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“Crossing the Finish Line”
Philippians 3:12-14


Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost—October 2, 2011

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Our text is the last few verses of today’s Epistle Reading from Philippians chapter 3.  All the Bible verses I will be quoting in my sermon today are printed on the last two pages of the bulletin.

As the Apostle Paul writes this letter to the Christians at Philippi, he is in prison at Rome, facing trial before the Roman emperor.  Hanging over him like a dark cloud is the very real possibility of conviction and execution. 

Face to face with the reality of his own death, Paul uses what is called a “euphemism” to describe death, a comforting phrase, a consoling thought, beautiful image:  “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.  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.”

Death is like “Crossing the Finish Line,” and heaven is like receiving the prize.  Not a prize that you have earned in any way yourself.  But the prize that Jesus your Savior earned for you.  As Paul says just before our text: “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.”

Jesus Christ earned the prize of heaven for you by living on earth a perfect, holy life, and by taking your sins upon himself and suffering their punishment for you.  That is God’s great exchange. 

Jesus took all your sins upon himself: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross.”  “We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”  “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.  Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.  But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.”

Jesus Christ took all your sins upon himself and in exchange God credits to you the perfect holiness of his own Son.  When God looks upon you, he sees not only an absence of sin, because all your sins have been taken away and paid for by his Son, he also sees in you a perfect righteousness and holiness, because the righteousness and holiness of his own Son is credited to you.  Paul puts it this way in Romans, comparing Christ to Adam: “Just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.  For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.”  “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  “This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord Our Righteousness.”

So the prize of heaven is not a reward you have earned but a reward Christ has earned for you, by his life, death and resurrection.  That is your only source of confidence and comfort in the face of death.  For if rely on yourself, on your own good works on your own good deeds, to earn your own way into heaven, there will always be the nagging doubt: Have I done enough?  And what if I haven’t done enough?  Will I make it into heaven?

The Devil also assaults Christians with those same nagging doubts.  Always answer the Devil’s taunts and your own fears with the comfort and confidence of the Gospel: Have I done enough?  No, I haven’t.  I confess that I am a sinner.  But I also trust that Christ has done it all for me, Christ has earned forgiveness and eternal life for me.  “Thanks be to God!  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!”

Those who trust in Christ still experience physical death, but death is transformed for us into gateway of eternal life.  “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”

“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.  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.”  Death is like “Crossing the Finish Line,” and heaven is like receiving the prize.  And the Bible uses many other beautiful, comforting euphemisms to describe death.

“We do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.  We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.”  Death is like falling asleep.

When our children were little so often they would fall asleep in their car seats on the way home at night.  Terese and I would gently carry them into the house and when they woke up in the morning they found themselves in their own rooms.

For the children of God death is like falling asleep on the journey home.  The angels of God will gently carry your soul into your heavenly home and when you awaken from the sleep of death you will find yourself in the eternal dwelling where Christ has prepared a place for you.  “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.  In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.  You know the way to the place where I am going. . .  I am the way and the truth and the life.” “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”  Death is like falling asleep.

“Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people.”  Death is like a great reunion, with your loved ones who died with faith in Christ, and with all the people of God.  You will be part of the great multitude John describes in his revelation of heaven:  “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.  And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’  All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, ‘Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!’  Then one of the elders asked me, ‘These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?’  I answered, ‘Sir, you know.’ And he said, ‘These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  Therefore, they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.  Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat.  For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”  Death is like a great reunion.

And there are many other euphemisms for death in Scripture, comforting phrases, consoling thoughts and beautiful images: “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.”  “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord . . . they will rest from the labors.”  “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom.”  “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Following Holy Communion, we sing in our Liturgy:  “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word.  For my eyes have seen your salvation.”  Those words were first uttered by Simeon as he held the baby Jesus in his arms at the Temple.  You remember that the Lord had promised Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Christ, the Messiah, the Savior.  So when Simeon says, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word.  For my eyes have seen your salvation” he is using a euphemism for his own death.  He is really saying that now he is prepared now to die because he has seen the Lord’s Christ, the Messiah, the Savior.

We sing the song of Simeon after Communion as our proclamation to the Lord that we too are prepared to die whenever he may call us home.  Because we have seen the Lord by faith, and just as Simeon held in his arms Christ in the flesh, we have received the Christ’s very body and blood in the Sacrament of Holy Communion.  “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word.  For my eyes have seen your salvation.”

Why does God use all these euphemisms to describe death in the Scriptures?  Because death is a harsh, painful reality, and God wants us to take comfort from these comforting phrases, consoling thoughts, and beautiful images.

“Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people.”  Death is like a great reunion.

“We do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.  We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.”  Death is like falling asleep.

“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.  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.”  Death is like “Crossing the Finish Line.”

Amen.

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