Sunday 22 July 2012

Go for Gold (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

Don’t you know?

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize?
1 Corinthians 9:24

Some are excited and can’t stop talking about it. Others can’t wait for it to be over and done with. Whichever camp you’re in, one thing is for sure: You can’t ignore the Olympics. Not if you are sports fan, and definitely not, if you’re living in the UK.

We are just six days away from the opening ceremony where 80,000 athletes, officials and spectators from all over the world will gather at the Olympic Stadium in London. The event has been choreographed by Danny Boyle, famous for his directorial work in movies like Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire. Four years went into the construction of the stadium alone and some twenty-four billion pounds have gone into sponsoring the games as a whole.

Speaking as someone who isn’t a big fan of sports (and who definitely isn’t a big fan of large crowds), it’s been hard to understand what the big fuss has been all about. To be honest, it has even been a cause for concern. The Summer Holiday Club, an annual camp for kids of primary school age, has as its theme this year, “Go for Gold”, and I have been rather cautious of its emphasis on competition and achievement. The theme seemed to suggest that we could achieve our salvation by sheer effort; that Jesus rewards eternal to those who try hard and finish first. It worried me that this ran against the grain of the bible’s teaching that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

But then I read this passage...

This passage from 1 Corinthians where the apostle Paul begins by saying, “Don’t you know...” And what he is doing is using the illustration of sports to bring home the message of salvation. “Don’t you know...” implies that his hearers, the Christians in the city of Corinth, did know what he was talking about. And if I am to take the bible seriously, I too, ought to try and understand what he was talking about.

Paul was referring to the Isthmian Games, a huge sporting event held every two years in the city of Corinth which attracted thousands of fans from all over the Roman Empire. When he talks about running, athletic training and boxing, Paul was describing key events from the games but used these sports as illustrations for the Christian life and moreover, for Christian ministry. And I think Paul would have had no qualms saying to us today, “Look at the Olympic athlete. Look at the Olympic games. Don’t you know? There is something in these games that teach us a great deal about how we are to live our lives significantly for the gospel; to live our lives purposefully for Jesus Christ.”

I want to highlight three points from this passage - three illustrations the bible takes from the sporting arena - and apply them our lives as Christians today.

(1) Running to win the prize
(2) Training to get a crown
(3) Preaching to win others, but also, preaching to ourselves

1. Running to win the prize

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.
1 Corinthians 9:24

What is troubling about this illustration is the contrast between the all and the one. All compete; all run; all take part in the race; but in the end, only one wins the gold. One guy gets “the prize,” as Paul puts it.

But that isn’t Paul’s point. The NIV slightly obscures this by saying, “Run in such a way as to get the prize,” but the word “prize” isn’t repeated in the original. Paul just says, “Run this way.” In fact, I think what he is saying is, “Keep on running this way.” It is a call to perseverance. It is a reminder to keep pressing on - to keep going on - until we reach the finish line. That’s the nature of prize he is describing. It is something that awaits us only at the end. It is an end goal that shapes the way we run the race.

To back this up, let me point you to what Paul says in Philippians.

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 3:12-14

It is the same picture of the race. It is the same goal of winning the prize (Paul uses same word in Greek - “brabeion”). And it is the exact same attitude of pressing on and keeping on all the way to the end. Paul uses this picture of the runner straining towards the finish line to describe the life of someone who has been saved in Jesus Christ. That’s important. He is not talking about someone who is trying to save himself. He is not talking about someone who is more deserving to be saved. No, Paul is, rather paradoxically, describing someone who has already been saved. Notice how he says, “I’m not perfect, I’m not there yet, instead I’m pressing on take hold of this prize,” and then adds, “which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” What is he saying? He is saying that the prize is Jesus - he is trying to take hold of Jesus, but at the same time, Jesus has taken hold of him. Meaning Jesus has saved him. Meaning even, that Jesus regards the believer whom he has given his life for, as his prize.

If we understand that Jesus has taken hold of us; that Jesus has done everything in salvation to bring us to God; we will do everything in our lives to take hold of Jesus. Not to earn his love, but as a response to his love. To the outsider, it will look like a strain. To the spectator, the runner looks like he is out to get the gold. But for the Christian, his life and her life will be characterised by an ever-growing passion, an ever-deepening desire to seek God’s glory.

Eric Liddell was once asked how he won the 400m gold at the Olympics, and he said this:

“I run the first 200m as hard as I can. Then, for the second 200m, with God's help, I run harder.”

Paul says, “Run this way.” Some of us are in the first 200m of our lives. We still have a long way to go. Don’t give up.

Others are in the home stretch. You can see the finish line. You hear God calling you to himself. Paul is saying to you, Don’t waste it. Run even harder. Keep your eyes on Jesus. He is your prize.

2. Training to get the crown

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.
1 Corinthians 9:25

The second example Paul uses from the sports world is the strict training every athlete undergoes in preparation for the games. You can’t just turn up at the Olympics having had fish and chips and Snicker bars every day of the week for the entire year; walk up to Usain Bolt, and say to him, “You’re going down!” Everyone who competes goes into strict training, says Paul. The stuff you eat, the things you do, the places you hang out, even the time at which you go to sleep; everything in your life changes when you are in preparation mode for the games. Why? The athletes do it for a medal but Paul says we have something even better - a crown that will never perish or fade.

In 2 Timothy 4, Paul writes about this crown near the end of his life.

