Monday, March 26, 2007

Sunday, March 25, 2007 Sermon: "Life-Giving Knowledge"

“Life-Giving Knowledge”
Philippians 3:4b-14
March 25, 2007
Fifth Sunday in Lent

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 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 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. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 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. 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, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

In the middle of this passage, the Apostle Paul expresses the desire of his heart, a prayer really:

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

You’ve probably heard the old expression, “It’s not what you know but who you know.” Paul certainly knew that to be true. The number one priority in his life was to know Christ. He not only says it here, but also in 1 Cor. 2:2…

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

A few years ago I met someone who talked about having his own personal mission statement. I’d never thought about having my own mission statement before. Churches have mission statements; so do businesses, corporations, hospitals, etc. Fast food restaurants have mission statements. Sometimes they can sound like just a bunch of jargon. The “Dilbert” comic strip website has a tool that allows you to generate your own mission statements like this one:

“Our mission is to synergistically administrate scalable services.”

Anyway, I came up with this mission statement for myself a few years ago:

“To know Christ and to make Christ known.”

I didn’t create it. I read it somewhere else. But it expresses for me what I would like the purpose of my life to be – to know Jesus Christ and to make Christ known in both my words and my actions. It’s the name I gave to my blog where I post my sermons and other occasional thoughts.

We might say that Paul’s mission statement was to know Christ and to make him known to as many people as he could: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection…”

But we might be wondering why Paul prays to know Christ. Didn’t Paul already know Jesus better than just about anyone in his time and better than any of us could hope to know him? If Paul thought he didn’t know Jesus, how can any of us hope to know him? Well, maybe we need to look at what it means to “know” Christ.

I don’t mean to go all “political” on you this morning, but this whole business with the firing of the U.S. attorneys has been in the news a lot the last week or so, and Karl Rove, President Bush’s deputy chief of staff, has been smack-dab in the middle of it. The Dallas Morning News had a story in last Thursday’s paper about Rove being questioned by a Texas senator back in 1991. Rove had helped Rick Perry in his 1990 campaign for agriculture commissioner and during the campaign, the FBI had opened an investigation into Perry’s opponent, Jim Hightower. Some people suspected that Rove had something to do with it. The senator asked Rove if he knew the FBI agent who had investigated Hightower. Rove answered: “Ah, Senator, it depends. Would you define ‘know’ for me?”

We might also need a definition before we can really understand what Paul means by wanting to “know” Christ. So today we’ll be looking at what it means to know Christ because I believe it should be as important to us as it was to Paul.

It takes a big person to admit that they don’t know something, especially when they’re viewed as an expert in their field. It took a lot for Paul to say, as he says here, “I thought I knew God, I thought I knew Christ, but I found out that I didn’t really know anything.”

Sometimes before we can learn something we have to “unlearn” what we think we know. Paul had come to that realization. He tells the Philippians that earlier in his life he thought he knew the way to get in God’s good graces, and he had followed that plan to the letter: to be born into a good Jewish home; to be a member of the right tribe; to be a Pharisee and follow the law to the letter; and to persecute those who threatened Judaism, like the Christians.

But when he met Christ on the road to Damascus, he realized that he had been running “90 miles per hour in the wrong direction,” as a contemporary Christian song puts it. He was as zealous as he could be, but he learned we was zealous for the wrong cause. That’s a good reminder to us that it’s not enough simply to be sincere in our beliefs. “Oh, it doesn’t matter what you believe,” some folks say, “as long as you’re sincere.” Paul was sincere, all right, but he was sincerely wrong.

The image Paul himself uses is from the world of accounting. Any accountants or bookkeepers here today? You’ll appreciate this language:

Yet whatever profits I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.

It’s like Paul had worked up a spiritual profit and loss statement. Everything that Paul had believed had given him a big positive balance in the profit column – his ancestry, his legalism, his zeal as a persecutor of Christians -- he says he realized wasn’t worth anything. He calls it “rubbish,” but the actual Greek term is even stronger and is probably not proper language for church. He says he was willing to move it all over into the “loss” column when he gained the one thing that he learned was the true source of getting right with God: faith in Jesus Christ.

