Monthly Archives: August 2012

Run for the Prize

I preached this message as the Olympics were about to get underway.

1 Corinthians 9:24-27 (NIV)

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.

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     In September 1988, I was a brand new Resident Assistant on the fourth floor of Scranton Hall at Edinboro University. I had been hired three weeks into the semester, so most of the guys on my wing had had their first three weeks without any direct supervision… and liked it. And most of them were freshmen… And almost all of them were new recruits for Edinboro’s wrestling team. And they didn’t like having an R.A. move in and spoil their fun.

     What made matters worse was the Olympic games, held late that year in September instead of July. And NBC was covering the games LIVE, from Seoul, Korea, which meant that a lot of the events were between 1:00 and 4:00 a.m. 

     Well, this group of guys was pretty rambunctious, even before the Olympics started. But from the day the games opened, every night was a test of my abilities as an R.A. But the night that their Assistant Coach, Bruce Baumgartner, wrestled, was the absolute worst.  Those boys were so pumped up waiting for Bruce to wrestle that they simply HAD TO run up and down the halls knocking on people’s doors.  They simply HAD TO yell and scream and make whistling sounds and animal noises. They HAD TO. They couldn’t help it.

     Well, maybe they didn’t really have to, but they thought they did. I ended up spending a couple hours in the hallway outside my door sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall, reading a book (as much as I could).  And they were able to control themselves after that. They just needed a visible reminder (me).

     Finally, when Bruce did wrestle I was with them watching the TV just as intently as any of them. We watched him compete and we watched him win gold.  It was a wonderful night.

     But I also remember that throughout that semester, I noticed that one of the wrestlers, named Louie, seemed to be a little bit more laid back, a little more mature than the others. He had his moments like the rest, but seemed to be the most serious and watched his prescribed routine more. He was more focused. More intent.

     And in 1996, it was Louie… American wrsetler Lou Rosselli, that I saw on the television set wrestling in the Atlanta Olympics. He, not any of those other guys, made it to compete. He didn’t win the gold, because in one of his victories his arm was broken in three places. (It took a LOT to stop him!) But Lou had determined long ago that he would be serious about his wrestling… and it made a difference even outside of the gym.

     In fact, I just read that that very same Lou Rosselli, now a coach with the Ohio State Buckeyes, is currently is taking a few weeks to serve as a volunteer Olympic Coach for men’s freestyle wrestling with the United States Olympic wrestling team in London right now.

     It reminds me a lot about the apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9 where he talks about the Corinthian games of his day.

     You see, the Olympic games that we now celebrate started in 1896, but their history goes back to ancient Greece, over 700 years before Christ. There were the Olympian games, the Pythian games, the Nemean games, and the Isthmian games. Each one rather similar, except that each was held in a different city, every four years. The Isthmian games, held on the isthmus of Greece, were based in Corinth, and were still being held when Paul visited Corinth and later wrote his two letters to the Corinthians.

     Paul likens the Christian walk, the Christians’ life, with these games, in three different ways. Paul starts off in verse 24 and 25 with:

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. 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.  

     He likens the Christian walk to the footraces they would have been so familiar with, and then draws a contrast.  He says that all who are in the race are runners.  Everyone wants the prize, but in the footraces, only one gets the reward at the end. But in the Christian life all who finish the course can have the reward, the prize, at the end of the race.

     The ancient Greeks competed for a crown…made of greenery. The Olympian athletes struggled in order to win a crown made of wild olive, the Pythian athletes–a crown of laurel, the Nemean competitors–a crown made of parsley, and the Isthmians, here in Corinth, ran for a crown made out of pine. And every one of those prizes started to wilt the moment they were cut from their respective plant, before they even made it to the winner’s head!

     Paul then highlights that we strive for a crown that will never fade: eternal life and spending eternity with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. How much more important that we do what is needed to win our race.

     The second comparison Paul makes between our daily walk as a Christian and the Greek athletic games is found in the beginning of verse 25:

“Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.”

    The King James version says the athletes are “temperate” in all things. The New Revised Standard Version says they use “self-control.”

    Those ancient competitors disciplined themselves before they could compete. There were no coaches back then, only teachers. And those Greek teachers prescribed to their students, their disciples as it were, what kind of food they could eat and how much as well, the hours they would exercise and when they were to sleep, and forbade them from alcohol and women.

     So Paul makes self-discipline his second point. If we are to successfully win our race, our contest against sin, then we must, as disciples of our teacher, stick to his instructions of what we need to do. Christ said, “Deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me.” Yet how many of us don’t deny ourselves and give into every whim or craving our physical body has, at the expense of our soul?

