"God has entrusted so much not just to a nation he called special, but to all of humanity, because it was always God’s will that we should come to faith."
We've interrupted Paul in the middle of what he was saying, which is a bit rude! He starts this chapter by encouraging his readers to rejoice in the Lord and have confidence in Jesus Christ rather than earthly things and that strange phrase "things of the flesh" which sounds a bit creepy!
And now he carries on talking about having confidence in the flesh. In the 21st century that could sound just a little creepy. But that's not the meaning that Paul's wanting to get across here.
Yes, he's got the old thing about circumcision in mind. Not that long ago in one of the churches he founded in Galatia there had been an influx of Jewish Christians who insisted that the Gentile men had to go through circumcision to become "real" Christians, to do the good works of the Torah. Paul wants to avoid that trouble in Philippi.
But he also talks about all those things that he was born to and has achieved in his life thus far. His ancestral pedigree was good (descended from the tribe of Benjamin), he was the son of good and godly Hebrew parents who brought him up in the ways of their faith, he kept the law, was a Pharisee, full of zeal, righteous as far as the law demanded.
Paul's was a dedicated religious life par excellence.
When Paul talks about the flesh, he also means everything (both the very good and very bad) that human beings are capable of being and doing in their own strength. Good and bad!
All that, he says - everything that he counted as profit in his investment portfolio of faith – became wonderfully worthless in a moment on the Damascus road where he met the risen Christ.
Paul had got his scales out. On the one side he had placed everything that he had achieved through his own zeal and effort.
On the other side was all that Christ had done for him. If it were a set of accounts it would show a massive loss.
"But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord," (v7,8)
The key word is 'knowing'
It's all about the difference between an impersonal and a personal faith. Between following the rules and following Jesus.
Years of striving replaced by a simple belief in Christ. And in the years since, says Paul, he has grown in knowledge of Christ as Lord (and all that means) and gained such confidence and strength that he has been able to endure suffering for his new-found faith.
The wonder of that second chance – the meeting of hearts between Paul and the risen Christ where Paul turned away from the life he was leading until that moment and walked a much different path.
Such a turnaround for Paul, and nothing he could do in his own strength, but only the strength which he found within this new-found faith.
Strength in the power of the resurrection, which to Paul, and to us, is not something that simply happened at a moment in time, but is a living, dynamic power in the life of all believers.
He could give it all up and go back to his old life, all that knowledge was still there, but comparing the two, Paul considers the old life, with its steady predictability and status to be garbage compared to the unpredictability and excitement of the new.
Paul is always the encourager for those who think they've got as far as they want to go with their faith, the ones who paddle in the incoming tide but won't venture any further and get their knees wet!
Paul's there encouraging us to follow him, to forget about the baggage of the past and journey toward the goal to which we have been called – he says it so beautifully in these words, "to press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of us."
Press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of us!
Paul is the great example of the second chance – and what happens when you grasp the hand that offers it. Unfortunately, the people of whom he was a part seem to have been generally unaware of what was being offered.
In the Gospel reading Jesus has made his triumphant way into Jerusalem, and people welcomed him with cries of "hallelujah!" knowing that this man was something special, possibly even a prophet. Some even dared to believe he could be the Chosen One of God.
His disciples knew he was more than special, but were still confused as to his real identity despite all he had taught them (Peter denied him after his arrest, and the others only really connected the pieces together after the resurrection when they met the risen Jesus on the Emmaus Road)
The religious authorities were more worried than confused. They saw Jesus as someone who could cause trouble, upset the status quo and just as importantly affect their position in the community.
So Jesus deliberately targets them with three parables which are all to do with their refusal to consider what was happening around them, let alone acknowledge him as Messiah!
The first was to do with a father and two sons (which you heard last week) and particularly the one who said yes to his father’s request to do something, and then changed his mind did nothing.
"This is you," says Jesus to the leaders, "you who were told by God through the prophet John to get in the river Jordan with the crooked tax collectors and prostitutes, and repent and be baptised - because your lives have not lived up to the promise that you made to God – and you did nothing. That was your second chance – the hand offered and refused."
But if they couldn’t understand who John the Baptist was, then how could they understand who Jesus was, who John pointed to and anointed as God’s Chosen One in the waters of the Jordan!
The third story, which we’re not hearing this week is that one about the wedding feast and the invited guests making excuses for not going.
This is the one in the middle - about a landowner, a vineyard, tenants, servants and a son.
It’s not very comfortable reading, even for us.
But for the priests and elders – well, they soon work out what he’s on about.
The landowner is God, who plants a vineyard. He not only plants it, he surrounds it with everything that is needed for a productive harvest.
The tenants are the leaders of the people. They have been entrusted with much, allowed to produce a harvest and from that a proportion must be returned in gratitude to the one who has placed them there.
The servants are the prophets, who came to remind the people, and particularly their leaders about what was expected of them, particularly when God was not happy with them. The last of these was John the Baptist who told them that God wanted repentance.
They were all rejected, abused or killed.
And the son? The one who is thrown outside the vineyard walls and killed?
Who could that be, Jesus seems to be taunted them to answer.
Who could that be……….?
Jesus who would be ultimately rejected by the authorities, condemned to death and taken outside the city walls to be killed.
Who could that son be…..?
The apostle Paul doesn’t seem to have needed more than one opportunity to grab the second chance from God, despite the fervour of his mission to destroy a fledgling church.
The leaders of Israel had heard God’s call from the prophets for generations – to stop going through the motions in their worship as if that were all that was required, repent and reconnect with their God, and sort their lives out instead.
Live lives that would bring honour and be pleasing to God.
John the Baptist’s invitation to Jews to go through the water of repentance and baptism was not just to Gentiles – it was for them as well, and they had again refused to listen.
Jesus reminds them of their scriptures, and Psalm 118 particularly which was an integral part of their worship. He takes a passage which was originally about Israel, a nation despised and rejected, and applies it to himself.
Jesus the foundation stone upon which everything is built and the corner stone that holds all things together.
In Hebrew the word for stone, and that for son are very similar – Jesus loved word-play!
He also warns them that although, as in the story, God is patient, there will come judgement. In Matthew’s mind as he writes this is probably the destruction of Jerusalem after a Jewish revolt in AD 66-70 – where not one stone was left standing, and many thousands lost their lives.
God has entrusted so much not just to a nation he called special, but to all of humanity, because it was always God’s will that we should come to faith.
But with that trust comes responsibility.
And with the blessing should come a response. John the Baptist pointed the people to it, Jesus began his ministry with that same message:
Paul saw it, the priests, elders and people of Israel, with exceptions, did not.
Even when the Son of God came to them.
This not just a story for a few religious leaders gathered around Jesus, it’s a message for all of us from God who offers the second chance to those who will take hold of the hand that is offered, the hand that lifted Paul to his feet and set him on the right path.
The hand that does the same to all who put their trust in the Corner stone, Jesus Christ.