From that moment on, Paul says, he knew there was only one prize worth attaining, one goal worth striving for: to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.

A lot of people are like the earlier Paul. They think they know what will get them right with God. They tell themselves, “I’m a good person. I haven’t broken any major laws. I take care of my family. I work hard. I give to the United Way. Surely that’s all I need in my profit column to get me into heaven.”

As Christians, we might be able to add a few more “credits” to the list: going to church, teaching Sunday School, tithing, going on a mission trip. But as good as all those things are, we have to count them all as “loss” compared to the one thing that really matters: knowing Jesus Christ.

So that takes us back to the question I raised a little while ago: what does it mean to know Christ?

Let me tell you first what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean just knowing about Christ. I learned about Jesus from the time I was a little kid in Sunday School. I knew that he was born in Bethlehem, that he performed miracles, that he taught a lot of good things, and that he died on a cross and was raised from the dead on Easter. But that didn’t mean I knew Christ, because if I had really known Christ, I don’t think I would have done some of the things I did.

In the town where I grew up there was a mentally disabled man named Jackie Gee. In those days we called him “retarded.” He was a child trapped in an adult body. He rode his bicycle all over town and he especially loved to go to high school football games. He reminds me in a way of the Cuba Gooding, Jr. character in the movie “Radio.” He loved to laugh and you could make him laugh with almost any comment. He could usually be found by the concession stand at the football games and when we teenagers would see him, we would begin to tease him. We’d pretend we were going to take his bike just to get a rise out of him. Or someone would take his cap and play keep-away. Mostly it was sort of good-natured kidding, but at times it could be cruel. Kids would imitate his speech impediment. I hate to admit this, but at times I would join in the teasing. I knew about Christ, but if I had really known Christ, I wouldn’t have teased Jackie. A person who knew Christ would have stood up for him and told the others to leave him alone. Knowing about and knowing aren’t the same thing.

My brother Earl knew about Jesus. My parents had had him baptized as a child and they took him to Sunday School and church just as they had taken my sister and me. But he hadn’t been active in church since he became an adult. When he found out his cancer was incurable, I think he realized that he didn’t really know Jesus. But something deep down inside him told him that it was important to know Jesus as he faced death and eternity. So when I arrived at his bedside I did my best to help him know Jesus and his unfailing forgiveness, love and grace. And even though it was later than it should have been, I believe Earl came to know Jesus, as Paul says, and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, so that he attained the resurrection from the dead.

It’s never too late to know Jesus. And even if we think we already know him, we still have a lot to learn. If someone like Paul, one of the greatest Christian minds ever to live, could say, “I want to know Christ,” then who are we to think that we have nothing left to learn. The Christian life is a lifelong journey of coming to know Christ more and more, of understanding and experiencing Jesus more and more, until the day we die. And even then, the journey is only beginning, for as Paul says in 1 Cor. 13:12…

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

There are lots of ways we can come to know Christ in this life. It happens when we come to church, when we do Bible study, when we go on a spiritual retreat, and especially when we pray. But Jesus himself told us one of the best ways to know him: feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, and visit the imprisoned. When you do it to these folks, he said, the least of your brothers and sisters, you do it to me.

In other words, we know Christ best through suffering: either our own or being with those who suffer. Paul said, “I want to know Christ … by becoming like him in his suffering.” Paul was always ready to suffer for his faith because he knew that would bring him closer to Christ, who suffered punishment and death for us. We know Christ best in suffering because those are the times when we realize that we can’t make it on our own; we need Christ’s help. In suffering we are completely and utterly at the mercy of God. And God promises to help us.

