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A Life Of Surrender - Philippians 3

Jesus Plus Nothing - 05.19.2024

Couple years back there was this amazing story that came out about a man named Phil Vischer. For those who don’t know, Phil Vischer is the creator of Veggie Tales and the voice of Bob the Tomato. And if you don’t know what veggie tales is - it’s really hard to explain, but basically it’s a wildly popular kid’s series back in the 90’s where vegetables tell you bible stories. Starting all the way back in the 90’s, Phil Vischer has been teaching kids the bible for decades using all sorts of animation, live action videos, even puppets. He’s really good at teaching kids the bible, and for a while he had a company called “Big Idea” productions. At the height of his career, they thought he was going to be like a Christian version of Walt Disney. That was actually a dream of his - he admired Walt Disney and wanted to create something just as epic and world changing as disney, but for Christian audiences. So he built this company, and it grew so insanely fast that, a little bit, he lost control of the ship. They were spending more money than they had on bigger and bigger projects, and then after a series of stalls they got sued by a distribution company. This is actually true, they had partnered with the guy who created Barney (remember that show? The big purple dinosaur back in the 90’s - my millennials know what I’m talking about). They liked that guy a lot, but when the creator of Barney passed away, the company was sold to someone Phil Vischer didn’t want to partner with. A lawsuit started, and to Phil it was an easy win. It was so obvious that his company was in the right - or so he thought. The production company Big Idea was in the middle of their biggest project ever - a feature length film called Jonah - but it was costing too much to make, and so there were several rounds of lay-offs, and this was their last hope to save the company. They HAD to win this court case. But they lost! They were fined 10 million dollars and the company had to file bankruptcy and be sold to covered their debts. Phil Vischer and everyone who worked for him lost everything. If you’re a fan of Veggie Tales - you may have noticed that the program sort of changed around the time the Jonah movie came out - and that’s because the company was sold to a different group. And in that season Phil struggled mightily in his prayer life with God. Why did you let this happen God? I’m creating a Chrsitian production company, making videos that explain the bible to millions of children all over the world - isn’t that worthy of saving? Aren’t my works WORTH saving? And he had this fear - if my company fails what will I have to show for my life at the end of all things? What can I show God and say - I’d like my ticket to paradise now please? 

Have you ever had a moment like that? Not the thing about creating an animated tv show with talking vegetables - but the part where he got his identity mixed up in his work? I know that was a big temptation in my life, as a pastor. I used to think good pastors who were good people, grew churches. If your church grew, that meant you were a good person and you were “succeeding” as a Christian. But even for non-pastors. I think for a lot of us there are things we do - part of the Christian life, trying to be a Christian, and if we fail, we think God won’t love us. I’ve got to go to church this many times. I need to read my bible for this many verses. I need to pray every day for this many minutes. We rack up a “to do” list in our heads. Even though we say stuff like “grace is free” and “God’s love is unconditional” I think deep down, a lot of us don’t believe it. We are, a little bit, convinced that God will only love us if we perform. You see it a lot in movies and tv shows - it drives me crazy. So many times they show judgment, like the moment of judgment and going to heaven… as a scale. Good deeds and bad deeds, and you have to balance - you have to do more good deeds than bad deeds and that is how you get into heaven. You see it everywhere and it’s absolute and complete nonsense. That’s not how this works, that’s not how any of this works! But here’s the problem - if we believe it. If we buy into earning salvation through good deeds, if we fall into that mentality - when we fail it will rob us of our joy. It turns a life of loving God into a rat race of righteousness. And every day we wake up we have to earn, and push and strive to get God to love us. And it’s funny - I know someone a long time ago who dealt with the exact same problem. 

Today is part two in our little mini-series called “Finding Joy” - we are walking through the book of Philippians, searching through the pages to find a path to lasting and unbreakable joy. Last week we dove into that world and we saw that joy starts in the mind. The writer, this guy named Paul, he teaches us that we need the attitude of Jesus - which we saw was a mentality of humility. And that gets us started, but today we’re going to dive into chapter 3 - so if you want to open up your bibles and join me, we’re in Philippians chapter three today. But before we dive in, let me give you a little framework. If you weren’t here last week - let me catch you up a little bit. This book of the bible is a letter from a guy named Paul to a church in the town called Philippi, and he is encouraging them and teaching them about joy.

