Sermon for 21 September ’08
I remember playing snakes and ladders when I was a kid. Perhaps you played it too? I remember being young enough to enjoy snakes and ladders, to thrill when my counter landed at the foot of a ladder, and to know the indignation of landing at the head of a snake just as I was nearing the final square. I remember the sweet taste of victory when I beat my sister, and the bitter taste of defeat when she got to the end first. (Karen won’t play board games with me. I don’t know why…)
Maybe I learned some lessons for life playing snakes and ladders. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Be a good loser. Don’t gloat when you win. (Hmm, did I learn that one?)
Maybe I learned some lessons that I’ve had to unlearn. Like this one: going up the ladder is always good. Sliding down the snake is always bad. I’ve found things aren’t as simple as that. I’ve found that when I climb a ladder, the ladder morphs into a cross, challenging me. And when I slide down a snake, it too becomes a cross, rescuing me.
I’m learning that I don’t entirely know what it is to make progress as a Christian. Yet I do know that making progress as a Christian is very important. The Christian life is an ever-developing journey of growth in wholeness, into a greater and deeper identification with Jesus Christ himself. The Apostle Paul was overjoyed at the progress the Philippian Christians were making. He wrote to them,
I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. (1.6)
And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight… (1.9)
…so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. (1.10b-11)
I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith… (1.25)
Progress in wholeness, progressively being remade in the image of Jesus Christ, is simply part of the Christian journey. But what does progress in wholeness mean for a Christian? You see, Paul was imprisoned in a Roman jail as he wrote these encouraging words. There was a possibility that Paul may be executed. Who’d take advice about spiritual progress from a jailbird on death row? Who’d believe what such a person said about progress in faith? Would you?
Furthermore, Paul is hard to understand—he links spiritual progress with suffering:
[God] has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well…
When I played snakes and ladders, progress was in a straight line—up a ladder. There was no hint of ‘suffering’. That came when you slid down the snakes.
How do we know when we’re making spiritual progress, if it involves suffering?
All this reminds me of the story of the wise farmer:
There was once a farmer living on a plot of land with his family. This farmer had two horses to help him farm his land. He worked with those two horses from sunup to sundown, but barely made enough to support his family. One day, one of the horses ran away. The farmer’s neighbour said, ‘That’s terrible. Now you won’t be able to support your family. You’ll starve to death.’ The farmer replied ‘Maybe, maybe not.’
The next day, the horse that ran away came back and brought two horses with it. The farmer’s neighbour was there, and shouted gleefully, ‘This is great! Now you’ll be able to earn much more, and you and your family will live in luxury!’ Again, the farmer’s response was ‘Maybe, maybe not.’
A few days later, one of the farmer’s sons tried to tame one of the wild horses. The horse threw the young boy. When the boy fell, one of his legs was broken. Again the farmer’s neighbour said, ‘That’s terrible!’ and again the farmer replied, ‘Maybe, maybe not.’
About a week later, soldiers came around press-ganging all available young men. Because the farmer’s son’s leg was broken, they passed by without taking him. Again the farmer’s neighbour said, ‘That’s great!’; and again the farmer replied, ‘Maybe, maybe not.’
You climb the ladder to corporate success. That’s great!—Maybe, maybe not. You find you have cancer. That’s terrible!—Maybe, maybe not.
Would Paul say being in jail was a terrible thing? Maybe, maybe not. I reckon it may have depended on what day you asked him. But at least on his better days, Paul could say
to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.
Whether he lived or died, Paul belonged to Jesus Christ, and that’s what mattered to him. That looks like spiritual progress to me.
We’re going through a process of strategic planning right now, and we’ll set some goals for ourselves soon. Goals that can be measured, goals we can see that we’ve achieved, or failed to achieve.
If we achieve them, that’ll be great! Maybe, maybe not. If we fail, that’ll be terrible! Maybe, maybe not.
Goals are good, goals are necessary, but let’s never identify ourselves so much with our goals that we forget the One who is the reason for it all. We’re going to seek the mind of the Spirit for these goals; and then we’ll step forward in faithful obedience. Paul knew that whether he lived or died, he belonged to the Lord. We need to know that whether we succeed or fail to reach our goals, we belong to the Lord. We commit the process of strategic planning to God; and we commit the end result to God also.
We’ve just started in Philippians in our lectionary readings. I think we might follow Philippians through, and see what Paul, the prisoner for the Lord, is getting at.
We’ll continue to see that Christian success doesn’t look like worldly success. After all, from a worldly point of view, Jesus failed on the cross of Calvary.
We’ll see that the Christian life is about preferring others’ needs before our own. We’ll see that worldly advantages give us no spiritual advantage. We’ll see that a keynote of this strange thing called the Christian life is joy—and that Paul’s heart is joyful even in jail, because his centre is Jesus Christ.
We’ll see that whether we’re climbing up a ladder or shimmying down a snake, Jesus Christ is with us. When we walk with the Lord, no circumstance can defeat us. And there’s no maybe; maybe not about that!
Glory to the Father,
and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning,
and will be for ever. Amen.