Sermon Date: January 25, 2017
Sermon By: Pastor Dale Raether
Scripture: Philippians 3:12-4:1
Be a Happy Perfectionist
Which is easier to live with – a happy slob or a picky perfectionist? There are advantages to either. We might feel more relaxed in the home of a happy slob, except maybe too relaxed. After a while the clutter and the chaos can start to wear thin. So, maybe instead we’d prefer a picky perfectionist. At least then things get done as they should, and that’s great. But it’s hard to relax when nothing is quite good enough.
If it’s a struggle for families to find the right balance between being happy or picky, it’s even more of a struggle in our relationship with God. On the one hand Paul says in verses after our text, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again, I will say it, rejoice!” On the other hand God is holy, and we are to absolutely avoid every kind of sin and failure. So, here’s the dilemma. How can we be happy and relaxed and at the same time picky about all our thoughts and words and actions? It would seem that either we go easy on ourselves and not live up to God’s standards, or we have to keep pushing ourselves till we become the kind of people no one wants to be with. Actually this isn’t an either/or. On the basis of our text, let’s see how we can be Happy Perfectionists. 1. This is important for our faith. 2. It’s important as we live our faith.
We read, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me – Philippians 3:12.” In our Old Testament and Gospel readings we saw what it means to have perfect love. Jesus wept over murderers. He wept even over those who were about to murder Him. Our love isn’t quite that perfect. We have a hard enough time forgiving and controlling our temper toward those we care about, to say nothing of those, who cut us off on I-95. Nevertheless Jesus’ goal in taking hold of us and giving us faith is that our love become just as perfect as His love is.
But how can that happen? In the verses before our text, Paul explained that he used to be a perfectionistic Pharisee. This is understandable. The Jews back then lived through a lot of stuff we could never imagine. Between war with the Romans and civil war with each other, and famines and diseases and earthquakes, they were really feeling God’s wrath over their sin. So, how does one get out from under God’s wrath? The Pharisees answered by becoming a better person.
Anyway Paul found out the hard way that that’s impossible. A sinner can never live up to God’s standard of perfect love. In fact the more he tries to be perfect, the more he’ll realize he isn’t, which leads to lying to oneself and to God in order to cover up sin. In addition to lying, the Pharisees also tended to focus on the picky details of rituals and traditions, instead of on the big picture, which is love.
Today we may not feel as much pressure to get out from under God’s wrath. But becoming a picky Pharisee can still be tempting. For example, we all want to feel good about ourselves. We all want people to respect us. But if we mess up, we feel lousy, and we can’t stand the thought of what others are thinking about us. So, how do we avoid that? Well, never mess up! Be very picky about how you live. And if you do mess up, never let anyone find out about it. The problem with all this is it’s not real, neither is it love. Rather, it’s self-centeredness, and it opens us up to all kinds of sins to deal with the pain of not being perfect, which turns into a vicious cycle. Paul had been going down that very path, until Christ took hold of him and gave him faith.
From that time on, Paul understood that the righteousness he had been craving was already his. By faith he had Christ’s righteousness. Also, whatever shame and guilt Paul felt, which in his case included for the sin of murder, Jesus had borne that for him on the cross. As a result, Paul knew He was forgiven. He knew God was blessing Him no matter what bad things were happened to him. Especially Paul knew God would love Him unconditionally forever and that heaven was his home.
Holding on to these things is the only way we can truly relax. Paul did, and that’s why he could say from his Roman prison, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” However, what makes what Jesus did for us even better news is Jesus is holding on to us. Through His Word, He’s training us for whatever is in our future. He’s also moving us along toward maturity in how we love others, until we’re finally perfected in heaven. So, until then, how do we stand ourselves? How do we stay happy and yet keep striving for perfection?
We read, “Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus – Philippians 3:13-14.” It’s good to come to grips with our sins and failures. It is not good to beat ourselves up over them, because remember, the beating up was finished in Christ! So, if we catch ourselves or someone else catches us blowing it, forget faking it that we’re perfect. Rather let’s admit, “Yeah, I have this or that problem; thanks for helping me stay on my toes; because that’s not how I want to act.”
When we’re open like this and then daily leave our past at the foot of the cross, what happens to our relationship with God? What happens to our relationship with others? It grows, and we actually end up doing better. Yet our doing better isn’t the source of our pride, because Jesus said be perfect. And so, every day let’s continue to relax in Christ’s love, and then in that joy, let’s keep striving in all our thought, word, and actions to be now what we will be in heaven.
But what if someone isn’t pressing on toward with the same determination we are? We read, “All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained – Philippians 3:15-16.” The point of this verse is not everyone matures at the same rate. For some it takes a little longer to see the connection between Christ’s love for us and how He wants us to live. In the meanwhile, be patient. God isn’t done with that other person yet, nor is He done with us. However, being patient doesn’t mean letting things slide. Rather, let’s keep lifting each another up to do better.
Here’s one way we can do is by the example we set. We read, “Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you – Philippians 3:17.” Do you have a Christian hero? This may sound cliché coming from a Lutheran pastor, but my hero is Martin Luther. He was constantly putting everything on the line for the sake of the Gospel. In fact he fully expected sooner or later to be burned at the stake. On top of that he was always dealing with weaknesses and pettiness in his friends. Yet what kept Luther going, what gave him joy and clarity was the Word and knowing that his righteousness was in Christ alone.
I also have some modern day heroes. I’m not going to name them, but as your pastor, I know many of the struggles you are going through, and I am amazed at your example of faith and faithfulness to the Word. Now, I know most Christians don’t feel that way about themselves. That’s because like Paul they recognize they still have a lot more growing to do. But that’s exactly the point here. Follow the example of those who in spite of their weaknesses, freely admit their weaknesses, and trusting in Christ ever keep striving to be like Him.
But what if someone is the total opposite of that? We read, “For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things – Philippians 3:18-19.” There have always been those who have the attitude that since Jesus paid for every sin, they’re free to sin as much as they want. They are not free. They are re-enslaving themselves to sin. They are denying the power of Christ in their lives. And if they keep on doing that, they will kill off their faith. Let’s ever guard against going down that road. Let’s ever strive for perfection!
Verses 20 and 21 give us one more encouragement to do that. “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body – Philippians 3:20-21.” We strive for perfection by looking back to what Jesus has done for us – that’s our motivation, His love for us. But it also helps to look ahead. Think about what this is going to feel like. Someday we’re going to be completely happy with ourselves, because there will be nothing imperfect about us, and we will see with our eyes and not just by faith God’s perfect love for us.
May this hope help us to be happy perfectionists, that is, happy in Christ yet always striving to be perfect in love! Finally, think what a difference being a happy perfectionist can make in our relationships with our family or co-workers. It can make a huge difference! Yet I’m not suggesting everything gets better instantly. Paul, the happy perfectionist, shed lots of tears in his concern for the Philippians. We will too for our loved ones. Yet by being happy, relaxed and encouraging, we can help others to also grow to be all that God wants them to be. And what does God want them to be? Happy perfectionists to His glory. Amen.