Scripture: Philippians 3:4-14
In 1998 a man in Michigan bought a farm, as he was touring the property, the old farmer told a story about an old rock next to a barn. According to this farmer, the rock was found in a small crater on the property in the 1930s and it was a meteorite. The new property owner did not think much of the story and since it was around, he used the twenty two pound rock as a doorstop for years. However, in 2019 he decided to finally get around to seeing if there was any truth to the old farmer’s story and he took the rock to the geology department of Central Michigan University. Professor Monica Sirbescau was not overly enthused with meeting with the man, because over the years she has had several meeting with people convinced they found a meteorite or some sort of rare mineral only for their find to be nothing of consequence. She assumed this would be the same, but was pleasantly surprised to find out she was wrong. It turns out there is a lot of truth to the old farmer’s tale, because the rock is unmistakably a meteorite. In an interview about the find Professor Sirbescau said it was “the most valuable specimen I have ever held in my life, monetarily and scientifically.” Rocks from space, especially twenty two pound ones, like the one found on a Michigan farm are fairly rare on earth and it was estimated that the meteorite was worth at least $100,000.
For decades this man had a valuable treasure hidden in plain view. It was an incredible scientific discovery of immense worth, and it was just a background object in his life. This morning’s scripture is also about recognizing the immense worth of what is already in our lives. This morning’s scripture was addressed to the church in Philippi, but it continues to have relevance to us today though perhaps in a different way. The fact that you are here today means that statistically you grew up in church. The vast majority of church attenders today have been church attenders most of their lives. This means that faith and a belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior has been a part of your identity for a long time. So in that context, this morning’s scripture challenges us to consider just how much we value being a Christian as part of our identity? When we look into the mirror and consider just “who am I” what parts of who we are do we value the most? Is our identity as a Christian one of immense value or, like the meteorite on the farm is it just kind of there in the background? No doubt many of us consider our faith important to us, but in this morning’s scripture Paul does not mince words. Nothing should compare in our lives to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesu our Lord. As we truly consider what that means, I think we will find how really challenging it is.
Philippians was a “thank you” letter written by Paul as a general encouragement to the church in Philippi. In this letter though he did stick in a warning. In the early church Paul was not the only traveling missionary. There was apparently a group going around to churches that Paul helped found, and they were teaching that grace was not enough. They were teaching that in order to saved, these new Jesus followers also needed to follow the Jewish laws found in the Old Testament, such as dietary laws and circumcision. For instance, Galatians shows this was a fairly big problem. In Philippians the way Paul addresses this is to point out that nothing should get in the way of us knowing Jesus. Nothing is more important than knowing Christ. Paul uses the strongest language he can to make this point in verse 8: “What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage that I am gain Christ.” Garbage is perhaps the gentlest word in English that we can use to get Paul’s point across because in the Greek the word translated as garbage shares the same root as the Greek words for human excrement. So Paul was trying to really drive home the point just how much important knowing Jesus is to everything else.
What is most interesting is “the everything” that Paul considers a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus. What Paul is writing off as garbage were not insignificant things. These things are mentioned in verses 5-6 of this morning’s scripture. What Paul says is now worthless compared to knowing Christ is everything that was most valuable to him, it is the very things that he has spent a life time working for and investing in. These are the things that Paul found pride, meaning, and confidence in. As a Jewish man in the first century these are things that would have been core to Paul’s identity and understanding of who he was.
First Paul tackles his national identity, he gives his background-including which of the twelve tribes his family line belongs to-and calls himself a “Hebrew of Hebrews.” In the first century nationality or tribe was everything it truly did inform and define who they were as people. Someone in Paul’s shoes would have taken great pride in their ancestry-and for a time Paul did. Before knowing Jesus, Paul allowed this pedigree to define who he was and how he understood himself.
