Philippians 3:4-14 If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.
More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard 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 one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this 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 heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Do you remember the first time you used profanity? Do you recall the first time a really juicy, filthy word flowed forth from your mouth? Do you remember the feeling that went with it? Was it shame, or power, or the feeling of getting away with something? Were you angry? Were you hurt? Were you frustrated? Were you trying to be cute or mischevious?
I remember my first time. I was five years old, and on the playground at preschool one of my "bad" friends- I would imagine he has probably been on cops by now with no shirt and no shoes screaming "it weren't me"- that friend taught me a new word. It was the word to describe your posterior that sounds like "bass". I repeated it quietly to myself all through naptime, savoring its forbidden sweetness as it came out of my mouth.
When I went home that night- I was living with my grandmother at that time- I was in the kitchen watching her wash the dishes, soap suds billowing up around her to the left and the right. The bright idea came to me to say ever so cutely with a smile "Nonnie, don't get any bubbles in your ______". She dropped everything she was doing, whipped around, and scowled "What did you say?"
My smile dropped. I repeated the phrase in a low voice, almost mumbling. She looked at me with that profoundly disappointed look- she was quite good at that look- and she simply said the most ominous words any young child can hear "Go out back and cut yourself a switch". It was that day that I found out- through my throbbing posterior- that language can be quite powerful indeed.
Now fast forward over a decade to my conversion to Christ. I am one of those folks who was quite resistant to Christ, who met Jesus quite unexpectedly, and who was changed quite radically by my encounter with the Risen One. And one of the most noticeable changes that Jesus made in my life was that my filthy sailor's mouth- no offense to sailors- that mouth was almost effortlessly cleaned up. After all, there is no reason for anything profane or useless in the Kingdom of God… Right???
And then, a few years later, after I had gotten a little "book learnin'", I was translating the Greek text of this passage from Philippians written by this guy named Paul. I got smack dab in the middle of verse 8 and I realized that Paul drops the "S-bomb". Our nice and neat and proper Bible translators have told us that he says "I consider all things RUBBISH" compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus. The Greek word for "rubbish" here is "skubala", which is remarkably similar to our own "s-word".
It refers to a heaping pile of that stuff which comes out of the end of a cow, which gets stuck in your sandals, which you track through the villa, and which you have to clean up on your hands and knees. If they had bumper strips in Greece during Paul's day you might have even seen one on that back of a cart that said "skubala happens".
But wait. That's profane. That's disgusting. That's a cuss word. That would have made Paul's proud Jewish grandmother tell him "Go out back and find yourself a switch, young man". So, why did he use it? What possible use could such- such profanity- be in proclaiming the hope that we have in Jesus?
I wonder… [PAUSE]
I don't know about you, but when I think of a big, heaping, smelly pile of skubala a few images come to mind. I mean, what is skubala after all? It's something that used to be good, but it got used up. All of the nutrients have been sucked out of it. Everything wholesome has been digested, and all you have is this worthless, used up, old, tired stuff.
I think that is what Paul is getting at when he lists all of his accomplishments, and then calls them all skubala. Now, looking at his list from our 21st century perspective, it is hard to get at what he is saying. When he says "If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more". The word "flesh" here refers to his natural abilities, and the accomplishments that come from those abilities.
When he says he was "circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews" he is saying that he comes from the right bloodline. He is from that group of folks who consider themselves God's chosen people- and they have the Biblical text to prove it! And not only is he a member of the ultimate "in crowd", but he is also a "Pharisee".
Pharisees are like the chosen of the chosen. The super righteous. For these people, following the 10 commandments wasn't enough. The scrupulously kept the other 603 commandments of the Hebrew Bible. But this wasn't enough either. They built up a barrier wall of thousands of other commandments that regulated every area of daily life, to keep them from ever getting close to violating the 603 so they would never ever violate the 10.
And not only was Paul from the right bloodline and from the super-righteous portion of that bloodline, but he was perfect at it. He said, with a straight face, "as to righteousness under the law, I was blameless". We all have met Paul. The golden boy. The perfect child. The one who never does anything wrong. His skubala doesn't stink.
