We have a mountain to climb this morning; the mountain is the meaning of life.
And whether we recognize it, climbing this mountain is profoundly practical. Once we’re grasped by the meaning of life, we can stop wasting our lives on living in ways that aren’t really life. Anyone want to waste their life? Anyone want to spend their energy on living in ways that aren’t really life? We can all agree it’s a mountain worth climbing.
And I don’t want to oversell this morning—if we find this mountain, we’ll be climbing it our entire lives. But, at bare minimum, we can find the right mountain.
Who in the room enjoys getting out for a hike or a climb in the mountains? When you’re preparing to hike or climb here in Manitou or Colorado Springs, you know what one of the first things you do is? You head west. You don’t head east. That’s the wrong direction… you’re going to be profoundly disappointed.
Heading the right direction is a modest first step but an essential first step. And that’s something like what we’re doing this morning. We’re heading west. We’re finding the mountain. We’ll be climbing this mountain the rest of our lives, but at least we’ll be climbing the right mountain… not wasting our lives heading east.
So that’s the plan for the morning: the mountain. By the end of today, it should all feel pretty obvious. You gotta hop the fence, use the compass, head west, find your climbing buddies, watch out for wolves, clean the muck off your shoes, and start going up—start ascending.
If you’re listening—like, if you’re hearing my words and caring—we’ve succeeded at the first part. We’ve hopped the fence—we want to go—we want to find the mountain of life’s meaning.
Now we need a compass because we gotta head west. And that’s what we do right now as we open the ancient texts that point us to Jesus. The Scriptures—calibrated towards Jesus—are our compass. They point us west, toward the mountain.
So then, my dear family, it comes down to this: celebrate in the Lord! It’s no trouble for me to write the same things to you, and it’s safe for you. Watch out for the dogs! Watch out for the “bad works” people! Watch out for the “incision” party—that is, the mutilators! We are the “circumcision,” you see—we who worship God by the spirit, and boast in King Jesus, and refuse to trust in the flesh. Mind you, I’ve got good reason to trust in the flesh. If anyone else thinks they have reason to trust in the flesh, I’ve got more.
Circumcised? On the eighth day.
Descent? Hebrew through and through.
Torah-observance? A Pharisee.
Zealous? I persecuted the church!
Official status under the law? Blameless.
Does that sound as though my account was well in credit? Well, maybe; but whatever I had written in on the profit side, I calculated it instead as a loss—because of the Messiah. Yes, I know that’s weird, but there’s more: I calculate everything as a loss, because knowing King Jesus as my Lord is worth far more than everything else put together! In fact, because of the Messiah I’ve suffered the loss of everything, and I now calculate it as trash, so that my profit may be the Messiah, and that I may be discovered in him, not having my own covenant status defined by Torah, but the status which comes through the Messiah’s faithfulness: the covenant status from God which is given to faith. This means knowing him, knowing the power of his resurrection, and knowing the partnership of his sufferings. It means sharing the form and pattern of his death, so that somehow I may arrive at the final resurrection from the dead.Philippians 1v1-11 (NT Wright’s “Kingdom Translation”)
We’re in a series called Complete Joy, where we’re walking through this ancient letter to followers of Jesus in the city of Philippi. And—in them—in the Philippians—we’ve found our climbing buddies. The author of this letter, as well as its original hearers, are deeply interested in the meaning of life as well.
In fact, they’re standing in the tradition of a long prestigious line of mountain climbers. There have been generation upon generation of hikers and climbers who have gathered around the meaning of life. This prestigious group and tradition, of course, the ancient people of God called the Israelites. We hear the writer—Paul—talking about them in verses 4-6:
He was born into this group—this ancient people chosen by God for the sake the world—and he’s as elite a member of this society of mountaineers as there can possibly be. He was born into a privileged tribe, he was circumcised on the right day when he was a baby—he’s been following all the rules since before he had a choice about. And as he’s grown up, he’s been passionate about preserving the reputation and calling of his people. “Zealous” is the word (v6). He’s been passionate—zealous—about protecting the long legacy of explorers who have camped at the base of this mountain.
He would even use violence to protect this society of mountaineers… and the mountain itself. (I mean—good grief— the mountain is the meaning of life. It’s worth protecting right?) And so when Paul heard the earliest followers of Jesus make the absurd claim that some crucified guy—Jesus—was the reason why this society of mountaineers had ever existed in the first place… it felt like a threat. A threat to everything he held dear. A threat to the society of mountaineers and a threat to the mountain itself. (“We’ve been entrusted with this mountain—the meaning of life—relationship with the one, true God of the universe. And now this movement of Jesus-people are threatening the entire group.”)
They had begun considering themselves an elite group—the covenant people of God. The most holy society of mountaineers. In a word—they considered themselves “dikaios.” It’s the word we typically translate as “righteous.”I know that sounds boring, but it’s anything from it. They were upright—whole—complete. They were people of justice before justice was trendy. They were certainly NOT perfect—they had sacrifices for that—but they were part of God’s family, trying to live faithfully with him. Thanking him for rescuing them from slavery. Trusting him to forgive them. And looking for him to save the world.
