Monday, August 13, 2012

Run to Win: The Olympics in Scripture

August 12, 2012Deacon Rick Bauer
(note: the following images were used as slides during this homily)
Today we will take a break from fires and shootings and the election, and talk about what everyone else in the world is talking about—the Olympic Games. Our own parish of Our Lady of the Pines is no stranger to the Olympics. Zeke Jones, a member here, is a coach of the Greco-Roman wrestling team at the London Olympic Games. He won a silver in wrestling in the Barcelona Games 8 years ago. His protege, Jordan Burroughs, just won a gold medal in wrestling in London. Jordan was given some grief because a few days before he left for London, Jordan posted, "all I see is gold." You may be criticized for being arrogant, but I'm told that it was all about Jordan's focus, the radical focus an Olympic athlete has to have in order to succeed. We'll talk about that later today.

History tells us that the Olympic Games began in the 7th century before Christ (BC) in Olympia, Greece; they were held every fourth year, almost continually, for 1,200 years. Greeks would mark their calendars in four-year periods called "Olympiads". In the third century BC, the Grecian Emperor, Alexander the Great, began to conquer the known world, and as he conquered a region, he would required every person to speak his Greek language as a second language. This universal Greek language came to be known as "Koine" (pronounced coin-a), meaning "common" Greek, incidentally one of the most explicit and unambiguous languages the world had ever known.
During the 1st century BC, after the death of Alexander the Great, the Romans took over the Land of Israel, but the Koine Greek language continued to be spoken, in the land of Israel, and all over the known world. So, during the lifetime of Christ, in the 1st century AD, Christ and the Apostles spoke Koine Greek as a secondary language, the New Testament was written in Koine Greek. Now keep in mind that the ancient Games in Olympia Greece were in full swing, and words to describe the Olympic activities because part of the mainstream. Just like many of us understand what a "grand-slam" and a "red zone offense" and a "trips-right, strong-side student body right fake, weak-side naked bootleg left" means, the people of Paul's day understand terms the described the activities of the athletes. It might be said, that if St. Paul had ESPN, we would find some of those words in the scriptures, because, like Jesus, he used terms, words, and ideas that were understandable to the common people, in order to illustrate important aspects about the Christian life. So at the Summer Olympics of 2012, it seems appropriate to at least sample the Olympic Games terminology found in the New Testament. 

1 Corinthians 9:24-27 has more Olympic terminology than any other  passage; let's look at it together: 

For St. Paul, the great fear in his life was that somehow he could forfeit his own place in glory by hypocrisy. For him, there would be no greater disappointment than having had a chance to win, and then losing. As this runner in the 1500 meters realized.  

Let’s unpack what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9 a bit more clearly, and identify some words that would be helpful to understand in their original language. 

The Greek word stadia is where we get the word stadium from. It is directly translated from the Greek through Latin into our use in English today. St. Paul has a picture of our running the Christian race not alone, not in some isolated individual workout, but in the presence of God, in the encouragement of others, with a sense of connection to others who have earlier competed, and with the power of the Holy Spirit.
The words “exercises discipline” in verse 25 is the Greek word agonizomos, which meant "training for the Olympic games." If you wanted to talk about working out for the Olympics, you used the word agonizomos. In our day, we speak of Michael Phelps going to swim each morning; Missy Franklin works out in a pool in Denver each morning before she attends a Catholic high school there. In St. Paul’s day, the Olympic athletes went out and agonizoed, they worked out, they agonized each day. Gives you a sense of what the Christian life should be. Not a stroll around the block, but a vigorous workout in the virtues.  In 1 Timothy 6:12 we find "agonizomos" again. Paul says to Timothy, his young protege in the faith, much as a coach to a young boxer, “fight the good fight of the faith.” Much as an Angelo Dundee might have said to young Cassius Clay, soon to be Muhammad Ali, in preparing for Olympic gold in the 1960 Olympic games in Rome, “fight the good fight.” "Fighting the good fight" here literally means to be a success at the Olympic games.
Like the parables that Jesus told, we automatically, viscerally understand the spiritual life we are challenged to live by these words of St. Paul. Agonizomos tells us it is not easy. Agonizomos tells us it is not cheap, Agonizomos tells us that few will see it.
In verse 25, the word “exercises discipline” is the Greek work egkratea, which means the self-control required for an athlete to become a champion. In Galatians 5:23 the word translated "temperance" or “self-control” or “discipline” is that same word egkratea , that same self-control that is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.
For the word “crown” Paul writes the word stephanos which meant the awards, medals, and wreaths that the athletes won in the Olympic Games. Our "crowns", a word used nine times in the New Testament, always the Greek word stephanos , are our gold medals, our rewards for Christian service, related here to the athletic awards of the Olympic Games. 

You may not ever stand on the podium in London like Jordan Burroughs, or in Barcelona like our own Zeke Jones, to receive the stephanos of Olympic glory, but we are attaining a higher, loftier, more glorious stephanos which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award on that day.

In verse 26, Paul says I do not "fight", if I were shadowboxing, the Greek word for "fight" is pukteuo, from which we get our English word "pugnacious” and the word “pugilist.” Paul is saying that our "fight" or "boxing match" is not as one who "shadow boxes", but our "boxing match" is real. Again, St. Paul uses a Koine Olympic training term, used to state that our enemy is spiritual and very real. It's not shadowboxing; it's deadly serious. It's not going through the motions; it's a life, a contest against a determined opponent whose intent is to destroy you. Only one will win.

