KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE PRIZE – SERMON BY REV. PAUL DAKIN

KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE PRIZE

A sermon based on Galatians 6:1-16

First Baptist Church of Lynchburg

July 7, 2019

By Paul Dakin

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

 

This morning’s sermon takes its title from the well-known folk song, “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.” It is based on an older folk song called “Gospel Plow,” which was first published in 1913. The song is of uncertain origin and is believed to date back at least to the 19th Century. Over the years, the song and its variants have been recorded by lots of different artists, including musicians as diverse as gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, jazz great Duke Ellington, Nobel Prize laureate Bob Dylan, and rock star Bruce Springsteen. This is “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”:

 

Paul and Silas bound in jail

Had no money for their bail

Keep your eyes on the prize

Hold on! Hold on!

 

Paul and Silas thought they were lost

Till the dungeon shook and the chains fell off

Keep your eyes on the prize

Hold on! Hold on!

 

CHORUS: Hold on, hold on,

Keep your eyes on the prize: hold on!

 

Freedom’s name is mighty sweet

One day soon we’re gonna meet

Keep your eyes on the prize

Hold on! Hold on!

 

The only thing that I did wrong

Was staying in the wilderness too long

Keep your eyes on the prize

Hold on! Hold on!

CHORUS

 

Got my hand on the gospel plow

Won’t take nothing for my journey now

Keep your eyes on the prize

Hold on! Hold on!

 

Ain’t been to heaven but I’ve been told

The streets up there are paved with gold

Keep your eyes on the prize

Hold on! Hold on!

CHORUS[1]

 

“Keep Your Eyes on the prize” is a song that is chock-full of Biblical allusions. There are literally dozens of versions of the song, but they all seem to start off with the same two verses about Paul and Silas being in jail. The reference there is Acts 16, in which Paul and Silas had been arrested in the city of Philippi for preaching the gospel. During the night, an earthquake shook the jail, their chains fell off and they were freed.

 

The third stanza says, “Freedom’s name is mighty sweet…” This is a reference to Galatians 5:1, in which the Apostle Paul writes, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Keep those words in your mind—we’ll come back to them later on in the sermon…)

 

The fourth stanza reads, “The only thing that I did wrong/ Was staying in the wilderness too long…” This is, of course, a reference to the Old Testament book of Exodus, which recounts the story of God and Moses leading the people of Israel out of the slavery of Egypt. We are told that they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years before they were able to experience the freedom that was promised in the land of Canaan.

 

The fifth stanza says, “Got my hand on the gospel plow…” If you were here last week, then perhaps you will recall that “putting your hand to the plow” was part of last week’s sermon text. In Luke 9:62, you may remember that Jesus told one would-be follower, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the Kingdom of God.”

 

The streets of heaven being paved with gold is the subject of the final stanza. This is a reference to Revelation 21:21. In this passage, the Apostle John sees a vision of the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven. As part of his description of the city, he exclaims, “The street of the city was of pure gold, like transparent glass.”

 

The title—which recurs frequently throughout the song—brings to mind the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:24, among other places. In that verse, he reminds us that, “In a race, the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize. Run in such a way that you may [win it].” Or in other words, as you run the race of life, “Keep your eyes on the prize…”

 

In Galatians 6, the Apostle Paul wraps up his letter to the churches in Galatia, which is an area in what is now modern day Turkey. We can glean from reading the letter that these churches were beset with a number of problems. Paul took the opportunity in his letter to address those problems and to give some instruction and advice on what life in the community of faith should look like.

 

His concerns reflect one of the oldest points of contention within the church. The problem seemed to be that there were those in the church who insisted that, in order to be a true Christian, it was necessary to follow the ceremonial practices of the Old Testament. The contention was that these practices were still binding on Christian believers, even though a new covenant had been established through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

 

The thinking went like this: the Christian faith is an outgrowth of the Jewish faith. From what we can learn from the gospels, Jesus himself was an observant Jew. Therefore, in order to follow Jesus correctly, then one must follow the Jewish laws and rules of conduct in order to be saved by faith in Christ. Dietary laws, the celebration of Jewish feasts and fasts—all of the 613 laws outlined in the books of the law—must be adhered to. The book of Acts records these struggles in the early church as well as chronicling its expansion through the Mediterranean world. The earliest controversy centered on whether or not Gentiles could become Christians. The second one centered on the place of the Old Testament Jewish law in the life of the church…

 

The major issue in the Galatian churches seemed to be the question of circumcision. Circumcision was one of the oldest signs of the covenant between God and the people of Israel. It dates all the way back to Genesis 17. In that chapter, God was reaffirming the covenant that he had made with Abraham—that he would be the father of a great nation and, that through is descendants, all the nations of the earth would be blessed. And as a part of that covenant renewal, God tells Abraham, “You are to undergo circumcision and it will be a sign of the covenant between me and you. For generations to come, every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised…” (Verses 11-12) From then on, in order to be part of God’s chosen people, you had to be circumcised.