Paul was not only part of this society, he was the cream of the crop… as good as it gets. Amemptos. “Blameless” (end-of-v6). He was the elite of the elite—the privileged of the privileged—the winner of winners—in the most prestigious society of mountaineers camped at the base of the meaning of life.
And yet, here, as he pens this letter from prison, Paul admits that none of his winning had moved him out of the foothills. In fact… this was the secret… none of them have. They’re certainly the society that has been shown the mountain but none of them have climbed the mountain.
So we’ve hopped the fence, headed west, and found our climbing buddies… but the best of the lot has come out to tell us that the getting up the mountain—the meaning of life—is unlike anything we expected.
He writes, “It really important to listen to me. I’ve told you before (v1), but I don’t mind telling you again. It’s helpful—it’s safe—for you. In fact, there’s a whole lot of people who will lead us the wrong way.”
“Dogs” is what he calls them (v2).
Apparently many within this tradition of prestigious winners have actually become predatory wolves. And he’s saying “watch out for these wolves.” They’re the people of this ancient society who insist that anyone who wants to climb the meaning of life must do things as they’ve always been done.
And Paul singles out one particular practice as an example of how these wolves are attacking. He warns his Gentile friends—his non-Jewish friends—in Philippi about people who come in and insist on ancient Jewish practices like circumcision. Paul’s warning is this—I myself was circumcised on the eighth day as sacred sign in this society of mountaineers—but it never helped me climb the mountain. And it actually hasn’t helped any of them either.
Paul does a word play right here in verse 2… the word for circumcision in Greek is the word peritomē. He says: “Many people will try to get you into ancient practices that have never actually taken them up the mountain. A life of practices like “circumcision”—like peritomē—but it’s really all just katetomē. It’s all just “mutilation.” These outward things aren’t the meaning of life; in fact, they can wind up being the mutilation of life.
Paul is extremely proud of being part of the ancient people of God—the Jewish people—but he also recognizes—in hindsight—that he had never been able to fully enter into the meaning of life. For all his privileges—for every way he was a winner of winners—he had only been in the foothills… he had never climbed the mountain. And so he warns us and the Philippians against even starting down that road.
The meaning of life—the good life—the truly human life—is not found in all the things we try to do to make ourselves winners. Paul calls that “trusting in the flesh” (v4). Trusting in OUR externals—in our achievements, in our upbringing, in our nation, even in our own morality and our passion for God.
Trusting that we’ve made ourselves winners—in our own externals—isn’t just the temptation of first-century Israel… it’s the temptation of any-century human. It’s our temptation. The default way we live is in confidence in ourselves. That’s the how we measure ourselves against everyone else in our lives. Heck, it’s even how we measure ourselves against everyone else in this room right now.
in what we what do for a living
in what we what we’ve achieved
in what we look like
in what we have
in what we can see
We’re obsessed with knowing that we are winners—that somehow—by some strange measure—that we’re winning. Our default way of living is us trying to make ourselves winners. It’s the default way we live—not only in relationship with each other, but even in relationship to God.
Those of us who care about God, we try to do everything right. We read our Bibles, pray before we eat, go to church, serve the needy, and watch our language. Hear me—none of these are (necessarily) bad things. But our default reason for doing them is frequently to make sure we’re winning. Winning with God! (How absurd.) And we wonder why all of the religious activity actually, frequently makes us feel far from the meaning of life. We wonder why we’re exhausted. We’re doing it all… we gotta keep it up. We wonder why we’re frustrated. We’re spinning all these plates… we know how many fall. We wonder why we feel insecure before God.
Deep down, we believe that God loves winners.
Paul looks at all of this—our terribly twisted instinct to try to justify ourselves and our own existence—to make sure that we’re winner—and he calls it all skubalon. Which isn’t a nice word. Skubala has a range of meanings… and they’re all gross. It’s the dregs at the bottom of the crockpot. It’s the residue of food in the garbage disposal. It’s the bits of shell left over after eating seafood. It’s the grape that was gross and you spit it out on the side of your plate. Very commonly, skubala is what you step in if dog-owners don’t pick up after their dogs. It’s the muck you wipe off your shoe.
This is what Paul calls all our attempts to win—our attempts to impress others and our attempts to impress God. He spends verses 4-6 building up every privilege his life had… and then he does this dramatic pivot—and sees his “assets” now as “liabilities” (v7-8). If these verses were TurboTax, we would see giant green refund number built up suddenly swing downward—below zero—and be a big fat red negative. His “gains” are “losses.” His “profits” are “poop.” All because Paul met Jesus.
And now he insists, if we’re going to climb the mountain—if we want the meaning of life—we’ve got to wipe that muck off our shoes. And the muck isn’t our desire to sin. The muck is our need to win. Salvation means rescue from our need to win as much as our desire to sin.
