Run, Christian, Run!
A sermon based on 1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Sunday, February 12, 2012 – Epiphany 6B
In 1994, the movie character, Forrest Gump hardly ever stopped running. As Jenny encouraged him, "Run, Forrest, Run," he did. In spite of braces on his legs, in spite of the defense in a football game, in spite of already scoring a touchdown, in spite of a "cult" of joggers behind him, in spite of getting shot, he didn't stop running.
This morning, Paul encourages us to have that same determination to never stop running. Paul knew that the things he'd been encouraging—giving up your rights and conveniences to serve others—was not easy work. He knew that the Corinthians would continue to struggle with their sinful natures just as Paul himself did. He knew the race wasn't always easy and that it was easy to grow tired and give up. So he encouraged them to keep their eyes fixed on the prize ahead. And through his epistle, Paul still encourages us to Run, Christian, Run! Keep your eye on the prize that Christ already won for you by grace. And keep training hard to keep your sinful nature in check with the power that God gives…
24 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. 25 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. 26 Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27 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.
I. In Christ, You've Already Won the Race
Paul knew his people well and he knew how to make the right illustration to reach them. You see every year in Corinth that the Olympic games weren't held, they held their own games—the Isthmian Games. And to the Corinthians these games were far more than a mere amusement. It was like watching some NFL fans when their team makes it to the Superbowl—it was almost an obsession. So Paul pointed to those athletes, to those heroes of Corinth…
"Look at those professional athletes," Paul says, "and model their dedication. Look how much they struggle. Look how hard they train, even though they might not win. In fact, in any competition there can really be only one winner.
"All the runners run," Paul said, "but only one gets the prize." Only one team can win the Super Bowl. Only one team can win the Stanley Cup. Only one team can be the champions. And yet, in spite of such uncertainty, look how hard they train.
Dear friends, with the Corinthians (and with you) no such uncertainty exists. When it comes to the race of faith—that struggle that we face every day—we know with certainty that we'll win. Why? Well, not because of what amazing spiritual athletes we are. If the race were up to us, we'd certainly lose. We'd lose for each time we failed to fight the good fight of faith and gave in to our sinful selfish desires. We'd lose for each time the devil scored a point by getting us to side with him. We'd lose for laying down in the middle of the track by our spiritual apathy. And the losers don't just miss out on the prize, they deserve punishment as well. No, it's not because of our spiritual prowess that we can be certain we'll win. Instead, it's because of our Savior…
Do you remember a quarterback named Rohan Davey? Not too many people do. He was drafted as the 117th pick in the 2002 NFL draft. He was a backup quarterback for his entire NFL career. He threw zero touchdowns and didn't even reach the 100-yard passing mark. Yet, he has two Super Bowl rings. Mr. Davey contributed nothing to those Super Bowl championships, but he still got to celebrate the victories and could show you his championship rings as proof.
In a similar way, we know that we win, even though we contribute nothing to the win. Jesus won for us. He not only joined our team as the sure ringer, but he took our place as the perfect sub. He stepped in on the cross and said, "I'll be the loser so you can be the winner. I'll take your detestable sin so you can have my perfect righteousness. You just sit the bench and watch." And in doing that, he freed us from our leprosy of sin and won the race for us.
Now, we don't run the race in order to win. We run the race because we've already won. And what a prize we've won!
Paul said that those who ran in the Isthmian Games weren't even like professional athletes of today. Professional athletes get paid millions of dollars to play even if they lose. But these runners ran to win a relatively worthless prize—a crown of pine leaves that would soon wither and rot.
And all too often we too struggle hard to win a prize that's not worth that much. We struggle hard to advance our careers. We work day and night to increase our wealth. We spend endless hours chasing after pleasures and toys that we know won't matter 100 years from now and so ultimately are as worthless as the pine or olive wreath that withers and rots.
And how foolish that we struggle at all when the one prize that is worth something has already been won for us! And ours is a prize that's worth something. It's worth everything! Ours is a crown that is incorruptible, one that will last forever. Jesus won for us a crown of righteousness (2 Timothy 4:8). He won for us a crown of life (James 1:12; Revelation 2:10) and a crown of glory (1 Peter 5:4). There is no better prize than these. And they're ours—already won for us by Christ in his grace.
