1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. And everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.
For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness.
What Are You Doing?
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Some things in this life just come naturally. They are as easy as falling off a log. You don't have to think about it, just do it (to quote Nike ads). It's like shooting fish in a barrel. Easy as pie. It just . . . happens. Nothin' to it. Its as easy as one, two, three. Hard to miss. You know I'm talking about, those things that you can do almost automatically.
Most people think of the Christian faith and life that way. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Christianity is just the opposite. The Christian faith is something you cannot choose for yourself. It must be given to you, poured into you by God. To become a Christian is impossible by human effort, prayer, thought, or decision. Then living the life of the faithful Christian is beyond our ability. Oh, you can try - and in fact, you should try. But life without sin, perfectly trusting in God? A life which does not accuse you of sin and push you to repent is not possible for the Child of God. That, too, is a gift of God. Our theme this morning is, What are you doing?
People often read this text from Paul and take it to be advice or instruction on how to live the Christian life. It is full of instructions about self-discipline and striving to win the prize and such. Every time I read it I feel encouraged, for a moment, and then overwhelmed by the reality of my sins and threatened by the law Paul is preaching. I have to stop and ask myself, "What is Paul trying to say here?" What is he doing?
Every one of you knows that the Christian faith is not a matter of our own will or power. You have heard me say it time and time again. You cannot choose to believe, and you cannot hold yourself in faith. That is the work of God through the Word and Sacraments. We confess that in the Catechism, in the meaning to the Third Article of the Apostles' Creed, "I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith."
Part of the joy of the Gospel is that it is the Gift of God from beginning to end. God has rescued you from your sins by pouring out His wrath on Jesus on the cross, and pouring out His love and salvation and life upon you. It is poured out for all, and received by knowing it and trusting God to keep His promises and do everything that He has promised to do for us and with us through Jesus Christ and on account of Him. Even staying in faith is a work of God through His Word and Sacraments. So why does Paul write about the Christian faith in this manner?
First, because he was inspired to do so. The Christian faith is a gift from God, worked in us. It isn't about what we want it to be. It is what it is -- what God reveals it to be. God reveals that salvation is a gift of grace. We didn't earn it or deserve it, and yet God doesn't just take us the way we are - He transforms us. Faith is His creation, worked in us through the hearing of the Word - Romans 10:17. Nevertheless, He also tells us that while faith is a gift, you are the one who does the believing. Being a child of God makes us different - it makes a difference in us. And we participate in it. We battle against the flesh. We do it by His power and His will, but WE do it!! We are not simply spectators, but co-workers in and by the grace and power of God. And that is where Paul starts with us today.
He talks about salvation, and our sharing in it in this world. He likens the course of the Christian life to an athletic competition. In Paul's world, athletes competed to win a stefano, one of those crowns of leaves and flowers that we see on the head of Caesar in the pictures and busts from that time. Those things were like the first place ribbons of today's amateur competitions. Everlasting life and glory in the next world are the goal, the prize for us. And the first message of our text is that the prize is worth it! They then do it [all that those athletes do] to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. The prize is worth it.
Men do so much more for so much less. Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? . . . And everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath. For wreaths, and metals, and just for the satisfaction of doing better than the other competitors, men and women will do incredible things. Watch the Olympics. They train. They diet. They spend money. They get up early and put themselves through such rigors to win a footrace, or to swim a little faster, or to do a perfectly useless thing better than anyone else. Look at gymnastics. You have probably seen men working on the rings. They do a maneuver called "the iron cross". You hang in the air between these two ring holding your entire body's weight out like this, arms straight out. It is extremely difficult to do, even harder to do well, painful to accomplish, and as far as I have seen, there is absolutely no practical use for that skill in the real world. They do it for the medal, the award, the five minutes of recognition that doing all that training and performing just a hair better than the next guy brings.
We receive a far greater and more lasting prize - eternal life. God gives us life and faith and then places us in the midst of such lives as we live, in the face of such temptations as we face, enduring the pains and weaknesses and illnesses and troubles that we endure so that we might show His glory to others. He gives us our lives to bear witness to Him and His love. He places us where we are to be faithful where we are and show the world how the Child of God lives in this world and lives through the things we must live though. He has other reasons, too, which we do not necessarily know or understand clearly right now. He doesn't require us to know. He requires of us that we be faithful.
It is clear both in our text and, I hope, in our own lives and hearts that when we get to the end of life, we will earnestly desire to be found faithful. Paul tells us that in our text when he says, Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified. He tells us that he disciplines himself and trains and exercises self-control because he desires not to fail, but to be found faithful in the end. He says quite plainly that he is conscious that he could be disqualified if he does not discipline himself and train himself.
Which means, You can lose! If the Apostle Paul could have been disqualified, then any one of us can be disqualified. Is Paul frightened? Is he insecure? NO. He is simply realistic and honest - and writing by the inspiration of God. He is recognizing, and laying before you, the truth that the Christian faith is not natural - sin is natural. Corruption is natural. Death and hell is natural to us. God is working something in us and through us that is not natural to us. Our sinful nature will chafe and rebel against it.
