In the true Olympic spirit, the next three sermons will be focused on athletic achievements – from a spiritual perspective. This week, we look at Paul and the Hebrews author’s exhortation to run our race. Have a blessed week!
SCRIPTURE – 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 – Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
Hebrews 12:1-3 – 1Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
Running Our Race
Aug. 10, 2008
Have you been watching any of the Olympic Games? Those opening ceremonies were pretty amazing. I had a guy tell me yesterday that we would never want to go to war with a country that organized. Groups of 2008 people moving in perfect synchronicity. Leigh and I can’t get our girls to stand still for a photo. And the precision and discipline will only be more evident as the athletes start to compete.
I always thought I would be an Olympic athlete. Growing up I was pretty fast, so I dreamed that I might one day stand on the podium accepting the gold medal in the 100-meter dash while the loudspeaker played “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Until my girlfriend Candace challenged me to a race. I was 12 at the time. I had a well-developed sense of chivalry, but not of women’s equality. I didn’t want to embarrass her in front of our friends, so when the race started, I decided to take it easy on her. The further she got ahead of me, the more I began to wonder if I shouldn’t step it up a notch. I started to really worry when she lapped me. It was the tortoise and the hare story without the surprise ending. She absolutely toasted me. My Olympic dreams were crushed.
In hindsight, that’s OK, because I’m not sure I have what it takes to be an Olympic athlete. Can you imagine the amount of focus and dedication it takes to become one of the greatest in the world at your sport? Think about the amount of time that Michael Phelps has spent in the pool (talk about pruny fingers!) or Taylor Phinney has spent on his bicycle or Bridget Sloane has spent working on her gymnastics routine. Every athlete in Beijing has spent countless hours working on their skills to bring them to this pinnacle of their athletic career. Only through tireless dedication and countless hours have they become the best in the world.
The fact is, to become good at anything takes practice, and that includes having faith. We sometimes talk about faith as a one-time event, like once you have it you never need to do anything else. But that’s like saying once you buy a car, you never need to take care of it anymore. If you’re going to use something often, even on a daily basis, you have to take care of it, feed it fuel, give it a checkup every once in awhile, so that it’s ready to perform when the road gets rough. Having a living, breathing, active faith takes practice, it requires us to build up our spiritual muscles and hone our God-given skills. We need to continually dedicate ourselves to practicing our faith in order to become spiritual Olympians.
Paul knows a little about this dedication and discipline. In our first reading today, he uses a running analogy to talk about a life of faith. I’m thankful Paul doesn’t emphasize speed as an important quality in our race of faith. American Tyson Gay once ran the 100 meters is 9.77 seconds. Sometimes it takes me 9.77 seconds to get up off the couch. And when I do get the gumption to actually use our treadmill, it only takes a few minutes of running before my body gives out, otherwise known as bonking.
But our race of faith is not based on speed; as the author of Hebrews says, it’s based on perseverance, a word that has as much importance for us as it did for the original readers of this letter. The Hebrews were struggling in their faith, not sure or not if this character Jesus was truly the messiah, not sure what that meant for their lives if he was. Some were considering abandoning their new-found Christian faith and returning to Judaism or paganism; others were facing serious persecution because of their beliefs.
But the author of Hebrews has a message to speak to them: “Keep running.” Perseverance. He shows them the Spiritual Hall of Fame – Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses – and says that if they can run their race, we can run ours. They surround us now as a great cloud of witnesses, cheering us on to the finish line. We’re not called to finish first or fastest; we’re just called to finish faithfully.
But finish faithfully is not easy, is it? Living this life of faith can be a challenge, especially when things happen that cause us to doubt our beliefs or question God’s goodness. Hebrews says, “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that entangles” and run the race set before us. But sometimes we feel so weighed down. The other night at our Elders meeting we spent as much time talking about the burdens in our own lives as we did doing the business of the Elders. Aging parents, needy relatives, declining health. Sometimes life is weight that can keep us from walking, much less running.
I don’t know if you remember this from the Athens Olympics four years ago, but one of the most bizarre things happened during the marathon. Vanderlei de Lima of Brazil was leading the race at the 22-mile marker when he was attacked and forced off the road by a lunatic in a red kilt – a former clergyman, no less! To me, that is what happens to us sometimes in our race. We’re running along just fine when we’re suddenly surprised or attacked by something that threatens to slow us down or knock us off course. So often we get entangled in something that’s keeping us from running our race.
Sometimes these are things of our own doing, bad choices we make, sins we commit. On the old Saturday Night Live there was a commercial spoof of Wheaties. In it, John Belushi, not a small man, was shown in a track outfit winning sprint after sprint. And then we see him at the breakfast table, smoking a cigarette and eating of bowl of his “secret training ingredient”: little chocolate donuts, the breakfast of champions. How often do we weigh ourselves down with bad decisions that keep us from running our race?
Other things that weigh us down are things out of our control, things like deaths and illnesses, job losses or broken relationships. And these things can be so devastating, so demoralizing, that we just don’t feel like running anymore. And in these dark times, we are tempted to look at other people’s lives, at how blessed they are, at how unentangled they seem to be, and we wonder, “Why isn’t that my race?”
But as we all know, everyone has baggage. Everyone. Hebrews tells us that the race we run has been marked out especially for us. This is the race we’ve been given to run. It may not be the perfect race, it may not be the smoothest track, but this is our race. I didn’t want my race to include some of the things it does, but I can’t change it. All I can do is run it the best I can with what I’ve been given.
One of the Olympic images that will always stand out in my mind is a women’s sprint during the Athens Olympics. It was one of the early heats, and there was a female runner from Afghanistan, quite an amazing thing when you think about it. She was in full dress, even had a head covering on when she ran. She wasn’t fast. She didn’t win. But she ran her race. And she finished.
For us Christians, the strength to run our race comes not only from the cloud of witnesses that has come before us, but from Christ, who has gone ahead of us, blazing a trail and clearing the path. “The Message” translates Hebrews 12:2-3 this way: “Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed – that exhilarating finish in and with God – he could put up with anything along the way: cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!”
You think you have it tough? Then you probably do. There may not be a lot of people who can understand how you feel. But Jesus can, because he’s been through it. If you are facing a challenge, Jesus already faced it, took it to the cross, and beat it. If you feel that no one else knows what it’s like, Jesus knows. He’s been there and he is there now, right beside you.
Vanderlei de Lima didn’t give up. Instead of letting his attacker ruin his race, he got back up and kept running. Although now in third place instead of first, he entered the stadium with his fists in the air, running with both arms extended up like an excited little kid. When asked why he was filled with such joy, considering he had been robbed of the gold medal, he said, “Most athletes never have this moment. I was able to medal for myself and my country. I’m happy with my medal. It may be bronze, but it means gold.”
When we run our race, no matter whether we finish with a flourish or merely limp across the line, it means gold, because we are following in the steps of Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. I know it gets scary sometimes, but don’t lose heart. Paul says in Romans, And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” May the belief that Christ completed the race first and the promise that we have been called to run ours be the adrenaline for our souls that keeps us running and running and running.