"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."
"How do they DO that?," we ask ourselves, our eyes glued every couple of years to the TV as Olympians from many nations demonstrate their ability to do every ordinary thing - like swimming, skiing, running - not only faster, but also more beautifully, with more control, and with more perfection than any of the rest of us can even imagine our bodies accomplishing.
Yes, they are talented; yes, they have money for trainers and equipment. But what really separates the successful gymnasts and speed skaters from the rest of the field can be attributed to one single quality: dogged determination to be the best - at very great cost to themselves.
Teenagers routinely deny themselves candy, cokes and potato chips, Saturday morning sleep-ins, and late evenings with their friends. Young adults get up in the dark every single morning to get a few hours of pool practice in before a day of college classes. And they do it day after boring day, week after exhausting week, year after grueling year, for a shot at the Olympic gold medal.
In Paul’s day they didn’t even get that.
The runners raced for a single prize - not made of gold or silver or bronze; they ran for the victor’s wreath - a crown of myrtle leaves which would indeed, as Paul says, eventually fade, dry, and crumble to dust.
That is Paul’s metaphor.
But his point is more sobering. Athletes discipline themselves for a crown which will fade, or for a medal that will eventually gather dust after everyone else but the winner is tired of hearing about it; but we discipline ourselves, too, because the game we are playing is no game at all, but life itself.
The crown we are seeking is "imperishable," because it is Life itself: full, rich, joyful life that begins here and now - and will only become richer and fuller as we die and enter eternal life with God.
Therefore, he says, we Christians "punish" our bodies and "enslave" them, too, just as any successful athlete does.
We have a goal and a purpose: We cannot afford to run "aimlessly," or to "box as though beating the air."
What we cannot risk, Paul says, is to be disqualified, to be set aside and put out of the race, to fall behind, to stumble and fall flat on our faces simply because we have failed to discipline ourselves for the long term.
The author of Hebrews uses the identical metaphor:
"...let us throw off everything that hinders, and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us."
You know the things that hinder; they are fear of the long and uncertain future, nagging doubt about your own suitability for the race, a tendency to distraction when the daily, boring routine turns sour, a certain reluctance to take risks, and refusal to dream impossible dreams...
You know the sin that so easily entangles, too: probably I don’t have to name it; each of us knows what particular variety of sinful self-centeredness causes us to throw down the towel in a pout, and walk out of the locker room in a huff..leaving the rest of the team discouraged, demoralized, and short one runner just as the relay begins....
We are asked to do whatever it takes to run a faithful race, keeping our eyes on the prize..as Paul says..
We are seriously called to throw off whatever holds us back and run with perseverance the race that is set before us. How do we do that?
In the words of Hebrews, we "fix our eyes on Jesus...who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame...so that we will not grow weary or lose heart."
In the meeting which will follow our worship today you will hear some of all the ways you have done exactly this in the last year. You will see visible evidence of faithfulness and perseverance. I want you to rejoice in that. I hope you will thank each other for the gifts that each has brought to our fellowship of service; I expect that you will thank God for the ways in which you yourself have been enabled to be faithful witnesses to God’s faithfulness.
And you will also hear some of the challenges that are before us. As the economic problems of our nation and the whole world deepen, we are being asked to share even more intimately the insecurity of the poor, and to trust God to meet all our needs.
In a time of anxiety we are being offered the immense privilege of living differently from those around us who are paralyzed and hopeless. All around us people and institutions are looking for ways to cling to life as they have known it, desperate to save themselves.
I have heard the stories over and over, churches scaling down ministry opportunities, and backing off from new ministries that are, paradoxically, even more badly needed now than they were a year ago. When I suggest that the gospel actually encourage us to lay down our lives, to take up our cross and to follow, regardless of the economic temperature, I am met with shocked silence. It almost seems impertinent to bring up the gospel demands (and promises!) when we are all nervous.
But yesterday, I visited the new house for Hope’s Bridge - you need to see what is happening there! - and rejoiced that even as financial certainties for all of us are dissolving, many of you are working together to begin new work for Christ Jesus in this town, not holding back or hesitating in fear or panic. And that is only one example of what can happen when we keep our eyes on the prize, when we know in our bones that it is not our own resources that will sustain us but God’s. And so we can afford to give generously, to spend ourselves when we are already tired and over-stretched.
"The world behind us, the cross before us..." Yes. But that is not just a good campfire song for church youth groups - it is the sober truth. And we need its bracing message especially when we are afraid.
And so, yes, we are going to ask you to do even more, because the needs around us, and the opportunities around us, are even greater than they were a year ago.
To continue Paul’s metaphor, the stretch of the race we are currently running is uphill, and the road we’re on is no longer predictably smooth. It is an easy place to drop out or to slow down. It is an easy place to fall prey to discouragement or distraction.
And it is definitely a place in which disciplined believers like you, who doggedly keep their eyes on Jesus no matter what, and who simply put one weary foot in front of the other and run straight towards the cross, will fare better than those who do not.
Mother Cathy Cox