Some time ago I was following a Volkswagen, and it had a
bumper sticker that said, "When I grow up, I'd like to be a Cadillac." That's
ambition. We're all at some point in the ambition spectrum.
I remember that once at college my roommate asked me this
question: "Bob, what do you want to be? What are your ambitions?" I could have
said to him, "I would like to be a loving husband and an effective father
within a Christian family." I regret that I did not say that was one of my
life's ambitions. I could also have said, "I'd like to be rich and have
financial security and become famous." I didn't say that either, and I don't
regret that I didn't. I confess I said these two things: "I would like to
pastor a large church, although I would be happy to start it with my wife and
the dog and go from there. I'd also like to be a conference speaker so I can
have a wide influence."
can be misplaced, misdirected, or mixed.
Well, there's a sense in which those two things have been
fulfilled for me. But let me add quickly that while those goals and ambitions
were not wrong, they were very inadequate. It is not wrong per se for any of us
to have the goals and ambitions that drive us. Jesus spoke about talents. The
New Testament speaks about godly ambition. But we need to realize that ambition
can be misplaced and misdirected. And from Philippians 3 in just a moment, I
want to speak about godly ambition.
You'll remember in Matthew 20 when the mother of the sons of
Zebedee had ambition for them. She came to Jesus and basically said, "I would
like my sons to be first among the president's men; one on the left and one on
the right, in high positions." And Jesus said, "You don't really know what
you're asking for. There's a baptism of fire and suffering associated with
that. Besides, real ambition that counts in my kingdom is the ambition to serve
and to wipe people's feet." So they had some thinking to do.
Illustration: I think of misplaced ambition when I
think of a movie called Amadeus. It
was a story about Mozart probably not a very accurate one, but at least as it
was portrayed in the story Salieri went into the chapel and said in effect, "O
God, I want to serve you all my life, but please make me a brilliant musician.
I dedicate my music to you." But while Salieri is a good musician, he's not
brilliant like Mozart. Salieri had heard about Mozart, and he wanted to meet
this man. Surely, his music being so great, the man must be great. But Salieri
discovered what is true often in life, that the greatness of the profession
doesn't line up with the greatness of character. He was confused. He thought
Mozart's music was divine, but he hated Mozart for who he was. And in the end,
Salieri ended up hating God. "How could God dare to give music so divine to
Mozart, the buffoon, when I, Salieri, come from the right background, went to the
right schools, act in the proper way, and believe the right things, yet my
music is mediocre?"
So Salieri's ambitions were misplaced. But perhaps they only
warn us that all our ambitions come with mixed motives. We desire to serve God,
and that's laudable. But there is within all of us, and certainly within me, a
need of recognition, of affirmation, of security.
come about through conversion.
That's basically an introduction to Philippians 3. For in
these ten verses I want us to look at together, Paul is speaking about holy
ambition. We will finally come to the point of verse 10, in which Paul said,
"How changed now are my ambitions! I have goals and values totally different
from those I used to have." But we'll need to look at these ten verses to see
how he got there.
I want to say right away that I believe the major message of
this passage has to do with the fact that we need to trust Christ by faith and
not by our own good works. We are justified by the finished work of Christ on
the cross. I am aware that is the major thrust of this passage similar to
Galatians 2 and to Romans 1. But I think it's legitimate to not deal with that
major truth but to look at Paul the man, looking back on his life,
coming to verse 10 and saying, "The ambitions that used to drive me were
inadequate, and I have discovered better ambitions."
Let's look at the first four verses. Whatever else Paul is
saying there, he's saying, "I have come to the place of putting no confidence
in the flesh." In the second part of verse 4 and verse 5, he says this: "l
could have confidence in the flesh; you should see my credentials." And then he
lists those words: "Look at what I had: circumcised on the eighth
day, of the tribe of Benjamin; a Hebrew of the Hebrews; in regard to law, a
Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness,
faultless." Those two verses, in and of themselves, would make several weeks of
exposition. But let me update them to our culture for brevity. He says, "My
ancestry goes back to Abraham. I came over on the Mayflower. I'm not an
acculturated Jew. I haven't taken on the mosaic. I'm still true blue, and
everybody who goes past our house knows we're completely Jewish."
