Text: 2 Timothy 2:1-12
These are the notes of a sermon preached on Sunday 29th July 2012. The Olympic Games had just opened in London, and a deliberately topical (rather than expository) approach was taken on this occasion. The underlined portions refer to the slides in this Powerpoint presentaton:
Well, it’s not been a great start for Team GB in the medal stakes. But my aim this morning is to make sure that everyone is a winner in this matter of running the Christian race.
Text: 2 Timothy 2:5 ‘If anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor’s crown unless he competes according to the rules.’
Government health warning: this is an illustration of the Christian life. And illustrations have limitations. An illustration tells us something, but not everything, about the thing that it is intended to illuminate.
Take the famous line: ‘My love is like a red red rose.’ Does this mean that my love has a ruddy complexion, and can be a bit prickly? No: it means that she is beautiful.
So it is with this illustration of the Christian as an athlete. Does it mean that there is only one winner? No. Does it mean that we are saved by our own exertions? No.
What it means is this:-
Just as in sport, so it is in the Christian life: we cannot be successful unless we compete according to the rules.
Every sport has its rules. Imagine a football game in which you could just pick up the ball and throw it into the net. Think of a tennis match where it didn’t matter whether the ball landed in or out of the service area. What about a cycling race there was nothing to say that you couldn’t push your rival off his bike as he tried to overtake you. Without rules it wouldn’t be sport at all. It would be chaos.
And it is just so with the Christian life.
‘Nine rules for running the Christian race’
1. You’ve got to be in it to win it
Crowds outside the Olympic stadium. On the evening 5th August, there will be 80000 people inside the stadium for the men’s 100 metre final. But only 8 will have any chance of winning it. They are the 8 runners who actually start the race.
An athlete may have done all the training, bought all the gear, read all the coaching manuals. But he stands no chance of winning the race if he never even started it.
In the same way, the Christian race begins with the first step. Some people know quite a lot a lot about the Christian , but have never actually started it. They are spectators and not participants. They are hearers, but not doers. They have knowledge, perhaps, but not faith; opinions, but not actions. They may say, ‘Lord, Lord’, but do not obey his commands.
“Follow me.” Have you responded to that call?
2. Be committed
People talk a lot about ‘passion’ in sport.
“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.” Bill Shankly
‘Winning isn’t the most important thing. It’s the only thing.’ Vince Lombardi
Prior to the ancient Olympic games, athletes were pledged to 10 months’ disciplined preparation.
In any sport, excellence is achieved only by hard, consistent training.
If this applies to sport, how much more does it apply to something which is literally a matter of life and death?
You can feel the passion that runs through Paul’s writing as he urges the Christians at Corinth to fight the Christian fight, the run the Christian race?
1 Cor 9:24-27 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.
The Christian life is too important, and actually too challenging, for it to work as an occasional pastime. It demands commitment, it demands passion.
3. Train hard
Picture of boy snacking in front of TV. What are his changes of winning next week’s steeplechase?
We can easily spot the symptoms of over-eating and over-drinking. We know a couch potato when we see one. We are well aware of the dangers of smoking and drug abuse.
But what about our spiritual health? If we could stand in front of a mirror and see the reflection of our souls, what would they look like? Would they be flabby or fit?
1 Cor 9:24-27 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 for ever.
For the Christian, this is where developing good habits comes in. There is a place – an important place – for what we call ‘spiritual disciplines’. For developing good habits of meditation, prayer, study, simplicity, confession, worship and so on.
4. No pain, no gain
Here’s the long-distance runner Paula Radcliffe. Sports writers speak of her ‘punishing’ training regime (running up to 150 miles every week). Plus the pain of injuries and the agony of setbacks and disappointments.
Every athlete knows: no pain, no gain.
‘Endure hardship with us’, v3.
A leading thought of this letter: I, Paul, am nearing the end of my Christian race. It has been tough, and I have endured many setbacks, hardships and disappointments. But God’s grace has seen me through. You, Timothy, are near the beginning of your Christian race. You can expect the same.
Jesus too was very clear: if we are not prepared to pick up our cross daily and follow him, then we cannot expect to receive the victor’s crown. No pain, no gain. No cross, no crown.
5. Have a true aim
Every sport has an aim: to hit the target, to score the most points, to be the last man standing, to cross the finishing line first, to lift the heaviest weight.
Php 3:13f One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.
That’s why this church has a vision for 2020, and milestones along the way.
6. Be a team player
Some sports are intensely individual. But others rely heavily on team work. And so does following Jesus.
People sometimes ask: Can I be a Christian and yet not go to church? Actually, the Bible does not teach that Christians should join the church. It teaches that Christians are the church.
‘You are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.’ (1 Corinthians, 12:27)
7. Follow your leader
Mike Brierley: test average of under 23, but in 1981 against Australia able to take a team that hadn’t won a single match under Ian Botham’s captaincy and galvanise it into spectacular success, with Botham himself performing miracles with both bat and ball.
How much more has Jesus done for us as our leader. Heb 12:2. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. There is no challenge, no difficulty, no pain, no temptation to give up that we can experience, that Jesus has not already experienced, and triumphed over. We do not simply go where he tells us to go: we go where he has gone before.
9. Strive to achieve your Personal Best
Last September, Patrick Makau of Kenya broke the world record when he ran the Berlin marathon in 2 hrs 3 mins 38 secs.
Then in October last year, Fauja Singh ran the Toronto marathon in just over 8 hours. In doing so, he became the first 100 year old to complete a marathon.
In May of this year, Claire Lomas finished the London marathon in 16 days. She was the first paraplegic to complete a marathon.
Would we all be able to say, as Paul said to Timothy:-
2 Tim 4:7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
9. Don’t break the rules (No cheating)
Maradona – ‘hand of God’ goal 1986 World Cup.
Ben Johnson 1988 Olympics
Back in 1980 Rosie Ruiz was first past the finishing line in the Boston Marathon, with a record-breaking time 2:31:56. But she was later to have only run the last half-mile!
Cheating is about trying to gain an unfair advantage. It is also about pretending to be what you are not. We call that hypocrisy.
I don’t recall Jesus ever threatening a prostitute or even a tax collector with hell-fire. But, boy, did he come down hard religious hypocrites! He called them ‘whitewashed tombs’, ‘which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean.’
But those who knew that they were unfit for heaven he treated with unfailing kindness and infinite patience.
Let’s be honest competitors in the Christian race, not pretending to be someone or something that we are not.
We have seen that as in sport, so it is in the Christian life. There are rules that we must obey if we are to receive the victor’s crown. The rules are there not to stifle us, but to ensure that we play hard, and play fair. Let us run our race so as not to be disqualified. Let us keep on keeping on, and we will find that God’s grace, which has brought us safe thus far, will lead us safely home. And we will each will finish our race as victor.
‘Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.’ (2nd Timothy 4:8)