One last word: we can spend our whole lives getting to know Jesus Christ and even then, we will only have barely scratched the surface. John concluded his Gospel with these words:

But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (Jn. 21:25)

It would be the height of vanity to suppose that we could ever exhaust the fullness of knowing Christ in this lifetime. We will continue to get to know Christ in heaven. In fact, Jesus himself said that to know him is to experience eternal life itself:

“And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (Jn. 17:3)

So why would we want to wait even one moment longer to begin this lifelong quest to know Jesus, since knowing Jesus is the very source of life itself, abundant and eternal here on earth and in heaven? Let me invite all of us to make Paul’s passion and priority our own: to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

My Brother Earl

My brother Earl Yeager died from complications due to cancer at the age of 60 on Tuesday, March 13, 2007 at a hospital near his home in Vancouver, Washington. I was able to visit with him for two days prior to his death (see note below for the sermon on March 11).

I did not preach on Sunday, March 18, as I was in Portland, OR with my sister Barb and my brother's wife Patti and her family. Making this all the more painful was the fact that our parents were not able to see my brother or attend his funeral because of their own health problems.

We celebrated Earl's life at a funeral service at Montavilla UMC in Portland, OR on Saturday, March 17 and he was buried at Gethsemani Cemetery on March 19.

My brother owned a beautiful '57 Chevy and he was a member of the Rose City Classic (Chevy) Car Club. Several members of the club drove their cars to Earl's funeral and then drove in a "procession" to his home where family and friends gathered after the service.

My sister's pastor, David Weekley, conducted the funeral. I gave the following eulogy for my brother at the service:

Earl was my older brother – by 7 years. He was my only brother. The age difference between us meant that when I was younger I was mostly a nuisance whose presence he had to tolerate. He hardly noticed me, except when he wanted to beat me up or torment me to amuse his friends. I do remember, though, when he came home one time for a visit when I was a teenager, probably about 16, and he challenged me to a wrestling match. He would always easily get the better of me. But not this time – in fact I held my own against him. It was probably during the days I was playing football in high school. Anyway, from that day on Earl treated me more as a peer than a little brother, or so it seemed to me. I was finally worthy of his attention.

In many ways I idolized him, as younger brothers will do. I looked up to him. I envied him for lots of reasons. He had everything I wanted. I wanted to be like him.

He always had a cool car. He lived at home in Texas for a short time after he got out of the Navy and before he came to Oregon for good. He bought a little Nova – a ’67, I think. And of course, he had to soup it up. New shocks, new exhausts, chrome wheels. All my friends thought it was so cool that my brother had such a great car and we loved it when he’d give us a ride to school. I remember his first ’57 Chevy. He let me try to drive it one summer, but I hadn’t learned how to drive a stick shift yet, so I kept killing it. He took it to the drag races one weekend shortly after that and blew the engine up so I never got to drive it again. It was stolen and stripped a short time later. I always wanted a car like his.

He always wore cool clothes back in the 70s. I stayed with him one summer and he got me a job working with him laying concrete curb. I liked his clothes so much that I went out and bought some of the same shirts that he wore – with big collars and puffy sleeves. I got some shoes with really high heels because Earl had a pair. Looking back, it probably really embarrassed him that I tried to dress just like him, but I don’t remember him ever saying anything about it.

I was a little bit jealous that he got to retire at such a young age and do so much traveling with Patti. But I knew he deserved it because he had worked so hard and gotten up so early for so many years. I wanted to travel like that some day.

Earl and I didn’t get to spend as much time together as I would have liked. He lived in Oregon and I lived in Texas, so we would see each other once a year at the most. We would talk on the phone at holidays, but neither of us was much for long phone conversations. I was really looking forward to coming out there this summer for a good visit. And I was taking for granted that we’d have more time together after I retired one of these days. Our family is kind of small and spread all over the country. It was good for Earl to be a part of a big, close family like the Cozzettos.

Earl had so much that I envied. But I had one advantage over him. I had one thing he could never have – an older brother. And he was the best older brother a younger brother could ever hope for.

