August 10, 2008

"Everyone runs; one wins. Run to win."

The eyes of the world recently turned to Beijing, China to watch the 2008 Summer Olympics. I have been a pretty dedicated Team USA fan - at least I've spent plenty of time in front of my TV watching the competitions! My favorite competition to watch is gymnastics, but I also enjoy the swimming, diving, and cycling competitions.

While watching the opening ceremonies on Friday I learned that many nations that are represented at the Olympics have never won a medal, and most likely will not win a medal at these games. It is quite inspiring to me to realize that men and women spend hours training for the Olympics, dedicating their entire lives in preparation for these games, knowing full well that they will not win a gold, silver, or bronze medal. But they are Olympians, nonetheless. One athlete whom was being interviewed (I wish I could quote the source, but I cannot) stated that his country has not sent him to Beijing to start the race, but rather to finish the race, to cross the finish line. There are powerful spiritual implications to that statement!

Today (which was actually yesterday, due to the time difference) the competitors have faced a bit of set back with the weather. There has been a pretty consistent drizzle that has hindered the women competing in the bicycle race, and the men competing in beach volleyball. Watching the competitors plod on through the rain reminds me of the passages in the New Testament that equates the spiritual life with a race. The author of Hebrews eloquently describes the Christian race in chapter 12: “Since we are surrounded by so many examples of faith, we must get rid of everything that slows us down, especially sin that distracts us. We must run the race that lies ahead of us and never give up. We must focus on Jesus, the source and goal of our faith. He saw the joy ahead of Him, so He endured death on the cross and ignored the disgrace it brought Him. Then He received the highest position in heaven, the one next to the throne of God.”

Let’s break this down. Frequently American TV viewers are given a view of the stands and spectators that are watching and cheering on the competitors. Just like former Olympians and gold medallists have migrated to China to cheer on this year’s contenders for the medals, so we as Christians are surrounded “by a great cloud of witnesses.” Among these witnesses are the great “Heroes of the Faith” discussed in Hebrews 11. In addition to the Biblical patriarchs, kings, and prophets, we are also surrounded by excellent examples of faith, many of whom have already completed their race.

The author of Hebrews boldly exclaims that we as Christ Followers have no reason not to finish our Christian race! He entreats his readers to get rid of any distractions, especially sin that so easily slows us down! What sins slow us down? EVERY sin! Hebrews 12:1-2 encourages us to persevere, never give up in our Christian race. How do we persevere? Stay focused on Christ! The Message version of the Bible translates verse 2 so appropriately, “Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we're in. Study how He did it. Because He never lost sight of where He was headed.” Perseverance requires absolute focus on Christ and Christ alone.

It is true that out of thousands of Olympians, only a few will be worthy of receiving a medal. The Apostle Paul writes to the Christ Followers at the church of Corinth, “You've all been to the stadium and seen the athletes race. Everyone runs; one wins. Run to win. All good athletes train hard. They do it for a gold medal that tarnishes and fades. You're after one that's gold eternally. I don't know about you, but I'm running hard for the finish line. I'm giving it everything I've got.” There is no question about the coaching we receive from Paul in this passage. We are instructed to persevere and aim for the eternal prize. Don’t just start the race – finish it. Finish it well.

Peter writes of the glory (or prize) that we are to receive. I Peter 5:4 states, “When [Jesus] appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.” The prize for which we are running is an eternal prize, and not just a gold medal, but rather a crown of glory! Revelation 1:6 confirms Peter’s description of our prize, “He has made us kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him.”

I am not intending to distract in any way from the amazing athletes and their accomplishments. But honestly, in 20 or 30 years, what will mean? What will it be worth? They will probably still have their medals, proudly displayed in their homes. And the lucky ones will once again grace the cover of People Magazine or Sports Illustrated in a special edition of “Where Are They Now?” Some of them will continue the rich tradition of the Olympic games as sponsors and coaches. But most of their world records will have been beaten, and the accolades and praise will be for a younger, faster, stronger competitor.

This is NOT so in the Christian race. As Christ Followers we have one goal, Christ Jesus. Ultimately our eternal prize (a crown of glory) will be given back to Christ in an eternal act of worship. Revelation 4:10-11 describes this ultimate worship; “They threw their crowns at the foot of the Throne, chanting, Worthy, O Master! Yes, our God! Take the glory! the honor! the power! You created it all; it was created because you wanted it.” The race in which we run is indeed for a prize, but not for ourselves. The glory, the honor, the accolade is for Almighty God – He alone is worthy of any prize we receive.

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