But Paul came to a realization. That realization was that there was something more to life than being right, and being a good boy, and being patted on the head. He realized that there was Someone who made all of his golden accomplishments look like fool's gold in the light of His perfect, resurrected glory. In Christ Paul found all of the fullness of God, all the fullness of Love, all the fullness of meaning… and he found that not even death could defeat this Love.
Have you ever just gotten tired of yourself? [PAUSE] Paul did. All of Paul's human glory- and he had a lot of it by human standards- was used up, worthless, tired, and old, compared to knowing Jesus Christ. It was so profane compared with the Love of God revealed in Jesus, that Paul could only use profanity to describe it.
But there is something else that skubala brings to mind, or rather, to nose. It isn't just worthless and used up. It is disgusting, horrendous, and smelly. And you know what? There are things that we go through that are horrendous. Unfair, heartbreaking things. We endure tragedy, suffering, and evil, for no discernable reason… and it is just… CRAP.
Paul talks about this other aspect of skubala in another letter we have in the BIble. In it he tells us how he was unjustly whipped, beaten, battered with stones, shipwrecked, lost at sea, sleep-deprived, starving, thirsty, hated, persecuted, and worried to the point of death. He was in skubala up to his neck: disgusting, horrendous, smelly skubala.
Have you ever been there? Have you ever been in skubala up to your neck? [PAUSE] Has every tragedy rained down upon you, all while God seemed like He was locked away up in heaven, uncaring, unmoving, and unresponsive?
I've been there. Paul has been there. I'll bet you have been there. And you know who else has been there? Jesus.
Though he lived perfect love, we responded with utter hate. Though he came to give us life and set us free, we bound him on a cross, and left Him to die. And it was on that cross that He cried what we all cry when we are in skubala up to our neck: "My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me???" [PAUSE]
And that leads me to the last thing that skubala reminds me of: Fertilizer. God has so ordered the world that even waste- as disgusting and nasty as is may be- even skubala has the ability to prepare the ground for new life to grow up out if it. Skubala makes the fields rich for harvest, a harvest that is many, many times greater than it would have been if it had not been used.
God doesn't waste any of our waste, ever. [PAUSE] He uses everything that happens to us- the good, the bad, and the ugly- he uses it all and works it all for our good. Paul says that in another letter he wrote to the Romans. Like a master artist who takes broken pieces of pottery and puts them together to form a beautiful mosaic, so also God is forming a beautiful mosaic of our lives... If we will just give him our broken pieces and let him work!
He uses every bit of skubala to change us, transform us, and mold us into who He has made us to be. Paul's skubala- both his tokens of false pride and his personal tragedies- were used as fertilizer to make Paul one of the most read and revered people in all of history. Paul would not have been who he was, had God not allowed him to undergo the skubala he went through.
And all of the suffering that Jesus went through for us, because of us, in our place- every bit of that skubala- led Him to the resurrection, when He showed us once and for all that God's Love is truly stronger than death… without death, there is no resurrection. And it is this resurrection that Paul placed all of his hope in. It is this resurrection that made all of Paul's trophies seem worthless in comparison. And it was this resurrection that gave Paul the endurance to undergo all of his trials and tragedies for Christ's sake.
And that resurrection is not just for Jesus or just for Paul. It is for all of us who attach ourselves to the reality of Jesus by putting our whole trust in Him. And it is this resurrection that guarantees us that God will use all of the skubala in our lives to make us into someone who is radically transformed and totally filled with His Love, just like Jesus.
What is the skubala in your life that you keep hanging on to? [PAUSE] What is the source of pride, or pleasure, or comfort, that you cannot let go of… That thing that makes you say to Christ: "I will you everything, just NOT THAT"? What is the tragedy that you just can't let go of, which you blame yourself, and others, and God for?
Close your eyes. Can you imagine what your life would be like if you allowed God to take that mess and make a miracle out of it? [PAUSE] Can you imagine what it would be like if you just gave God those broken pieces, and let Him re-work it into His mosaic? [PAUSE] What is stopping you from letting God heal you? [PAUSE] Why don't you allow that to be put to death on Christ's cross as well, so you- ALL of you- can be raised to new life?
And now, may you come to believe that even though skubala happens, God's grace far surpasses it. May you allow Jesus to take all of your skubala and use it as fertilizer for resurrection. And may you allow His Spirit to fill you with His Love that is stronger than death. Amen+