Brothers and Sisters,
The word for today (or rather this evening) is competition. When the COVID-19 crisis first broke over us in earnest two weeks ago (or so), the air was thick with competitive juices, and not the good kind. I felt it most perniciously when, on Friday, March 13th, I braved fields of unfriendly strife at Costco. It wasn’t that people were outwardly aggressive or rude to one another, but competition reigned nonetheless, even if it was only in our minds. Everyone was bent on securing their needed items for their family in the face of building social panic over an unseen virus. Thankfully, by the common grace of God that holds together even a world fallen in sin, the Costco run on Friday, March 28th felt much different – more organized, more measured, less panicked. It seems our fear-driven competitive juices have subsided a bit while we’ve learned to live “shelter-in-place.”
Now, even as our society has dubiously decidedly that he who has the most toilet paper wins (sorry, couldn’t help myself), ironically we’ve had to postpone that most iconic of competitive gatherings, the Olympics. This year, 2020, was the year of the summer Olympic athlete, but no longer. We’ll have to wait until 2021 to see if anyone can best Usain Bolt’s 9.58 seconds in the men’s 100-meter dash. Meanwhile though, as Christians, we can let both the regretful competition of fear, and the disappointment of competition postponed, become a spur to things more fruitful. There is, after all, a holy competition that belongs to believers. In fact, competitive language shows up repeatedly in the New Testament. Consider these passages:
In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 (NASB), the Apostle Paul writes, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”
Paul again takes up the image of an athlete running a race (alongside the corresponding pictures of a soldier and a farmer) near the end of his life when he writes to encourage his companion and co-laborer, Timothy. Paul desires that Timothy, like an athlete running a race, will be strong, not in his own strength, but in grace: “You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. The things you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also…Also if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules…Consider what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Tim. 2:1-2, 5, 7 NASB).
Finally, the author of Hebrews, in Hebrews 12:1-2, writes, “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author of perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Yes, we are competitors! We have been “put in the game” by the grace of God that has rescued us in Christ Jesus. The best athletes compete because they love their sport. So also, love is the engine that fuels those sprinting after Jesus – the love we have received from God; the love we have for God; the love he gives us for others. We lovingly compete our way through life, not for the glory of self, but all to the glory of God as we strive to do what Paul commands in Romans 12:10-12 (ESV): “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo [this word has a competitive vibe] one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.”
I leave you tonight with perhaps my favorite Christian athlete of all time, Eric Liddell. A gold medal sprinter in the 1924 Olympic games, Eric died in February 1945 while a Japanese internee at a camp in war-torn China. For all it lacks, the 1980’s film Chariots of Fire is a keeper. The film is at its best in this moment of conversation between Eric and his sister, Janie. Eric Liddell was a true Christian athlete.
May you and I run our race this week fueled by love, and secure in the victory Jesus has already won for us.