Paul also mentions that his status as a Pharisee is considered a loss. Often we just think of Pharisees as the bad guys in the gospels, so we do not always appreciate who the Pharisees were. The Pharisees get a bad rap, and it might be somewhat deserved, but we should respect how seriously and devoted they were to their faith. The Pharisees were the biblical scholars and theologians of their day. They devoted themselves to knowing the Torah (the first five books of the bible). They memorized large sections of it and they were well versed in its application. The Pharisees were truly the experts on God’s law. Being a Pharisee was not a hereditary title it was something that was earned and had to be mastered. Being a Pharisee required commitment and work. There is research going to see how true this is, but there is a popular theory that states it requires 10,000 hours to be an expert at something. We do not know all of the details of the training that Paul went through to be a Pharisee, but I think it is fair to say that he probably put in at least 10,000 hours. This was a major commitment, something that Paul had dedicated his life towards. Being a Pharisee was a title that Paul had earned through hard work, it was something to be proud of, and it was something that would have formed part of who he understood himself to be. However, even this piece of himself that Paul had worked so hard on he considered garbage to knowing Christ.
The point of this scripture is that knowing Christ should be the most important thing to us. The most important thing, period. No qualifiers, no exceptions, no and or buts. Christ is most important. This morning’s scripture challenges us to reflect on our lives and reflect is that true. Is our identity as a Christian the most important thing in our lives that defines us wholly and completely or do we treat it more like a hidden treasure in the background of our lives?
Perhaps a way to explore this question is to think through the same categories that Paul went through. Paul considered knowing Jesus more important than his national identity. Today, a lot of people take a lot of pride in being American. There is nothing inherently wrong about being patriotic, but as followers of Jesus we have to consider our national citizenship compared to our heavenly citizenship. Where does our national identity compare to our faith identity? Which one do we place more value in and which one more strongly informs who we are? When it comes to what is most important, are you more likely to turn to the cross or the flag?
Paul also considered Jesus more important than that which he put the most time into. In our culture, for a lot of people one of the areas where we put the most time is into work. Often work is what defines a large part of who we are. After all, we do not ask people “what is your job” we ask them “what do you do” because we instinctively treat a person’s job as a part of their identity. In our culture we get the constant message that work should be a defining part of who we are and it shows. American workers are chronically overworked. Of those with full time jobs, 86% of men and 66% of women work more than 40 hours a week. Americans work on average 137 more hours per year than the Japanese and 499 hours more per year than the French. We are pressured to work more and make our jobs be our main priority, but this morning’s scripture reminds us that Jesus should be our main priority.
No doubt you probably know someone who takes something they love and are passionate about and make it a key part of their identity. Perhaps they are a Cubs fan, a car guy, or a quilter. Whatever it is, we likely all know someone whose passion is a large part of their identity. Again, there is nothing inherently wrong about this. The things we enjoy, the profession we pursue, and the patriotic feelings we have are not wrong. There is nothing wrong with taking pride in something or being passionate about something, but we have to keep it all in perspective. This scripture gives us the perspective: Christ is first. In fact, Jesus should be so far in first that second place cannot even see his taillights.
This is not just about what we prioritize, it is about how we identify. Following Jesus should be what defines us completely. It should be the most identifiable part of us. Often we may not know if that is the case, because often the most clear parts of who we are can be what other people see. Often, who we are seen as may not come to light until our time on earth comes to an end. When people write obituaries for loved ones they tend to follow a template that lifts up the parts of a person that were most core to their identity. So most obituaries tend to emphasize how the deceased was a loving parent spouse, or friend. Often obituaries lift up a person’s career and accomplishments they were especially proud of. Good obituaries also let a person’ character come through and mention the things they love and were passionate about. In most obituaries that I have read, much like a hidden treasure, it might be mentioned deep in the obituary that the person was a faithful, active, or even lifelong member of a particular church.
As we consider the meaning of this morning’s scripture, what it means to consider all other things as garbage compared to Christ, I challenge you to consider how you can live your life differently. I challenge you to make loving Jesus such a key part of who you are, then someday when your own obituary is written, your faith will not be hidden in the copy but it will be the lead. I challenge you to live in such a way that when someone else considers what they would use to describe you, the very, very first thing they think of is that you love Jesus.
In this morning’s scripture Paul sought to encourage the Philippians to but Jesus first in all things, and to do this he used some of the most core parts of his identity to illustrate how important Jesus is to him. As Paul is remembered today, it is fair to say that his relationship with Jesus is what is remembered as the most identifying part of him. May that be so with us. May our faith and relationship with Jesus not be treated like some buried treasure that is just part of who we are, but may be how we are defined and known by others. May the desires of our heart and the way we live our lives echo what Paul wrote in this morning’s scripture: “I want to know Christ, yes to know the power of his resurrection.” And may that desire be what you are known by.