It starts out, chapter 3, verse 1 [read v.1-3]. Huh. So that was kind of weird - “watch out for those dogs” - yikes, I wonder who he’s talking about. Like we said last week, Paul has been going around the ancient middle east, moving from town to town, telling everyone about Jesus. He would come into town and tell people, “You need to follow Jesus. Confess your sins, repent and follow Jesus. Jesus is my savior and the lord of my life - and I want you to have this awesome thing that I have.” And then he would move on to the next town. But here’s the problem - after Paul left town, there were these OTHER teachers who were following around behind Paul. And Paul would say, “all you need is Jesus’ and these guys would slide up behind him and whisper, “and get circumcised.” And that might seem a little weird - but you see, Jesus was a Jewish man, and all his disciples were Jewish men. They would have followed Jewish law and custom - but Paul was sharing the news about Jesus with all these other people who were NOT Jewish. And so Paul knows that Jesus is the son of God and savior of the world, but these other teachers wanted everyone to follow Jewish rules as well. Stuff like circumcision, only eating certain foods, that kind of stuff. Circumcision, if you don’t know, is where they cut off the tip of man’s special place. I’m not trying to be crass, we’re adults - we can do this. Now, if I’m a non-Jewish man, and I want to follow Jesus, and there is some confusion about whether or not I have to cut off the tip of my special place - that’s an issue I’m going to want some clarity on. This actually becomes a really big fight in the early church. These were the two issues of the day. Circumcision and what you’re allowed to eat as a gentile follower of Jesus is a really heated debate. Paul called them dogs! He says, “watch out for those guys” Now we in the modern church - we don’t really argue about food or circumcision anymore - but we have our own thing. Every generation - there’s always going to be something to fight about, always going to be some issue that divides us.

Verse 3, hear it again, [read v.3]. We rely on what Christ Jesus has done for us. We put no confidence in human effort. This is the first key teaching I want you to grab onto this morning. Living a peace-filled, joyful life is not about our striving. It’s not about how good we can be. How many rules we can follow. It’s about how good HE is. Life is found through surrender, not striving. Those Jewish teachers were following around behind Paul, “All you need is Jesus (and circumcision)” - and in our lives we take “circumcision” and we put a whole bunch of stuff in that blank. All you need is Jesus (and perfect church attendance). All you need is Jesus (and never use curse words). All you need is Jesus AND [insert whatever striving you want to come up with]. Take a second and ask yourself - what is it for you? What are you adding to your salvation? What is it you think you HAVE to do in order to get God to love you? All you need is Jesus (and three good deeds a day.) All you need is Jesus (and… [pause]).

Here’s what I’m getting at - we are so tempted to try and earn our way into heaven. But life is found through surrender, not striving. We give everything to Jesus and we trust that HE is enough. That HE will wash us clean. When we stand in front of God on judgment day we are not going to point to circumcisions, we are not going to point to our wonderful track record of being a good person, we are not going to point to our church attendance, we are going to point to Jesus. The righteousness of God is not earned with good behavior, it is given as a gift through Jesus. 

And then, just watch what Paul does, [read v.4]. I feel like his sentence is a little confusing, but basically what he’s saying is, “Look, you don’t have to earn God’s love - but if any of us could earn God’s love with good deeds - it would be me. I am the most awesome at following rules. You give me a rule, I’ll follow it so hard.” Paul is outing himself as a MAJOR goody-two-shoes (and a bit of a snob at the same time). He says, [read v.5-6]. Oh, you read your bible - that’s cute, I memorized the whole thing. Oh, you donate some money to the church - that’s cute, I tithe every single penny I make. Oh, you follow some rules - I never break the rules. If anyone on the planet could climb their way up the rat race of righteousness to get to glory - it’s this brown-noser. And then he keeps going, [read v.7-9]. That’s it right there. I swear there are some parts of the bible that are so good - you don’t even need a preacher. I’m so tempted to just get up and read the darn thing, and then just go, “isn’t that awesome” and then just go sit down. He says, I used to think all this stuff was valuable - but now I think it’s garbage. It’s nothing compared to what Jesus did for me. This is the switch for Paul - he’s switching from striving to surrender.

