Go for the Gold part 1
Winning the Race
by Greg Hanson
Sunrise Wesleyan Church
February 5, 2006

 

Well it almost upon us. Only 5 more days and the eyes of the world will be focused on Turin (Torino), Italy, for the 2006 Winter Olympics. And I’ve got to tell you, I’m an Olympic Junkie. During the two weeks of the Olympics, I watch sports I never dreamed I’d watch. I get completely captivated watching these athletes strive to achieve their dreams of Olympic Gold… some succeeding in spectacular ways, some failing miserably.

And there’s always so much drama! It’s hard to believe it’s been four years since the French Judge robbed Salé and Pelletier of gold in Pairs’ Figure Skating… only for them to be awarded it later in the week. Or since Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz fell in the final few seconds of their routine to drop out of the medals for the Ice-Dance competition. Or since Catriona LeMay Doan, who by the way is a Christian, became the first Canadian to claim two gold medals in consecutive Olympics in Speed Skating. Or since the heartbreak of watching favourite Jeremy Wotherspoon trip and fall at the start of the 500 m long-track speed skate. Or since Alberta’s Beckie Scott became the first North American to win a medal in cross-country skiing. She won the bronze, which was upgraded to a silver because of a positive drug test, and then to gold because of another drug test. Of course, it took two years to figure that whole mess out.

That was all in the last Winter Olympics four years ago! It’s been eight years since Vancouver’s Ross Rebagliati won the very first snowboarding gold medal, lost it when he tested positive for marijuana, only to have that decision overturned and be re-awarded the medal. And it’s been twelve years since the whole Nancy Kerrigan / Tonya Harding story. One thing about the Olympics… they’re never boring.

Already this year, there’s been the whole uproar surrounding Todd Bertuzzi being named to the Canadian men’s hockey team. There was the controversy when several athletes declined the honour of carrying our flag. There are the expectations for Canada to make a best-ever showing. There’s the likelihood that some of the favourites will fail, and that some of the long-shots will come through. How can you not be at least a little intrigued by the Olympics and the Olympic athletes?

So today, at the beginning of this Olympic month, I’m beginning a new series of messages based on the Olympics. Now, one thing I’ve discovered is that the Bible actually has very little to say about bobsleighing or the luge. I haven’t been able to find a passage that talks specifically about hockey. And I’m sure if you tried to expain the concept of curling to the Apostle Paul, it would be all English to him.

But as you read through the Letters of the New Testament, you soon discover that Paul was either an athlete or a sports fan, because one of the most common analogies that he uses for the Christian life is that of a race or a competition. And while the concepts of snowboarding or skeleton would probably be lost on Paul, the concept of the competition and the race is valid. For example… read it with me…

1 Corinthians 9:24 (NLT)
Remember that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize. You also must run in such a way that you will win.

So with that in mind, let’s talk about what it takes to win the race of the Christian life.

 

How to Win the Race:

1. Begin with a Desire.

Now, I can pretty much guarantee you that every athlete going to Torino this week began their journey long ago with a dream. Perhaps as a young child… perhaps as a teenager… whenever it was, it began with a dream to be there. Perhaps they had begun competing locally, and then regionally. Perhaps they had gone on to compete in the provincial arena and then nationally. And somewhere along the line they began to think, “I could represent Canada someday. I could be in the Olympics.”

And that was when the dream began. Maybe at that point they could close their eyes and visualize themselves on the Podium. Maybe they could even hear “O Canada” being played and could see the Maple Leaf going up the pole or being raised to the rafters. That was their dream, but it was more than that. Because there are a lot of people who dream big dreams. A lot more people dream of what could be than actually have the desire to see that dream become a reality. You understand what I’m saying, right?

I mean, as hard as it is to imagine, there could very well be a better hockey player than Wayne Gretzky. But every morning that person gets up and puts on a suit and goes to his law firm or sits in the House of Commons or scrubs dishes or sells stocks… whatever. But whatever he does, it isn’t playing Hockey. Because even though he may have had the talent and maybe even the dream, he didn’t have the desire. He didn’t wake up each day thinking about nothing but hockey. He didn’t sleep it, eat it, dream it, desire it.

But those who will compete in the Olympics over the next few weeks want it, and want it so bad that they can taste it. They know what it’s like to bend their heads to accept the Gold because in their dreams they’ve already done it. Bob Richards, an Olympic Pole Vaulting Champion, summed it up when he said…

“I won it, at least five million times. Men who were stronger, bigger and faster than I was could have done it, but they never picked up a pole, and never made the feeble effort to pick their legs off the ground and get over the bar.”
~ Bob Richards Olympic Pole Vaulting Champion

Now, we all know that Bob Richards didn’t actually win the gold five million times. Or even the silver or bronze, for that matter. At least, not where we could see it. But he had won it that many times in his mind. He had the consuming desire.

