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Running the Race

I thought the theme of this morning’s message would resonate with all of us, especially with those of you here today who are entered into a political race.  It seems that life is a series of races and we learn that early on.  I remember saying things like, “I’ll race you to the bus stop!”  I recall teachers going over the “Tortoise and the Hare” story to teach us that “slow and steady wins the race.”  We grow up participating in relay races and three legged races.  In fifth grade I used to race the boy next to me to see who could finish our multiplication fact papers first.  Anyone here ever participate in a “pinewood derby” race?  The races of childhood are turned in for cross country races and for some, drag races. J  And then we deal with more mature competitions like the rat races of multitasking and meeting deadlines and the race against time to look and stay younger.  Causes have become races, like the “race for the cure.”  We’ve even turned racing from a sport into weekly reality TV entertainment with the “Amazing Race.”  What does God have to say about “running the race?”  Please stand for the reading of God’s Word.

I Cor. 9:24-27 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 a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27 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.

Silent Prayer

Let me begin by stating the obvious.  You cannot finish what you aren’t willing to start, so in order to run the race, you will have to Commence the Race.  I would love to know how to crochet.  I think about it once in a while.  I bought some yard and needles once, but all of the thinking about it and even having yarn and needles in a drawer won’t do me a bit of good or produce the crocheted scarf Pastor Thom’s always wanted for Christmas.  J  Sorry, honey.

No, you can’t win a race that you won’t enter.  Now I suppose you could technically “enter” a race by giving your name to someone and have your name put on some list somewhere.  You might even pay an entrance fee to be listed in a program and to have the right to compete.  But picture someone going through all of that and even showing up for race day, only to stay put like a statue on the starting block when the whistle blows!  Those of you who are running for office, how successful would you be if you filed and paid your fee to run for election and then just hoped for the best?

What would that communicate about your passion or lack of?  What would it say of your sincerity or desire to even win?  What would constituents think about someone who made no effort to share what they stood for or what they hoped to accomplish?  I’d say you’d be lucky to even get your mom to vote for you under those circumstances!  J  Seriously, running in any race involves more than signing up.  It involves more than showing up.  It’s about stepping up and getting started.

Now, in I. Cor. the Apostle Paul is speaking about a spiritual race.  He often uses the analogies of athletics, racing and training to talk about the spiritual life and appropriately so.  It doesn’t do you any good to declare you are a Christian or to sign up at a church somewhere to indicate that you are if you are not going to enter the race.  My encouragement to you this morning is to not be a Christian in name only, to not be a starting block statue only, but to become someone who will actually get into the race in order that one day you will win the prize that awaits all who are true disciples of Jesus.

In order to do so, you need to commence the race.  You also need to:

Commit to the Race

Races are designed to be challenging.  They are designed to bring out the best in an athlete.  That’s why I Cor. 9:25 says, “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.”  There is an ongoing preparation that takes place in the life of a person who is going to compete in a race. 

Racers don’t wait to train until the week before the race and think they will succeed.  They live a lifestyle of mental and physical discipline, adjustment making, injury and recovery, and so on and so forth.  They have coaches who help them make changes and inspire them to keep going.  For those who truly run, their life isn’t a one-time race, but a series of ongoing races.  They have to stay fit.  They have to be ready for anything the course brings their way.  This is a major difference between people who say they will run and people who are runners.  Runners commit to a whole different lifestyle than the people who sit in the stand and watch the race.

In 1976 the University of Indiana won the NCAA National Title. When interviewed about their success, coach Knight said, “The will to succeed is important, but what is more important is the will to prepare.”

In the Christian life, when you sign up to follow Jesus, you sign up for a whole lot.  It’s not just about eternity in heaven.  It is about every day of your life.  It is no longer about you or what you desire.  It becomes all about Christ in you and what He desires for your life.

Just as those of you who are here this morning who are in office are called “public servants” where the name implies you serve at the pleasure of the people for the good of the people, those of us who have become servants of God no longer live for our own pleasure, but for God’s pleasure. 

