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.
Sermon for Septuagesima
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Why are you here? The question could be answered in a number of ways, couldn't it? It could be answered by telling us why you came to church this morning. It could be answered by saying why you go to church at all. It could be explained by discussing the meaning of life, or by talking about your parents and their interest in one another. You could answer it philosophically, economically, practically, mechanically. There are potentially a significant number of answers possible to the question.
Our text assumes the answer, which tells you more about in what sense the question might be considered. The answer is, apparently, that you are here to participate in the Gospel and to share in the grace of God in Jesus Christ. You want to go to heaven when this life is done. Hopefully, that is among the main reasons you are here. If it is not, you may well be missing the best part. Assuming it is the reason, Paul writes that we should be very deliberate about what we are doing, that we might actually accomplish that for which we are here. Our theme, this morning, is "Aim More Carefully".
In this portion of his letter to the Corinthians, Paul begins by comparing the life of a Christian to a race. As in every analogy, parts of it apply, and parts of it do not. Many wonderful sermons have gone astray by trying to take too much of the analog and apply it to what is being said. You then end up with silly discourses on how this element of the life of faith is like the aching feet of the runner, and that element is likened to perspiration or the burning in one's lungs from exertion. Paul is fairly clear about what the point of comparison is, here. The point is that not everyone who competes wins.
You can see that in the Christian church. Some start out with the best of intentions and simply get distracted. Others are fine with the life of faith until it becomes painful or difficult. Some believe that they can mix the life of a faithful child of God with the life of one wholly committed to this world and to getting the most out of every opportunity. Athletes who do not take their sports seriously, who do not train, are not prepared to focus and give their sport their entire attention and discipline, often find that those who are willing to commit themselves in this way do better than uncommitted do. Hollywood has made it almost a formula for their movies about the really talented athlete that takes their skills for granted and get sidetracked into partying or some other temptation of the flesh - and lose their edge.
Christians who cannot maintain their focus on the real goal of the faith often find that their lives imitate the art of film. Paul is saying that we should be deadly serious about our life as the child of God. If we have no better reason, Paul suggests that all the discipline of the great athletes is for a prize which is far less valuable or enduring than the prize of the upward call of God in connection with Christ Jesus. If we hope to reach that prize, Paul says we need to aim more carefully.
In Paul's world, athletes competed to win a stevfano~, 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. Back then, they didn't have professional athletes, except soldiers, and there were no million dollar salaries or lucrative TV contracts for those that excelled. There was just the glory of winning the crown that day. In our society today, it is far easier to become bedazzled and confused about the relative value of the rewards.
But the rewards for the super athlete today are still only temporary. I think of Chris Carter, long-time receiver for the Minnesota Vikings. One year he caught an NFL record number of passes and touchdowns, and everyone was singing his praises. Two years later, he was cut by the Vikings, rejected by the Rams, and failed to catch on with the Browns. His career was over and all that glory was being focused on the next flash in the pan. But, oh!, what work he put in to achieve and maintain that technical excellence that brought him such bright and fleeting glory. He dieted and trained and lifted weights and practiced twelve months of the year so he could shine on Sundays for the twenty weeks of NFL pre-season and regular season - with hopes of a post-season game or two.
We Christians seek a prize which is everlasting - resurrection from the dead and life eternal in glory with God. The best part is, of course, that we don't have to win it! It has already been purchased and won, and we have been given this treasure. It is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast.
So why is Paul pushing us with the cautionary tale of the racer? Because not everyone who calls themselves a Christian is a Christian. Not everyone who says "Lord! Lord" shall enter the kingdom of heaven. There are dangers out there for the unprepared and inattentive Christian. There are false doctrines. There are enticements to sin. There are a variety of temptations to unbelief and despair lurking around almost every corner. The race of the faith is short for some and extremely long for others - and there is no way of knowing what your race is going to be like until you reach the finish line.
