The Sixth Sunday After Epiphany February 15, 2004
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
2 Kings 5:1-14
359, 416, 540, 447
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ:
If something were discovered which could increase your energy and strength, boost your immune system, lower your blood pressure, help you live longer, and just feel better all around, would you be interested? How much would you pay for it? What if it were free? It might sound too good to be true, but it’s not. There is a growing body of evidence which indicates that daily exercise can do all that and more.
To most of us that’s old news. We would agree that it would be good for us to get out of the chair and get moving. But how many of us actually do it? It’s easier said than done. So many things get in the way. There is no time, or the weather is too cold, or we just forget until we’re too tired. And then, as well, there is a couch potato inside everyone which doesn’t feel like making the effort in the first place. Health clubs, doctors, and friends all encourage us to get going. But one company came up with a simple slogan which cut through all the excuses and went straight to the point: “Just do it!”
We need encouragement like that for our spiritual lives too. We were reborn as children of God through the water and Word of Holy Baptism. By faith we received all the blessings Jesus earned on the cross—forgiveness of sins, peace with God, and the inheritance of heaven. But faith is not like a plastic membership card which we slip into our wallet and forget about until we need to present it to God. No, it is a living thing, and just like our bodies, it needs to move, exercise, and work out to stay healthy.
Many Christians neglect that and become spiritual couch potatoes. They never check their spiritual pulse. They take it for granted that their faith is alive and well. They know the basics of the Word, and are satisfied if their faith takes a few sluggish steps each week. But they don’t get their heart rate up and the blood pumping. They never really use the spiritual muscle God provides to build up their strength and stamina. The result is an out-of-shape Christian whose faith is in no condition to survive the daily stress of life in this world. What about your faith? How is your exercise program coming? Today think of St. Paul as your own personal trainer who is telling you: “Just do it!”
That means training hard. It takes work to build up endurance. Paul writes, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it.” [v.24] The people of the time knew all about sports and winning, just as we do. Athletes would put themselves on a strict training regimen and give all they had in hopes of winning.
Likewise in life, it’s either win or lose, but there is much more at stake than a victory wreath or gold medal. It is a matter of heaven or hell, unending pain and suffering or eternal happiness. That is why it is so important to keep faith in good shape. That takes hard training. It is a dangerous misconception to think that we can coast along, do nothing, and we’ll be fine. Our spiritual muscles could get so soft and flabby that finally we would not be able to reach the finish line and complete the race.
So train hard! Follow a well-balanced plan. Read and study Scripture every day. Put out the effort to memorize passages. Stretch your muscles by going further than the immediate context and look for what God is telling you personally for your life today. Is He warning you of some danger, comforting you, or teaching you an eternal truth? Give your faith a good workout by applying the Word to what you say and do at school and on the job. Exercise your love for Christ in loving words and actions toward family members.
Be active in prayer by going to the Lord with every need and concern, and by praising Him for His blessings. When He doesn’t give a clear answer immediately, don’t give up, but instead, wrestle with Him and hold Him to His promises, just as Jacob wrestled all night with the Lord to receive His blessing (cf. Genesis 32:22ff). Push yourself to go out the door and witness to Jesus’ love to others. It is not always easy, but through it the Lord will work powerfully in your heart and in the hearts of those with whom you speak.
Keep at it everyday. Even the greatest athlete needs to keep training or he will lose his edge. Our Christian life is a long-distance endurance race. No matter how strong your faith, it needs regular exercise or it will get out of shape. Don’t quit after Confirmation or when you finish high school or when you get married. Never tell yourself, “Now my faith is set for life; I can sit back and relax.” Exercise is vital for spiritual health at any stage of life.
Why make the effort? Why would an athlete spend hours every day in the pool or on the track sweating and working? Why do we put in our daily two miles or 45 minutes of aerobics? It is because of the prize, the goal at the end. The runner wants to win the race. We exercise to improve our health. The goal is a powerful motivator. Our spiritual goal is the most exciting and worthwhile one of all. Jesus had that prize in mind when He lived here. The writer of Hebrews says, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2 NIV).