For all of us, it’s about letting God’s Holy Spirit become our coach.  It’s about presenting ourselves to God for training.  Romans 12:1-2 says, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship. 2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be TRANSFORMED by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.” In order to compete you have to show up for practice and to show up for drills. To show up for training and teaching and coaching a couple Sundays a year, to watch a few religious television broadcasts and to give a few dollars away won’t cut it.  That’s not transformational.  It’s curiosity, but it’s not Christianity.  It’s being a fan, but not a true follower of Jesus. 

Those who want to be in the Christian race are those who will show up with a “whatever it takes” and a “whatever you want from me, Coach,” mentality.  Jesus wants to train you in righteousness.  He wants to develop the fruit of God’s Spirit in you.  Galatians 5:22 tells us that one of the purposes of our training is to see love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control worked into the fabric of our lives until they are regular, automatic and the normal way we express ourselves.  Look at your neighbor and say, “God’s got a lot of work to do!”

Although the presence of our self-control is from the Holy Spirit, the practice of our self-control is our responsibility (2 Peter 1:4-7).

1 Cor. 9:27 says, “I beat my body and make it my slave.  There is great discipline in the life of a runner.  Without discipline, one is sure to fail. What produces the strength an athlete needs?  It’s discipline.  Think about that.  Great strength comes as a result of great discipline.

Why is discipline so important?  Not only does it give us strength, but it keeps us in bounds.  When we’re tempted to cheat or take a shortcut, we are reminded that without a disciplined approach, we might be as verse 27 says, “Disqualified for the prize.”

We need to incorporate spiritual workouts into the routines of our lives.  Stretching, weight training, running, vitamin regiments, healthy eating-they all are worked into the daily and weekly life of the athlete.

Scripture reading isn’t just for Sunday.  Prayer isn’t just for the moment of crisis.  Sharing in worship and relationship with other Christians isn’t simply a weekly or monthly experience, but like the runner saturates his life with workouts at intervals during his days and the week, so too must we saturate our lives with the spiritual disciplines that will make us race worthy and keep us going when things get hard.

Do you remember Kerry Strug, the Olympic gold gymnast who injured her ankle during the 1996 Olympics on her first vault?  She was in extreme pain, but this was what she had dreamed about.  She had trained for that particular moment.  She had worked relentlessly to make it to that point.  She decided, even though she was in intense pain, that she would go through with her second vault which she essentially landed on one foot, capturing the heart of America. Where did that determination come from?  Where did she have the mental fortitude to continue even though injured?  It came in the days and weeks preceding the competition as she disciplined herself in preparation for competition day.  It was tedious, difficult and boring at times, but getting ready to compete gave her the fortitude to do so under the worst of circumstances.  The job of a football coach is to make men do what they don’t want to do, in order to achieve what they’ve always wanted to be.  Tom Landry.  Discipline develops who we will be, winners, committed to the race or losers who quit and walk away when the first challenge hits us.

Battles aren’t won and lost on the playing field, but in the practice room and on the practice field.  Who you will be in public ultimately will have to be developed in private.  People who have disciplined themselves through prayer, Bible reading, worship and Christian friendships will have what it takes when crisis comes, when the unexpected happens and instead of having to stop and sit out, they’ll be able to stay in the game, to stay in the running and finish what they have started. 

Discipline describes the activity of a disciple. It is the intentional pursuit of a lifestyle that parallels the life of Jesus.  While connection with God’s Spirit is what God does by his grace, discipline is what believers do because of God’s grace.  Part of disciplining ourselves means saying “no” to that which circumvents our training.  You won’t likely see an Olympic runner with twinkies in one hand and fritos in the other!  They don’t rationalize that one thing, the exercise, cancels out the other, the junk food.  Have you done that?  We used to walk to Dairy Queen thinking the mile there and back justified the triple chocolate earthquake meltdown blizzard!  Not so!  So rather than be hypocrites, now we just drive. 

Listen, there are things runners have disciplined themselves to refrain from because they compromise their body’s efficiency.  Giving in would slow them down. God has sent me to tell you that there are some things we are going to have to discipline ourselves to avoid if we are going to keep from compromising ourselves in this spiritual race.