For I am ready to be poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award me on that day - and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
2 Timothy 4:6-8

This is one of the reasons why I don’t think Paul was saying there was only one prize up for grabs for the Christian, because here he says that Jesus will award him a crown of righteousness, but not only for him, “but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” What is this crown? To be honest, I don’t know. It could be a way of describing salvation itself, or a kind of reward that comes with salvation. In the book of Revelation, Jesus speaks to the seven churches but has special praise for two of those churches - Smyrna and Philadelphia - and to these two faithful churches, the risen Lord Jesus Christ promises the crown of life. It is his reward to Christians who have stuck with him through thick and thin. The sense that I do get here from Paul is that the crown that Jesus will reward us with will make the hard training worthwhile. The athlete’s glory with fade, ours won’t.

Training isn’t easy. Paul literally says that the athlete exercises self-control in all things (ESV). It means cutting out anything that is harmful or just plain unhelpful. In verse 27, he says, “I beat my body and make it my slave.” The Christian life is a struggle with selfish desires and sinful tendencies, and at times, it can seem as if you are at war with your own self. Even though Christ has done away with the penalty of death; there is therefore, now, no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1); and even though we have been set free from the law of sin and death and now live under grace, assured that all that needs to be done to effect our salvation has been achieved by Jesus on the cross; yet at the same time, the bible still urges us as Christians not to offer up ourselves up to sin. To the extent that John can even write of Christians, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” In this life, we will still struggle with our sinful nature. In this life, we will still have to turn back again and again to the cross and ask for forgiveness. In this life, we will still have to exercise self control in all things - money, relationships, work, sex, sport, food, TV, shopping, the Internet, politics, speech, thought, the stuff we do, the stuff we don’t do - everything single thing that comes our way. The athlete exercises self-control in all things. The Greek word for the athlete or competitor is agonizomai, where we get "agony"; exercising self-control can be painful. We agonise over our sin.

Where Paul says, “I beat my body,” he literally says, “I give it a black eye.” That’s pretty extreme language. Now notice, at this point, he isn’t just telling us what to do, he is talking about his own personal struggle, “This is what I do. This is my fight and I’m out to win.” Paul may have been an apostle. He was a leader in the church. He was personally called by Jesus to bring the gospel to the nations. But he still struggled with sin - his own sin, mind you - and he didn’t take chances. He knew that his sinful nature was always trying to take over. He knew the temptation of giving up and giving in.

What do you do when that happens? For each one of us, it might take different forms. Some of us struggle with sexual temptation - clicking on that Internet link, glancing at that ad on TV. Some of us struggle with anger - lashing out at our friends, taking out our frustrations behind the wheel. Some of us struggle with greed - that insatiable need for more; to make that quick extra buck on the side. Some of us struggle with approval - the number of likes on our Facebook post. What do you do? Do you even recognise it as a struggle? Or is it easier just to give in? Paul gives himself a black eye. When anger or lust or greed or vanity rises up in his heart, he recognises it for what it is - his sinful nature - and he takes it on. He enslaves it and brings it under his control.

3. Preaching to others, preaching to ourselves

Finally, Paul says to us, there is a point to this struggle. The point is, to paraphrase Paul, “So that I don’t fool myself; that I myself, will not be disqualified for the prize.”

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.
1 Corinthians 9:26-27

I find it is a scary thing, what Paul says here. He is saying that it is possible to preach the gospel to win the lost but still be ourselves, lost to the gospel. You see, this happens when we ourselves aren’t running in the race. This happens when all we are doing is coaching others to live for Jesus, but we aren’t living for Jesus. This happens when we tell others about their sin, but are blind to our own sinful nature. In other words, this happens when we are complacent. We don’t struggle. We take it easy and make it hard for other Christians. Paul says that if he did that, he would be disqualifying himself from the race.

What is it that would disqualify Paul from this race and from this prize? It is important to note, that Paul isn’t saying that he is worried he might commit some gross, despicable sin - though complacency of one’s sinful nature is one of the easiest ways for a Christian leader to fall prey to their temptations and the work of the devil. No, it isn’t even something as serious as that which would disqualify Paul. Rather, it is simply this: that he hasn’t lived his life fully for Jesus. That is enough to disqualify him from the prize.

He says, “Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly.” What is he saying? He is saying that his life has one purpose and one goal: It is Jesus. “I do not fight like a man beating the air,” which means when he gets in the ring, he knows he has an opponent to defeat. In short, Paul is living a purpose-driven life. Not aimlessly, not whacking at nothingness; but focussed on Jesus, coming back again and again to Jesus for strength to fight his sin, consciously planning his life around what Jesus wants him to do, speaking and acting in such a way as to give Jesus all the glory every moment of his life. And in the end, the prize he looks forward to is getting Jesus.

The Summer Holiday Club poster says, “Life is a race, run for Jesus. Go for Gold.” I think that is a wonderful theme to get the gospel across to kids and adults alike, provided we make one important clarification. We don’t run to get the gold - to get something - from Jesus. Jesus is the gold. We run to get Jesus.

And for us who are helping out at this holiday club as song-leaders, classroom-teachers and assistants, organisers, cooks and helpers, the bible is saying to us, “Are you in the race? You who are preaching to others that they ought to give their lives to Jesus, are you living for him?” When the kids look at you and me, will they see us running, training, preparing, fighting, giving ourselves black-eyes, straining towards the finish line, longing for the crown of life, growing in our passion and devotion to Jesus? Will their parents?

Oh, they may only see the strain. They may think it’s one big struggle. That’s the perspective of some spectators who look on and puzzle themselves asking, “Why the big deal? Why bother with this race at all?” The athletes do it for a crown that perishes and fades, we as Christians know what lies in store for us is a crown that will never perish or fade. And when we tell them the gospel, we are telling them that Jesus is worth it. We are simply pressing on to take hold of that for which Christ has taken hold of me, in the hope that one day we will be able to say together with Paul, “I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award me on that day - and not only for me, but for all who have longed for his appearing.”

Life is a race. Run for Jesus. He is our Gold.

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