With that certain confidence that we've already won in Christ, that we are winners in Christ, we now press on to claim our prize and train hard to keep it…
II. In Christ, Train Hard to Keep the Prize
Even though there's a lot of uncertainty that they'll win and even though the prize is really worth very little, athletes go into strict training in order to win. Paul says "everyone who competes," which is literally "Everyone who [agonizes]… goes into strict training." In the Isthmian games participants had to swear by Zeus that they had followed ten months of strict training which included abstaining from unwholesome foods, wine, and even sex before they were allowed to compete.
Today athletes do the same. They give up years of their lives to train hard before they enter the Olympics. They give up free time, stick to stringent diets, have vigorous workouts multiple times a day, and give up countless pleasures just to have a shot at winning the gold.
"How much more then, won't we Christians," Paul writes, "go into strict training to keep what Christ already won for us!" Using his own life as an example he says, "Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27 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."
Paul wouldn't run aimlessly, chasing after perishable crowns like wealth, comfort, and luxury—crowns that would soon spoil and fade. And he wouldn't just beat the air. If Rocky Balboa had only trained by shadow boxing, by just punching the air, it wouldn't have been enough. If his punches didn't connect with his opponent, but only hit the air—a swing and a miss—he would have lost in the first film and there wouldn't be fifteen sequels. Paul says his punches wouldn't miss. He's wasn't just hitting the air, but his target.
But it hardly seems like an improvement when he says, "I beat my body." Was Paul fighting himself? Yes, actually. He was. Paul was in a big struggle with himself. His sinful nature wanted to continue to rebel against God. At times Paul was tempted to lust or have sex outside of marriage. Paul wasn't exempt from the temptation of greed and the love of money and nice things. Paul too, in his sinful nature, desired to take God's blessings for his own benefit robbing him of full devotion to God.
But, Paul would not be mastered those sinful desires. Paul knew that if he left it unchecked, his sinful nature would quickly take over, he'd grow spiritually flabby, then downright unhealthy, and eventually even lose his faith in Christ. Then he would be disqualified from the race and lose even the prize that had already been won.
So instead, he would work out. He would force his body, his sinful nature, to conform to his new nature—one that longed to thank God for that crown of life that he won. He would grow stronger in his faith by his spiritual training. Then he wouldn't lose that faith, but would receive the prize that Christ had won for him.
And we too enter strict training. We stick to a strict diet of the Word, reading, learning and digesting it every day. We give up the toxins of sinful pleasures that harm our bodies and our souls. We exercise our faith daily with regular workouts as we put God's Word into practice. These things train our souls to cling to the promises of God so we keep running the race to hold on the prize Christ won for us.
But the struggle's not easy. For the last six weeks now, Ryan Holper, Angie, and I have been working out six days a week. We've been doing a program called Insanity® (I think because you have to be a little crazy to work that hard that often.) And I'll admit, that it's not very easy. Not just is it physically tough, and hard not to collapse on the floor panting, but it's mentally tough too. There are some days that I just don't want to go work out.
The spiritual struggle isn't easy either. It wasn't for Paul, and it's not for us. It's hard not to collapse on the track of life and give in to our lust and greed and sinful nature. It's hard not to think, "Jesus died on the cross. I don't need to do anything. So I don't need to thank him with my life." It's hard to keep going when you're weary and tired of the daily struggle to do what's right in thanksgiving to God for our crown.
But you know what's helped me keep doing Insanity® for six grueling weeks? I know that Ryan and Angie are expecting me to be there. I'm not doing this alone. But I have help and support and their encouragement to dig deeper.
And God doesn't make us run our spiritual race alone either. The one who loved us so much that he sent his Son to hell in our place, will continue to love us and give us the strength and courage to keep running. He will continue to encourage us through his Word. He will continue to forgive us, pick us up when he fall, brush us off, and get us running again.
And so by God's power, and with his forgiveness and encouragement we can keep our eye fixed on the prize, confident that we've already won the race through Christ. We can keep our sinful nature in check and keep on running until we claim that prize that's ours. And God will bless you and keep you in the one true faith until life everlasting while you run, Christian, run! Amen.