Hebrews 12:1-2 1Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

The abuse of drugs and alcohol, pornography, sexual addiction and sexual immorality, workaholism, dependence on what everyone else thinks or feels about you, lying, cheating, stealing, gossip, all of these are either things that hinder or sin that will entangle your feet and eventually trap you.  Say “No” to anything that keeps you moving in the direction God has marked out for you!  It takes discipline, but it is the loving and authentic response to the grace of God once you’ve experienced it.  “Pastor, it sounds like a burden to please God.” No ma’am.  No sir.  It is joy and true freedom to listen to the voice of the One who can tell you how to live your best life!  It’s a burden to chase the wind and try to please everyone around you.

An old fable that has been passed down for generations tells about an elderly man who was traveling with a boy and a donkey. As they walked through a village, the man was leading the donkey and the boy was walking behind. The townspeople said the old man was a fool for not riding, so to please them he climbed up on the animal’s back. When they came to the next village, the people said the old man was cruel to let the child walk while he enjoyed the ride. So, to please them, he got off and set the boy on the animal’s back and continued on his way. In the third village, people accused the child of being lazy for making the old man walk, and the suggestion was made that they both ride. So the man climbed on and they set off again. In the fourth village, the townspeople were indignant at the cruelty to the donkey because he was made to carry two people. The frustrated man was last seen carrying the donkey down the road. To be popular with everyone, you must please everyone, and that is impossible!

Discipline yourself to please God alone and you’ll be able to run the race without the extra burden of sin and unnecessary junk to carry. 

Commence the race, commit to the race, even the discipline that is involved in running, and thirdly:

Cultivate Your Character

Remember we are speaking of a spiritual race.  We’re told in I Cor. 9:27 that we can actually be disqualified from the prize.  Cheaters won’t win.  What happens to disqualify a person in a spiritual race and keeps them from obtaining the prize?  I believe it’s a lack of attention to the development of their character and the kind of inner life God wants us to possess.

Scientists now say that a series of slits, not a giant gash, sank the Titanic. The opulent, 900-foot cruise ship sank in 1912 on its first voyage, from England to New York. Fifteen hundred people died in the worst maritime disaster of the time.

The most widely held theory was that the ship hit an iceberg, which opened a huge gash in the side of the liner. But an international team of divers and scientists recently used sound waves to probe the wreckage, buried in the mud under two-and-a-half miles of water. Their discovery? The damage was surprisingly small. Instead of the huge gash, they found six relatively narrow slits across the six watertight holds.  Small damage, invisible to most, can sink not only a great ship but a great person and disqualify them for the prize. (USA Today, April 9, 1997.)

None of you woke up today and thought, “I think I’ll compromise my career by stealing money from my company and lose my job.”  No one gets up one day and thinks, “You know, I think I’ll cheat on my spouse and risk losing my family.”  It’s gradual compromises and before you know it, those cracks will sink your character!

Galatians 5:7 asks, 7You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?”  

  1. In order to cultivate your character: Mold Your Life to the Truth.

Truth isn’t situational.  Truth isn’t one thing today and another thing tomorrow.  Truth doesn’t bend and twist to meet our needs, opinions or to cover our shortcomings.  Truth doesn’t conform to our lives for our benefit.  As Christians, we are to conform to truth as it has been established in God’s Word.

A lack of truth in your life will sprain your spiritual ankles and eventually break your spiritual legs.  Therefore as a runner in this spiritual race, you must discipline yourself to think, walk, and speak the truth.  II John 1:4 “It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us.”

A well-respected surgeon was relaxing on his sofa one evening just after arriving home from work. As he was tuning into the evening news, the phone rang. The doctor calmly answered it and heard the familiar voice of a colleague on the other end of the line.

“We need a fourth poker player,” said the friend. “I’ll be right over,” whispered the doctor.  As he was putting on his coat, his wife asked, “Is it serious?”  “Oh yes, quite serious,” said the doctor gravely. “In fact, three doctors are there already!”

Listen, every time you stretch the truth, you stretch your reputation thinner and thinner.  You water down your character just a little more.  Obey the truth and walk in truth lest you not be disqualified for the prize.  

  1. Cultivating your character will also require that you Master Your Mind.  The best

way to guard your life is to guard your thoughts.  It has been said:
“Watch your thoughts; they become words.  Watch your words; they become actions.

Watch your actions; they become habits.  Watch your habits; they become character.

Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”

It all starts in your mind, with your thought life.  Whether you will finish the race or not depends on where your mind is.  Philippians 4:8 says, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.”