It is humorous at times in England to walk some of the
streets or to go to an airport and see people dressed as Indian Sikhs, or
they're obviously Pakistani or Hindu, but when they open their mouths, out come
Scottish or cockney accents. They are becoming acculturated, and we've done that
in the mosaic that is America as well, and that's fine. But Paul is saying,
"Not I. I made sure I really stayed a Jew. Not only that, but I belong to the
strictest sect. I was sold out to God, and I knew the Bible from cover to
cover. In doctrine and in effort I was faultless." Paul had that zeal and that
arrogant sense of "I'm really a Jew, and God must surely be pleased with me."
But he persecuted the church, and that's where we picked up the story when we
first discovered Paul.
Come with me now to verses 7 and 8. He says this: "But
whatever was to my profit, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is
more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of
knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I've lost all things. I consider
them rubbish, that I may gain Christ." And that's where he then goes on to the
major theology of this passage"that I might be found in him, having his
righteousness"but I am concentrating on the sense of ambition.
Bishop Handley Moule says that Paul here becomes an
accountant.. He takes the ledger at the end of the year, so to speak, and he
does a sheet. And what does he come up with? The word excrement. We're very polite these days,
but the King James was not always so polite. It uses a word.
"That," says Paul, "is what I think about that tremendous heritage I thought
was so important. The ambition to be approved by my peers, by the culture in
which I was raised, drove me. It was what I lived for. And now it is a
word to me."
We all know Paul was dramatically met on the Damascus road.
And then, instead of doing the usual evangelical circuit, he went to Arabia and
for three years was incognito. Why? Because surely there had to happen to a man
with these kinds of ambitions the most fundamental change of psyche. It
wouldn't have happened in a night.
I've come to realize that in the western world, the great
tension for our Christianity is not that we travel the Damascus road, for in
some way we must be born again. That is true, and that's not the tension. The
tension is that somehow it never really gets into our psyche that that sort of
conversion demands the most fundamental change in the way we think, in the
values and goals and ambitions of our lives. We buy into the culture in which
we were converted. Paul says, "I've suffered the loss of all things." I think
he's speaking a bit hyperbolically. He didn't lose everything. He must have
kept his keen mind, his tremendous vision, his indefatigable energy. He kept all
that, and he kept his Jewishness, though he did lose his family ties. I'm sure
they kicked him out when they saw him belonging to this scruffy sect of people
called Christians. He no longer had the status he had in the community, but was
now a poor itinerant; not only that, but a man with a prison recordhardly a
candidate for a good evangelical church pulpit. Then he comes to verse 10:
"Where I am at now," says Pauland this is the heart of what I hope God will
speak to us in the time that remains"I want to know Christ." J. B. Phillips
translates this as "How changed are my ambitions! Now I long to know Christ."
Before I go into the heart of verse 10 a little more, what
is it that changes our ambitions? Well, things can happen to us
psychologically. The seasons of life; we grow older, things that were once very
important to us lose their value. Soccer used to consume me when I played at
Wheaton Collegeeven girls and studies came way behind my soccer. But now that
I'm physically not able to play soccer it's only a priority vicariously through
my sons. I had other ambitions and drives that used to be very important to me.
I used to want to buy a nice house, or buy an old house and fix it up and make
it look nice. I even once ventured with a friend to build a house. There's
nothing wrong in that. I'm not here to lay a trip on people. I used to do those
things. But I've just changed. It's not because I became more spiritual or
anything dramatic happened. It's part of growing in life, part of maturing or changing.
The other week we were in Austria and bought a cuckoo clock, and my wife still
can't get me to hang it on the wall. How changed I am from building houses to
not even being able to hang a picture on the wall! This happens to us. For me,
projects and things have faded to a degree, and I say this to God's glory and
my own enjoyment. People and relationships occupy far more of the concerns and
ambitions and drives my time. So things happen to us as we grow older.