     The ancient Greeks were willing to suffer all of these hardships knowing that almost everyone that competed would come away without the prize. But it was worth it if they had a chance at being the winner.  And that was all for a bunch of leaves!

     In verses 26 and 27, Paul gets to his third point in his comparison:

Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air.  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 stresses again the need for the spiritual man within, the “inner man” if you will, to be the victor over our physical body. And he goes to boxing and wrestling for his comparisons this time.

     He says he beats his body and makes it his slave. The Greek words here tell the story:

     One Greek word, comparing to boxing, means “to hit in the eyes” and the other greek word signifies tripping the opponent so that he falls down and then keeping him down, obliging him to acknowledge himself conquered… and thus making him your slave.

     Paul has packed a whallop here. In our wrestling match against sin, against the urges and cravings of our physical body, we don’t wrestle just for fun. Rather, we wrestle for dominance, for mastery, to determine who will be the slave.

     In the ancient games, the herald announced who the competitors were, announced the conditions and rules of the games, displayed the prizes, exhorted the competitors, encouraged the spectators, pronounced the names of the victors, and put the crown on their head.

     But one of the most important jobs of the herald was to put his hand on the head of each would be athlete, before the competition, and walk around the inside of the stadium asking: “Who can accuse this man?” Because criminals were not allowed to compete, servants and debtors were not allowed to compete, and, most of all, slaves were not allowed to compete.

     Paul sees the Greek games as the perfect comparison with our Christian struggle, our Christian walk. First, we all must be runners. You can’t win the race if you are not entered in the race. Second, there are preparations for the contest that must be made. Christ spoke of it as denying ourselves and bearing the cross. And third, and most important of all, we must make sure that we are not a slave to anything.

      The questions today, from our coach, are these: Are we entered into the race?  If Jesus Christ does not live in your heart as Lord and Savior, then your stuck on the sidelines and will NEVER receive the prize of eternal life.  Are we following the coach’s advice in training? Do we deny ourselves and take up our cross? And, when we are in the midst of the battle, who is a slave to whom? Is our physical body a slave to our spiritual body… or is our spiritual body a slave to our physical body? Who calls the shots…physical or spiritual?

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Stopping for Directions

These are my sermon notes from August 12th… As always, these are speaking notes, so be gracious in regards to grammar and such…

About 13 years ago, I read a news article about an elderly couple in New Jersey who had made a wrong turn down the block from their home and had traveled over 800 miles before they were able to get home. The article said that they had stopped and gotten gasoline twice, but hadn’t eaten or slept in the two day misadventure. The article made a point of explaining that the 86 year old husband refused to stop and ask for directions.  In fact, it was only when they were involved in an accident that they finally figured out where they were and how to get home.

Guys, let’s be honest for a minute shall we… We’d never do that would we?

Actually, quite often we do… Sometimes in our driving our cars, but more often in guiding our lives… especially in the spiritual realm.

Today’s Scripture passage comes from the book of  Ephesians, starting in chapter 4, verse 22 and going on into chapter 5, verse 2.  And in this passage, the Apostle Paul addresses those of us who are already Christians… already accepted Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and our God.  And Paul gives us directions on how NOT to get lost, in our spiritual journey to our Father in Heaven.

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Ephesians 4:22 – 5:2 (NIV)
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About the same time as I read that article, I needed to go to Pittsburgh to visit one of my parishioners who had been transferred to a hospital there. I was new in the ministry and, then as now, I hated driving in Pittsburgh. The person I got my directions from did two things for me before I went.  She gave me the route numbers with actual instructions, but she also gave me some of the landmarks I should be looking for: A particular bridge, the Three Rivers Stadium, and such.  By having both the landmarks AND the routes, I could follow the directions, and be assured that I was on the right road as I traveled.

Paul does the same thing for us in this passage. He gives us the basic spiritual landmarks that we need to be passing AND then he gives us detailed instructions to actually follow. For the landmarks on this journey as Christians, let’s look at verses 22, 23, & 24 again:

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Paul gives three specific directions we need to follow, turn by turn as we travel this journey of faith…  And remember, he’s not saying this is how you get on the road leading to Heaven, we know that’s only by accepting Jesus into your heart. That’s how you get ON the road.  Paul says that once you are on that road (and have Jesus in your heart) these are the three things you’re going to need to follow if you’re going to STAY on the right road.

What are they?

–Put Off the Old Man (or the Old You)

–Be Renewed In Your Spirit

–Put On The New Man (or the New You)

The analogy he uses of putting off and putting on implies someone who is dirty and smelly deliberately choosing to change their clothes.  They must first put of their older clothes, then be cleaned up completely, and then deliberately choose to put on new clothes.

