We’re Running in the Medal Round

(…Dipping hands in clear bowl of water) So, have you got the withers yet? Or the prunies? Most of us have been watching the Olympics this week. We’ve been right-there-in-the-water with Michael Phelps and all the rest. It’s enough to give you those little wrinkles right down to your fingertips and toes. We’ve been totally immersed! (The Baptists will be pleased.) A few have seen ourselves swinging on the rings, teetering on the beam or twirling through the uneven parallel bars with the gymnasts. But mostly, it’s been all Michael, all-in-the-pool. It’s like, here’s a little water from the oceans of the world. Add a drop of Michael… and everything is changed. (Water to blue.) And all in pursuit of pure gold. Or should I say mute gold? Cold, soft, heavy, shiny gold? The stuff the world competes for, swims for, runs, leaps, spins and shoots for. Yet it never feeds a family (directly), finds a friend, lifts a spirit or saves a soul. The world has long rushed after, and fought over it. But in the end, in the Olympics or in life, it’s the striving that matters. The direction and determination. The spirit-growing. These truly count. In these things lies the victory. Here is the worthiness worth striving for.

This week, if you who haven’t yet OD’d on the Olympic Theme Song, the scene shifts to track and field. The dashes, the relays, the marathon. The discus, the shot put, the long jump and the high jump. By week’s end, farther-faster-higher will be our motto too. We’ll finally see ourselves, one way or another, on the track, in the game. My hope is, my prayer is, Scripture’s deep desire is, you and I will see ourselves as not just tuning and toning for the preliminaries. And not just in the pool or on the tarmac. The hope is we will come to see ourselves in a spiritual sense as running in the medal round! You and I are living a race, charting a course, contending against all comers and contending with our very own inmost parts, in the medal round. This is our first, last and only event! And the prize? The prize we see before us is not cold, old gold… or as Paul writes, “a perishable wreath of laurel on our heads,” but an “imperishable” crown of victory. Nothing less than fellowship with God and with each other. A saved life/soul!

Now’s the time, the week, the moment to hold nothing back! Wouldn’t it be worthy of wall-to-wall news coverage if somebody, anybody, even you or I lived a life that holds nothing back?! Paul says it so plainly. “In a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize. So run that you may obtain it.” Don’t walk, don’t saunter, don’t jog. RUN! ‘All out, all in, in your relationship with God in Jesus Christ. Granted, some read the “only one runner wins” part of this text and speculate or fulminate on who gets to heaven. And Paul, like Jesus, has his say in the matter. But here, the emphasis is not on the other runners. It’s on us. FOCUS on the spirit-life you’re living. The race we’re running. The things inside, not those outside, that will determine how YOU finish. How many interviews must we hear? “I just needed to run my race, do my routine, keep my self straight,” to come out OK? Get this. The world doesn’t have to change for us to change the world. Just we do! Our families, work, neighbors or church don’t have to be better for us to “go on to perfection,” as Methodists say, just we do.

Paul raises the original inconvenient truth about our own internal environment. For the sake of the imperishable prize, “Exercise self-control in all things!” No matter the sport, footwork is required. (I know this isn’t the Olympics, but it is sports. Huge Jonathan Ogden, the Ravens’ lineman, retired because of… his big toe!) Little things mean a lot. Mental mistakes mar the finest physiques in sport. Millimeters matter in where you place your hands. Muscle memories rule. The training table and the practice field sculpt the body and minimize mistakes. It’s the dim light of the dawn run that gains the spotlight for the determined runner. It’s all cliché in sport. I’ve said nothing we don’t all know. But how is it we forget or pretend otherwise where our souls are concerned? Self-control in all things. What do you need to focus, discipline, control to be the best soul you can be? Maybe it’s what we say. In person. Via email. On the road. At the table. In the bedroom or the family room. Says the Letter of James, “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, …an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell.” Hit the send button, electronically or in person and there’s no “undo” button to repair the damage. Discipline. Self-control. Maybe anger’s your training need. Jesus says, “You’ve heard, ‘You shall not kill, or you will be liable to judgment.’ I say everyone who’s angry is liable; whoever insults his brother is liable to the council, and who says, ‘You fool!’ is liable to hellfire.”

