Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one.
1 Corinthians 9:24-25
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.
In the midst of concerns about the Zika virus, terrorist threats, polluted waters and an uncertain social infrastructure in Rio, the Summer Olympic Games will begin in 12 days. For 2 weeks all eyes will shift away from political conventions as we focus on 10,500 athletes from around the globe competing in 306 events in familiar sports like swimming, gymnastics and track and field as well as sports like the trampoline and the canoe slalom. I always think it’s great that they have sports like table tennis and badminton in the Olympics because it makes me think I might have a chance at competing in the games, until I actually watch them play table tennis and badminton and realize that I have as much chance of winning there as I would in weightlifting or boxing.
But the games are fun to watch and they inspire and motivate people around the world and they have done that for centuries. The first Olympic Games were held in Olympia Greece in 776 BC and there was only one event in one sport. There was one race, a 200 yard dash and that distance was known as a stadia, which is where we get the word stadium. People from all over the region came to compete and it wasn’t for professional athletes because the first winner of the race was a cook. Everyone had so much fun that they decided to do it all over again in 4 years and thus was born the Olympics.
They slowly added more races at different distances and then other sports. Equestrian events were some of the first sports added to the races and then came things like the discus throw, the javelin and wrestling. When the athletes and communities came together, with them came the poets and artists and so in time it became a huge social event that touched every part of society. The Olympic Games were held in Olympia, Greece, but they gave birth to other games in other locations. One of those games was known as the Isthmian Games which were held the year before and after the Olympic games. The Isthmian games were held on the Isthmus of Corinth which is 130 miles east of Olympia and it was these games that the Apostle Paul was most likely thinking about when he compared our faith to a race.
Paul was the apostle who formed the church in Corinth and he stayed there as their leader for 18 months which was longer than Paul stayed anywhere, and Paul wrote more letters to the church in Corinth than any other church. We have two letters in the New Testament, which many scholars believe is actually three letters that was edited into 2, and there was a 4th letter that Paul wrote to that church as well. Paul cared deeply about this church and he knew the people and community well and he did all he could to encourage them in life and faith.
The Isthmian games would have been a big part of the Corinthian culture and community, think Penn State Football in Centre County. Paul knew the games and perhaps attended them and enjoyed them when he was there. What we do know is that even though the games were dedicated to the Greek and Roman god’s, Paul used the games as a metaphor for the Christian faith and that image has endured to this day. Paul could see athletes training hard and giving everything they had to run the race. He could see the commitment and sacrifice needed by athletes to compete well and win and Paul could see how all of this could be linked to the living of our faith.
Following Jesus and living a Christian life is not something we can casually approach and succeed in any more than we could jump in a pool and compete alongside Michael Phelps. Our faith is something that requires training, commitment and sacrifice. It requires energy and effort. To be strong in our faith and diligent in following Jesus we need to be committed and train hard day after day after day. Most Olympic athletes will tell you that they train 12-14 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week for years in order to compete in the games. They eat, sleep, breathe and live a certain way in order to excel in their sport. The sport consumes them and everything about them. It defines who they are, what they do and how they live and Paul is saying that our trust in Jesus and the living out of our faith needs to look the same way.
Living out our faith needs to be something that defines us. Being a Christian is not something we do one hour a day, one day a week, it needs to give direction to every thought, every decision and every action of our lives. Following Jesus isn’t something we do as much as it is something we are and the life that we live and it means that we need to always be moving forward and pressing on in order to do it. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul is saying that even he is not done running the race and that even he has to keep straining forward and giving God his all. As much as Paul did during in his life, he was not content and he was not done – there was more to give. Like all athletes will tell you, they want to leave it all on the court or on the track or in the pool and Paul wants to give his all to God.
Even the Olympic motto tells us that we need to keep straining forward. The Olympic motto is three Latin words – citius – altius – fortius which means faster – higher – stronger. It’s not fastest, strongest or highest because the goal of the Olympics is to be always improving and the goal of our faith needs to be always growing into the likeness of Christ. Like Paul, we are not there yet but we strain forward to win the prize to which God has called us.
Let’s talk about this prize for a moment. In the Olympic Games the prize was an olive wreath but in the Isthmian games that Paul is referring to the wreath was made of celery. How long do you think a wreath of celery lasted in the hot sun? Not long. So the prize they worked for was something that didn’t last but Paul says we are striving to win a crown that will last forever. That crown or the prize we strive for is to hear God say to us at the finish line of life, well done my good and faithful servant. The goal in our faith is to please God and bring glory to God. We strain forward and train hard to experience the peace and the joy that comes when we serve God and serve others. These are rewards that can begin today but last into eternity. These are things that Paul says we need to strive for, sacrifice for and give our all for.