Now here’s where this all comes together. This series is about finding joy - and we cannot enjoy the gift of God’s love if we are burning ourselves up trying to earn it. But worse than that, if we make our connection with God about earning love - it turns the Christian life into a competition. Maybe I’m not as good as Paul was, but I’m better than the people sitting around me on Sunday - so I’m sure God’s grading on a curve, right? When we live the Christian life trying to earn love, striving - there is a temptation to compare ourselves to other Christians. We don’t say it out loud, but we think it up in our head. Don’t we? When we believe that God’s love is for sale - we figure we just need to be the highest bidder. Rather than asking, “how can I live fully satisfied in the love of my heavenly father?” - we start to ask ourselves, “Am I better than you? Am I better than that guy? A spirit of striving becomes a spirit of competition, and what I want you to see is that comparison is a thief of joy. If you’re not burning yourself out, then you’re weighing yourself on a scale and both activities are designed to keep you from experiencing lasting joy. Loved ones, please hear me - there is no competition in the Kingdom of God. This is the second key teaching I want you to hang on to. There is no competition in the Kingdom of God. None of us gets to heaven by being BETTER than other people, because none of us get to heaven by striving. Pick a famous saint. Any of them. Paul didn’t get to heaven by his amazing good deeds. Mother Theresa, she spent her whole life doing incredible good deeds all over the world -  didn’t get to heaven because of them. Aquinas. Augustine. Martin Luther - none of them! Because the path to heaven is not striving, it’s surrender. It’s not us. It’s Jesus. 

Life is found through surrender, not striving. There is no competition in the kingdom of God. Those might have been words of the people of Philippi two THOUSAND years ago - but they are also truths we need to hear right here and now today. I wonder - what would the letter be like if Paul was writing to The Center Church in Byron Center? What do we insert into the equation - Jesus plus [what] is enough. What striving are you putting between you and the gift of God’s grace? What effort are you letting keep you from experiencing joy? The good news that I have for you this morning is that Jesus is enough. Period. End of sentence. Jesus plus NOTHING is enough. Another way to say this is that you don’t have to convince God to love you. He already loves you. I think a lot of us are insecure. We figure if God is so great, then there’s no way he would pay attention to us, no way he would care about us. We figure we need to do something to get God to love us. But hear me - you don’t have to convince the God of heaven to love you. He loves you so much. He made you. You are his. He knows everything about you. And he is the only thing you need to be fully satisfied, to be fully at peace and full of joy. Jesus plus nothing is enough.

And so our response - if Jesus plus nothing is enough - our response to that is to stop striving. In our pursuit of Joy - if you’re going to find joy - Turn it off. I challenge you to do this one time this week. Turn off the TV. Turn off the busy-ness. Turn off the phone - delete the apps, whatever it takes to give yourself silence. Give yourself space, and peace. Give yourself the gift of boredom. Because here’s what’s going to happen - when you sit in silence and you stop striving. You get uncomfortable. Boredom nudges us. We are discontent. Fears and anxieties creep in. It’s why we like a loud world. All the voices and distractions we fill our lives with - even the good deeds, all of it is to avoid the discomfort. Sometimes it feels like we will do anything to avoid feeling our feelings. But I want you to stop striving. Find that discomfort. Because if you can master that discomfort, you can unlock joy. Just sit in the silence and breathe and wait. And then I want you to ask the Holy Spirit to show up. Use those words, “Holy Spirit, please show up.” Ask for reassurance. For peace and comfort. Let the unbreakable truth that Jesus is enough solidify in your heart. Let it be your firm foundation. Let it help you stop striving and start trusting in the goodness of God. Ask the Holy Spirit to show up, then ask for reassurance.

It reminds me of the story of this guy Henri Nouwen. If you’ve never heard of Nouwen, he was a very famous priest who passed away back in the 90’s - but his writings are still extremely popular and powerful. He wrote a bunch ofr books, had a distinguished teaching career at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard. By the metrics of the world - this guy was like Paul. Epic earner of God’s love. But all his life he struggled with depression and issues of self worth. He knew God loved him, up in his head - but his heart kept forgetting. He wrote this book called “The Return Of The Prodigal Son” - and one of the most powerful moments in the book. If you don’t know the story of the prodigal son, Jesus tells this story about a son who runs away from home with half his dad’s money, wastes it all on a lavish lifestyle and then finds himself destitute working in the mud with the pigs, starving to death. Then the prodigal son decides to return home, and he’s got this whole speech prepared. And he rehearses his apology speech, you might remember this. “Father, I’ve sinned against God and against you - I’m not worthy to be called your son, please bring me on as one of your hired hands.” And he repeats it to himself - well, let me just read it. Luke 15, verse 18 [read v.18-20].And what I want you to grab from that story is that the father ran to the son. They didn’t have front porches back in that day - but for some reason in my imagination, I always see the father sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch. Like on a farm house or something - and he sees his son and he runs to him. The Father does not forgive his son because of his lovely rehearsed speech. The Father runs to the son. And Henri Nouwen describes this in his book, and he talks about how important it was for him. Because Nouwen spent his whole life doubting that God really loved him, figuring he needed to earn it with all his fancy good deeds. But you don’t have to convince God to love you. I feel like, as a pastor, that’s one of the things I have to speak into your life over and over, because we keep forgetting. God really does love you. Jesus plus nothing really is enough. And here’s the best part of the Nouwen story. He spent all these years as a famed Christian intellectual - traveling the world speaking and giving lectures and writing brilliant books. But for the last ten years of his life, he gave all that up and became the pastor of L’Arche Daybreak, a community for people with intellectual disabilities in Richmond Hill, Ontario. He became like a chaplain for a living center for mentally handicapped folks. And he said that was where he found the community and the love that he had been searching for his whole life. And those people didn’t care one lick about his impressive resume. 