Earl didn’t get to do everything in this life he wanted to do. He was looking forward to taking more trips, having more family gatherings. When he found out he was sick, he was hoping he’d get to drive his Chevy one more time; play video poker again; and go out for a fancy dinner. He didn’t get to do those things, but he did have time to do the most important thing – that was to get his relationship with God right. Earl and I didn’t have a lot of conversations on spiritual topics. He didn’t ask and I didn’t bring it up. I wish I had now. But we did get to have a long talk the day before he died. He was afraid that it might be too late. He asked me, “If I wasn’t your brother, what advice would you give me?” And I did my best to assure him that God loved him and that it was never too late to go home to God. I told him that God wants people in heaven who want to be with him, and if he wanted to go to heaven, all he had to do was ask God to forgive him and he’d be OK. And he did. And he is.

Earl’s illness and death have taught me to treat every moment of life as a precious gift from God and not to take even one day for granted, because we never know if it might be our last. So hug your children. Call or go visit your brothers and sisters. Tell them how much you love them. I had the privilege of praying with Earl just a short time before his death and I got to hug him and tell him I loved him. I told him I’d see him in the morning, and I will.

I have one last story. The morning after Earl died, Wednesday morning, I just had to get out of the house and take a walk. I had a lot of nervous energy that I didn’t know what to do with. I walked up the hill toward Mt. Tabor, not really knowing where I was going, but just heading up. It was kind of a gray, cloudy Portland morning, much like my mood. I still couldn’t really believe Earl was gone. As I was walking up west on Stark I was breathing hard and feeling the strain of the hill. It may not seem like much to you, but believe me, to a boy from Texas, that’s a hill! I came over the hill and suddenly there laid out in front of me was downtown Portland, only the sun was shining on that side of the river and it looked like another world. I just had to stop and take it in. It almost took my breath away. And at that moment I thought, that’s like the journey Earl just took, from this life to the life to come. Things on this side can be dark and gloomy and an uphill battle. Earl was having a hard time on Tuesday. He was gasping for every breath and in quite a bit of pain. But at 9:45 that night, he crested that hill, and there laid out before him was the city of God and a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens, bathed in light. God took him by the hand and led him home. You and I can’t follow him there, not yet. But I hope to someday. And I’ll be glad to see him again and I’ll tell him, “This is just one last thing that you had that I wanted.”

Sunday, March 11, 2007 Sermon: "Conquering Strength"

Note about this sermon: When I preached this sermon I was getting ready to leave for Vancouver, WA where my brother Earl was in the hospital dying from cancer. His diagnosis had come very suddenly and as a great shock to our whole family. We arrived on March 11 at 11:30 pm and he died on March 13 at about 9:45 pm. This passage from 1 Cor. 10 gave me a lot of comfort as I prepared for this trip.

“Conquering Strength”
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
March 11, 2007
Third Sunday in Lent

(From “The Message” by Eugene Peterson:)

Remember our history, friends, and be warned. All our ancestors were led by the providential Cloud and taken miraculously through the Sea. They went through the waters, in a baptism like ours, as Moses led them from enslaving death to salvation life. They all ate and drank identical food and drink, meals provided daily by God. They drank from the Rock, God's fountain for them that stayed with them wherever they were. And the Rock was Christ. But just experiencing God's wonder and grace didn't seem to mean much—most of them were defeated by temptation during the hard times in the desert, and God was not pleased.

The same thing could happen to us. We must be on guard so that we never get caught up in wanting our own way as they did. And we must not turn our religion into a circus as they did—"First the people partied, then they threw a dance." We must not be sexually promiscuous—they paid for that, remember, with 23,000 deaths in one day! We must never try to get Christ to serve us instead of us serving him; they tried it, and God launched an epidemic of poisonous snakes. We must be careful not to stir up discontent; discontent destroyed them.

These are all warning markers—danger!—in our history books, written down so that we don't repeat their mistakes. Our positions in the story are parallel—they at the beginning, we at the end—and we are just as capable of messing it up as they were. Don't be so naive and self-confident. You're not exempt. You could fall flat on your face as easily as anyone else. Forget about self-confidence; it's useless. Cultivate God-confidence.

