Epiphany 6b

Preached: February 15, 2009

Run to Win
1 Corinthians 9:24-27

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The Word from God through which the Holy Spirit speaks to us is 1 Corinthians 9

Don't you know that all the runners on the track run, but only one gets the prize? In the same way run to win. Every athlete exercises self-discipline in all things. They do it to get a crown of leaves that withers, but we for one that never withers. I, then, run in such a way so I'm not aimless. I fight in such a way so I'm not beating the air. Rather I knock out my body and enslave it, lest somehow, after preaching to others, I myself am proved unfit. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

This is the Word of our Lord.

Dear friends in Christ, fellow saints washed clean in the blood of our risen Savior,

Red Sanders, the UCLA Bruins football coach of the 1950's, is reported to have said: “Men, I'll be honest. Winning isn't everything. Men, it's the only thing.” Coaches have used that thought to drive their players beyond themselves, to give it 110%, to excel, to strive, to win. “Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing.”

On the other hand, that thought has also been used as an excuse for bad sportsmanship and underhanded tricks. Maybe it's also contributed to the sporting steroid scandals as athletes do anything to win. And doesn't that thought that winning is the only thing throw life out-of-kilter if family or school or community or church become secondary to sports?

But in one arena that saying does hold true. “Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing.” For you see, to lose in this arena means to lose everything not only to lose life itself, but to lose all hope, all happiness, all peace, all love. Everything. That's the arena the words of the Apostle Paul take us into as the Holy Spirit himself urges us to press on in this race, to run to win. That, dear friends, is our theme. Run to win. Run with your eyes on the prize. That's part one. And run with your body strictly disciplined. That's part two.

A. Run with your eyes on the prize

1) Describe the kind of prize earthly athletes compete for.

The words of the text bring to mind a sporting arena. It's track and field day. In fact in Paul's day, the Isthmian Games were held near Corinth every two years. This was one of the four sporting festivals regularly held in ancient Greece. The best known of the four was the Olympic Games. So we see, we're not too far removed from those first readers in Corinth. They enjoyed their sports too.

Paul writes, “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 . . . They do it to get a crown that will not last; be we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly” (1 Corinthians 9:24-26 NIV). Run to win. Don't run aimlessly but with your eyes on the prize.

And what a prize it is! Think of how athletes all compete vigorously against each other even though only one of them is going to end up with the gold medal. Becoming the one winner is so doubtful and uncertain. The odds are stacked against it. Yet they all work so hard for such an uncertain medal. And in the ancient Greek Games, it wasn't even a gold model but a crown of leaves. For the Isthmian Games near Corinth it was a wreath of pine leaves. Now if you had a real Christmas wreath this year, you know how quickly pine needles perish. No wonder Paul refers to it as “a crown that will not last” (1 Corinthians 9:25 NIV).

2) Describe the prize on which we set our eyes.

But how different the prize that awaits you! Not withering leaves, but the Tree of Life. Not a gold medal, but Jerusalem, the golden; heaven itself; paradise; the home of righteousness; our treasure that never perishes, spoils, or fades. And this is not a prize for only one person. Listen to what the Apostle John saw when Jesus showed him heaven: “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7:9 NIV). This prize is for you too, no matter what corner of the earth you come from, no matter what nation, tribe, people, or language. Run to win. For the prize is waiting for you. If athletes work so hard for a perishable prize they probably won't win, how much more shouldn't we sacrifice all for the everlasting prize that has already been won for us? Run to win. Run with your eyes on the prize.

Run with your eyes on heaven, the throne of the Lamb, who was slain for you and now who lives and reigns eternally. Run with your eyes on heaven, the throne of the Lamb, whose blood has washed you clean and clothed you in the white robes of his righteousness. Run with your eyes on the prize, for it has been won for you by the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, your victorious Savior. How different this prize is!

B. Run with your body strictly disciplined

1) Why did Paul need to keep the desires of his body strictly disciplined?

Don't lose this prize, rather run with your body strictly disciplined. Paul makes this point by again taking us to the sporting arena. Think about how hard athletes train. “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training” (1 Corinthians 9:25 NIV). Athletes follow a disciplined workout, a strict diet, long days. They sacrifice time with family and friends, time for fun and recreation. Think back to last summer's Olympics and the vignettes on the lives of the athletes. Think of the Rocky movies. How hard athletes train all for a prize that perishes like withering leaves! Wouldn't we make every effort and sacrifice all else for the prize that does not wither or perish, the prize that lasts forever?

