Olympic Games remain the highest standard in track and field games. Recent Olympic sessions are recorded to have had athletes from over 100 countries competing for medals in different categories and levels. The goal of every athlete that competes is to win, not just any medal, but gold, which remains the most coveted award in each category. That is the thrust of Paul'scounsel in this week's verse: to strive to win.
Races are rigorous and intense, meant for the fittest of the fit. Chance and luck have little or nothing to do with winning; only the right preparation promises success.
I know I can't run such a rigorous race as the Olympics.It's not about jogging leisurely at a personal pace, under my own rules. It's about competing with the world's best athletes, beamed to millions around the globewatching my every move.There's no way I can win on my own. And I know for a fact that you can't either, under the same circumstances.
But guess what? Jesus knew that! He knew before we were even formed in our mothers' wombs. What He told the Prophet Jeremiah is equally true for us: 'Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations' – Jeremiah 1:5. That was when He called out to us: 'On your marks, get ready and set'. But it did not end there.
Knowing perfectly that we're not fit to run this race, Jesus is clear with the assurance that He's willing to run alongside us on the track. Is anything too hard for the LORD? – Genesis 18:14 , God asked Abraham.He is asking the same question today: do you consider anything too hard for Me, including this race you have to run among the best that the world has to offer? He completed the command He called out to us earlier when He fired the starter's gun at our birth: 'Go!' This was the start of our life's race, one that we cannot complete on our own.
Jesus also knew that we can't make it to the finish line by ourselves with our spindly legs already weakened by sin. By nature, we are notfit for it at all. King David summarizes our collectively pathetic lot: ' Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me' -Psalm 51:5). Howthen can we run with such a terrible deformity?
Yet my hope is secure.Though I can't make it on my own, I am certain that the Lord will not leave me to waddle around helplessly on my own, my lungs about to burst from the exertion of this tough race. He promised He would never leave me nor forsake me, so I know He's by my side, to run life's race with me.
Running to Win
The goal of every professional athlete is to compete in the big races. They train for years to get in shape and nothing else counts as much as their goal to win. They might be good dancers, good drivers, good managers but they're never satisfied until they have distinguished themselves as world-class athletes. That is essential. And they make all the sacrifices necessary to accomplish their goal.
The Apostle Paulgave a clue that there is a certain way we also must run life's race so as to obtain the coveted prize that's reserved for winners. He summarizes it in a unique phrase: be temperate in all things .
Being temperate refers to abstaining completely from all that is harmful and using in moderation all that is good. Hence, in eating, drinking, sleeping, dressing, exercising, and so on which are all good things – winning the prize requires temperance. The harmful or bad things we are to stay away from altogether.
According to the Apostle, this secret characterizes the lives of successful athletes who compete for prizes. Empirical evidence further affirms his view. One good example is Usain Boltwho, at the time of writingthis, holds two world records for the fastest sprinter alive since 2004. He's never failed a doping test, and his record-breaking achievement, including setting a new record since 1900, is largely attributed to his 'carefully regimented diet'. Or,in the language of Apostle Paul, a 'temperate diet'. It is easy for him to shed without regrets, whatever, and not just his diet, that can hold or slow him down from winning the prize.
In biblical terms, Paul expatiates further:' 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' – Hebrews 12:1.
Our focus is on let usthrow off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. No athlete will run with anything that can weigh him down on the track. Before the game, hecarefully checks his shoes, his clothing, anything that will be on his body when he's in the race. He sheds whatever is heavy. In our Christian race, the culprit is sin. Aptly described by the Apostle John as the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1John 2:16), it is a dead weight that has only one destination it seeks to drag us- a place far away from the prize, into destruction.
But here's Paul's plea: run in such a way that you may obtain the prize. You know what can hinder you from winning the prize - 1 Cor. 9:24b . Be wise and shed it. The only place to drop it is at the foot of the Cross of Jesus. Confess your sins to Him, and ask for His cleansing and enabling power ( 1John 1:9). There His precious blood will wash it far away and you'll be free to rununimpeded,towards the finish line – towards the prize.