It doesn’t do any good to be cleaned up without taking off the old clothes first. It doesn’t do any good to put on new clothes without taking off the old clothes first or without getting cleaned up. There is a logical, indisputable sequence of events that has to happen.

Same here in the spiritual realm…  We are saved from sin and, in God’s eyes at that moment we are as pure and clean as His Son Jesus Christ.  But we still sin. We still fall. We get our spiritual clothes dirty.  We’re on the right road but sometimes we make a wrong turn.

To keep us on the right road, or get us back to the right road, takes a putting off of the old ways.  A deliberate choice that no matter how many times we fall (and we will fall, we will sin), no matter how many times we fall, we will return to the right road.  And Paul says you start to do that by putting off the old ways.  But you have to then “be renewed in your mind.” The text actually says here: “be made new in the attitude of your minds.” In Romans 12:2 Paul worded it like this: “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

The idea Paul tries to explain here, is that the battle against temptation, against sin, is largely fought and won in our minds, in the very heart of our being.  Jesus said “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” He also spoke of the treasures we lay up in our hearts.

Trust me, if you have an Old Man or the Old You nature that is struggling with temptation over sex outside your marriage, then you need to do more than just say “I will not be unfaithful to my spouse.”  You need to renew your mind and not allow it to be filled with the pornographic thoughts from magazines, books, novels, or even certain television shows and movies. You must allow the renewing of your mind along with putting away the old ways.

Any area of temptation, according to Paul, works the same way.  Put off the old ways, but then renew your minds.

A little later in chapter 5, Paul speaks to husbands about loving their wives the way Christ loves the church, and there’s this neat little phrase about how Christ does that. Listen again to Ephesians 5:25-27:

Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it;  That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.

Did you catch that in there about how Christ will get us to become the glorious church with no wrinkles or spots or blemishes?  It said he’ll sanctify us (that means make us holy just like he is), he’ll sanctify and cleanse us WITH THE WASHING OF WATER BY THE WORD.

We are told that we need to “renew our minds”.  Later Paul explains that Jesus Christ Himself wants to do that for us and that it will happen as we allow Him to wash our minds out with the water of His holy Word.  No wonder the early church required new converts to memorize entire books of Scripture! Because, according to this, as we put Scripture in, Jesus washes and renews our minds.

Folks, that’s why we have more than worship in our churches! We also have educational events, not to worship God but to learn about him and fill our hearts and minds with His Word! THAT’S how we get “renewed minds” and “renewed hearts!”

The third specific direction Paul gives us for our journey of faith is for us to put on the New Man or the New You.

And the verses that follow give the examples…

Therefore…

25 each of you must put off falsehood  — speak truthfully…

26 “In anger do not sin” — Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry,

28 He who has been stealing must steal no longer —  but must  work

29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths —  but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs…

31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice  — 32 Be kind and compassionate… forgiving…

And finally the HOW do you do those things…

We pick up the specifics of How in verses 1 & 2 of chapter 5…

5:1 Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children

2 and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

We do NOT want to be like that New Jersey couple… just continuing on in the wrong way because it looks ok and we don’t want to ask for directions.

Paul gives us the directions on how to stay on the right road…

–Put Off the Old Man (or the Old You)

–Be Renewed In Your Spirit

–Put On the New Man (or the New You)

AND HE throws three landmarks in as well…

Back in verse 27 was the first one…

27 and do not give the devil a foothold.

There are many times we’re doing fine, but then we let our eye or ear or mind or mouth let the devil get a foothold into our lives… Paul says WATCH OUT you’re about to take an exit when you should stay on the road!

Verse 30 has the second landmark…

30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God…

God Almighty, through His Holy Spirit will try to lead and guide you by speaking to you… in your heart and in your mind… bringing back the truths of Scripture that you have read and learned. When we sin, we actually GRIEVE the Holy Spirit… we make God sad! WATCH OUT! That’s not an exit you want to take off of the road!

And then the third one is in 5:1…

5:1 Be imitators of God… and live a life of love…

In everything we do, everything we say, God Himself is our example. When you don’t know what to do, WATCH OUT… that is a moment where you are in danger of taking an exit off the road. Rather, in those moments of decision, look to God. If you want to know God’s ways, look to the way Jesus lived his life on earth. And when all else fails, if you’re still not sure of how to be an imitator of God, then let LOVE for God and LOVE for others be the way you make decisions in your life. Live a life of love.

The directions are clear and specific. The landmarks are plain if you’re watching for them. Now the question I suppose is “WILL we follow directions?”

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