In perhaps the greatest Olympic movie all time, Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddle was a Christian missionary who was also a fast runner. He struggled with a decision to run in the 1924 Paris Olympics or go into the mission field. In a conversation with his sister Eric decided he needed to run in the Olympics because, in his words, he felt God’s pleasure in him when he ran. For all of us, the prize of living the Christian life is feeling God’s pleasure in us when we live for, worship, serve and love God. Again, the Apostle Paul said to live is Christ, it is to honor Christ, glorify Christ and feel the joy and pleasure of Christ as we run the race.
So the question we need to ask today is: Am I in the race? Have I gotten off the couch and onto the track? Have I made the decision to enter the faith? Starting the race involves 2 things; the first is Believing in God. Do I believe there is a God who created the world and placed me in it? Do I believe that God wants me to live a certain way and follow a certain path in life? Am I created for something more than catching pokemons and amassing followers on twitter and friends on facebook? Am I here to do something more than work at my job with the hope of retiring someday? Believing in God is actually a choice we make. We may have grown up believing there is a God, but at some point we need to make this decision for ourselves. It’s important to make this decision because when we choose to believe in God we are choosing for ourselves to live a life that is defined not by the world but by God. We are choosing to run a race of faith.
If you have never made that choice, make it today. Whether you are 9 or 90; make the choice to believe in God and step out to begin a race and life of faith.
The second thing that being in the race means is Trusting in Jesus. Trusting Jesus means that we believe Jesus is the fullness of God so that when we look at Jesus and read about his life we know that we are looking at God and seeing how God wants us to live. Trusting Jesus means knowing that we have fallen short of how God wants us to live but that God forgives us through Jesus. The cross is how God forgives us because that is where Jesus paid the price for our sin by taking on our sin and dying for us. Trusting Jesus means knowing that the spirit of Jesus, or the Holy Spirit, is at work to help us to be more like Jesus.
In the weeks to come we will talk about how training, teamwork and perseverance are all needed in our faith to be victorious, but today we need to ask ourselves if we are in the race. Do we believe in God? Are we trusting in Jesus? If we are then every day we need to do two things – love God and love others. Have we entered the race of faith? Every day are we saying, Here I am God, I am yours and I am here for you. I love you and I want you to help me love others. If we are in the race it means that every day we sacrifice and give all we have to live the life God has for us. If we are in the race then it means that every night we ask for forgiveness and the grace to be faithful tomorrow.
If we are in the race it means that every day we strain forward to use all God has given us for his honor and glory. If we are in the race it means we find ways to use the gifts God has given us, the unique talents and skills that God has given us, to honor God and bless others. During the Olympics we will see the unique gifts and talents that God has given to different people. They are all so different and they use what they have been given to compete in their own way and the same is true for us. To the people in Corinth who understood these games, Paul said that we all have different gifts and abilities but that we need to use them to honor God and bless others.
1 Corinthians 12:4-11.
We all have different gifts and running the race of faith means using those gifts for God’s glory and to bless others. We saw this lived out here just a week ago with VBS. Some people used their gifts of art and design to create the cave we lived in for the week. Some people used their gifts of teaching to explain the story of God and the power of God to the children. Some people used their love of children to guide them through the activities of the evening, some used their organizational skills to pull it all together and some used their gifts of photography to share it with the rest of us. All those people were in the race. They were straining forward to honor God and bless others.
Are you in the game? Are you running the race? At Faith Church our motto isn’t faster – higher – stronger it is connect – serve – grow. Are we connecting to God in worship? Have we stepped onto the track to connect with God by saying we believe in God and trust in Jesus? Are we running the race by serving God in some way, anyway, and serving those around us? Are we straining forward to grow in our faith?
Straining forward is not a burden, but a joy. It takes hard work and lots of training, but it brings with it a great joy. Eric Liddle did run in the Olympics and in his final race as he runs for the gold he shows us what straining forward looks like. Chariots of Fire
Are you in the race? Do you want to feel God’s pleasure in you as you run with faith? Are we straining forward and experiencing the full joy that comes when be believe in God and trust in Jesus? Let us enter the race and give it our all so we can receive the crown that doesn’t wilt away but lasts forever.
1. Make sure you are in the race of faith.
• Choose to believe in God.
• Place your trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord.
2. Running the race of faith means loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves.
• Express your love for God in one tangible way this week.
• Commit to one act of love for others this week.
3. Every athlete has special gifts and talents that they use to achieve victory. Read about the God given gifts of the spirit in 1 Corinthians 12:7-11 and Ephesians 4:11-16.
• What gift has God given you?
• Commit to using this gift in the life of Faith Church this summer / fall.
4. Running the race means ongoing work and training.
• Commit to being in worship for The Games sermon series to learn how to keep running the race. • Place post-in notes reminders in your home and office with the word “running” to remind you that you are always running the race of faith.
• Memorize Philippians 3:13b-14.
Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.