Homily for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Our sermon text this morning is the lectionary reading from St. Paul’s epistle to the
church in Philippi.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “But
whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as
loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have
suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and
be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that
which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that
I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share His sufferings, becoming
like Him in His death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the
dead. Not that I have already obtained this or that am already perfect, but I press on to make
it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own. Brothers, I do not consider that I
have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward
to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in
Dear brothers and sisters in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, St. Paul very likely
wrote these profound words to the Philippian church during that particular Roman
imprisonment we hear a little about at the very end of the Acts of the Apostles. In Roman
chains that very first time, St. Paul then realized his hope for release from prison, or house
arrest, or whatever confinement it was, that his hope for freedom could take only two
possible forms: either fortunate release from the physical bonds of the Roman guard, or a
less fortunate release from the physical body entirely through persecution, death, and
martyrdom. Those were his only ways out, as it were. But we know, of course, that Paul was
eventually freed from that initial incarceration in Rome, right?
However, only a few short years later, as the holy tradition of the church tells us, St. Paul
was ultimately martyred in that same ancient city, beheaded in the Ardeatino, its twentieth
quarter, on the orders of Emperor Nero. Now we might happen to think that a sad story. He
was emancipated but then brought right back to the same place to face and suffer his unjust
death. And in a sense, it is a sad story. But you know what: Paul certainly wouldn’t have
thought so. He wouldn’t have understood it that way. In fact, he didn’t understand it that
way. You see, the hope Paul he had when he wrote this letter while jailed to the still
somewhat fledgling church at Philippi, this hope was only later perfected by his blessed
Roman death. His words here were not undermined by his execution a few years later but
they were rather solidified by it. Martyrdom gave his optimistic message an eminently
powerful and an enduring meaning down through the ages – a meaning for all the Christian
martyrs throughout the history of the church – to this very day. So let us now try our best to
learn something for our own present good as the twenty-first century church from these
noble words of the holy apostle this morning.
And let’s start here – with a single solitary word: σκύβαλον. Yeah. Funny sounding
word, huh? Have you ever heard it before? Σκύβαλον. Well, it is an ancient Greek
word—because of course it is, I always love to bring the Greek in whenever I can, against
all seminary advice to the contrary—but it is an ancient Greek word that we find in our text
today. Most translations are pretty mild with handling it though. I think the New King James
Version, my personal preference, and the English Standard Version we read earlier render it
as “rubbish.” And that’s close, I suppose. But the full meaning, I think, is a tad bit more
jarring and, truth be told, a little more graphic than that. Really it means in a visceral, or a
very earthy and a kind of coarse way, it means gross waste – it signifies the trashiest of trash
– it indicates icky and unpleasant garbage and refuse, and if you really want to get the point
across – it denotes dung – yeah, in a rather indelicate sense, it means feces – human waste
even. That’s really what we are talking about. And what exactly does St. Paul consider dung
and human waste here? Well, everything. Everything other than Jesus, everything in the
world, Paul regards as trash and dung, pure rubbish. It is all worthless compared to Christ.
Paul never minces words, does he? When it comes to the things of God and the
things of men that get in the way of the things of God, there is really no time for politeness.
And Paul is right. Nothing matters without faith in Christ. Period. Nothing else matters
without Him. Nothing else saves. Nothing else has eternal worth removed from the
incarnate God, Jesus of Nazareth, and saving faith in His historical atoning sacrifice. And
here’s the painful reality for many that is plainly implied by Paul’s words here: even our
own lives, without Christ, they are meaningless and lacking in purpose, worth, aim or any
lasting value. That is why we see in this letter Paul’s over-eager willingness to face
martyrdom and death. Because if living for him meant forsaking Christ in this life before the
despotic Roman authorities, or whomever, then it wasn’t worth it at all – because life
without Christ just isn’t ever worth it. Martyrdom itself is more of a gain than such a
meaningless and empty trifle of a life. That’s how Paul understood it anyhow. Faith must
come before everything, even our own comfort, even our own wants, even our own safety
and our own lives. And Paul proved that with his own bloodshed nearly two thousand years
ago. He literally lost his head for that eternal truth.
And here’s the lesson for us today: we are exceedingly lucky and blessed that
Emperor Nero isn’t ruling in 2023, however much we might jokingly suggest otherwise at
times. Our government isn’t Nero. We aren’t yet facing real physical persecution in this
nation, at least not violent persecution – and thanks be to God. But I seriously worry about
the church if we ever were in that dire position. If ever we were under the harsh and
repressive rule of a truly anti-Christian emperor or empire. Because look around. We are
free to worship our God right now, we are not forcibly restricted from doing so – and yet
again, look around: the churches are growing vacant nonetheless. The pews are emptying
quickly—and not just the pews themselves like here this morning, but the people in
them—they are emptying hastily in every single denomination without fail, and without the
slightest threat of force. And even among us faithful few, how many other distractions and
concerns we let get in the way of our faith day after day.