Our intellect will tell us that we are okay just the way we are, or that it is hopeless, and we might as well live it up and enjoy the time we have. We will be pressured toward conformity to the sinful world. Look at how a humble, faithful, Biblical faith is characterized by the Media as extremism, fundamentalism, and oh-so-dangerous! We will be led by peer pressure away from the truth and into unholy conduct and thinking. Alternately, we will be tempted to think that we are secure right where we are, without finding our security in God - finding it instead in our relative goodness (compared to the worst examples of humanity we can imagine), or finding it in our religion - we are going to church, and we are Missouri Synod Lutherans - we do more and we are stricter than those weak and lackadaisical churches.
Well, the truth is that those sorts of measuring sticks are always wrong. Look at ancient Israel. That is what Paul does in our text. They were the Chosen People. The people of The Promise, they were. God had rescued them personally from Egypt with the great signs and wonders called the Ten Plagues - water turned to blood, plagues of gnats, and flies, and frogs, and hail that burned, and the death of the first-born - and the passing over of all God's faithful, who had marked their doors with the blood of a lamb, by the angel of death. Surely these people were God's people by God's choice and work. And yet hear what Paul writes, For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness.
Yes, they even were eating and drinking the spiritual food of Christ (although they did not know Him by that name at that time). They were called by God. They were rescued by God. They were fed with Manna daily by God. If anyone would have a reason to presume upon their relationship to God, you would guess that they did. But God was not pleased with most of them. Paul actually says "well-pleased", that God was not well-pleased with most of them, using the term God the Father used at Jesus' baptism, and again at His Transfiguration - which we talked about last week. That is the judgment of God over His faithful people in Christ. He sees us as "well-pleasing", just like Jesus - because it is the righteousness of Christ that we wear in forgiveness.
If we wear it. But the conduct of the children of Israel took them out of the favor of God and they set aside the righteousness which He had given them and their unfaithfulness caused them to lose the prize. In their conduct, they took God for granted, and were not faithful, and followed whatever appealed to them, whatever seemed right to them at the moment. They did not live or walk in faith, deliberately being the people of God.
Paul, the apostle who wrote most of the New Testament, disciplines himself - buffets his body - so that he might not finally be disqualified. He doesn't say so in our text, but these personal glimpses are so that we take heed and live in what I have called deliberate Christianity. The next verse after our text, verse 6, says, Now these things happened as examples for us, that we should not crave evil things, as they also craved. And so forth. . . . So, the question arises, What are YOU doing?
We need to live out our faith. That means living in the light of what the Bible has taught us about sin. Sin is something to be avoided. It is not something we take lightly or excuse easily. Our forgiveness cost the life of God's own Son. It wasn't cheap or easy. That is why Luther began the 95 theses with the one that said, "When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said 'Repent', He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance." What are YOU doing?
We also want to act on our confidence in Christ. We need to exercise our hope and trust. We want to do that specifically when we face danger, illness, or troubles that cause our hearts to fear. After all, God is with us, in charge, and taking care of us. We cannot will fear away, but we can turn to God, His Word, to prayer, and share our burdens of the moment with His people, whom He has given to us to help us. And God promises to help us. In my own personal wrestlings with fear and sickness, I can bear witness that God's Word and prayer does bring comfort. What are YOU doing?
Again, we want to be deliberately conscious of where we are when we enter into worship - in whose presence we stand, and what He has done, and what He has given us, and what our relationship to Him is. Don't let the humble circumstances of our rented space deceive you. We come before the Lord, Almighty, Creator, Redeemer. That awareness should color your singing of the hymns, and focus your attention while we pray, and direct how you listen to the sermon, and what you do with it once you have heard it. What are YOU doing?
Our text confronts us each and asks you how you deal with each other. Do you gossip and grumble against the very sons and daughters of God, chosen by Him and bought at the price of the blood of the only-begotten Son of God, or do you cherish them as much as your heavenly Father does? And how do you make decisions and value the things in your life? Do you follow your feelings, or do you bring the Word of God to bear on each situation and each "thing"?
Paul disciplined himself and subdued his flesh by training and self-control and preparation both mental and physical for the life he was leading, so that he would not be disqualified. What are YOU doing? I was entertained by discovering that the Greek word for "compete" is "agnonizomai" - literally, "to agonize". The competition is serious, for we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against powers, against principalities, against spiritual forces of darkness in this age. If you are serious about any competition, preparation is agony at times - and we must be ready to bear even agony, if necessary, in order to reach our goal. The word for prize, in Greek, is brabeion, a bribe - the enticement to run. Our prize is much more than a mere bribe, but a full-out reward of grace. All we need to do is run the race faithfully. Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee the crown of life.
Jesus said, "Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide, and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it." Speaking of running the race of the faith, Paul said, Run in such a way that you may win. What are YOU doing?
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)
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