Sermon for Septuagesima – January 28, 2018
“And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible.”
IN A COUPLE OF WEEKS, the Winter Olympics will commence in South Korea. Competitors from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe will vie for coveted gold medals awarded the winners in the sports of skiing, ice skating, ski jumping, snowboarding, a strange game called curling, and a race named oddly, skeleton: kind of like luge hurtling down an ice track on a skateboard, only skull first. On that skull, at least in former Olympic days, the winner would receive a crown of laurel leaves. Today, three winners stand on a platform and receive medals of gold, silver and bronze. Such an honor can be life-changing, a focus for the attention of the world, but only for a moment. If the North Koreans fulfill their threats against the South in coming days, no one will remember who won what medal at PyeongChang.
There are honors for just about everything, and it’s right for us to give praise for excellence. The Nobel Prizes every year raise a glass to toast its chosen achievers. A Pulitzer Prize is given for the best in writing. The Academy Awards go to what Hollywood judges its greats in film-making. Tony Awards go for Broadway stage shows. The Heisman Trophy to outstanding college football stars. Every sport, entertainment, and broadcast profession has its respective award for greatness.
But who can remember the winner of the Cy Young Award for best Major League pitcher in 2016? C’mon, that’s less than 18 months ago. It was Rick Porcello of the Boston Red Sox. Celebrity is fleeting. The laurel leaves on his crown went from green to brown, and finally flaked away. These crowns are for this life only, and maybe not the whole of life.
What is really important in a life? Is it public acclaim, the number of people who would vote for you over others? I remember the Hasbro board game, LIFE, we played when I was a kid. At the beginning you chose what your life goals would be: fame, fortune or love. You won if you scored highest in your chosen goals. A car full of children wouldn’t serve you if you were after fame or money. It was a picture of the American dream in pure plastic unreality. I don’t think it taught us much about life. But it was fun to drive your car around.
We give and receive honor very little in our world today. The American culture has become coarse, having watched far too many sit-coms where the one whose critical remarks and cutting jokes leave the biggest wounds somehow wins. We make more fun of each other than we make anything else. If we talk at all. Now Instagram gets more of our attention, and selfies show everyone who we vote for most often.
Crowns used to be set ceremonially on kings and queens, back when we had them. The few monarchs left in our world still have these relics of former glory, but in locked cases, seldom worn by them. These glorious golden crowns, set with priceless gems, were a sign of royal splendor and signified something semi-divine in a human who was raised up by God to rule a land. Some monarchs truly have been God-sent, as was King David. I don’t know if he had a crown or not, but David was God’s selection, and his name continues to shine in Israel’s history, marking the path toward Messiah, Son of David, Son of Man, Son of God.
It’s true, I was given a crown last September, honored to be elected to the House of Bishops, and according to my new office, given a miter to wear at ceremonial occasions. I thank you all who contributed to the regalia I needed to buy for the office—it was costly. And in proper fashion, that office was bestowed both from the church’s constituent membership and from above, from God the Holy Spirit, conferred by the hands of the other bishops.
But all earthly crowns fade, all perish, all shall be dust, all will burn with the planet and cease to be. The mortal remains of every hero, every notable sage, every king and queen, all signs of office, and every Olympic medal shall burn and melt and be smoke one day. None of it is permanent. If crowns exist thereafter, they will be given entirely by God. We remember the scene in John’s vision where 24 elders are seated about the throne room of God the Father and, despite this incomparable honor, they remove their crowns and cast them at His feet, bowing down to worship Him and Him alone.
St. Paul’s epistle today makes reference to the races run in the ancient Olympic games. He says that, while many run, only one receives the prize, that laurel wreath, that crown. “Run like he does, so you too shall receive your crown,” Paul urges us. Then he notes that every athlete must be self-controlled, managing him or herself by diet, exercise, mental and moral health so that in the chase that proves who is master, the body, heart, mind and spirit will pull out in first place and break the tape.
He then says that Olympic crown is corruptible, temporary. Our crown, as Christians, will not fade, corrode, rust, age or become less valuable over time. We will be above time and beyond corrosion. The crowns we are promised will last for eternity. And what is even better than such a crown is the love of Christ which is forever. We will gladly exchange our crowns for a moment of His fellowship and love. But we’ll get the crowns back as well.
Paul tells us that this is why he runs. Was Paul a runner? Oh yes. He ran from Syria to Crete, then on to Ephesus, throughout the western part of today’s Turkey, across the Bosporus to the European side, from Macedonia down into Greece, and finally, in chains, to Rome. He covered the Mediterranean civilizations with one message, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. No one ever broke such ground with the good news of salvation and planted churches in so many countries. He was a runner all right. And a fighter.
He ran with certainty. He knew where he was going and why. We often can’t tell anyone where our lives are leading, or why we keep doing the same things day after day. The rat race may have us on its treadmill and we just go because we feel expected to go. But what is our goal and what prize are we vying to win? It’s an important question to ask yourself. Not that you need public recognition. But if you’re running a race, it would be nice to know when you’ve completed the course and can stop awhile.
Paul compares some of his efforts to fighting, as in a boxing match. Most of us no longer watch boxing, what was called in my youth the sweet sport. Monday Night Boxing filled the screens of television viewers in America, watching men of various sizes and weights beat each others’ brains out. It was savage. I don’t know what my three-year-old brain told me about those matches, but I think I survived—better than they did. I met Sugar Ray Robinson once, about 20 years after he hung up his gloves. Two men steered him around by the elbows.
Anyway, boxing is a serious matter and you have to connect with your punches, not beat the air with your fists like a shadow boxer. The metaphor may be lost on us today, but when you’re in spiritual warfare, when a real enemy like the one Paul faced is on attack mode, you have to know your skills in combat. You have to hit him where it hurts him. A good saying I’ve heard is, “When Satan reminds you of your past, just remind him of his future.” Jesus certainly faced off against that bruiser, and through temptation at the end of 40 days of fasting, laid him down with Scripture aimed perfectly, the last punch a right cross on the chin.
Paul was serious. This is an eternal match of good against evil. The evil had its day and is on the run. We champion the light and must bring it with us wherever we go. It has to be part of our character, our make up, and that’s by training and self-discipline. We never get there by claiming something to ourselves, but by a humble understanding of our limitations, weaknesses, failures and our need for God’s help.
Even Jesus understood His weakness and His need. He spent hours at a time in prayer to His Father. His life was a sacrifice of love toward us, in obedience. You never saw Him doing a victory dance in the end zone, never saw him lift his heavyweight belt buckle up to praise Himself, the Emmy thrust high in self-exaltation. Never. Follow Him. His example is perfect.
“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Philippians 2:5-11
That’s our example, and that is how we will wear the crowns only God can give us, to His glory and His honor, never to fade away.