Money, or mammon, as our Lord calls it – it is meaningless. Vanity of vanities.
Material wealth and nice things, the accumulation of hollow, futile, purposeless things,
lording money and influence around for the brief enjoyment of some societal clout, it is all
meaningless. It is dung and nothing at all in comparison to Christ’s glory. None of it matters
whatsoever in the end. King Solomon, again, he made this clear to us in the Book of
Ecclesiastes, did he not? Vanity of vanities, remember? So yes, having the newest i-Phone,
for instance, not only does that not matter, but it can, if we let ourselves obsess over it, it can
become a considerable hindrance and an even a diversion from what actually does matter.
The fancy car, the expensive house, the enviable plot of land, the well-manicured yard, the
upper-middle-class existence, respectable GDP growth and suburban comfort – none of this
will make you genuinely happy and joyful – don’t be deceived, it won’t. Sports and
popularity, or your preferred politician winning a debate or an election, or any politics
whatsoever, none of that will bring you fulfillment for very long. Attention from others,
online influence, the lusts of the flesh and their gratification, the respect and esteem of
seemingly important people, these things fade so very quickly. Sic transit gloria mundi –
such glory always fades, it is said.
Like everyone else, like you and like me, we will each grow old and pass away
someday. Brothers and sisters, we are all going to die. Unless Jesus comes quickly, that is
our future. And we cannot take any of the stuff we’ve amassed with us. Because in eternity,
none of it matters. We don’t need it. It counts for nothing – it is but rubbish. And so if you
believe me, which is to say, if you believe Paul, then examine your priorities daily, dear
flock. This faith in Christ, this church here and the fellowship you have here and at home
with your own faithful family, that’s all that really matters. Everything else is superficial,
temporary, and altogether fleeting. Everything else is σκύβαλον. It is just decoration. And it
is all useless in comparison to life in Christ and among our Christian brothers and sisters.
Having considering that, I want you to do something for me today. Or at least I want
you to try to do something – and it is something I have been trying so very hard to be better
about myself: when you get home, today or tomorrow, or whenever you get the first chance,
as soon as you have the opportunity, take a full day and keep an account of how you spend
it. Log the hours. Keep track of what you are doing and what you are thinking, even. Write
it down if you need to. We sleep, on average, a third of our lives. We work at least another
quarter of our lives. But that leaves about forty to forty-five percent of our lives free. So
what do you with all that time? How much of that time is spent valuably, with your family,
friends, and loved ones? How much of that time is spent in the Word of God, the very thing
that delivers you from death and saves you from sorrow? How many of those seventy or so
hours a week are spent in prayer and worship and doing works of mercy, too, lest we forget?
And alternatively, how much of your week is spent with things that serve absolutely no
purpose in eternity? I urge you to find out for yourselves. And find that out regularly, if
Now obviously I’m not saying that there isn’t plenty of time for leisure and
entertainment and much-needed rest. Naturally there is. We keep the Sabbath here, we
understand the value of rest – we know this better than anyone else – much better than the
secular world out there, that’s for sure. There is a time for everything, as that wise king
Solomon once also noted. But if God matters most of all, if everything apart from Christ is
secondary, then it stands to reason that that truth, that reality, would reveal itself in our daily
and weekly lives, in how we spend our time – in how we spend our money as well. Because
here’s the thing: someday, we may face actual persecution. We may be confronted with the
tyranny of unbelief. It may well be in the cards for some of us. Who knows? And if that day
eventually comes, the question is: will we be more willing to part with our creature comforts
or with Christ? What will we be more attached to: God or goods? The faith or our own
sinful wants and fallen fancies? That’s a question we ought to always bear in mind.
Now believe it or not, there are valid reasons to miss church. You heard it from the
pastor himself, so there it is. But guys, the thing is: there aren’t very many. There are good
justifications for neglecting our daily Bible reading. But those are few and far between.
There are even decent causes for forgetting to pray now and again. But they are so
incredibly rare. And yet, what do we sinners—myself very much included—what do we do
all the time? Exactly those sinful things. You know what we really lost in the garden,
friends? In the fall from grace long ago, when Eve took that forbidden fruit and shared it
with her disobedient husband? We lost our innocence, we lost the tree of life, we lost our
original righteousness and our freedom. But more than that, we also lost all sense of priority.
In Eden, faith and family were everything. Worship was everything. And these things used
to mean an awful lot in this country, too. Maybe you can remember. Once upon a time, that
was the case – God meant something, He meant a whole lot, as did His holy church. But
how distractable we’ve become. How part-time and lackluster in our faith, in our doctrine
and practice, we as a nation have allowed ourselves to become. But don’t let that be you.