Yes, of course! But it's so much easier to say than do. That's why the Apostle Paul strove to stay focused on his Savior. He writes, “I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air” (1 Corinthians 9:26 NIV). In the arena of life, he needed to be focused on his Savior. Otherwise he'd be like a man running the wrong way or a boxer swinging at the air.

And Paul knew where the temptations came from. He knew his enemy. His own sinful body. Did Paul's body enjoy being beaten by the Romans or stoned by the Jews for preaching about Jesus? Of course not! Did Paul's body like giving up the safety of a regular paycheck and the comforts money can buy, so that he could go from town to town spreading the Good News of Jesus? Of course not! Paul's body may have longed for those good old days when he persecuted Christians, for then he was honored and well taken care of.

Paul knows his enemy, so he writes, “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” (1 Corinthians 9:27 NIV). The word translated “beat” literally means “to strike under the eye” -- right there where you give the knockout punch. Paul is not recommending some sort of self-flagellation, whipping yourself. No, he has knocked out his bodily desires and enslaved his body to do the Spirit's will.

Each day as his fleshly desires get up off the mat, he knocks them down again. For Paul knows that if he starts following his body's desires then he would no longer be following Christ. And without Christ, we lose the prize. Only death, hell, and damnation would be left for us.

Even a great Christian like the Apostle could fall from faith if he gave up the fight or did not run to win. He needed to keep his bodily desires under strict discipline. What a warning for you and me to daily fight the good fight, to continually run to win! Run with your body strictly disciplined. Just listen to the recent news to see how even an Olympic star like Michael Phelps can fall if strict discipline is given up. In athletics that just has earthly consequences, but in the spiritual arena it carries eternal consequences. So dear friends, run to win. Run with your body strictly disciplined.

2) What desires tempt our bodies?

Knock out those sinful desires that tug at your body. Greed, lust, selfishness, rage, conceit, jealousy, envy, and so on. Don't dance around with them. Don't play with them like an over-confident fighter. Knock them out. Don't follow them off the racetrack and run aimlessly. Run to win.

And even the body's natural desires for food, rest, warmth, comfort, shelter, exercise, entertainment and the like keep them in their proper place. Don't let those bodily desires be the master. Rather enslave them as you serve your Lord Jesus, who has ransomed you to be his own.

For example, how often isn't our work driven by wanting to satisfy our bodies' natural desires? We want that new car or home improvement or digital TV. We want that special vacation. We want to eat out. We want to look good. So we work to afford those things, driven by our desire. We make our decisions and choices based on how can I get what I want, how much do I sacrifice to get ahead, how can I secure my earthly happiness. Do you see what's happened? Rather than being kept in strict discipline our bodies have become the master directing how we live our lives.

Now our Lord, as he enables us, certainly wants us to work to provide for our bodily needs. But there is a world of difference between going to our job thinking: “As I carry out my daily work, I'm serving my Savior because he has won heaven for me. He has enabled me to do this work to provide for the needs of myself and my family as well to fulfill the other financial responsibilities he gives me towards the church, the government, and the needy. So I'll do my work faithfully for him.” Contrast that with going to our job focused primarily on how can I earn enough to get what I want. In the second our body's desires are the master. In the first our bodies are slaves to serve a greater Lord. Then like an athlete in strict training, no sacrifice is too great for us to make in order to run for our Lord. Run to win.

And this plays itself out in all the other decisions we make in life. How we spend our time and money, how we treat others, what we do on a Sunday morning, what do in the privacy of our own homes all our decisions. If they're made based on how to satisfy my body, then I'm no longer running to win. I'm off course, running towards the other team's goal line. I need to stop before it's too late and I lose the prize. I need to knock out my body and make it my slave. I need to run with my body strictly disciplined, ready to sacrifice all for him who sacrificed himself for me to give me the victory. That's what it means to run to win.

3) How do we keep our bodily desires knocked out and enslaved?

How can I do that? The answer goes back to part one. Keep your eyes on the prize. Keep your eyes on Jesus. You know the tools God has given us to focus our hearts and minds and eyes on Jesus. Use them to keep your eyes on Jesus, the Lamb of God. He was slain for you and now reigns eternally on heaven's throne. He sacrificed himself on the cross to win forgiveness for you. Yes, even for those times when we failed to keep our bodies under strict discipline, even when we ran the wrong way, he has paid for them all for you. His forgiveness flows freely to you through the Gospel. His forgiveness is sure and certain, for he has risen from the dead. His victory's won for you.

So run with confidence. Run to win. For in this arena, winning isn't everything; it's the only thing. Amen.

Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313