, his deep unshakable faith in God gave him all the inspiration he needed. He didn’t have to have all of the answers. He just did what God told him to do.

Let me ask you: What is it that is holding you back in life? What is it that keeps you from soaring through life on the wings of a great faith? Has peer pressure paralyzed you? Do you have personal relationships that hinder your commitment to a Christ honoring excellence? Does materialism have you in its grasp? Is self-denial your strong suit or your downfall? Are you willing to surrender to Jesus Christ in your life? Is your commitment to Him strong enough to keep you true no matter what?

Since the walls of communism came a-tumblin’ down, remarkable stories of the faith have begun to surface in the Soviet Union. Here is one of them. During the communist oppression of Christianity, a small group of Christians began meeting secretly in a house. The only Scripture they had was a dog-eared copy of the Gospel of Luke. They tore it into sections and distributed the sections among the believers. Their plan was that each person would memorize the portion he or she had been given, then they could destroy the contraband copy. One Sunday not long thereafter, they gathered under the cover of darkness to worship. Windows were closed, doors were locked. They began by singing a hymn quietly, but with deep emotion. Then they began reciting the Gospel of Luke, each one in turn and in order repeating the portion memorized. Suddenly the door crashed open. In walked two soldiers with automatic weapons. One shouted: “Line up against the wall! If you wish to renounce your faith in Jesus Christ, you may leave now.” Two or three moved toward the door and were gone. No one else moved. The soldier said: “This is your last chance. Turn against your faith or stay and suffer the consequences.” Those remaining expected to be gunned down, or, at best, to be imprisoned, but they stood firm. After a few moments of silence, the soldier closed the door and said: “Do not be afraid. We will not kill you. We, too, are Christians. However, we have learned by experience that unless people are willing to die for their faith, they cannot be fully trusted.”

My friends, what we obtain too cheaply, we esteem too lightly. Shake off whatever it is that is holding you back in your commitment to Jesus Christ. Forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead, no matter what. That’s the second principle: Inspiration—go before you know.

Then there is the principle of aspiration—we need to keep our eyes on the prize.

Paul says: “Pursue the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” That’s aspiration. That’s climbing ever higher in the things of God. That’s keeping your eyes upon the prize.

Remember Moses? He forsook the courts of Pharaoh, gave up his kingdom, and aligned himself with the people of God. Why? Because he thought it was better to suffer for the Lord than to have all the riches of Egypt. The Bible says: “Moses kept his eye on the future reward.” A friend of mine has a little plaque on his desk. Inscribed on the plaque are these words:

One life have I,
T’will soon be past;
Only what’s done
For Christ will last.

In my life I have seen the ruins of our greatest human achievements: the Jerusalem temple, the Egyptian Pyramids, the Parthenon in Greece, the Colosseum in Rome, Herod’s hippodrome at Caesarea. Once these were wonders of the world. Now they are crumbling, flaking rocks and dust. Only what’s done for Christ in life will last. How does the poet put it?

One by one God took them from me,
All the things I valued most,
Till I was empty-handed
And every glittering toy was lost.

As I walked earth’s highway, grieving,
In my rags and poverty,
I heard His voice inviting
“Lift your empty hands to me!”

So I turned my hands toward heaven
And he filled them with a store
Of His own transcendent riches
Till they could hold no more.

And at last I comprehended
With my stupid mind and dull
That God could not pour His riches
Into hands already full!

So, my friends, keep your eyes on the prize. Pursue the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. For only what’s done for Christ in life will last.

Let me finish with this.

When I was young I had the privilege of hearing at Montreat, the great Indian Christian, Chandu Ray. He told of a Christian pilgrim and a Buddhist pilgrim who were struggling up the sides of a great Himalayan peak trying to reach a famous monastery at the top. As they were climbing, they suddenly heard some groans and a soft cry for help. They found another pilgrim who had fallen and who was pleading for assistance. The Buddhist said: “My task is to reach the top. I am not to divert myself to any other cause. I cannot help.” But the Christian said: “I am climbing toward the top. But I have been taught that the real top is to be in service to those in need. I will carry you.”

The Buddhist headed off alone while the Christian struggled to carry the injured man through the swirling snow. At long last, near the summit, the Christian spotted the monastery. As he approached the gates he fell over something in his path. It was the body of the Buddhist pilgrim frozen to death. When the Christian went into the monastery, the spiritual leader there said to him: “The reason you could do what the other pilgrim could not do is that you were carrying your brother. In your extra exertion, you produced more warmth in your body, and having his body with you, one body warming the other, that is what brought you through.”

Think about that, my beloved, as you seek through Jesus Christ to make for yourself, not a living, but a life…

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