Begin With the End in Mind

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Advent 2
December 5, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Peak performers are visualizers who see, feel and experience things before they do them. In Christian life, God offers us a vision and then helps us to achieve it.

Leadership expert Stephen Covey tells the story of Charles Garfield, a psychologist who has done extensive research on peak performers in the worlds of athletics and business. He has also studied peak performance in the NASA program, watching the astronauts rehearse everything on earth, over and over again in a simulated environment, before they blast off and go into space. He has found that almost all world-class peak performers are visualizers - "they see it; they feel it; they experience it before they actually do it," writes Covey. "They begin with the end in mind."1

The apostle Paul challenges us to begin with the end in mind - to produce "the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ." Yes, he wants us to visualize a "harvest of righteousness" and to see it, feel it and experience it before we actually achieve it. Paul writes these words to the followers of Christ in Philippi, a city in Macedonia that lay along one of the main roads between east and west in the Roman Empire.

Paul is particularly fond of the church in Philippi, a congregation that he founded on his second missionary journey. He begins by saying, "I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now." You can hear sincere affection in his voice as he thanks God for the Philippians, joyfully prays for them and feels deep gratitude for their sharing of the Good News of Jesus.

But even though Paul sounds upbeat, he is writing from prison and awaiting trial before the magistrates of the Roman Empire. He is preparing to take a stand "in the defense and confirmation of the gospel,"2 and he does not know if the trial will result in his release or his execution. Either way, he is convinced that his imprisonment "has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ."3 He keeps the end in mind, knowing that God is working for good in every situation.

See it

So, how can we begin with the end in mind, trusting God to produce a "harvest of righteousness" with us? This is an important question to answer as we begin the month of December and look toward our celebration of the birth of Jesus at Christmas. It is also a pressing question as we think about "the day of Jesus Christ," that final day in which human history comes to an end and we all stand before Jesus. How do we begin today to make choices that will result in a "harvest of righteousness"?

First, we see it. Some congregations today feel insecure because they are small and have limited resources. But God can do big things with even the smallest of congregations, just as a tiny mustard seed "grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."4 In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus uses the mustard seed as an illustration of the kingdom of God, talking about how this tiny seed produces a shrub that provides birds with security, protection and peace.

In his book Making the Small Church Effective , Carl Dudley celebrates the value of "mustard seed" congregations: "In a big world, the small church has remained intimate. In a fast world, the small church has been steady. In an expensive world, the small church has remained plain. In a complex world, the small church has remained simple. In a rational world, the small church has kept feelings. In a mobile world, the small church has been an anchor. In an anonymous world, the small church calls us by name - by nickname!"5 We are all challenged to see a "harvest of righteousness" in congregations of every size including small ones, places that provide intimacy, stability, simplicity and deep-spirited friendship.

Feel it

The next step in visualizing a "harvest of righteousness" is to feel it . In his letter to the Philippians, Paul does not begin with a statement of Christian doctrine or theology. Instead, he says with real feeling, "I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus." Paul shares his feelings with them, offering them nothing less than the compassion of Jesus, an emotion that Jesus shows toward people who are sick or hungry or hopeless.

Compassion is such an important word in scripture, and it doesn't take long to figure out what it means. The Latin word passio means "suffering" and the prefix com means "with." Put the two together and you get "with suffering." When Jesus shows compassion toward people, he "suffers with" them. Paul does the same when he offers the Philippians the compassion of Jesus.

What would it mean for us to suffer with the people around us? To serve a homeless person a hot meal in a shelter, and then actually sit down and have a conversation. To mentor a teenager in the church, and do more listening than talking. To work on an affordable housing project, with the understanding that the cost of housing is one of the greatest drivers of poverty today. Yes, it's true. Housing eats up so much income that there is often not enough money for food or clothing or medicine.

No "harvest of righteousness" is complete without compassion. When we have compassion for people, we suffer with them and then take steps to alleviate their pain. "And this is my prayer," writes Paul, "that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best." Yes, it's true that Paul wants us to feel the pain of our brothers and sisters, and show them an overflowing love. But he also wants us to grow in knowledge and insight so that we can determine what is best as we try to help a world in need.

Experience it

Remember that world-class peak performers are visualizers - "they see it; they feel it; they experience it before they actually do it. ... They begin with the end in mind." Well, the vision of Paul is that at the end of time we may be "pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ." This is a lofty vision, but it is one we can actually see in our life together. We can see it, we can feel it and we can experience it .

The word righteousness means "right relationship," so a "harvest of righteousness" is experienced when people are in a right relationship with God and with each other. Paul knows that a right relationship with God comes through the gift of Jesus, and he writes that "in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them."6 Paul also believes that people can be in a right relationship with each other, so he urges the Philippians to "be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind."7

This "harvest of righteousness," involving a right relationship with God and a right relationship with each other, is the vision we are working toward as Christians. In whatever we do, we should begin with the goal of righteousness in mind. After all, says leadership expert Stephen Covey, if you "visualize the wrong thing, you'll produce the wrong thing."8

According to Paul, we experience righteousness when we do "nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than ourselves."9 We experience it when we follow the example of the great football player Gale Sayers. When Sayers was a sophomore at the University of Kansas, he saw a sign on the desk of his track coach that said, "I Am Third." Sayers asked him, "What's that all about?" The coach said, "The Lord is first, my friends are second, and I am third." When Sayers began to play football for the Chicago Bears, he put on a medallion that said, "I Am Third," and he wore it throughout his pro career.10 Righteousness is experienced when you focus on a right relationship with God and others, ahead of yourself.

Do it

"I am confident of this," writes the apostle Paul, "that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ." Notice that we do not achieve a "harvest of righteousness" by human effort alone, but by allowing God to work through us. The Lord has begun a good work among us, and will bring it to completion when Christ returns at the end of time. With God's help, we can do it.

The good news of this passage is that God has already begun a good work among us, and God is continuing to work for good in our lives. This will be true in the weeks of Advent that lead up to Christmas, and it will be true until the final "day of Christ." What is going on in human history is nothing less than an unfolding of God's ultimate design, even though the fingerprints of God are not always clear. Paul assures us that what God has begun, God will bring to completion.

So, when it comes to the end of the visualization process, the command to "do it" is really not dependent on human efforts and abilities alone. Instead, it is more accurate to say that we should let God do it through us. This is possible only when we begin with the end in mind, and focus on seeing, feeling and experiencing the "harvest of righteousness" that God desires for each of us.