It seems pretty clear that Paul is particularly focused on the temptations to sin and corruption which we will face - and have faced, in some cases. He speaks of buffeting his body and making it his slave, and then he points out the sad example of Israel's unfaithfulness during the Exodus. He speaks of how he works at self-discipline so that he will not preach to others and then fail in his own life to be found qualified. The threat is real - and every one of us can probably summon up the memory of someone we knew in our past who seemed to be a good Christian at one time, who didn't seem to make it to the finish line. But if you don't make it to the finish line, you don't make it at all! There is nothing easy or reflexive about this -so if you want to get there, you want to aim more carefully.
Membership in the right church doesn't insulate you absolutely. It is a good first step, but not the only step you need. Look at the people on the Exodus! Boy were they in the right church! God was present with them visibly. He was there in the pillar of fire by night and pillar of cloud by day. They had manna - miracle food provided by God Himself! They had each witnessed the Ten Plagues with which God had crushed the iron will of Pharaoh. They walked with the truth and lived in the delightful blessings of God. They passed together through the cloud and the sea, which Paul, by inspiration, calls a "baptism". They ate spiritual bread and drank spiritual drink - and Paul says that the Spiritual Rock from which they drank - the rock which followed after them was Christ Himself. But, as Paul reminded the Corinthians, Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased. Just belonging to the right church isn't enough.
They allowed themselves to be led astray. They gave in to idolatry. They practiced immorality because they felt secure. They took the goodness and the grace of God as license. They grumbled against God in spite of His obvious goodness to them because once they had this hand full of blessings, they wanted the other hand full - and they wanted to dictate which blessings God would give. It was like God rescued them and fed them and protected them, and then they asked, "What have you done for us lately?"
Now, none of us would want to live in the conditions in which they lived - and theirs was particularly blessed for that day and age. We live in far better conditions, but the temptations we face are more insidious and powerful too. Like Paul, we need to train ourselves, and discipline our flesh that we may be found faithful in the end.
That means being deliberately Christian. We need to be ready, mentally prepared and spiritually committed to being the people of God and doing what is right and good and holy. None of this will earn our place in heaven - Jesus did that on the cross, and He gave us our place in His family. But the temptations and deceits of the world are real, and we are not strong enough on our own to resist. The old saying, "There, but for the grace of God, go I", is real and it applies right here in particular.
The temptations are all around us - in print, on TV, in the movies, on the internet. Our age has mastered the technique of making people lust for things they didn't even know they needed or wanted. We have learned to tell the lie so well that it often sounds more reasonable than the truth - and, as we talked about Tuesday night, we speak the language of lie by nature - it is only in connection with Jesus that we can comprehend the language of truth. We need to learn to discipline our minds and our bodies if we hope to confront the dangers and enticements of our age and endure and win the crown of life at the end.
Sin is forgiven, and life is God's gift, but holiness is always befitting the people of God, and sin is always a deadly trap. False doctrine is deceit and poison. So we need to train in the Word of God and exercise ourselves in sound, faithful, Biblical judgment in all things - and take care to aim more carefully at the goal. That aim involves growing in the Word of God, and disciplining our flesh by doing what is right and good and holy in every circumstance. And when we fail, confessing our sin, and repenting, and humbling ourselves before God lest sin or pride cause us to stumble. When we confess, God is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
But this is about aiming more carefully - taking the danger of the situation seriously and being even more deliberate to be found in faith, doing that which is holy and avoiding that which is sinful. That discipline is physical, taking charge of your lusts and appetites. That discipline is mental, filling your mind with that which is wholesome, and avoiding the prurient and that which teaches us to fear as though God did not exist or care for us, or as though there is no truth in the absolute sense of it. That discipline is spiritual, refusing to allow the pressures of our world and our age to separate us from prayer and devotions, and from fixing our minds on God and Jesus and the welfare of our brothers and sisters in Christ, and on the Word.
I was entertained by discovering that the Greek word for "compete" is "agnwnivzomai" - 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 agonize in order to reach our goal. The prize, in Greek, is brabei`on, a bribe - the enticement to run. Our prize is more than just a 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. Paul's message today is, if you want to make it to the goal, aim more carefully.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
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