Straining Forward

Philippians 3:7-16

I’ve got a little confession to make…this is something that I don’t usually talk about openly. I…am a Cleveland Browns fan. Yes, I am a huge fan of sports in general, but one team that I have cheered on from what seems like birth has been the Cleveland Browns of the National Football League. As I often tell people, one does not consciously choose to be a Browns fan. To be honest, one doesn’t really have a choice when growing up in Cleveland. It’s like family…or maybe growing up Presbyterian; you don’t get to always choose. Now, some of you may be laughing, and understand why this is hard for me to say out loud. For the rest of you, let me share a little about my favorite team. We have had some good years…and some bad years; more bad than good. The last time the Browns…or any professional team in Cleveland for that matter won a Championship…was 51 years ago. I remember the Browns being pretty good when I was a child. In the year 1987 my team made it to the American Football Conference Championship game. If they won, they would be heading to the Super Bowl! We were winning with five minutes left in the game! Just then, John Elway of the Denver Broncos would take his team 98 yards to tie and ultimately win the game. This game would later be known as ‘the Drive’.

The next year WE were the ones who had the ball in the dwindling seconds of the game with the chance to tie and win. Our running back, Earnest Byner, was running with the ball to score. Just as he was nearly in the end zone for a touchdown, he fumbled the ball, and the Broncos recovered…and once again shattered our dreams of the Super bowl. This would be called ‘The Fumble’.

Pretty heart breaking, huh. It gets worse! In the year 1996, the owner of the Browns, Art Modell, actually moved the team away from Cleveland to the city of Baltimore, which is now the Baltimore Ravens. Cleveland fans remember this horrific experience as ‘the Move.’

In 1999 a glimmer of hope was realized as our team was re-instituted by the NFL; however, the product on the field has never recovered. Since our re-inception into the NFL, the Browns have been to the playoffs only 1 time in the last 16 years. We have gone through 7 coaches since 1999. We have had 21 starting quarterbacks. To put it bluntly, the Cleveland Browns have an argument as the worst football team…or any sports team in the last 50 years.

I say all of this not to receive pity, although I appreciate your empathy. Perhaps you have your own stories of underperforming teams that you have cheered for over the years. In fact, if you have had teams that you have supported, then you will understand what I’m going to say next. As crazy as it sounds…I still have hope.

Every summer in July thousands of Cleveland Browns fans, and fans of all NFL teams for that matter, gather at their team’s practice facilities, just to get a glimpse of the new team for the upcoming season. Yes, we all know that we have witnessed half a century of pain, confusion, frustration, and ultimately failure, but each of us has some sense of hope within us. This year is going to be different!

How many of us have said that, whether spoken or subconsciously, about our lives? How many of us wake up each day with hope that ‘today will be different’, only to be beaten down by reality that seems eerily similar to that of the day before?

We see this in our challenges at school or work, the daily news headlines, our families, our romantic relationships, our spiritual lives, and even our churches. Why even care about this stuff; it’s just going to be the same tomorrow as it is today—broken.

The Apostle Paul writes about some of these issues. Even though it was written nearly 2000 years ago, it’s amazing that people were dealing with similar disappointments that we do today. Let’s see what he has to say.

The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a pretty quick read. It lasts just four chapters, and there is a repeating message of ‘rejoice’ in God’s presence. Paul also begins his message in chapter three with the same message: rejoice! He will write about his privileged upbringing of education and lineage, but then he will go on to surprise many who would reading his letter:

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ…

Rubbish?! I can imagine his audience thinking to themselves, ‘What do you mean, Paul?’ Why in the world would anyone consider a great upbringing to be useless trash? Paul goes on to answer this as well in verse nine: “…in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

Paul will then continue with the ‘how’ of his faith life. Paul lives his life moving forward:

 12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Of all of Paul’s successes, background, and upbringing, the Apostle Paul writes that his faith is far from over; in fact, it is just beginning.

‘Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.’ I think this is a motto that a lot of us could learn from. Paul still had hope, and it wasn’t because he grew up in a comfortable home, or he was educated, or powerful. No, he was hopeful, not because of any of these earthly things that we consider ‘success’. Paul put his hope in God’s love offered in Christ Jesus.

So what does this mean for us here today? Well, I’m sure you may be thinking what I’ve thought about before. No, praying to God for my Cleveland Browns will not make them get to the Super Bowl (believe me, I’ve tried). But I will be honest with you for a moment: praying to God has allowed me to handle these horrible seasons with a lot more grace and love. And I do still have hope, but it looks a lot different than my six year old self watching those teams in the 1980s. Faith in Christ gives us new perspective.

You see, so many people want to make it sound like if you just accept Jesus as your Savior, then all of your troubles go away. I’m here as a living example, this is not the case! But what we do learn from Paul comes to us in three parts this morning:

  1. As we identify ourselves in Christ, we gain a new perspective, a Kingdom perspective that allows us to appropriately put life’s matters in order. As Paul noted, all of those things that the world so valued, he now understood them to be rubbish when it came to the value of walking with Christ in this world.
  1. Second, when we gain a Kingdom perspective, we realize that living such a life is an ongoing effort—we are never done. We are called by Christ to walk alongside him and one another as we have been given the task to help realize God’s Kingdom here on Earth.
  1. Finally, this is the Good News for us this morning: with our new perspective and our ongoing work in the world, we gain an understanding of hope and faith in God’s work in the world—we look to the future with hope in Christ. We hope, not because of our accomplishments, but because of God’s in Christ Jesus. It’s with such a hope that we can envision a holy future where God’s love is realized with all of Creation.

So what do we hope for? Maybe it’s for our favorite sports team. Maybe we hope for a better relationship with your family. Maybe we hope for a bright future for this church. Thanks to God’s love in Christ Jesus, our hopes continue and they evolve as they relate to our ultimate hope in God’s Kingdom being realized here on Earth. It’s because of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ that we have been given such hope, and we have the privilege to share it with others.

As the prophet Isaiah reminds us, God says, ‘I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?’ This is what allows us to take new bold steps to the future. This is what Paul had in mind when he wrote he was ‘forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead…’. We are called to this future; to this hope in Christ. Thanks be to God.

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