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August 10, 2008

The Athlete

Sunday A.M.

I Corinthians 9:24-27; Philippians 3:13-14; II Timothy 4:7-8


            Did you watch the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing, China, Friday night?  If you did, you were among the 70 million people around the world who saw that broadcast.  The Chinese people created a spectacular display, using the greatest resource they have, their own people.  I was awed with so many aspects of that beautiful presentation.  I was especially impressed with the print blocks that created such an array of patterns.  Someone said, “Surely that must be computerized.”  No, underneath each block was an individual working in harmony, in a synchronized pattern, with all the others.  Those who played the drums and those who were a part of the Taekwondo experience – more than 1200 people – were flawlessly synchronized.  They made perfect circles on the playing field. 

When it came time to light the Olympic flame, everyone was wondering how the Chinese would outperform everything else they had already done.  Former Chinese Olympians, those who had distinguished themselves in past games, assisted. The torch was finally handed to a man who had won five medals.  He held the torch high toward the cauldron that was several hundred feet away from him.  Slowly, he was lifted from the ground, taken to the top of that magnificent stadium, and silhouetted against the scrim that surrounded the entire stadium.  He seemed to be running around the entire perimeter.  Finally, he ignited that Olympic flame.  Following a flash, the light spiraled to the top of that cauldron in a splendid display.  The Chinese people certainly set the bar high for the next opening ceremony four years from now in London, England.  The Chinese really want to excel.  They want to put themselves front and center on the world stage and become one of the key players, not only in athletics but also in politics and in all other aspects of our global community.  They certainly got off to a good beginning.

Two parts of the opening ceremony impressed me the most.  First, the man who proudly carried the American flag into that arena was a naturalized citizen.  He had been born in the Sudan but had fled as a refugee from the terrible genocide that has occurred there.  His fellow athletes, members of the United States Olympic Team, had elected him to carry the flag.  I can only imagine what was going through his mind.  Whether he wins a medal or not, being selected by his fellow Olympians to carry the American flag has to be one of the high points in his life.

            The second aspect that was so remarkable to me occurred when the Chinese delegation entered the Olympic stadium.  Yoa Ming the huge basketball player – seven feet four inches tall – carried the Chinese flag.  At his side was a little boy nine years old, a second grader, who must have been absolutely mystified by everything he was seeing.  This child is a national hero in China.  He was involved in the earthquake that occurred in the country’s interior during the spring.  Though injured, he went back into the rubble to save two of his classmates.  When asked why he had done that, he explained, “I am one of the class leaders.  It is what is expected of me.”

            The Olympics offer so many inspirational stories.  Who can forget Jim Thorpe, the American Indian who won both the pentathlon and the decathlon?  Who can forget the black man Jesse Owens, who in 1936, before Adolf Hitler had declared the Aryan race superior, won four gold medals?  Who can forget Wilma Rudolph in Rome, a young girl who overcame polio to become an Olympic athlete?  So many amazing stories have come from earlier events, and others will be revealed during this year’s games in Beijing.

            The Olympic Games go a long way back in history.  We are not positive when the first ones were held.  Most historians believe they began in 776 B.C., almost 800 years before the time of Jesus.  Because Greek city states often went to war with other, the games were held as a way to diminish the violence of one Greek state against another.  Our own community of Spartanburg is named for one of those Greek states, Sparta.  The states put their strongest, finest, and fastest on the field of competition as a way to avoid fighting battles with each other and as a way to claim a victory without having the many casualties of war.  These games were quite popular.  They occurred all through the world at the time the Greeks controlled the world after the conquering of Alexander the Great.  Places like Corinth, Ephesus, and Tarsus hosted games. 

NBC is counting on our watching the Olympics.  They are televising 36,000 hours on all of their multiple stations.  That is far more hours than are in the two-week period that the games will last.  NBC is airing multiple telecasts. 