No test or temptation that comes your way is beyond the course of what others have had to face. All you need to remember is that God will never let you down; he'll never let you be pushed past your limit; he'll always be there to help you come through it.

I was listening to the radio the other day while I was sitting at Sonic waiting for my order to come. They were playing an interview with Johnny Cash from several years ago. The person doing the interview asked what I thought was a little different kind of question: “When you were young, was there a particular book that you read that was important to you?”

Johnny Cash answered:

"I read a book when I was about 12 years old about an Indian named Lone Bull. Lone Bull had tried to go out and kill a buffalo. He slipped out of the village, against his father's wishes. He was going to be a hero and kill a buffalo and bring it back to the village, so his family and the other people could have meat. And the elders of the village knew about the buffalo herd. They knew it was there, and they were making plans to kill them and have meat for the whole winter and into the next spring. Lone Bull wanted to be a hero. He went out with his bow and arrow and killed a calf, and ran the herd off into the next state. He drug this calf home, and fed his family, but they were ostracized from the village. Lone Bull became a wanderer, until he found a village that would take him in. In that village where he was taken in, he organized the buffalo hunt that winter, and they had more meat than this village had ever had before. So, I learn from my mistakes. It's a very painful way to learn, but without pain, the old saying is, there's no gain. I found that to be true in my life. You miss a lot of opportunities by making mistakes, but that's part of it: knowing that you're not shut out forever, and that there's a goal you still can reach. Lone Bull's philosophy was, "I'm kicked out of this village, but I will grow up and I'll come into another one and I will do what I set out to do, that was feed the people." So I'm feeding my people right now."

If you know anything about Johnny Cash’s life, you know that he made a lot of mistakes. Just rent the movie “Walk the Line” sometime and you’ll see what I mean. But he tried to learn from his mistakes.

Not everyone learns from their mistakes. Two hunters were off on their annual trip to the Canadian wilderness to bag a moose. As the seaplane landed on a lake in a remote area, the pilot said, "I'll be back in one week to pick you up. But only one moose, please." When he returned to the lake, he found the hunters proudly standing beside two moose. "I told you guys only one moose!" the furious flier screamed. "There's no way the plane can take off with that much weight!" "You're just a chicken pilot," one hunter said. "We killed two moose last year and that pilot wasn't afraid to take off."

Stung by the suggestion of cowardice, he reconsidered. "All right, if you did it last year, I guess we can try it." They loaded up and the pilot taxied to the far end of the lake to begin his take-off. The plane bounced across the water as it strained to get airborne, but the overloaded aircraft finally ran out of space and crashed into the trees. Some time later, the hunters regained consciousness. "Where are we?" one asked. His friend looked around at the scattered debris, then back at the edge of the lake and replied, "Oh, I guess about a hundred yards farther than last year."

We all make mistakes – you do, I do – we all do. Some are big and some are small. It’s good when we can learn from our mistakes. It’s also good when other people can learn from our mistakes, but that doesn’t happen as often. If you have kids, you’ve probably tried to bless them with all of your vast accumulated experience. “Now, I don’t want you to make the same mistakes I did.” Did you listen to your parents when they told you those things? I didn’t think so. Do your kids listen to you? I didn’t think so.

But that doesn’t keep Paul from trying to help the Christians in Corinth learn from the mistakes that the Israelites made during the exodus and their trek through the wilderness toward the Promised Land. “Remember our history, friends, and be warned,” he tells them in vs. 1.

Things started out so well for them. They had a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night to lead them in the right direction. God parted the waters of the Red Sea so they could get across and escape Pharaoh and his army. God gave them manna to eat and water from a rock to drink every day out there in that dry, dusty, barren wilderness. They had it made in the shade!

So what happened? Paul says that “just experiencing God’s wonder and grace didn’t seem to mean much – most of them were defeated by temptation during the hard times in the desert, and God was not pleased.”

When Moses stayed up on the mountain talking to God for too long, the next thing you know they were dancing and partying and making a golden calf and worshiping it. They got tired of eating manna every day so they grumbled and complained. When they openly rebelled against Moses, God sent plagues and poisonous snakes to punish them.