Things can happen to us socially that will radically change
our ambitions, and some of you know well of what I speak when I say there are
circumstances in life that come to us. So I say to any students here, Don't
think you can map it all out, because you can't. That's why bereavement can
radically change our ambitions. Ill health can totally turn around our values
of what's important and what we ought to live for. So can bankruptcy. So can
divorce. So can lots of other things.
If our ambitions are wrong, then when life tumbles in on us,
it will cause us to say with T.S. Eliot, "I have measured out my life in coffee
spoons." The seasons of life will change us psychologically. The circumstances
of life may hit us in the face and turn our ambitions 180 degrees another way.
But for Paul it was a spiritual revolution, and that's the challenge for us all
at any stage of life.
Christian has godly ambitions.
And here's what he says in verse 10: "How changed are my
ambitions! I want to know Christ. I want to know the power of his resurrection.
I want to know the fellowship of his suffering." Those three things. I'm not
about to give a lengthy, sermon, but these three things now consume
him. He wants deeply, intimately personally, experientially, for realnot in
his head but in his heart to know Christ. That's a theology all its own. Let
me summarize it in a simple hymn "More about Jesus would I know, / More of his
grace to others show; / More of his saving fullness see, / More of his love who
died for me. / More, more about Jesus."
What he's saying is what he said in Philippians just two
chapters earlier, verse 21: "The consuming ambition of my life, the raison
d'etre, the focal point around which my world turns, is Jesus. That's where
it's at." Then he says, "I want to know him in the power of his resurrection."
Paul had picked up this theme in Ephesians 1:1920. He said you might know the
power that was released by the Spirit of God when he raised up Jesus from the
dead. That was the power released on the day of Pentecost as well. I speak of
the power of the Holy Spirit. In these days of debates about the charismatic
and noncharismatic views of looking at the Spirit of God, I think we miss the
point. We need to ask the question, Do I, do we, walk the life in the Spirit?
It's above and beyond all our technicalities about the Holy Spirit.
I want to share with you a question by Martyn LJones,
who is certainly not known as a Pentecostal preacher. When he held the great
pulpit at Westminster Chapel in London as the great preacher of Reformed
theology, near the end of his lifeand some say at the very pinnacle of his
ministryhe asked his congregation a question. He said, "I want to talk to you
today about the baptism of the Holy Spirit. You may call it what you want, but
I want to know, have you experienced the fullness of the Spirit? I know all of
you listening to me come as I do from a Reformed background. But it's not good
enough. I know that all of you would want to say to my question about the Holy
Spirit, 'Well we got it all at conversion; there's no need for any more
experience.' Well," said Martyn LJones, "I have only one other question to
ask you. If you got it all at conversion, where in God's name is it?"
Paul said, "That's what I want to know." Then he says in the
same verse, "That I may know the fellowship of his suffering. To be conformed
to him in his death. To understand why he cared so passionately for the world
and the kingdom and suffered for it." Paul had experienced a bit of that. He'd
been beaten, left for dead, shipwrecked, and rejected, and now he's imprisoned.
So he was certainly experiencing some of those things. But I ask myself. Paul, are you a masochist? We all want to
know Christ more, and that's lovely and pietistic and spiritual. We all want to
know the power of the Spirit, even though sometimes I get thrust into
theological debates that miss the point entirely. But this, Paul, to say that
we want to know your sufferingPaul, you'd better preach that somewhere else
but not here. What's he saying?
When a couple come to be married, they stand before the
minister and say that together they will identify with one another in sickness
and in health, for better or worse, rich or poor, till death us do part. Now,
they're not saying when they say that, "We're in for a miserable life
together." They're saying, "We want to be together in this thing. We want to
deeply identify with one another's hurts and one another's joys."