Everything you and I will ever accomplish begins with a desire to see it a reality. Whether it’s your family or career or your relationship with God, it all begins with a desire. Cher said…

“If you really want something you can figure out how to make it happen.”
~ Cher

You see, the difference between the winners and the losers isn’t the amount of talent they have. I mean, Cher has some good songs, but I’m sure there are better singers than her. If I could turn back time, I could introduce you to Cherilyn Sarkisian. Cherilyn was a girl raised by a mom who had been married eight times. Here family life was unstable and she was dirt poor, so what was it that turned Cherilyn into Cher? It was her desire. Because her desire was to be a star and that’s what she became.

So let’s shift our focus toward spiritual desire. What are your spiritual goals and dreams and aspirations? Let me show you Paul’s desire. Paul wrote…

Philippians 3:10-11 (NIV)
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Underline that phrase, “I want to know Christ.” That’s the summary of everything he wanted. That was his desire. To know Christ, to experience His transforming power, to become identified with Him, and to spend forever with him in eternity. And somehow, I think that desire became a reality.

And his desire to know Christ… to know God… I believe that’s an innate desire that we all have. Some of us suppress that desire or ignore it, but we are all born with what has been called a God-Shaped vacuum in our hearts that can only be filled by God Himself. Annie Sullivan told about teaching Helen Keller who had been blind and deaf since she was 19 months old. And one day she signed into Helen’s hand…

“Helen, I’ve come today to tell you about God - the One who created us.”

And Helen responded…

“Good, I’ve been thinking about God for some time!”
~ exchange between Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan

Now, what was it that caused this child who had been blind and deaf since she was 19 months old, to think of God? The only explanation I have is that we are all spiritual beings with an innate desire to know God. We may recognize that desire for what it is, or we may turn to other sources to try to satisfy that desire, but the desire is there.

Jeremiah 24:7 (NLT)
“I will give them hearts that will recognize me as the LORD.”

That was specifically in reference to the Israelites, but I believe it applies to us, as well. We have this innate desire that can only be satisfied by Jesus. Jesus himself said…

John 6:35 (NLT)
Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. No one who comes to me will ever be hungry again. Those who believe in me will never thirst.”

That desire is there, and it’s placed in us by God. It’s what we do with that desire that matters.

The story is told of a young man who came to Aristotle and said that he desired knowledge. So what did Aristotle do? He led the young man to the beach and out into the water. And when they were out waist-deep deep in the water, the philosopher grabbed the young man and plunged him under the water and held him there as he struggled. And when he finally released the young man and he emerged gasping for air, Aristotle told him…

“When you desire knowledge as you desire air you won’t need anyone to teach you.”
~ Aristotle

And so in order to begin our spiritual journey… the journey that Paul refers to as a race… we need to recognize our desire to know Christ. And we have to act on it. And with that comes the promise of God in His Word…

Jeremiah 29:13 (NLT)
“If you look for Me in earnest, you will find Me when you seek Me.”

The race begins with a desire. Number two…

 

2. Decide to Start.

At some point the desire has to turn to action. We can talk all we like about wanting to do something, but until we actually take that first step, all we are doing is talking. At some point the desire has to be turned into action. And in order to do that wisely, you’ve got to know the eventual cost. For an athlete, it will mean years of commitment, training and sacrifice.

Nearly 2000 years ago, the Greek philosopher and writer Epictetus made this statement…

“So you wish to conquer in the Olympic games, my friend? And I too, by the gods, and a fine thing it would be! But first mark the conditions and the consequences, and then set to work. You will have to put yourself under discipline; to eat by rule, to avoid cakes and sweetmeats; to take exercise at the appointed hour whether you like it or no, in cold and heat; to abstain from cold drinks and from wine at your will; in a word, to give yourself over to the trainer as to a physician. Then in the conflict itself you are likely enough to dislocate your wrist or twist your ankle, to swallow a great deal of dust, or to be severely thrashed, and, after all these things, to be defeated.”
~ Epictetus

But for the Olympic Athlete, every one of those sacrifices is well worth it. If you were to ask them, “What are you training for? Why are you making these sacrifices?” they would be able to tell you. They would say, “Someday I’m going to stand on the podium and receive a Gold Medal for my country. Someday I will be the very best there is.”

Jesse Owens, who became famous for his win in the 1936 Olympic Games in Germany, said this about winning:

“If you don’t try to win you might as well hold the Olympics in somebody’s backyard. The thrill of competing carries with it the thrill of a gold medal. One wants to win to prove himself the best.”
~ Jesse Owens

And if an athlete hopes to win, he or she has got to start training. If your desires and dreams have any hope at all of becoming a reality, there has to be a start. If you want to be the best anything, at some point you will actually have to start doing it. If your dream is to be a great painter then you will need to lift the brush to the canvas. If your dream is to be a great writer then you will have to set the pen to the paper. If your dream is to be a great dancer, you’ve got to start working on your Paso Doble.