Striving and comparison are thieves of joy - and so we have to switch from striving to surrender - to rest on HIS work, not our own. Now I do have to deal with one objection before we’re done. Some people, not you guys - of course, but other people - some people might hear that we need to stop striving and think to themselves, “Alright, awesome - I get to sleep in on Sunday. I wouldn’t want to be striving to earn God’s love.” And we use that to stop living the Christian life. Paul had to deal with the argument all the time. When he preached grace, all the time people would come back with “so then I get to do just whatever I want”? So let me give it to you in the form of a story. Imagine that a young man is married, and one day he comes home and brings a beautiful bouquet of flowers to his wife. And her heart is touched, she appreciates the gift. “Oh thank you so much for these flowers.” And the husband shrugs, “Oh, well - I didn’t really think about it. It’s just what I have to do. It was on my way home - and they were just there by the checkout counter and I know it’s what husbands are supposed to do so I did it. Flowers keep you happy, and I want to keep you happy so you’ll stay married to me and so I got you flowers.” After he wakes up from the concussion we might wonder, “Where did he go wrong?” Because of course a wife doesn’t want obligation flowers. She doesn’t want to hear that you are purchasing her affection. That you’re just appeasing her, just to keep her from getting mad at you. So she tries to explain, “Sweetie, I don’t want you to buy me flowers from obligation. There’s no requirement. I want flowers to come from your heart, because you were thinking of me, because you care about me.” “Oh!” says the husband, and then he never buys her flowers again. Years go by and wife brings it up - “You never do anything to show me you care.” - You said I didn’t have to! And he wakes up with another bump on his head. [pause, laugh] We don’t have to earn Gods’ love - that’s true. But the life that Christians live, following the path that Jesus taught - it’s not out of obligation, it’s out of love. God doesn’t want your obligation flowers - so stop striving. But God does want you to love him, and that love is shown in the life we live.

You see it with Jesus - one time someone asked him, “What’s the greatest commandment? What’s the number one rule I need to follow? And Jesus said, “Love the lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength.” And the second one is like it, love your neighbor as yourself. This is coming out of Matthew 22, and then in verse 40 he hits us with it: “The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” When I saw “stop striving” - I’m not saying “stop loving God.” We love God, because he first loved us - not to get him to love us, but because he loves us. And that switch - from striving, from earning, to surrender and a life of love that is the key to joy that Paul has for us today. 

I think about Phil Vischer, and veggie tales and the way he lost everything in the lawsuit. He writes in his memoir, Me, Myself and Bob, that he had this realization in that moment - because at first he thought This will be the thing that will get me into heaven. This will get God to love me. At the end of all things he could stand in front of God and point to Big Idea productions and the millions of people he helped and he could say, “I’d like my ticket to paradise now.” And when he lost everything he went through this crisis. And Phil realized what Paul is teaching us in our scripture. That God’s love is not for sale. That Jesus is enough. Jesus plus nothing is enough. Phil had taken the good works of his life and turned it into an idol, and the way he tells the story - God took away his dream so he would have nothing but Jesus. Because Jesus is enough. And my favorite part is that after Phil realized his idolatry, after he lost everything and they sold the company - the court case got overturned on appeal. Easily. So easily in fact people couldn’t figure out how he ever lost that court case in the first place. The damage had been done, the bills had been paid, the company was gone. It was almost like God blinded the eyes of the jury to take away Phil’s dream so he would have nothing but Jesus. Because Jesus plus nothing is enough. Let’s pray.


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