Seeking Spiritual Discipline – Aug. 5, 2018

On Patriot’s Day, April 15, 2013, the 117th annual Boston Marathon took place on the streets in Massachusetts. Over 23,000 runners from all over the world came to compete. About 2 hours after the winner finished, ‘when many other runners were expected to be close to the finish line’, 2 pressure-cooker bombs exploded killed 3 people and injuring 264 others.

Most of us ‘have probably seen the footage’ and watched the manhunt, for the two suspects that followed. But you may not be aware of what happened ‘with the runners’ right after the explosion – or what happened on May 25th.

Despite the chaos and the confusion, some runners still finished the race that day. Apparently, they were so focused on finishing the race, ‘what had just taken place’ didn’t register. Eventually, the last mile of the race was called off – and runners were told to avoid the area.

So then on May 25th, just ‘a little over a month later’, 3,000 runners who didn’t finish the marathon came back to run the final mile. This time, the race wasn’t about registering a good time, winning, or getting their pictures in the paper, it was simply about getting to finish the race. Others came to support them and the injured.

The husband of one of the runners that day stood by the finish line cheering his wife on. As she crossed it, he ran out and hugged her and he placed a metal around her neck. A newspaper reporter nearby took their picture and asked the two of them how they felt. The wife just teared up and walked away saying nothing.

Then, her husband said, “Somebody that thinks that they’re going to stop a marathoner from running, doesn’t understand the mentality of a marathoner.”

The truth is ‘people run for all kinds of reasons’. Some people run to stay in shape, others run because ‘they love the competition’ – and still others run for the sense of accomplishment they feel when they finish. I believe that is the mentality of the marathon runner.

I had a friend who loved to run marathons. I asked him once, what motivated him to run. He said, “I love the feeling of crossing the finish line; that is my focus. I don’t worry about the runners all around me, I just set my pace, hit my stride – and think of how it will feel to finish. “That”, he said, “keeps me running.”

I have watched runners crawl or be carried over the finish line, it is that important to them. That is why so many marathoners returned on May 25th to finish the last mile of the Boston Marathon. They had not officially finished the race, until the stepped across that finish line — and they had to reach their goal.

The Apostle Paul knew something about running a good race. He had been ‘in and around Corinth’ – and he knew about their passion and their conviction. He also knew ‘what it took to prepare, run and to finish the race’.

There were 4 sites were ancient Greeks held their athletic games, Olympia, Delphi, Nemea, and Isthmian, of those was one just outside Corinth. They were the precursors to the Olympic Games we watch today.

Athletes throughout Greece would converge on the Isthmian Games every two years during the spring. These games were in honor of the Greek god Poseidon. The most prominent building in Corinth was a temple dedicated to Poseidon. There was also a stadium, theater and hippodrome (used for chariot races) nearby.

The athletic events were only for the men, they included; footraces, wrestling, boxing, discus and javelin throwing, the long jump and chariot racing. Women were prohibited from participating in or watching these events – in part because the men competed in the buff, but also because the women were a distraction for the men.

Women could take part in the reading of poetry or ‘singing events’ in the theater. The entire festival only lasted for 3 days; opening with a sacrifice to Poseidon – and closing with a parade and a big feast.

Corinth did not have accommodations for such a large crowd, so many people came and pitched tents in the surrounding fields. Obviously, this gave Paul work there, because he repaired and made tents.

Athletes who entered in the Greek Games were subject to a 10 month training period. They were under the direction of coaches and judges for this time. They had to observe a strict diet, exercise at the appointed times in the gymnasium and get the necessary rest.

They were ‘to live in isolation from their wives’ and were denied all the pleasant things of life. This was so that they could concentrate on being ‘in the best physical and mental condition possible’. If the athlete did not train according to the rules he was disqualified.

The Greek word for victory is ‘Nike’. The slogan for Nike is “Just do it” which indicates ‘to just abandon everything else’ and give it all you’ve got.

Winners received a crown of laurel branches or olive branches; the original crown was made from celery. They also received a ‘lifetime exemption from’ paying taxes and serving in the military. And statues of the winners were erected and lined the road to the stadium.

The analogy of comparing “athletic completion” to “Christian living” is a theme often repeated in scripture. In the Old Testament, Isaiah 40:31 reads that “those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk – and not be faint.”

Paul urges the Galatians to keep running the good race and not to allow others to “cut in on” their race – or to keep them from obeying the truth. (Galatians 5:7)

And near the end of his earthly life and ministry, he tells the young pastor, Timothy, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for His appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:7-8)

Because Paul knows the Corinthians are motivated by competition, he 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.” (1 Cor. 9:24)

Now, while ‘the hope for a prize is always before our eyes’, Paul’s real focus is on ‘how to run the race’. If you want to win, solid preparation is the key to success. In 1976, Indiana University won the NCAA National Title. When interviewed about their success, coach Bobby Knight said, “The will to succeed is important – but ‘what is more important is’ the will to prepare.”

Back when I worked at the hospital, we had to practice CPR regularly. The thing is, when it comes time to actually doing CPR, there is no time to think – it must come naturally – and that is exactly the point. Being prepared is key!

Everyone who competes in the games or lives the Christian life must go into strict training, Paul is saying. The preparation must be all-consuming, relentless, focused, determined and intentional. The battles are real – and the outcome matters.

The great Brazilian soccer player Pelé once said, “Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.”

Our role model was Jesus himself. In Luke 9:51 we read, “As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.”

Isaiah 50:7 reads “Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame.” Meaning he was steadfast, unswerving and headed toward the cross; that was his only goal. Jesus knew that to finish well, he had to ‘keep his focus on the finish line’. Then, he was able to say, “It is finished”.

In the Olympic Games, there is only one gold metal winner, but our task is to encourage others to run with us so they will also win the prize that will never wither or fade. Our hope is to see all finish well.

1972 Olympia runner Steve Prefontaine is considered by many to be one of the most inspired runners of all time. He had ‘a steal will’ and an unbending drive to succeed. Steve won 120 of the 153 races he ran. He once said, “To give anything less than your best, is to sacrifice the gift.”

Paul also reminds us Hebrews 12:1-2a, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders – and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance ‘the race marked out for us’, fixing our eyes on Jesus.”

Paul wants us to exercise self-control and to not be mastered by our appetites, cravings or impulses. Instead, he is implying, we should ‘seek deeper spiritual disciplines’ that will keep us on course and serving God with our bodies, minds and souls. We do not run for our own glory – but to glorify the one who created us.

And if we hold onto Christ, like Paul, one day we can say,

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

In a misguided and hurting world, imagine what could happen if we all focused on Jesus and his ‘Good News’.

“He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Thess. 2:14)  Hope is greater than hate, love defeats selfishness, and grace rescues the sinner.

Your assignment is…strengthen your walk and begin to run. We do that by studying our Bibles; come to Paul’s Bible study before worship. Join us on Friday nights at 6:30pm for prayer. Join a group of Christians who are serving others for Christ.

Focus on ‘the life Jesus has for you’ and life it abundantly. I think you will find that that is a race worth preparing for and running.

Amen