Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity August 29, 1999
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway. Here ends our text.
In Christ Jesus, our Source of strength and endurance in this life, Dear Fellow Redeemed,
Running is a pastime that has taken over this country. In the last ten or fifteen years, a huge number of people have started running, in hopes of reducing their weight and increasing their health. Some people even get serious about it, and work harder and harder every day until they can qualify for prestigious races like the New York or Boston Marathons. But I suspect that the vast majority of runners are people like me—amateurs—folks who don’t get too whipped up about it. We’re joggers. We just run for exercise, and to feel good. We plod along at a pace that feels comfortable, and we don’t worry too much about how long it takes us to get there and back. If we get tired, we stop. No big deal.
What if it was a big deal, though? I’ve often thought about that, as the dusty miles rolled past at a leisurely pace. What if it wasn’t so leisurely? What if something important depended on how fast I ran? For instance, what if someone told me that I had to finish a five-mile course in thirty minutes or else—forfeit my life? That would certainly change the situation! Could I endure? Could I maintain my pace for that long? I wonder.
I don’t mind using that illustration, because I know that everyone here today is a runner, too.—Yes, you are! In our text for today, Paul says that, as a Christian, you are a runner. The race you’re entered in is the Christian life. In this race you can’t afford to be an amateur, and you can’t afford to take it lightly. This race is serious. In this race, eternal life is the prize! This morning, let’s consider the theme:
This afternoon, in the city of Philadelphia, the first football game of the year will take place as the Seahawks meet the Eagles. Sports announcers are predicting a relatively close game, since the two teams are seen as pretty evenly-matched. But one thing we can say for sure—when the game is over, there will be one winner and one loser. In the NFL, there’s no such thing as second place.
The Apostle Paul says the same thing is true about our lives as Christians: Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. The race you’re running in your life as a Christian is a very demanding race. For one thing, it’s demanding because, in this race, there’s no such thing as second place. You either win or you lose! Paul compares the Christian life to a footrace in the ancient Greek games. But there’s one difference he makes very clear: for us Christians, this isn’t a game. It’s a deadly serious struggle, with very high stakes. If you win, it means eternal life; if you lose—eternal death!
You know what scares me? I’m afraid that a lot of believers are content to just “jog along” in their Christian lives. They don’t get too whipped up about serving the Lord, studying His Word, witnessing their faith, etc. “Heaven’s a big place,” they say to themselves. “Even if I’m not the most faithful Christian in the world, I’m sure there will be room for me.” But Paul says: Remember—only one gets the prize. Run in such a way that you may obtain it! What does that mean? It means that you should run your race as a Christian as if only one person could be admitted to heaven on Judgment Day—and you needed to be that person!
But that takes self-discipline. Paul goes back to his picture of a footrace; he says, And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. An Olympic-class runner has to regulate his diet and his lifestyle very carefully, or he won’t stay an Olympic-class runner for very long. The same thing’s true in the life of a Christian. When we hear the word temperance, the first thing that springs to mind is alcohol. God’s Word shows very clearly that you can’t live the life of a drunk and the life of a Christian at the same time. But Paul says the Christian should be temperate in all things, not just alcohol. What about food? Your work? Your hobbies? Sports? Money, in general? C. S. Lewis once said that being intemperate in these things is much more dangerous, because it doesn’t show. Being a work-aholic or a food-aholic or a sports-aholic won’t make you fall down in the middle of the street. But it might get in the way of your service to the Lord, and you can’t afford to have that happen.
In our text, Paul uses himself as an example. But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection. But that’s a poor translation of the Greek. In the original language, Paul’s much more colorful: “I rough up my body…I punch it in the eye…and I make it my slave.” Even though we’re Christians, we’ve still got that sinful flesh clinging to us. It’s the innate tendency toward sin that we inherited from the first sinners, Adam and Eve. And this sinful flesh keeps tempting us, day by day, to slack off. To lighten up, and enjoy some of the sinful pleasures the world offers us. To “break training”, and not be so diligent about how we live our Christian lives. Paul had that sinful flesh, too, and it frightened him. He was afraid, … lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway. So Paul did what we need to do—he waged an spiritual fistfight with his flesh. Every day he punched and pummeled it into line. Instead of being a slave to his flesh, he kept fighting to make his flesh a slave to him.
Sometimes that fight didn’t go too well for Paul. Like us, he had failures. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I think Paul must have been reading my mind when he wrote, “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing… What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Rom 7:18-19, 24 NIV. What’s the answer? How can we win the race, when it looks like we’ll lose it for sure? Paul says, “But thanks be to God, Who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” I Cor 15:57.
That’s the answer! The race is demanding, but in Christ, the victory is assured!
Here’s where the comparison to a footrace kind of breaks down. Because in a race, it’s every man for himself. It’s up to the athlete himself—his own efforts and talents will determine whether he wins or loses. But in your Christian life, you’re declared the winner before you even come to the starting line. In fact, God tells you beforehand that there’s no way you can lose!—That’s because a much greater “athlete” than yourself has already won the victory in your place. Jesus Christ “was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Heb 4:15. Even though He was faced with the same temptations we face, Jesus never gave in to them. Because He loved us, He never broke training. In our place, He lived a life of absolute perfection. In our place, He served His heavenly Father with absolute obedience. And His perfect righteousness—the Lord puts down to our credit.
I recall early in my ministry in South Dakota, when my salary was pretty meager, and my bank account was chronically overdrawn. At the same time, I happened to be the treasurer of the our local fire department, which always kept an impressive balance of sixty or seventy thousand dollars in its bank account. One day in the bank, I was joking about how nice it would be if I could just swap bank accounts with the fire department. It struck me later, though—that that’s just what Jesus does for us! In His grace, He gives us His perfect account of righteousness, obedience and holiness. Our miserable account—which is so far in the red with sin and disobedience—He took on Himself. He took all those accounts full of sin to the cross. And there, on that wretched tree of pain, Jesus paid for them in full by pouring out His blood for us all.
What were those last words Jesus spoke from the cross? “It is finished.” But He may as well have said, “You win!” because that’s what it means. When Jesus’ agony was over, the last bit of torture endured and the last sin paid for, that’s when your victory was locked in. When Christ rose from the dead, you were guaranteed first place—total victory—in your race of life. And what a victory it is! Olympic athletes, Paul said, run …to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. Our victory crown isn’t like the laurel wreath that Greek champions wore; that one faded and withered up eventually. The crown Jesus earned for us is nothing less than eternal life. It’s a crown of everlasting glory and happiness that we can begin rejoicing in now—and that we’ll go on rejoicing in for endless ages with our Savior in Heaven. Can we possibly lose the race? Not a chance. “For,” Paul said, “I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Rom 8:38-39.
So run with confidence. In Christ, there’s no way you can lose! In our text, Paul sets an example for running the confident Christian race: I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: Let the fruits of your Christian faith come boldly to the surface in your life. You’re not running an uncertain race, so let your family and your friends know that Christ has made you a winner! With your devotion to God’s Word, your church attendance, your giving—let your confidence in Christ shine through. In your daily struggles with the flesh, you’re not just shadowboxing—Christ gives you the power to throw a knockout punch. Show the people around you that it can be done! Show them that, in the middle of this sin-swept world, you are one person at least who won’t let yourself become a slave to the flesh. Your lifestyle, your behavior, your conversation—may be just the evidence it takes to convince someone close to you that there really is something to this Christian faith, after all! Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matt 5:16.
Yes, you are running for your life—your eternal life! The race is demanding but in Christ your victory is assured. So run with confidence! In Jesus’ name, AMEN.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the King James Version.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.