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Epiphany 6

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1 Corinthians 9:24–27 NIV
24 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 someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
Today’s theme is about striving to be the best you can be in an area of our lives that really matters. It is contrasted with what all too many people think is so important and in reality is not. We are to strive so that we do not become disqualified for the prize. Unfortunately, some people spend so much time pursuing other interests, that they in effect disqualify themselves.
Money and Sports
Although not mentioned here, we can all see that many people (ourselves at times) are more concerned about money and the things it can buy that pursuing what is truly important. Recall these appeals not to spend “all our time in fretting and in getting things that have no solid ground” as the hymn writer says.
1 Timothy 6:6–12 NIV
6 But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8 But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9 Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. 11 But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.
Matthew 6:24–34 NIV
24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. 25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? 28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Nevertheless, materialism is a constant threat to our spiritual well being.
Another pursuit that some people have is sports.
What is it that St. Paul uses as an example that people pursue hard in order to get a prize?
1 Corinthians 9:25 NIV
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.
It was a reference to athletic games played in Greece at that time. We can relate to this example in several ways.
While Herod the Great promoted Greek games in Jerusalem, the prevailing attitude among Israelites would likely have been opposed to them (see ). Paul’s letters, especially to the Corinthians, contain many more references. This should be no surprise given the frequency and popularity of games held at Corinth.
Paul speaks of boxing (; ; ) but especially of the footrace, perhaps the most popular of all athletic contests. He alludes to training (, ), the racecourse (), and the starter’s summons (, “I have called others to the contest”). Racers must strip naked (), concentrate on the task (; , ; ), and strive to endure (). Only then will the runner taste victory () and win the prize ().
Particularly motivating for circum-Mediterranean natives is the acquisition of honor, or public recognition (by spectators; ; ). The judge would determine honor and dishonor (; ) at the goal line, where he would award the prize (; ).
Pilch, J. J. (2012). A Cultural Handbook to the Bible (p. 278). William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.

So run, that ye may obtain—said parenthetically. These are the words in which the instructors of the young in the exercise schools (gymnasia) and the spectators on the race course exhorted their pupils to stimulate them to put forth all exertions. The gymnasium was a prominent feature in every Greek city. Every candidate had to take an oath that he had been ten months in training, and that he would violate none of the regulations (2 Ti 2:5; compare 1 Ti 4:7, 8). He lived on a strict self-denying diet, refraining from wine and pleasant foods, and enduring cold and heat and most laborious discipline. The “prize” awarded by the judge or umpire was a chaplet of green leaves; at the Isthmus, those of the indigenous pine, for which parsley leaves were temporarily substituted (1 Co 9:25). The Greek for “obtain” is fully obtain. It is in vain to begin, unless we persevere to the end (Mt 10:22; 24:13; Rev 2:10). The “so” expresses, Run with such perseverance in the heavenly course, as “all” the runners exhibit in the earthly “race” just spoken of: to the end that ye may attain the prize.

Pilch, J. J. (2012). A Cultural Handbook to the Bible (p. 278). William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.
What modern day examples do we have of people pursing sports?
Winter Olympics are being held right now.
The culmination of the NFL season is Superbowl Sunday.
NBA teams are jockeying for position for the playoffs already as are college teams.
Baseball teams are working on improved rosters.
These examples affect us indirectly as fans who watch games or even go to them. But we aren’t participating.
But there are games that we do participate in. Already at an early age our youth are involved in school and club sports. Many parents are consumed with making sure their children get to all the practices and they cheer them on from the stands. Some parents even practice with their children at home relentlessly. I’ve heard that the all time scoring leader for the Pardeeville Bulldogs would spend hours every day shooting baskets in his drive way to develop his shooter’s touch. Many future pro bowlers literally grew up on the lanes that their parents owned. Practice makes perfect is a truism because it does work. My fellow pastor was an avid table tennis player and his father had told me several years ago that they spent many enjoyable hours together at the ping pong table.
Why?
It is fun. Much enjoyment can be found in participating in athletics. Although I never play organized sports (my parents and questionable athletic skills were determining factors), I still enjoy participating in golf and pickleball very much.
It is entertaining. We have a certain amount of anticipation before a play starts and although we know what the possible outcomes can be, there is that consummation of the play which gathers our interest. Think of Joe Buck’s calls during a passing play in football. When the pass is released, he will say, “And the pass is . . . caught, dropped, intercepted, broken up.” Since you can’t see the whole field on the TV, you wait for his call and the camera to follow the flight of the ball. The same can be said about basketball shots, pitches, balls hit, etc. And closer the score, the more entertaining it can be.
Healthy (except if you get hurt).
“In it to win it.” The ultimate goal is to win. As Vince Lombardi said, “Winning isn’t everything. It is the only thing.”
We celebrate the winners. They get the victory parades. The champions are crowned. The losers are . . . losers after all. Avid sports fans can tell you who their sports champions have been from year to year. Even they would be hard pressed to name who lost the big games.
What does it take to be a winner?
Natural ability.
Strict training.
Self-discipline.
Do you have a sport or interest that you strive to be great at? (Watching TV does not count by the way.)
Arts and crafts.
Hunting and fishing.
Trap shooting.
Card playing.
Hobbies.
Music (singing or playing an instrument)
Then you know firsthand just how successful strict training and practice can be.
St. Paul uses this example and applies it to the main pursuit of his life. What was it? “No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
This is in contrast to the sentiment of many Christians today. We emphasize so much that we are saved by grace alone, faith alone, and Scripture alone that we have created a culture of spectators when it come to living for God. Instead of getting up off the couch and doing something we are content to just sit back and watch justifying our own laziness and sloth by saying we are saved by grace and not by works so we don’t have to do anything. And then when the inevitable results occur (lethargy, apathy, and inactivity) we openly or secretly criticize those who are trying and blaming them for what is going on. It is nothing new. No one did more than Jesus. No one was criticized or rejected more. His followers were also intent on striving to win others over and not be disqualified. What did they get from spectators for their intensity? They also were criticized and rejected. Nevertheless, they did not falter in their own determination or in urging others to follow their example.
2 Peter 1:5–11 NIV
5 For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. 8 For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins. 10 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, 11 and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Call to activity.
Call to activity.
This calls for setting and keeping priorities. It may be quite an accomplishment to win prizes and games and to spend so much time and energy on them. But where is the balance? What impact is an overemphasis on sports and hobbies and games have on your own spiritual life and the mission of your congregation? It pains me every time to hear people tell me they can’t worship at their church or serve the Lord in their church because of sports and other activities. Sports has become the “sacred cow” of our culture and we dare not even question those who put sports above the practice of their faith (or lack thereof). We all need to take to heart what St. Paul is saying here.
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