Don’t let that be us. Listen to St. Paul. Recall what Christ is really worth – for you and for
yours. It is high time for a revival, if you ask me. A revival of the heart and soul, of good
theology and good practice, of American Christians being devout and devoted American
Christians once again.
And here's what we have to revive foremost in our memory: the fact that God made
His home in a poor virgin’s womb. The fact that He took on the lowly flesh, with all its
struggle and baggage. The fact that He knowingly suffered rejection by His own beloved
people. You know, they once welcomed Him into the holy city with celebration and then
they straightaway cried out like banshees for His brutal and bloody crucifixion. Pretty much
immediately. The cornerstone was once the rejected stone – and He was rejected in such a
blatant and vile way – by all men and women, with us being no exception. And then what:
He was crowned with thorns, nailed to a cross, and left to die. He underwent all that
disappointment, bitter betrayal, and agony precisely because His priority was our
redemption. His priority was our deliverance, never once deserved. The salvation of all
mankind was His top priority. And He delivered on that priority, defeating the final enemy,
death itself, for all those of faith. He was raised on the third day and ascended into heaven,
leaving us with His Holy Spirit as our comforter.
And that Holy Spirit long ago gave us faith, always a free gift, through our Holy Baptism.
And our Lord returns week after week to strengthen that faith in Holy Communion.
And God, He is always with us, everywhere we go, as He once promised to Joshua
and so many others. He is with us everywhere, speaking to us through His Word, and
through the created world out there and through our own individual conscience. The only
way you can go a whole day, a whole hour even, without deliberately thinking about God is
by putting blinders on – by willfully ignoring His voice and His ever-present nearness and
His loving desire for conversation with you. So don’t do that. But be revived instead. God is
here with you and for you. Believe these words and these promises. And act accordingly.
Let there be a revival of proper priority among us.
Worship God here. Worship Him consciously and with reverence and the deepest
respect, regardless of what people say. This weekly gathering isn’t just a cute thing we do. It
isn’t about keeping up appearances and being hospitable. It is about the one true God
coming to you, entering into your broken body and soul, and fixing you, healing you,
sanctifying you, and making you perfect, a slow process, to be sure – but a sure process
nevertheless. And what an amazing and gracious gift that is. If we honestly believe it, and I
sure hope we do, then how could we ever fail to prioritize this gift of forgiveness, life, and
salvation? It should come first in everything we do and in everything we are. Christ is the
most significant and consequential thing in your life. I know that to be the truth. So do not
lose sight of that important truth. Say it to yourself out loud every morning. All things are
but loss apart from our Lord. Paul got it so right. He got it right unto death by Roman hands,
just like his own Lord. And may we get it right too. No matter what. May we treat Christ,
especially His body and His blood, as being of the greatest eternal worth.
Of course, maybe you’ve messed up though. Maybe you’ve forsaken your Lord in
thought, word, or deed recently. Perhaps you’ve failed to make Him first in your life as of
late. Or maybe you’ve even partaken of His own body and His blood in an unthinking and
potentially unworthy way. That would not be a surprise, seeing as how we all have at some
But that’s okay. You’ve repented of it, you have already confessed it here to God, and are
therefore forgiven. So then, all that’s left to do now is change course. That’s what
repentance is really all about: changing course, turning around. As St. Paul says in
encouragement, forget those things that lie behind and strain instead for what lies ahead.
Press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Repentance
and revival, that’s what we’re trying to be about here at Bethlehem.
Today is a new day, friends. You are forgiven and freed – freed the prison chains of
sin’s eternal consequence. Sunday is the eighth day which is the first day of the new
creation – and you are the new creation. It is the first day of the rest of your saintly life.
Your God is here now to absolve and to feed you, to revive you, a miserable sinner, with
His own precious body and blood. And may that body and blood make you brand new. In
the life to come, our Lord Jesus alone is what matters. Focus on that. Meditate on that,
because it is equally as true for this life down below. What is more, tell all your friends
about it. Tell them about Him. And at every step, press on toward the goal of life everlasting
with Jesus and with all His saints. And when you do that, when you put Christ first, take a
moment here and there to truly appreciate the feeling of liberation you then experience, the
feeling of freedom and emancipation from all the oppressive heaviness of this weighty life,
a freedom only our dear Lord can offer. All this stuff, this σκύβαλον all around us, it doesn’t
really matter in the end. All the stress of things and of the profane responsibilities we can’t
help ourselves but have – clinging so desperately to these worldly things just wears down
our already weary souls. However, Christ and His church, His body, our family here and at
home – that’s what matters. That’s what is worth clinging to – in good times and in bad.
And having these as your constant priority, that’s the most freeing thing in this earthly life.
Therefore, with Paul, count all else as loss, beloved. Christ is the sole gain, along with His
body, the faithful Christian church. So press on toward Him. In His holy Name. Amen.