Jesus already ran the race and won it for us. He obeyed God’s laws perfectly for us, and then He died on the cross in payment for all our sins. When He cried out on Good Friday “It is finished!” He was like a runner crossing the finish line of a marathon with his arms raised in victory. Since He did it for us, it was the same as saying, “You win!” The prize of heaven has already been won for you. It is there waiting at the finish line-guaranteed!
What an encouragement to get off the couch and keep training hard, so that we will have the strength to reach the finish! Paul says, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me…. Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14 NIV). Don’t let anything come between you and the prize. Just do it!
Staying in shape not only takes training, but self-discipline in every area of life. That means sticking to your training schedule even when you feel like slacking off. It means getting to bed early so you can work out at 5:30 the next morning, even when part of you wants to stay up for the late movie. It means eating a second helping of broccoli instead of another piece of pie, even though your mouth is watering at the thought of chocolate-peanut butter filling. Self-discipline is doing what is right even when you don’t feel like it. Paul puts it this way: “Therefore I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection; lest when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.” [vv.26-27]
Self-discipline is totally repulsive to our sinful nature. By nature we want to indulge ourselves and believe that we deserve it. We want to avoid anything hard or unpleasant. We would rather doze on the couch with the remote than lace up our shoes and face the weather outdoors. Paul saw that side of himself too. “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” (Romans 7:19 NIV). At the same time, Paul was determined with the Lord’s strength to discipline his body, literally to rough it up and give it a black eye, so that it would not drag him down and cause him to lose his salvation.
Are we being tough on ourselves, or do we easily give in to our sinful nature? Do we neglect the Word and worship when our Old Adam suggests that it is just too much work today, because we’re a little tired or feel like we may be coming down with something? Do we hesitate and finally give up the idea of volunteering our services to the Lord and congregation because our Old Adam objects that we’re too busy and that there are others who should be doing more? Do we take the easy way out and give in to temptation, because it seems like a minor matter and everyone else is doing it?
Without self-discipline the sinful nature will become stronger and more demanding. We will become spiritual couch potatoes, and saving faith will drift off into deep sleep or even a fatal coma. Keep your faith in shape by exercising self-discipline in every area of life. Whether it is in what you eat, your work, your hobbies, the movies you watch, or how you spend your money, don’t just give in to your natural impulses. Tell your Old Adam, “No, I don’t care what you want or what would be the easiest course or most profitable. I’m going to follow my Lord Jesus and do what is best for my soul, and you’re not going to stop me!” When was the last time you did that? If we all did that more, think of what a difference it would make in our lives.
But where are we going to get that kind of discipline when by nature we have zero discipline? The Lord stands ready to give us all the strength we need through the power of the Holy Spirit working in our hearts. So when you feel your resolve weakening and the sinful nature gaining the upper hand, look to the Lord for His power. Remember how He crushed Satan and sin and won the victory on the cross. Tap into His power by using His Word. With His strength you can say with Joseph, “How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” Follow the course mapped out in Scripture, and count on God’s promises for the spiritual energy to keep running the race and giving knockout punches to the Old Adam along the way.
Is hard training and self-discipline worth the effort and sacrifice? Listen to what Paul wrote to the young pastor Timothy: “Physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:8 NIV).
Pedaling a bike, running, swimming, sweat and hard work can help preserve the life and health God gives. It is worth doing. But through spiritual exercise, the Lord preserves and strengthens the faith we need to keep running the race of life and receive the heavenly prize waiting for us at the finish line. May the Lord give us all we need to “Just do it!” Amen.
Thus, Lord Jesus, every task
Be to Thee commended;
May Thy will be done, I ask,
Until life is ended.
Jesus, in Thy name begun
Be the day’s endeavor;
Grant that it may well be done
To Thy praise forever.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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.