150 years ago, I boxed at West Point, I was a pukteuo, a pugilist, and there is nothing like that feeling of having the bell ring, all the warm ups, all the shuffling and "floating like a butterfly" is over, and it’s just you and your opponent. Everyone looks good shadowboxing--that's the first thing you learn how to do. It's when the bell rings that the real fight begins. St. Peter says “your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion waiting for someone to devour." For some of you, your bell will ring in a few days, not at the beginning of an Olympic boxing match, but when you meet your adversary with the class bell rings in college; some of you high schools students know what's it's like to lace em up" every day when the bell rings and you face that roaring lion of peer pressure and compromise, in that Olympic ring in your high school. You know more than anyone outside that ring what a battle it is! Some of you face it every day at work. You have watched others get devoured who were not paying attention. It’s not shadow-boxing anymore. You've watched as families and lives and marriages get disqualified, as they get devoured, and you know we are no longer playing around, no longer shadow-boxing.   
In verse 27 the word “disqualified” is the Greek word adokimos which in this context means disqualified from receiving the rewards (the stephanos) for not following the rules. God's Word contains the "rules" for our "race".  Next slide….you have to pay attention to the race or you will stumble and fall, as this female runner did in the 5000 a few days ago.

(wow, Deacon Rick, you are being pretty hard on those disqualified women there…..
okay, here’s a tough Czeck Republic boxer who lost his fight. Big boys do cry.

Another Olympic example is in Philippians 3:14:

Paul uses the athletic phrase "struggling toward the prize, the brabeion here, another Olympic Games term, to describe the Christian life. Note what Paul says is the way to get there—“Just one thing”—notice the focus—and then he says two things—“forgetting what lies behind” (not the last games, not past gold, not past failures—wasn’t it great when one of our women sprinters, Allyson Felix, got two gold medals after coming up short twice last Olympics in Beijing—to the same opponent from Cuba?). You have to forget what lies behind. Maybe you’ve blown it, you messed up in your life. The gospel of Christ Jesus, the bread of life we read about in John 6, is not given to perfect specimens of moral goodness. And it’s not just forgetting, it’s continually straining forward—like sprinters at the finish line—permanently pressing forward—to win that prize. It’s given to those who have been vanquished previously, who are now victorious over those things that once beat them.

Rom 8:37 states that every Christian is more than a "conqueror", or "winner" through Him who loved us. The Greek word translated “conquer overwhelmingly –just one word in Romans 8:37—is the word "NIKE", the Greek word that one of our most popular modern athletic shoe companies borrowed for a corporate name! Amazing. So when Paul writes, we are Nike, we are conquerors, he is giving us the faith in Christ to just do it! It’s all the sweeter because of the severity of the test. It’s all the richer because your opponent once beat you, once had you on the ground, on the ropes, and you were the loser. But now, you are NIKE, you are a winner.

The sports writers record that Oscar Pistorius failed in his bid to reach the Olympic 400 meters final on Sunday when the South African double-amputee finished last in his semi-final. Pistorius, who races wearing carbon fibre prosthetic blades after being born without a fibula in both legs, is the first double-amputee to run in the Games.

Question: Do you really think he lost that race?

The scorer’s record may record that Oscar Pistorius finished last, but that will be the only mention of defeat. You should have heard the crowd when he walked the track after the race. You should have seen his parents. For that moment, and for a lifetime of not ever giving up, Oscar Pistorius was NIKE, was more than a conqueror.

Question: What’s your excuse for not getting back in there?

Feel like running the race now? Feel like getting out there and giving it another lap? Life is not a sprint, and the Christian life isn’t sprinting, either. This is a long race, not some quick gimmick. It goes to those who persevere. It goes to those who keep their eyes fixed on the prize.
That’s the picture that the writer to the Hebrews writes to his flock. He gives us an Olympic picture in Hebrews 10…the Olympics of faith, as it were. He mentions in Hebrews 10 Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, in verse 32 he says "What more shall I say? I have not time to tell (that why I know that writer was a preacher—he ran out of time) of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, did what was righteous, obtained the promises; they closed the mouths of lions, put out raging fires, escaped the devouring sword; out of weakness they were made powerful, became strong in battle, and turned back foreign invaders." The writers goes through this Hall of Fame, but at the end, he says something amazing, and I want to share it with you today:

Hebrews 10: 39-40 Yet all these, though approved because of their faith, did not receive what had been promised. God had foreseen something better for us, so that without us they should not be made perfect.

That’s the setting for our next and final example, from Hebrews 12…..

The Greek in Hebrews 12: 1 for the term “burden” is apothemenoi here describes "Stripping down to competition weight" and "running an Olympic foot race with endurance".

Something I noticed with Sunday’s Olympic women’s marathon, which was won by Ethiopia’s Tiki Gelana in an Olympic record 2:23:07. None of these women carried a purse, a laptop, a backpack, or a smart phone. I fly a lot on planes, and it seems people are trying to get everything in that overhead compartment, but you don’t see that in a marathon.

There’s a lesson there today; so many of the things we are worrying about are just that baggage, those things that weigh us down. The worries about jobs, career, the bills, the future...they can all weigh us down in the life of faith. This is not a license to be irresponsible, but it is a call to prioritize.

Gold medalist Felix Sanchez of Dominican Republic weeps on the podium during the medal ceremony for the men's 400m Hurdles final on Day 10 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on August 6, 2012. He did it for a crown that is momentary; one day we will receive the victor’s crown if we do not give up.

Run to win, my brothers and sisters; run to win!

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