These games inspire us.  Already, we have followed the exploits of Michael Phelps who won his first gold medal Saturday night.  One of my favorite competitors is a forty-one-year-old woman, Dara Torres, who is now in her fifth Olympic game.  She is the mother of a child that is almost two.  She decided to continue her training and compete in the games this year.  Last night, she won a silver medal.  Torres is not even the oldest Olympian in Beijing.  A sixty-seven-year-old man is an Olympian.  He competes in the equestrian events. 

Something about the games prompts all of us to get in shape.  People begin working out, exercising.  They start jogging and watching their diet, ordering a cheeseburger and a Diet Coke instead of a cheeseburger and a Coke.  The rigor and discipline required to be an Olympic athlete are so demanding that most of us want nothing to do with the regimen.  Many in our congregation have been athletes in the past, including me.  People are actually surprised that I ran track and cross-country in high school and at Furman.  They say I do not have the body type for those sports.  This is what happens to your body when you quit running, you see.  Let that be a lesson to you.  I know what it is to be a burn-out athlete. 

The Apostle Paul knew, too.  When Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthians, he must have been in his mid-fifties.  He was no longer an athlete himself.  It is clear that the Apostle Paul knew a great deal about these kinds of athletic events and was very well aware of their importance.  The Isthmian Games, which were held only eight miles from Corinth, had just been completed.  Paul was himself impressed by the Olympic games of his day.  I can imagine that if he were living in our day and time, he would have been one of the spectators watching the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics. 

We have an early description of Paul, one I have shared with our discipleship training group on Sunday nights.  The fact that this description is not very flattering makes most people think it is accurate.  If somebody were going to fabricate a description of Paul, surely the person would have made Paul seem nobler.  The Apostle Paul has been described as a short man with bowed legs, a humped back, a bald head, a crooked nose, and eyebrows that met in the middle.  Paul himself said in II Corinthians that his physical appearance was weak. 

The Apostle Paul was physically fit, however.  I tried to imagine how far this man journeyed from one place to another throughout his life.  It is almost beyond calculation.  My goodness!  He needed to be a strong man in order to walk such great distances.  In all probability, Paul was an athlete, a runner.  He uses athletic imagery – the sport of running – in the passages that serve as our texts today.  He provides tips on running in the books of Romans and Galatians.  His purpose in using this training analogy was to teach us how we must train in the spiritual life.  Taking all he knew about training as an athlete, he instructs us about what we must do to be fit spiritually as Christians.

I found a list of traits that Olympic athletes must possess in a very unusual place.  A teacher of English as an additional language has actually written six paragraphs, which she shares with her ESOL class, especially during the Olympics.  People from all over the world take pride in the Olympics.  Regardless of their country of birth, people can identify with the athletes from their country.  Using Olympic imagery becomes very important to them, and it results in an eagerness to read and learn.  The first characteristic athletes must have is dedication.  They must be deeply committed to this task, this purpose.  Second, they must have persistence, willingness to work through any setback they may encounter.  One young man from Korea is competing this year in the 2008 Olympics.  Four years ago, he was disqualified and unable to compete because he left the platform too soon in a swimming competition.  Last night, he won a gold medal.  That is persistence.  Third, athletes must have strength, but not just muscular strength.  They must also have cardiovascular strength, stamina.  Fifth, athletes must be focused, concentrated, on their goal.  The sixth characteristic involves the willingness to learn.  No matter how good competitors are, they still have more to learn.

Mike Hensley encouraged me to look at a website called Beyond the Ultimate as I prepared my sermon.  This website, focusing on young men and women who are Christian Olympians, makes the point that winning the gold medal is the goal of everyone who competes in these games.  However, these young Christian athletes have the higher goal, the ultimate goal, of serving and honoring Christ Jesus. 

The site provides some inspiring stories.  Allyson Felix, who grew up in a Christian home, will compete in the 220-meter sprint in the coming days.  She is already an Olympic medalist.  She won the silver medal four years ago.  Allyson states that one Scripture so important for her is this passage in Philippians 3 where Paul talks about striving for the goal of the upward call in Christ Jesus.  The image Paul gives there is of a sprinter who is straining, leaning forward into the finish line.  Allyson says that she runs to win, but she knows this is the way she can glorify God.