I’m not just telling you to think happy thoughts!  I’m not recommending the power of positive thinking.  I’m not toting a “Don’t worry, be happy” kind of spirituality.  That is self generated, won’t last and will take you off course.  There is no way you will know what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy if you don’t personally know Jesus Christ, the Author of it all.  We possess the ability to dwell on these in increasing measure as we develop our relationship with Jesus.  That’s why Hebrews 3:1 says, “Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess (Hebrews 3:1).”  HE alone is the way, the truth and the life.  When you enter into a relationship with Him, you will begin to develop “His mind.”  I Cor. 2:16 says of God’s children, that we possess the “mind of Christ.” You can’t run the race without Him!  He will show you what to focus your mind on.

c.  Master Your Mouth. You will lose credibility with people and God won’t be able to use you for His purposes if your mouth, like your mind, isn’t sanctified which just means, set a part for God’s purposes.  What you post on Facebook matters.  What you say just “for what it’s worth,” matters.  What you say about others, matters.

James 1:26 If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless.

What Paul and James are saying when we put both of their texts together is that in running a spiritual race, the goal is not only to win, but to help as many people cross the finish line with you as possible.  In a political race, there is just one winner.  In a sports race, there is only one winner, but in a spiritual race, everyone who runs can win!  Hallelujah!
It is unacceptable to use our mouths to assassinate other runners in this spiritual race.  Instead, we are to be encouragers, those who guard our words and make sure casualties don’t lie in the wake of careless, critical, or mean-spirited comments.  Spiritual runners must cultivate a lifestyle of encouraging and positive words.  Speak only the truth and commit to what you say.  Empty promises now will make for empty relationships later.

If you are going to cultivate your character, you’ll need to mold your life to the truth, to master your mind and mouth, and finally, you’ll need to:  Maintain Your Priorities

In Philippians where the Apostle Paul spoke about running a spiritual race, he said, “This ONE thing I do, forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

There is no shortage of activities and people competing for your time and attention.  People who stay in the race prioritize what is necessary over what is desired.  I have a good friend who has had to set limits on her work hours because work was ruling her life.  While she honors the Lord by committing to be excellent in her work, the demands of her employer have become excessive.  60 plus hours a week is not a lifestyle you can maintain if you are going to stay in the race.  You’ll quit the race, not from a lack of determination or will, but from sheer exhaustion.  It’s God first.  Your family second and your job third.  A lack of right priorities will cause your character to become questionable because you’ll be so “committed” to everything that you are truly “committed” to nothing. 

If you are going to run the race, you need to commence the race, commit to the race, cultivate your character and finally, you must Concentrate on the Finish Line.

Our eight-year-old son is devoted to whatever offers a prize.  If the company that makes go-gurt is offering a Disney vacation to one family out of the billions of families who consume go-gurt, he is all about buying go-gurt for the chance to win.  If the sports team is offering a trophy for anyone who completes the eight weeks of practice and games, Joshua is in.  He is motivated by the prize that is waiting. 

I guess we’re all children at heart and when there is a prize to win, especially when it’s the heavenly prize of eternity in heaven with God the Father, Son and Spirit.  That’s something worth getting into the race for, amen?

If you’re going to run the race you must know where you are going.  Can you see the finish line?  If you lose sight of the goal, you’ll lose sight of your purpose for running and be easily convinced to pull out of the race.  The goal is more than heaven.  The goal is to run your race and your race and your race according to God’s unique design for you so that one day you’ll hear the Father say, “Well done.” 

Acts 20:24  However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me.

Did you catch what Paul said?  There was a specific race that God marked out just for him to run.  It’s not your parents’ race or your friend’s race or your teacher’s race or your boss’s race, but it’s your race and keeping your eye on your own personal finish line will keep you running well.

A cross-country course is marked off with flags. Runners can’t choose to cut corners and shorten the race. They must run the race marked out for them. It’s the same in the Christian life.  Someone else’s race might seem easier than your own, but God says, “I want you to run this race.”  No one else can run your race for you.

Make a decision this morning to commence the race.  Find salvation in Christ today.  Commit to the race and all of the discipline that is involved.  Cultivate your character and keep concentrating on the finish line, so that one day you’ll be able to say like the Apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 4:7 “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.” Will you choose this morning to run the race?

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