 

And so it was right on through the beginning of the church in the 1st Century AD. Paul, and other leaders in the early church, saw this movement for what it was. It was an attempt—maybe even a well-meaning attempt, who knows—to turn back the clock by insisting that, in order to win God’s favor, you had to follow the laws and rules of the Old Testament. That’s the way it had always worked before—you follow God’s rules and God will bless you. That is the overarching theme of the Old Testament. These folks pushing for adherence to the Jewish laws could not see the difference that Christ’s teachings and the indwelling Holy Spirit would make in the lives of Christians…

 

These arguments may seem quaint to us today, but I think that’s because we have the advantage of looking back at it with 2000 years of hindsight. But for these folks, this was a live and important issue that threatened the very existence of the church. And truth be told, those who want to reduce the Christian faith to mostly rules and regulations are still with us today. Unfortunately their numbers are legion…and their voices are often loud and strident…

 

The problem with legalism is that that those who feel themselves righteous by their deeds tend to evaluate their personal spirituality in light of the performance of others. And of course, they always look good to themselves. That is, they think to themselves—and sometimes even imply as much to others—“I am a better Christian than you are because I do more good deeds than you do. I pray more, I read my Bible more, I attend church more, I help more people”—or as we used to say when we were teenagers—“I don’t smoke and I don’t chew and I don’t run with them that do.” Believing that obeying “the laws and statutes of God” makes you a better Christian usually engenders in people a sense of smug superiority that is the very opposite of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Jesus himself taught that…

 

In John 8, we have the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. You remember the story. Jesus was teaching the people, when suddenly, the Pharisees—the religious conservatives of his day—brought a woman to him and threw her down at his feet. The Pharisees said to our Lord, “This woman was caught in the very act of adultery. The Law of Moses says that she should be stoned to death. What do you say?” I am also pretty sure that you remember Jesus’ response. After all, it is one of his most famous sayings. He replied, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Those who were so convinced of their own righteousness were ready to vent their righteous anger on this poor unfortunate woman. Instead, Jesus pointed out that fact that they too were sinners, just like she was. For all their feigned righteousness and superiority, they were no better than she was. And as you know, they all left the scene one by one…

 

Another example—in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught, “In the same way that you judge others, and with the measure that you use, it will be measured out to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Here, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will be able to see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:2-5) Those who believe that they are morally superior to others have an uncanny ability to overlook their own sins while making much of others’ failings. Jesus says that is just plain wrong. Paul adds, not only is it wrong, but it also damages the fellowship of believers in the church. He says that nothing good comes from it…

 

After talking about most all of these things in Galatians, Paul sums up his teaching succinctly in verse 15 of today’s text. This is really the point of his letter and the point of this sermon. In verse 15, Paul writes, “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything: but a new creation is everything.” Paul writes that it does not matter what rules you try to live by or even where those rules came from. Trying to live a Godly life by following a bunch of rules will not bring you closer to God. It never has and it never will. And by the same token, he writes that ignoring rules or religious laws will not make you any closer to God either. He says that neither of those things really matter. Instead Paul says that what is important is the new creation.

 

The new creation of God—that is what Jesus is all about. Jesus did not come to earth in order to reform the world as it was. No—that is not the point at all. Instead, Christ came to earth in order to set God’s new creation in motion—to begin the cherished project of God to create anew the world into what he originally intended for it to be. British theologian Tom Wright talks about this in his best-selling book Surprise by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. (Yes—incredibly—some theological works are actually best-sellers…(!)) In it, he writes, “Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project –not to snatch people away from earth to heaven—but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That is, after all, what the Lord’s Prayer is all about.”[2]

 

That is what Paul writes about in 2 Corinthians 5:17. It is a familiar verse, but maybe its very familiarity has blunted the impact of what it says. In that verse, Paul writes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” Christ did not come to reform us. Instead he came to change us from the inside out. When you get down to brass tacks, that is what the Christian life really is: letting the indwelling Holy Spirit work in us and through us to make us new from the inside out—and thereby change the world around us as well…

 

And Paul tells us to keep that goal of the new creation ever before us—to keep our eyes on the prize. In Philippians 3:13-14, he reminds us again: “This one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining forward to what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

 

Do not be distracted by those things that are less important. But instead keep your eyes on the prize of God’s new creation—both without and within…

 

To God alone be the glory! Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Like most old songs from the folk tradition, there are lots of variations of this tune. I have edited this version of “Keep Your Eyes…” for brevity and for relevance. This version most closely resembles Bruce Springsteen’s performance on his 2006 album The Seeger Sessions.

[2] www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/2326165-surprised-by-hope-rethinking-heaven-the-resurrection-and-the-mission-of-the-church (Accessed July 3, 2019) Emphasis mine.

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