To be sure, we need to be rescued from our sins and brokenness and rebellion, but when God came among us his hardest words were not for those of us obviously broken by sin. In the gospels, do you know who Jesus has the hardest words for over and over again? It’s not the people who are losing.
It’s not you doubting God’s existence.
It’s not you doubting God’s goodness.
It’s not you angry with others.
It’s not you wanting everyone else’s life.
It’s not you regretting that that decision you can’t take back.
It’s not you crying in your pillow.
It’s not you struggling with sexual orientation or you addicted to porn.
It’s not you cheating, not you cursing, not you cutting.
Jesus’s hardest words are for when we’re dressed up in our Sunday best insisting that we’re winners. I mean, how many problems in the world—how many problems in our own lives—are actually because we desperately refuse to lose?
…because we have to win?
…because we refuse to apologize?
…because we won’t ask for help?
…because we don’t want to look weak?
When God—the deepest meaning of life—the mountain himself—came among us, he wanted us to stop propping ourselves up, pretending we’re OK, trying to be winners. He wanted us to stop trying to justify ourselves.
We become “dikaios”—righteous—part-of-God’s-family—right-with-God—forgiven—NOT by trying harder, climbing the mountain, and somehow eventually winning with God. It’s not even on the basis of the God’s ancient promises offered to obedience found in Torah. Somehow—this is good news—this is gospel—we’re already right with God because of Jesus.
That’s what we’re all invited to believe—again and again and again. That’s why Paul calls it all skubala: “All of my life I count as muck, droppings, dregs, garbage, crap. The muck on my shoes I need to wipe off is not me on my worst day; the muck is me on my best day. The muck is my obsession with winning.” Paul is not repenting of his sins right here; Paul is repenting of his strengths. He’s walking away from his wins. Because that—he says—is how you approach the meaning of life. That’s how you ascend the mountain.
We’re all secret losers; here’s the secret: God loves losers.
You are loved—right now.
You are loved—in your anger.
You are loved—ashamed of your sexuality.
You are loved—doubting God.
In all your losing, you are loved. God will never not love you.
Let’s summarize. There’s a mountain before us—the rest of our lives. The meaning of life. We’ve hopped the fence, used the compass, headed west, and found our climbing buddies.
We were surprised to discover that the most prestigious climbers—the people of Israel—had never actually climbed to the summit of the mountain. Israel had long sat at the foot of a mountain that they could never fully climb. They had been given their ancient instruction (the Torah) at the base of a mountain, but, as a nation, could never obey it or follow God faithfully. The meaning of life was too steep—too difficult to navigate—too much—for any of us. But Paul—one the most prestigious of these persons—has given up on pretending to be winner, and he gives us good news:
We can stop pretending to be something we’re not. Joy is found in losing all the ways we try to win… and discovering that we are loved. That’s Paul telling us to watch out for wolves and wipe off our need win—wipe off the muck weighing us down and killing us.
And then—we start going up—we start ascending. We actually become one of these mountaineers—we have become and are becoming “dikaios”—righteous—but it’s not because we’re such great climbers…
We’re rising because the Mountain wants us. The mountain is helping us. The mountain is giving. The mountain is loving. God himself is above us—pulling us upward. God himself is within us—giving us energy for the next step. God himself is beside us—the Mountain has become a climber—someone who shows us the path. The meaning of life is this life of love—shown in Father above us, Spirit within us, and Son beside us.
We don’t have to justify ourselves. We can’t, and we don’t have to. God justifies our existence. God makes us right-with-him. And this God gives us purpose—shows us how to live. And the meaning of life is the opposite of self-centered winning. The human obsession with winning only ends up mutilating our lives. Life is made for giving not winning.
This is the meaning of life: to give and to love—that’s what we see God himself doing. God exhausts himself—pours himself out—for the sake of others. For the good of others. Christians point to the supreme example of this at the cross. God comes to us and says: “This is the meaning of life. Giving to others—seeking the good of others—even our enemies—and even when it hurts.”
And then Paul comes to us and says (v9-11): “That’s all I want to know. I want to know this God who has come as our Messiah. He—Jesus—is the meaning of life, and I want to become like him. As Jesus emptied himself (Philippians 2), so I also empty myself of all my privileges (Philippians 3) so that I can live a life of a love. I want his life lived in me, and I want it all. Not just the highs… even the lows. Not just his power… even his suffering (v10). I want to stop trying to be a winner so I can start being a gift.”
And that’s the moment when Paul is ascending… when the Mountain himself is pulling him up.
The good life is the giving life. The giving life is not always the easy life, but no life is always easy. It’s is not the pain-free life, but no life is pain-free. But the giving life is the good life. Pouring ourselves out in love for others is the best possible kind of life. Because the life of giving is the life of God.
This is the meaning of life: to know God, the great Giver, the great Lover, who always gives to you and always loves you and to share his life—to give and love like him. That’s the mountain pulling us upward. And one day, God won’t just raise us up a metaphorical mountain; one day God raise us from the dead (v11).
Your life has meaning… you life has purpose… you are loved. It’s all good news. May you believe it.