Ryan Hall, also an Olympian, is a marathon runner.  As he competes in this grueling long-distance event of over twenty-six miles, he knows that he can be an example to others of what Christ can do in a person’s life. 

Bryan Clay will compete in the decathlon, a very exhausting set of ten events.  A silver medalist four years ago, he wants to win the gold medal this year.  He, too, affirms his faith in Christ Jesus. 

Nick Willis from New Zealand will compete in what we used to call the mile.  Nick said that after his mother died of cancer when he was four years old, he blamed God for a long time.  Finally in 2003, he came back to his faith and back to his training.  He decided he was going to put his faith and trust in God. 

One of the stories so amazing to me involves a young man from Rwanda, Dieudonne Disi.  He told about the day when he was fourteen years old that his Christian parents gathered the six children in the family for prayer.  His father said, “The rebels are coming, and I am afraid we are all going to die.  We must pray, and we will go to heaven together.”  After the father prayed, he sent his son of fourteen to get help.  Disi was less than 400 yards away, hiding in a field, when he saw the rebels call his family out of their home and massacre every one of them.  For a while, he, too, turned away from God.  He returned to his faith and to God, knowing that he must pray.  He said, “I must be close to God because my ultimate goal is not only to serve Christ here, but to be reunited with my family in heaven.” 

For these athletes who will all compete in the Olympics, their ultimate goal is not so much having that medal placed around their neck on a winner’s stand and hearing the national anthem of their country played.  Their goal is to serve Jesus Christ.  They have called upon Christian people to pray for all of those athletes in Beijing.  They want us to pray for an open door to tell the good news of Christ to every place in the world.  China is one of the places where Christians have been persecuted.  Do you realize that every person in that stadium on Friday night – every athlete that came walked around that track, every judge, every spectator – is a person for whom Christ died?  What a mission field!  I am so grateful that we have young men and women like these who are not only trained athletes but also Christian disciples. 

One of my favorite Olympic stories occurred in 1924.  I asked Paula to play the theme from Chariots of Fire for our offertory.  You know the story of the “Flying Scotsman,” Eric Liddell, a seminary student who went to the Olympics to compete for Great Britain.  When he found out that his event, the 100-meter dash, was to be held on Sunday, he refused to run.  He felt he should not run on the Lord’s Day.  He asked one of his teammates, a Jewish man named Harold Abrams, to swap events with him.  Harold Abrams ran on Sunday in the 100-meter dash and won the gold medal. 

Liddell went to church that day.  At least in the movie, he read the passage from Isaiah 40:31:  “Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”  Liddell competed two days later in an event that he had never run before, the 400-meter sprint.  He won the gold medal.  Later, he became a missionary.  Of all places, he went to China.  His tombstone says nothing about his being an Olympic athlete.  It simple reads, “Eric Liddell, Missionary.”  Underneath is quoted the passage from Isaiah 40. 

Other inspiring stories have come from previous Olympics.  Do you remember the story that came out of the Barcelona Olympics of 1992?  A young man competing in the 400-meter event fell flat on his face just a few yards from the finish line because of a terrible leg injury.  Out of the stands came a man who picked him up and helped him struggle across the finish line.  The press was outraged, knowing that this man’s assistance had disqualified the runner.  They rebuked this spectator, “Why did you do that?”  The man answered, “Derek Redmond is my son.  I am his father.  He has trained and trained and trained to run this race.  He did not train to stop short.  He trained to finish.  I was going to see to it that he finished.” 

We need help in this race we run, this Christian life we live.  Our discipline is important, but we need help from our Father in heaven.  He has promised, “I will never leave you, and I will never forsake you.”  At times, all of us fall flat on our face, but He is there to lift us and help us finish. 

The Apostle Paul writes, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Now there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day and unto all who love his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7).  All of us must train to live the Christian life.  It is the reason we have discipleship training.  It is the reason we have events such as One Great Day of Training.  We must train if we are going to lead others in the Christian life.  If we are faithful, faithful all the way to the end, then we can say with Paul, “I have fought the good fight.  I have finished the race.”


©    Kirk H. Neely

       August 10, 2008



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