We also learn from great athletes that they do not consider themselves to have accomplished muchuntilthey have, not just run the race, but have won the prize,usually the gold medal.
Paul mentions two prizes in this week's text: a perishable and an imperishable one. They're distinct and we'llexamine the differences, usingthe lives of two great men -Howard P. Drewand Jesus of Nazareth.
Chances are that you don't know the first, I didn't either; I had to do a Google search for it. But you must have at least heard of the second.
The first man was born in 1890. He was an African-American multi-sport athlete, scholar, lawyer, judge and the first ever to hold the title of 'World's Fastest Man'. He helped make his little town famous with his numerous accomplishments. He died a natural death and was buried in his hometown. Nearly a century later, his extraordinary achievements have long been forgotten, save for the little information that is being revived about him through the deliberate efforts of a few. He remains dead till this day.
The second lived over 2,000 years ago. He was a carpenter's son who was born in a manger, had no house to his name, no formal degree, no wife, no earthly medal. He was ridiculed, died the most shameful death, a pauper by the world's standards, rejected by His very own. His accomplishments however outweigh those of the smartest and the brightest,living or dead. He remains till today unequaled and unparalleled in popularity. It doesn't matter that He was killed; He rose and is alive today and forever more.
The first man got several crowns in his lifetime, none of which he could transfer to another while alive, or even after his death. Each of those prizes had a lifespan.Each was a perishable crown.
The second got a cross at death, and a crown at resurrection. A crown that is transferable to as many as believe in Him, for all eternity.This prize is enduring for all eternity. It is an imperishable crown.
We were created by the One who won and gives out the imperishable crown. The essence of our lives here on earth is to win that crown. We are not to drift through life aimlessly as though we have no race to run or no crown to win. Your life has a purpose, so does mine. The purpose is to win thatpromised crown. For as long as we're alive, our goal is to run towards that prize. Paul adds: ' Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: 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 3:13 -14.
Jesus holds out the imperishable crown of life to everyone who desires it. It doesn't matter how far you've come on the track, how many medals you've won in the past with your brawn and brains. He knows you can't win this all-important race by yourself. And so He's quick to remind you that the rules of His race differ from that of the world's Olympics. The good news is that unlike in the Olympics, in this race, if all run, all will receive the prize.
Life is a race. We all are runners in that race. And like every race with a start, we are running to the finish line. Some will make it, some will not. A lot will fall on the tracks; some will limp to the end with injuries. Life's race is not like the Olympics. All who run may obtain the prize. It's not a sprint, it's a marathon. It is tough.It is long. It will tax you to your max.But as you go towards the finish line, run with Jesus. Run towards Jesus. He's waiting to receive you at the end, with your prize lovingly held out to you-that imperishable crown, prepared by Him.
The words of this ancient hymn provide timely counsel for the pilgrim that's equally valuable to us as runners in life's race. The best part is the reminder that Jesus runs alongside, even as He waits to handout that imperishable prize to us. What comfort! What hope as we run steadily on!
O Happy Band of Pilgrims
O happy band of pilgrims, If onward ye will tread
With Jesus as your fellow, To Jesus as your Head!
O happy if ye labor As Jesus did for men;
O happy if ye hunger as Jesus hungered then!
The trials that beset you, The sorrows ye endure,
The manifold temptations, That death alone can cure.
What are they but His jewels of right celestial worth?
What are they but the ladder Set up to heaven on earth?
O happy band of pilgrims, Look upward to the skies,
Where such a light affliction Shall win you such a prize!
To Ponder: Think about your life. At the end of it, would you have merely started life's race or would you have run and won the prize? That enduring, imperishable crown of life reserved for all those who successful runlife's tough race? As Aeschylus reminds us, 'To the man who himself strives earnestly, God also lends a helping hand.' He's willing to run alongside you in the race, even as He'll receive us at the end of the race. So, why run alone?
All scriptures are quoted from the New International Version (NIV)