Are you in control of your spirit-life? Mr. Phelps consumes 12k calories daily to swim brilliantly. How much of God’s Word do you take in daily to confront your world faithfully? (Do you run out of faithfulness ‘cause you run out of spiritual food?) Gymnasts make practice what one reporter called (get this), “Prayer for the muscles, so no place they perform will be unguided by a greater Will to Win, even than their own!” You and I really are runnin’ through life in-the-medal-round. Couldn’t our prayer-life assure there’s no place we perform unguided by a greater Will to Win than our own? Watch with amazement the body-control of these superb athletes this week. But remember. Today’s lesson invites you to ask, “Where I am spiritually out-of-control? In need of discipline? Suffering for sheer lack of practice in holy things?”

Apparently, Paul could watch boxers box. (Not me, not since I saw one killed in the ring.) He offers ringside advice I can freely pass to you. “Don’t box beatin’ the air.” “Don’t shadow box with demons-not-there.” (Don’t fret where there’s no real threat. All repeat.) [Box gesture.] We whiff at worry. We flail against fears without faces. Don’t waste spiritual energy on the air when there are real opponents to be faced. The thing about the medal round is… everything becomes more urgent. Inside us. Around us. There’s no time for distractions and no place for illusions. So much of what surrounds us distracts us. For 37 years I’ve married and counseled couples. I almost invariably ask the just-startin’ and now-breakin’, “What are the top three things you want over the next five years?”

Most common answers: kids, home, security, job, peace-in-the-house, more (just “more”). In 37 years, only 5 times I can recall has anyone answered, “A closer walk with God,” or, “A greater assurance of eternal life,” or, “A clearer vision of God’s vision for my life,” or, “Peace on earth like the peace in heaven.” I am struck that 2 of the 5 who have so answered did so here! Most of us shadow box through life. We withhold when we need to commit without reserve. It would free us so for things-above not to hold on to things-below. Whether referring to the gifts we lay hereon the altar or the gifts of kindness we share at home, Paul is still right. “The point is this: he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly. He who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” II Cor. 9: 6-7

Here’s the joy of our life. Always to keep the sight of the prize alive. It’s the only thing worth running for in the medal round. It’s why we so value the sign of the cross. ‘Even beyond all the gold of all the games combined. The upright and the outstretched arms. They meet where the heart of Christ beats its best and last, for us and for all. Did you know that only once in all scripture does the word irrevocable appear? Paul writes (with the cross on his mind), “The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” (Rm. 11: 29) Two things qualify says Paul. The upright of the cross. God as God is, let down from heaven and standing on earth. And God is merciful. It is God’s supreme, holiest gift. God faces the evil of the cross, the junk in our hearts and behaviors and the absolute evils of this world. Yet God will never take back God’s mercy. That’s the gospel truth. And the best word we’ll ever hear! The other irrevocable? The outstretched arm of the cross! The invitation offered to us to stand under and to stand up for God’s desire to add to those who are being saved by his mercy. This is our reason for being. It’s our mission. Personally and as God’s people! And God will never take back our mission! It’s why we’re runnin’ this medal round. It’s the reason we dive in the pool and swim for all we’re worth. (And we’re worth the very life of Christ!)

Here is the one hope that can draw this world together. And offer it whole-to-God… for the world to come. Every four years, albeit not in Faithful or Christian terms, the globe tries it hand at mercy extended. And family reclaimed. Lands that are shared house sisters and brothers at odds. Deadly odds. While the Russias and Georgias make news up-in-arms, two of their daughters share the medal stand at the games. They embrace… and kiss. And Bible folks are reminded of the Psalm Jesus knew. “HOW good and pleasant when brothers/sisters dwell in unity! It is like the precious oil upon the head, running down upon the beard of Aaron, even on the collar of his robes! [North to south is the point, all are again as one with the Lord.] t is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life for evermore. Add a drop of this vision in the waters… everything is changed. (Water /green) Life wins! We win! Mercy wins! God wins!

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