For this Sunday’s bulletin, click here: Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (Septuagesima)
A necessary and a vital text to hear. Paul’s athletic imagery is especially gripping here. Some pastors go on about sports in every sermon, but I prefer to leave it for the times that the text actually talks about it, or at least mention sports far less often. That way it stays fresh for the hearers.
Sometimes I want to roll my eyes when I hear a TV preacher going on about “victorious living,” as if by the strength of our own will we can overcome sin and do what God wants. Yet if we roll our eyes like I do too much, we might miss a vital point: Jesus actually does want us to live victoriously. He wants to help us overcome our enemies: the sin that so easily entangles, that ancient serpent the devil, and even death itself. Jesus does want us to live forever being victorious over them. That’s why He gave us all His benefits, all the blessings of His glorious Passion, death, and resurrection, through the Holy Supper and the divine Word.
As Juba says in the movie Gladiator, “Why won’t you fight, Spaniard? We all have to fight.” That’s what this sermon is about: we all have to fight. How we lose and how we win I’ll save for the sermon itself below. Be encouraged, friends.
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. 1 For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. 2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3 They all ate the same spiritual food 4 and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert.
— I Cor 9:24-10:5 (niv84)
Is anybody else getting sick of hearing about presidential campaigns yet? The actual campaign hasn’t even started yet and already it feels like we’re in the middle of it. I personally would never want to be President of the United States, but it seems that plenty of people do. They’re already lining up to duke it out for a chance to run for president. Running for president in this country is a tall order. In order to succeed at it, you have to be well-known, at least appear competent, and have piles and piles of cash. You can’t have ever done anything wrong that anybody will ever find out about, because your opponents and the media will dig through your past and unearth anything wrong or dumb you ever did. You can’t say anything that will offend anyone or turn away potential voters, even when people are lobbing hard questions at you or trying to get you to say something ridiculous that they can jump on. And all that’s even before you’re nominated! In an election year, many run, but only one gets the prize come November. Today, Paul tells us that we’re also running in a race – but we’re not aiming for the White House. We’re aiming for heaven. Let’s listen and see how to Be Ready for the Fight of Your Life.
Paul wouldn’t have have much use for our modern view of “everybody’s a winner” and making up prizes just so that everybody gets something. That’s not realistic and Paul knew it. Especially Paul is thinking spiritually here. Once someone asked Jesus, “Lord, are only a few going to be saved?”, and Jesus didn’t really answer their question. Instead He said much the same thing as Paul does here: “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to.” Make sure you win, that you come through for your own self. Forget what everybody else is doing and focus on yourself, your own life – what’s good for your own soul. Don’t rubberneck or gawk around or lose focus – see to yourself first. Imagine how many complaints would be snuffed out, how many noses would no longer be stuck in the air at other people’s lax behavior, if we all took Paul’s words to heart here!
We’re all familiar with the strict training athletes do, even if we’ve never competed at a high level ourselves. Olympic ice skaters and gymnasts dedicate their entire life to training and preparing. Often they get up at 4 or 4:30 in the morning. They train for hours. They deny themselves a lot of things normal people enjoy, all in pursuit of their goal. It’s always been baffling to me that McDonalds sponsors the US Olympic team. None of those athletes can eat McDonalds food at all regularly if they want to win a medal. For Olympians and pro athletes, everything in their life takes a back seat to that goal of winning a championship or winning a gold medal.
People will devote amazing amounts of time, effort, and money to winning in pro sports. Teams spend millions of dollars and thousands of hours scheming, trading, planning, and strategizing, all for the chance to compete for a championship. Relatively few teams are able to contend for a title; fewer yet can go the distance. (I’m looking at you, Packers.) Even if they do win, then what? They get a shiny trophy, the confetti falls, the coach gets Gatorade dumped on him, there’s a big parade, and maybe the players get a few more endorsement deals – and then the next season starts. They have to do it all over again if they want to keep the crown. Their glory doesn’t last. It’s so fleeting. And if you lose the championship? You’re a nobody. You’re just like the rest of the losers. Those who never won a game all season, those who lost in the first round of the playoffs, and those who lose the championship are all alike: they’re all losers. Second place is first place loser.
Compare that with the crown of glory that Christ has set before us. He promises us total and unconditional forgiveness of every sin forever, even if the sin lives in our bodies. He promises us eternal glory and honor forever in heaven as part of His people, if we are faithful to the end. He promises us an eternal status as the children of God – adopted by grace, cleansed by His blood, freed from all stain of sin forever. He promises that we will get to see God as He really is. He promises us an eternity in the endless light of His presence, and we’ll never have to leave – no sin or shame or guilt will turn our faces away from His beauty forever. He promises us release from eternal death. The natural result of being a sinner in a sinful world is no longer what must happen to us, because Christ has freed us from death and filled us with eternal pleasures throughout our earthly lives and on into eternity.