Their experience, Paul says, should serve as an example to the Christians in Corinth. Learn from their mistakes, he advises. Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Just when you think you have it made – when you’re standing on top of the world, that’s when you’re in danger of the biggest fall. As that great theologian Frank Sinatra said it so well in song: “That’s life, that’s what people say, ridin’ high in April, shot down in May.”

Have you ever heard a commercial for some kind of investment opportunity – gold coins or hog futures – and they add a disclaimer at the end: “Remember, past performance is no guarantee of future results.” That’s what Paul is saying here: the past performance of the Israelites and the Corinthians is no guarantee that you’re not in for a fall in the future. You have to watch out. You must be on your guard, for there’s likely a challenge, a test, waiting for you right around the next corner.

Now the news from Paul has been pretty gloomy so far. He’s pretty much told the Christians in Corinth that their past performance is no guarantee of future results, and that they might be in for a fall.

But then the last verse strikes a much more positive note:

No test or temptation that comes your way is beyond the course of what others have had to face. All you need to remember is that God will never let you down; he'll never let you be pushed past your limit; he'll always be there to help you come through it.

And so Paul gives us three important things to remember when we face the challenges that life throws at us in the way of tests and temptations:

1) No matter what you’re going through, someone has been through it before you.

I’m going to talk now in very personal terms about how this verse is helping me. You know that my brother Earl is very ill right now. This is the first member of my immediate family that I’ve had to go through something like this with. It’s hard. When we get up there tonight, I wonder if I’m going to say and do the right things to help him, his wife, my sister, and my parents get through this. It helps me to know that even though this is a first for me, others have walked this path before me and gotten through it. People face some very difficult challenges in life and they make it.

That’s why support groups can be so powerful, whether they are AA, Divorce Recovery, or a grief support group. People who’ve gone through or are going through something similar can help each other get through. If you’re facing a hard test right now, find a group of people, or even one other person, you can talk to about it. It helps.

2) God will never let you down – God won’t let you be tested beyond your strength.

This is where we just have to trust God’s word. I’m not sure I’m up to the task of being both brother and pastor to Earl. He knows the end is near and he has some deep spiritual concerns. I’m trusting God to be faithful, as God has always been to me, and to give me the strength to get through this. You may be going through a difficult time right now and you may wonder if it’s more than you can handle. Just trust God to give you the strength you need, as I’m trusting God to do for me. Our strength may not be enough, but Christ’s conquering strength is always enough.

3) God will give you a way to overcome whatever it is you’re facing.

Finally, Paul says that God will always give us a way out. Just as God parted the Red Sea so the Israelites could escape the Egyptians, God will make a way for us. God can always make a way where there seems to be no way. God could make a way out of this by curing Earl’s cancer. I believe God is able to do that. But I hope I can help Earl see that the way God makes for him out of this incurable illness could also be death and eternal life. I believe that and he does too. I just want to reassure him of that promise. Nothing is impossible with God.


Monday, March 05, 2007

Sunday, March 4, 2007 Sermon: "Transforming Power"

“Transforming Power”
Philippians 3:17-4:1
March 4, 2007
Second Sunday in Lent

Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

Last week I heard about a Florida legislator, whose district is home to thousands of Caribbean immigrants, who is trying to get the term “illegal alien” banned from official state documents. It’s not the term “illegal” she objects to so much as the word “alien.” She said, “To me an alien is someone from out of space [sic].” She would prefer the term “undocumented immigrant.”

Webster defines “alien” as “a foreign-born resident who has not been naturalized and is still a subject or citizen of a foreign country.” I suppose that if you have entered a country illegally and you have not become a citizen, then technically you are an illegal alien. I don’t know if I’d like to be called an alien either. The word sounds kind of harsh.

But the Bible uses the term “alien” quite often. Gen 12:10 calls Abraham an alien when he left Canaan and went down to Egypt to escape a famine.

