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The Right Ambition

When we are truly focused on Christ, our ambitions will be godly.

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."

Our ambitions 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.

Holy ambitions 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 record—hardly a candidate for a good evangelical church pulpit. Then he comes to verse 10: "Where I am at now," says Paul—and 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 College—even 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.

A mature 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 real—not 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 life—and some say at the very pinnacle of his ministry—he 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 suffering—Paul, 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 see—and I'm not trying to pun here—the writing on the wall. And he knew he would have to go with his young family back to East Berlin—in the opposite direction from the thousands of refugees who would be coming out—because 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.

(c) Robert Roxburgh

Preaching Today Tape #61


A resource of Christianity Today International

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Sermon Outline:


I. Our ambitions can be misplaced, misdirected, or mixed

II. Holy ambitions come about through conversion

III. A mature Christian has godly ambitions