What are your dreams? What is it that each morning you wake up thinking about? Whatever it is, it’s not too late to start pursuing it. When MichelAngelo was 72 years old he started work on the monumental dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. When Galileo was 74 he published his dialogue concerning two new sciences. When Stradivarius was in his early 90s he fashioned two of his most famous violins. When P.T Barnum was 71 he joined James Bailey to form the Barnum and Bailey Circus.

“Though no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand new ending.”
~ Carl Bard

In fact, here at Sunrise, one of our Core Values is “New Beginnings”. We recognize that the rest of your life and the rest of your eternity begins at this moment. And whatever has or hasn’t happened in your past, today is a new day. You can start right now and make a brand new ending.

Earlier this week, Shera was telling someone about our wedding rings and what we have engraved inside them. Being the sentimental sap I am, I came up with something ultra-romantic to engrave inside of her ring. So if she were to take off her ring and read the inscription, she would read, “Put me back on.”

Okay, maybe not so romantic. But typical. You’ve got to give me that. Shera, on the other hand, really was the romantic one. So if I take off my ring and read the inscription, I read, “From this moment on…”. That was our pledge to each other.

And so it is in our spiritual lives. We promise God, “From this moment on… From this moment on I am Yours. From this moment on I will love You. From this moment on I will follow You. From this moment on I will live for You… I will die for You.” From this moment on. We need to make a start. All the desire in the world won’t make any difference until we put it into action.

In John chapter 3, we read about how one dark night, a religious leader named Nicodemus came to Jesus. Nicodemus had heard about Jesus and had heard about His miracles and so came to Jesus looking to learn more about God. But Jesus quickly told him that his desire to learn wasn’t enough… he had to do something about it. He had to turn desire into action. Jesus told him…

John 3:3 (NLT)
“I assure you, unless you are born again, you can never see the Kingdom of God.”

It’s not enough to learn more about God… you need to begin a new life with Him. Paul tells us…

2 Corinthians 5:17 (NLT)
What this means is that those who become Christians become new persons. They are not the same anymore, for the old life is gone. A new life has begun!

 

3. Persevere to the Finish.

An athlete needs to understand that the start is only the beginning, and that it will require a commitment and a sacrifice in order to finish. The believer needs to know the same thing. You don’t become a Christian and then just kind of drift toward Heaven. Throughout the New Testament, the descriptions of the Christian life are always active. It’s a walk. It’s a race. You’re told to take up your cross, follow Jesus, and press on. You’ve got to start, but only if you’re willing to pay the price. Jesus himself gives us this warning…

Luke 14:27-28, 33 (NLT)
“And you cannot be my disciple if you do not carry your own cross and follow me.
“But don’t begin until you count the cost. For who would begin construction of a building without first getting estimates and then checking to see if there is enough money to pay the bills?...
“So no one can become my disciple without giving up everything for me.”

When we go to Christ and ask him to forgive us and to give us a new life and a new purpose, he does all of that. And in return, He wants all of us. Paul wrote…

Romans 12:1 (NLT)
And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will accept. When you think of what he has done for you, is this too much to ask?

One of my favourite Olympic stories actually comes from the Summer Olympics… the Mexico Olympic Games in 1968. I’ve told you this story before. During those games, Momo Wolde (Wold-ah) of Ethiopia won the marathon, the most historic of all the Olympic events. The silver medal went to Kenji Kimahara of Japan, and the bronze medal went to Mike Ryan of New Zealand. And they were awarded their medals during the final track & field award ceremony of the Games.

But while they were celebrating and receiving their medals, many other athletes were still running the marathon. In fact, it wasn’t until a little over an hour later that the final competitor, John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania, entered the stadium.

Apparently, Mr. Akhwari had fallen early on in the race and had injured himself. And as he entered the stadium, the people who were still present could see his heavily bandaged left leg. Understanding that he must have been in a great deal of pain, the crowd cheered as he struggled toward the finish line and eventually crossed it. He was seen as a winner, although he would receive no medal for his accomplishment. His only reward was the satisfaction of persevering and finishing what he had started.

One journalist wrote about this event:

“Today we have seen a young African runner who symbolizes the finest in the human spirit, a performance that gives true dignity to sport, a performance that lifts sport out of the category of grown men playing at games, a performance that gives meaning to the word ‘courage.’ All honour to John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania.”
~ written of John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania, competitor in the 1968 Olympics

Many people were inspired by the enduring determination and perseverance of this one man. And when he was asked why he didn’t just quit, his response was simple:

“My country did not send me 5000 miles to start the race. They sent me 5000 miles to finish the race.”
~ John Stephen Akhwari

That echoes what Paul wrote in Philippians 3. Read it with me…

Philippians 3:13-14 (NLT)
Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us up to heaven.