Illustration: How can I illustrate what Paul is
trying to say? With the story of Dr. Paul Toaspern, a brilliant man, a
theologian, who lived in West Berlin. When that stupid concrete wall was going
up that divided East Berlin from West Berlin, he could seeand I'm not trying
to pun herethe writing on the wall. And he knew he would have to go with his
young family back to East Berlinin the opposite direction from the thousands
of refugees who would be coming outbecause he knew that the Lutheran church in
East Berlin would need him and his theological expertise and his passion for
missions. And he went back.
A year or so ago I went to see him on one of a number of
occasions that I've been to East Germany. And as we were driving back toward
Checkpoint Charlie in East Berlin, where I would cross the border into the
West, I asked Paul the inevitable question: "How are your kids doing? Are they
at university?" He said, "Oh, they don't go to university," and I thought, This
man is brilliant; what gives? He said, "My children are very bright and
academically would go far in university, but they will not join the Young
Communist League, so they cannot go to university. But praise God, they're all
training for the Lutheran ministry." "How about your parents Paul," I asked as
the car drove closer to the gate. "Oh," he said, "my parents are dead. The sad thing
is that when they were dying, the government wouldn't let me back to see them,
so I had to shout to friends over the wall and ask how they were doing." And
then I said, "Paul, is there a tube train that goes from Checkpoint Charlie to
the hotel where I'm staying?" With tears in his eyes, this beautiful man said
to me, "I don't know, Bob. They've not let me back for years."
That's what Paul is talking about. Paul Toaspern got it
right. We in North America and England got it wrong. We can have no truck with
the prosperity gospel that turns us all out looking like models coming to
church in our shiny cars on a Sunday morning, naming it and claiming it because
Jesus gives good things to us. The gospel must cease to be a slick presentation
to a generation of yuppies. It must talk of the cross. It is only a hundred
years ago that Great Britain, at the height of its empire and the height of its
wealth, had people packing its churches as we do today here in America. It has
that no longer, either economically or spiritually, except for some good things
that are starting to happen now as Britain realizes its poverty all around.
The other day the London stock market took a dive. I don't
understand all of that, but it caused a few shock waves. And it caused me to
ask this question: Where are my investments? I asked that question hard and
long and not pompously, but with a deep sense of satisfaction. I can tell you
of two investments that will live with me forever. One is the investment of the
values and truths my wife and I shared with our children, all three of whom are
following the Lord in some kind of Christian service. How do you put a value on
that kind of investment? Or I look back over the years and see people who
became disciples of Jesus families made whole through Christ, and people
redirecting their lives, not measuring their lives in coffee spoons any longer
but living for God. They're investments that are worth all you can find in Wall
Street or London.
But like Paul, I would say I couldn't possibly think that
I'd arrived. There are a million light years yet to go. And I then ask myself, Well, Bob, where are your investments going
to be in the time that remains, be it a week or 30 years? And I came up
with four things. I realized that only one life will soon be past, and only
what's done for Christ will last. In the context of that, I looked at my
marriage, and I said, I shall go to
Brenda, my wife, and I shall say to her the words of Robert Browning: "My dear,
grow old along with me! The best is yet to be." I further decided I would
come to the Scripture I've used so long for preaching and theological analysis
and would say to the Spirit, "Lord, let your Word come alive in my heart." My
ambition is to look not whether we can have bigger churches, for ours is large
and will grow, but how can I help there become bigger people within those
churches? And ultimately I want the ambition of Paul: to have my Christianity
mean that I really do love Jesus.
Now what of you? Is your ambition to win the approval of
your culture? Or is your ambition to know Christ?
Maybe it's been hackneyed and said too much, but Jim
Elliot's words are still appropriate: "He is no fool who gives up that which he
cannot keep to gain that which he can never lose."
I'm going to ask you to bow in prayer. And while we're bowed
in prayer, I'm going to ask you five questions. I'm not speaking to your head
right now; I want to speak to your heart. So if the questions become blurred,
let the Spirit just ask you what he will. But here are the questions as a form
of prayer: What do you value most in life? What preoccupies your time and
effort? What is driving you? Where does your security lie? Who's approval are
you really seeking?
"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I, I took the road
less travelled, and that has made all the difference." Would to God it will be
true for us all, including myself, this morning. Amen.