And you didn’t deserve any of it! You didn’t earn this crown. God doesn’t owe you anything. You haven’t impressed Him so much that He says, “Wow, that person really is deserving – here’s what I’ll give them.” No, it’s all by grace – purely a gift, 100% unearned and undeserved! That’s the point of our Gospel for today. What you do trying to gain heaven doesn’t matter, because God gives everyone the same grace, the same forgiveness, the same salvation – full, free, and complete through faith in Christ. The landowner wants to be generous and gives those who worked a one-hour day the same as those who worked a twelve-hour day. That generosity is God’s grace as it comes to each of us, regardless of what we’ve done or haven’t done. Just believe it’s true, and Jesus promises that it is.
Even though God had promised Paul such a wonderful crown, Paul still says that he had to fight. He says, “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.” What was Paul outrunning? Why was he fighting so hard? Paul was fighting the natural inclination of his body to support sin and do sin. We’re not just spiritual or just physical – we’re both. Our sinful nature wants to use our physical bodies as instruments of wickedness, to do sinful things. Our sins are against God, who is Spirit, but we sin with our physical bodies and our sins are committed while we’re in the body. Our flesh wants to swerve us away from God and serve sin instead. Paul had to fight against that every day. He had to force his flesh to submit to him by not gratifying it. He had to force himself to do his duty and keep his eyes on the prize. That took real effort. You see what it cost Paul here. More literally what he says here is that he punched himself under the eye. His self-discipline was so rigid and inflexible that it amounted to punching himself in the face. Paul wasn’t abusing himself, which wouldn’t be God-pleasing, but he wasn’t giving himself any breaks or cutting himself any slack either.
When he didn’t let himself do what his body wanted, Paul was keeping himself in top shape for service to God. He understood that anything less than total commitment, total self-discipline, could be fatal. If he slacked off in his Christian life, Paul understood that he could very well lose his salvation – even Paul, the greatest Christian missionary the world had ever known. If he became just someone who mouthed the right words at the right times and never believed any of it, all the good things Paul had done for God in traveling around and converting people and shepherding churches wouldn’t have been worth anything. Those good things wouldn’t have saved him.
We are in the same knock-down, drag-out fight that Paul was. Each of us individually gets up every day and starts running the same race. Each of us starts throwing punches at our sinful flesh, keeping it down, keeping it at arm’s length for another day so it can’t sneak up on us and take us down. We dare not look at our faith as a one-hour-on-Sunday deal. We each have to live our faith every day, or we risk losing our faith – and along with it, everything good that God has to give us.
Do we always exercise that level of dedication, self-control, self-discipline that Paul did? Hardly. We live in a society that promises you everything your way, right away when you want it (even if the promises are false.) A great deal of that mindset has rubbed off on us. More often we avoid the outward appearance of sin rather than actually fighting sin and fighting our flesh. As long as we look okay, we think, we’re fine. We neglect the inner struggle against sin, and that shows up in our lives. Precious few of us are willing to punch our sinful flesh in the face to get it to leave us alone for a while. Lust, greed, anger, pride, a haughty spirit – they all feel right to us, so we don’t react to them violently like we should. Your flesh is strong and hardheaded, and it fights back when you try and avoid sin. I’m not going to sugarcoat this: it’s a struggle. It’s brutal and exhausting and endless, and usually you lose more than you win.
So how do you revive yourself and build yourself back up? How do you refresh yourself to go back out there and beat down your sinful nature every day? With the holy Body and Blood of our Lord. Nothing else makes you stronger, more patient, more loving and kind, more steadfast, in quite the same way as the Lord’s Supper. Nothing. Willpower alone will not do it. Let’s face it, we can’t win this fight on our own – so our Lord has given us His very Body and Blood to strengthen us and reassure us that no matter how tired we get or how many sins we commit, He will forgive us. He has conquered sin and that includes the sin that lives in you too. Every time you come to the Lord’s Table Jesus is telling you that your flesh will not win, and even more than telling you He’s showing you – Here, this is the proof that I have fought and won with sin, I’ve wrestled with the devil and destroyed him, I’ve crushed death for you – all when you hear, “This is the true Body of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, this is the true Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and you eat and drink believing that it’s true. When you come to the Lord’s Table you taste not only bread and wine; you taste victory that wipes out all the defeats your flesh hands you every day. You taste Jesus’ strength to fight those battles and win, because you’re receiving Jesus, and He who said, “All power in heaven and earth has been given to Me,” has power enough and to spare to lift you past your difficulties and console you in your defeats. Through His body which bore all your weakness and failures on the tree and which you receive in the Supper, you are victorious in Christ. Through His blood shed for you on the cross and that you receive in the Holy Supper, you are found worthy in God’s sight.
So don’t take His Supper for granted. Use it often because nothing else strengthens and builds you up like
this. And don’t give up in fighting your flesh. Struggle against yourself, your sinful self, and learn to rely on His power alone. Hang on to His Word and promises as your only comfort and strength when you’re wavering in the face of temptation. Value His holy Supper as the only remedy for the sin that lives in you. Fight the good fight even though it’s exhausting and draining and brutal. Sometimes just putting up a fight is the victory. Never give up. Have a point to what you think, what you say, what you do. Live for Christ on purpose. Know what you’re striving for, know where you’re weak, know how to knock your flesh down so that it doesn’t rise up against you again. Jesus says, “Be faithful even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.” God grant it. Amen.