Ex. 23:9 warns the Israelites: “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” Christians and Jews, of all people, should be sensitive to the plight of aliens for our ancestors were once aliens themselves.

Paul, in today’s passage from Philippians, reminds us of something else important: all who follow Jesus are, in essence, aliens here on earth, regardless of our nationality or the country where we live, because:

“…our citizenship is in heaven.”

The Philippians would understand what it meant to have this kind of “dual citizenship.” Philippi was a Roman colony. That means that Philippi was like a little piece of Rome in Macedonia. Even though they lived hundreds of miles from Rome, in Philippi Roman dress was worn, the Latin tongue was spoken, Roman magistrates governed, Roman justice was administered, and Roman morals were observed.

People in Philippi lived in Macedonia but they were citizens of Rome – a fact they never forgot. Paul is telling the Philippian Christians that even though they live here on earth, their real citizenship is in heaven.

Several years ago William Willimon, who is now a bishop in the United Methodist Church, wrote a book with the title, Resident Aliens. He used that term to describe all those who follow Christ – we live here on earth, but this is not our real home. We are citizens of the kingdom of God and we should act accordingly.

We are not born citizens of heaven. We must be naturalized as such. We must undergo a “transformation,” a change, before we can claim our heavenly citizenship. And Paul is clear, in today’s passage from Phil. 3, where that power comes from – not from us, but from Jesus Christ:

But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

As we journey through Lent and spend “40 days with Jesus,” we are being reminded of the difference Christ’s presence can make in our lives. Last week we looked at the “saving faith” that Christ offers us, purely as a gift. When we are saved by God’s grace our citizenship changes. We are no longer people whose “minds are set on earthly things,” as Paul says in today’s reading, but we become citizens of the kingdom of God. And at that moment, the transforming power of Christ is set loose in our lives, and what a power it is!

In our short passage from Phil. 3 today, Paul sets out two options for living, and they couldn’t be more opposite. Listen to how he describes the first:

For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ …Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.

These are people who have nothing greater to live for than this life and this life alone. Because their mind is only set on things of this world and not on heaven, Paul says, their god is the belly and they take pride in shameful things. He counts these types of people as enemies of the cross of Christ.

I would hope that none of us choose this option, but we do constantly face the temptation to get so wrapped up in things of this world that we lose sight of what’s really important. Often it’s not a conscious decision on our part, but we buy into the world’s definition of success: wealth, power, prestige, possessions.

The good news is that Jesus has the power to transform even that kind of life into one that is more like his:

He will transform our humble body that it may be conformed to his glorious body, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

I believe there is something deep within each one of us that tells us we were made for more than this world. We yearn for transformation, for change. And so we try to change our bodies through diet and exercise and plastic surgery. We try to change our minds through reading and study and education. We try to change our emotions through therapy and medication. And these things may work for a while, but in the end we conclude that the change will not come through our own efforts. We must be transformed from within, and the one who can do that is Jesus Christ. First he changes our hearts through saving faith. And then he begins to work on our souls, our spirits – making them more like him.

Listen again to the great promise Paul makes here:

He will transform our humble body that it may be conformed to his glorious body, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

With his power Jesus will transform our humble selves to become more and more like him. When someone asks me how I define what a Christian is, I try to put it very simply:

A Christian is someone who is becoming more and more like Jesus Christ.

Our humble prayer is that God would make us more like his Son every day. In upcoming weeks, we’ll look at some of the ways God can make us more Christ-like: in strength, love, knowledge, and servanthood. That’s how we come to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

And it’s all with the goal of serving God. Someone has wisely said that we shouldn’t be so heavenly minded that we’re of no earthly good. We are made citizens of heaven so we can serve Christ more fully here on earth and serve him in heaven when life here is done.

I invite you as you come to the Lord’s Table this morning, to receive these elements of bread and juice as offers of God’s transforming power in Jesus Christ. May we not ponder anything earthly-minded in this meal, but keep our eyes and our hearts firmly fixed on heaven, the source of our transforming power. Amen.