Text: 1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5
The Latin title for this Sunday in the Church Year is Septuagesima. It means, “about seventy days to Easter.” It may feel like we just made it out of Christmas but, already (and always as Christians), our eyes are set toward the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of our sins. Actually, we already had mention of Jesus’ death and resurrection last week in the Gospel. He told Peter, James, and John not to say anything about the Transfiguration until after, “the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” (Matthew 17:9 English Standard Versions) The Transfiguration teaches us, in part, that glory comes through suffering – particularly, the suffering of Christ – but, also, how we will receive our heavenly crown only after taking up our crosses and following. This is what St. Paul is getting at in our Epistle text today.
He uses the example of an athlete to demonstrate how we are to live our lives as Christians. Many athletes run in a race, for example, but only one wins the prize. The winner is the one who exercises self-control, keeps their body in submission, and sets their mind fully on the end goal. Earthly athletes do what they do for a perishable prize. We see how hard they exercise their bodies, and that for something that will ultimately fade. How much more should we, Christians, who are working toward an imperishable prize, behave the same? St. Paul encourages us this week to view our Christian lives as runners do a race: keeping our eye on the prize and exercising self-control in all things.
Oftentimes in Scripture we find illustrations that we don’t immediately understand. One that comes up from time to time that I don’t usually get is when our Lord said, “No one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed.” (Luke 5:37) I kind of know what that means now, but not really. However, today St. Paul gives us an illustration that most will understand. He said, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-25) St. Paul’s ministry in Corinth lasted nearly three years. In the year 51 there was an event in Corinth called the Isthmian Games; it’s likely that Paul could’ve been there and seen the events, which included racing and boxing.
In a race, more so than in boxing, many people run. On a track, you have less; in a cross country race, more, sometimes many more. Part of a race, though, is that not everyone can win; otherwise, it wouldn’t be a race. “Only one receives the prize,” St. Paul said. The one who takes the prize is the one who, “exercises self-control in all things,” who disciplines their body and keeps it under control. Those of you who have children who are athletes get to witness some of this. We all have some idea of what professional athletes go through in order to compete. In either case, what they compete and strive for is a “perishable crown.” If they strive and struggle so hard for temporary fame, wealth, or glory, how much more should we, who seek to be heirs of Christ’s eternal kingdom do so, as well? Paul offers himself as an example, “So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (vv. 26-27)
He then turns to one of the more difficult illustrations in Scripture, that of Israel in the wilderness. See, when athletes compete in a race they know that only one is going to win. Those who lose the race will, likely, race again and try harder the next time. There are no eternal consequences for losing a footrace. There are if we fail in our race as Christians. “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink…Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.” (10:1-5) God in His great mercy brought the children of Israel up out of slavery in Egypt. Based upon His own promise, He led them through the sea on dry ground and directed them toward a land flowing with milk and honey. Although they all passed through the sea, ate the manna, and drank from the rock, nearly all who left Egypt died in the desert as discipline from the Lord.
All who were over the age of 20 fell in the wilderness because they did not keep their “eyes on the prize;” they did not exercise self-control. You know how, while Moses was up on Sinai receiving the Commandments from God, the children were down below worshipping the Golden Calf. This was only the first example of their idolatry; there are many more. In addition, Israel did not listen to the Lord’s command not to intermarry with other nations. Instead, they adopted the false gods of the people around them and engaged in sexual immorality with them, too. And, as if these sins weren’t enough, Israel grumbled against God the whole way. They refused to enter the Promised Land and hated the good food God provided them. They did not bear in mind their final goal, they did not exercise self-control; as result, they were overthrown. God punished them. Although we maybe shouldn’t assume that they all died in unbelief; Scripture doesn’t paint us a rosy picture. St. Paul said, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.” Here, he speaks of our lives as Christians.
We do not run for a temporary prize, but for an eternal crown of glory which will not fade away. We do not deserve to be in this race. We were, like our parents and their parents before them, born sinful and unclean. We were born enemies of God and subject to His wrath, but He had mercy on us. He brought us to the waters of Holy Baptism and washed away the evil and malice that resided in our hearts by nature. He gave to us a new, clean heart and poured into it the Holy Spirit. Through Baptism, the Holy Spirit resides in us, giving us and maintaining in us the gift of faith. He always works to point us to the death and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins. Moreover, He works fruits in our hearts: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23)
We heard back in Advent, how these things in Scripture were written for our instruction. Today we confess that, if athletes work so hard – keeping their eyes on their goals and their bodies in check – for a perishable prize, so should we for an imperishable. How this looks is that we remember whose children we are, what we are here for, and where we look to be. In Baptism, God made us His children. He brought us out of darkness – things like idolatry, adultery, and covetousness – and into His marvelous light. He provides for us to remain here in this life, as our Lord said, to be “the light of the world,” and, “a city set on a hill.” (Matthew 5:14) Our call as Christians is to live faithfully within our vocations: to hear and keep God’s Word, bearing witness before others to the love of Christ through our own words and actions. We do this so that in the end, by God’s grace, we may enter into His eternal creation where there will be no more sin, death, sadness. This is the race that we run.
Now, we don’t always run perfectly; we’ve confessed that already this morning. We do not always exercise self-control as we should. We do not always act as those headed to heaven, even though by God’s grace, we are already now citizens there. Let us learn from the example of the Israelites, then, and live lives of repentance and faith. This is, after all, what it means to be baptized, “that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” To that end, let us implore God the Holy Spirit. We pray:
O Holy Spirit, grant us grace, that we our Lord and Savior, in faith and fervent love, embrace and truly serve Him ever. Help us that, we, Thy saving Word in faithful hearts, may treasure; Let e’er that Bread of life afford new grace in richest measure. Make us die to ev’ry sin, each day create new life within, that fruits of faith may flourish. And when our earthly race is run, death’s bitter hour impending, Then may Thy work in us begun continue till life’s ending, until we gladly may commend our souls into our Savior’s hand, the crown of life obtaining. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord.Lutheran Service Book 693