God didn’t give you a desire in life just so you could identify it, put it on a plaque, and mount it on your wall. He gave it to you as something to be accomplished. And it may take an enduring determination to accomplish it. So keep going. Don’t give up.

1 Corinthians 9:25 (NLT)
All athletes practice strict self-control. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize.

And that prize is the motivation. Keep your eyes on the prize. Strive for it. Don’t get discouraged, don’t get distracted, and don’t give up. Because when you finish, it will have all been worth it.

Hebrews 10:35-36 (NLT)
Do not throw away this confident trust in the Lord, no matter what happens. Remember the great reward it brings you! Patient endurance is what you need now, so you will continue to do God’s will. Then you will receive all that he has promised.

James 1:12 (NIV)
Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.

You see, it’s not enough to start toward the goal. If you are going to achieve it, then you must finish. We will never know the number of people around the world who started along the path to Olympic Gold. We’ll never know the people who had great dreams and great desires and great intentions, but somewhere along the line they got a bad case of quititis. It would be wonderful if, once you started the race, it was easy to finish the race. But that isn’t the way it works. Every person who has accomplished anything of substance has had to overcome obstacles along the way. There are no gold medals given out to those who quit.

Whatever else you might think of Richard Nixon, he was right when he said…

“Defeat doesn’t finish a man -- quit does. A man is not finished when he’s defeated. He’s finished when he quits.”
~ Richard Nixon

In our spiritual lives, there come times when it feels like the easiest thing to do would simply be to throw your hands up and say, “I’m out of here; it’s just too tough!” Maybe you’ve been disappointed or hurt by another Christian. Or maybe you just can’t seem to win the battle over that nagging habit or sin. Maybe you’ve simply grown tired. Whatever you do, don’t quit. Even if you’re hurting, don’t quit. Here’s a little spiritual advice from Shaquille O’Neal…

“This is a tough game. There are times when you’ve got to play hurt, when you’ve got to block out the pain.”
~ Shaquille O’Neal

Well, maybe Shaq was talking about basketball. But it does apply to the Christian life. Paul said something similar…

2 Corinthians 4:8 (NLT)
We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed and broken. We are perplexed, but we don’t give up and quit.

It doesn’t matter how fast you start the race if you don’t finish the race. So you’ve got to persevere to the finish. And number four…

 

4. Receive the Prize.

The analogy of the race gives us a word picture of the starting line and the race itself, but the most important part of the race is the finish. And the great thing about the Christian race is this: All who finish receive the prize. It’s not about coming in first, second, or third… it’s about finishing. If you finish the race, you will receive the prize of an eternity in Heaven.

Philippians 3:13-14 (NLT)
…I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us up to heaven.

Revelation 21:7 (NLT)
All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children.

So how do you finish the race? By starting it and persevering and remaining true to Jesus. By placing your faith in Him and Him alone. It’s not your good deeds that qualify you… it’s the response of God’s grace to your faith…

Ephesians 2:8-9 (NIV)
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.

You finish the race by maintaining your faith in Jesus. Now, the Bible does also talk about being rewarded according to our good deeds. But that’s sorted out afterward. That’s not the entrance requirement for Heaven. The prize is received by finishing… by being faithful to the end. Good deeds do not earn you Heaven. It’s only God’s response to your faith. Paul wrote to Timothy…

2 Timothy 4:7 (NLT)
I have fought a good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful.

And because he had remained faithful, he could receive and enjoy the prize.

 

So where are you at today? Have you begun the race? If not, why not start today? Just right now where you’re at, you can decide that you are going to pursue Jesus Christ from this moment on. You can turn to Him to fill that God-shaped vacuum in your heart. If that’s where you’re at, then you can pray something like this… Let’s all just close our eyes and bow our heads… you can pray this…

Jesus, I want to know you. I choose this day to follow You, love You, and live for Your purposes. Help me to place my faith and my trust in You, and lead me from this moment on, I pray.

Maybe you’re here and you’ve begun the race, but you’re struggling along. Maybe you’ve grown tired, or you’ve been disappointed, or you’ve run into some obstacles in your Christian life. If that’s you, then why don’t you pray something like this…

Jesus, increase my faith. Uphold me and sustain me. I do not want to give up, so I ask that you will renew my strength, help me rise up and persevere, and press on until I reach the finish. Thank you. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.

 

[Much of the message adapted from material by Denn Guptill.]
 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2006 SunriseOnline.ca