The Third Sunday before Lent, 2017
The Epistle. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27
The Gospel. St. Matthew 20:1-16
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.
“EPIPHANY leads on to Lent, for if we have the Epiphany hope “we must purify ourselves even as He is pure.” The vision must be realised in daily life, and in spite of inward sin and outward conditions of trial and difficulty. We address ourselves, therefore, to the conquest of sin. In the three preparation Sundays before Lent our Church instructs us as to the necessity of self-discipline, its possible dangers, and its most fruitful motive.”
Those are the words of Melville Scott, Anglican theologian.
And his observation is succinct and accurate.
Epiphany has ended and we move seamlessly into pre-Lent. Septuagesima is the 9th Sunday before Easter…70 days (approximately) before Easter.
And so as Scott reminds us, we move from what we have learned about Christ and the Manifestations that back our beliefs and understanding of Him and the work He has done for us….to the purifying of ourselves through the working of the Holy Spirit in our selves and our lives, to become not only Christ’s followers, but His imitators…in thought, word and deed.
And yet this season also brings us back to the harsh realities of sin that have been not as prevalent in months prior. Christmas and Epiphany have been times of contemplating both the child and the man, Christ Jesus.
Now we turn our attention to the problem that plagues us, and what our rightful role is in this life regarding our living it out… in light of our salvation in Christ.
The “Gesima” Sundays are a time of discipline. They are preparatory for Lent and the deeper discipline we are to work toward in prayer, fasting, shaping our lives to be like Christ…placing a greater emphasis on sin and how it affects us… and how we might combat its effects on our daily lives.
To our Epistle today. The message here should be clear to all of us.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly;
I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (ESV)
What is Paul saying to us here in this athlete, sports analogy?
Picture we are all in a race. All of us here are in a race against one another, and against all other Christians. As in all sports…(but is strangely disappearing in some places)…in all sports there is a winner and a loser.
Or in a race there is a winner and the rest come in 2nd and 3rd and so on.
The emphasis here, though, is not that we are all racing against one another where only one of us in all of Christianity will cross the heavenly finish line.
We know that this analogy of Paul’s has a different message. Thankfully as believers and runners in Christ, we do enter Heaven and win the race that is set before us.
But what Paul is saying is a bit more simplified.
In a race, all are individuals. And each one is trying his hardest to win.
Each trains and works and sweats to make sure he is the best athlete in the race and that he is going to be the winner.
There is a prize to be won. The race must be won. Each of us is to run “AS IF” we were going to be the only one to win.
Here the first line again. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.”
It is a message to do something.
Run, strive in this race that is life. And do so as if the race depended on you. There is a prize to be won. That is, eternal life. Run that you may obtain it.
By being baptized into Christ, we have entered the race. We are already in it. Paul wants us to persevere to the very finish line.
Matthew 10:16-22 Jesus sends out the 12 Apostles. He gives them authority to preach and to heal.
And though this account here is specifically directed to them and their immediate mission, there is a greater point to be made. Each of us should hear this and think about how it applies to our lives.
He says, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
So Christians are in a sense all sent into the world. (or into the race) We don't hide from the world. We face it head on….yet always trying to keep ourselves unspotted from the world.
Then He says, “Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.”
We don't really witness this kind of persecution except what we hear in the news. But those who today suffer this way…these words are all the more real to them.
Jesus continues, “When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”
“Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name's sake.” (a very bleak picture here of the early Church)
But He closes with this, “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (ESV)
That’s Paul’s message to us today here. The one who endures to the end will be saved.
His analogy goes on to talk about self-control as the method of training…of enduring. The Perseverance of the Saints.
Each of us is to live self-controlled lives as Christians so that when we do view the Christian life as a race to win or a goal to strive towards, we discipline ourselves in whatever things we do…all for that prize. All for persevering to the end and winning.
Calvin - “There is, however, this difference between our contest and theirs, that among them only one is victorious, and obtains the palm—the man who has got before all the others; but our condition is superior in this respect, that there may be many at the same time. For God requires from us nothing more than that we press on vigorously until we reach the goal. Thus one does not hinder another: nay more, those who run in the Christian race are mutually helpful to each other.” 
In this race, that is the Christian life, there is the added factor that we all help one another in this perseverance. Mutually building one another up.
But again, there is a competitive nature to what Paul is saying. But its not against one another.
He speaks like this elsewhere.
In 2 Timothy 2:1-7
“You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also. Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.
No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” (ESV)
He is then expressing the same sentiment here. in 2 Tim. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.
Paul even uses one more analogy. He uses that of the fighter or the boxer.
He says he doesn't just flail his arms and swing wildly at the opponent, but by care and precision he makes every punch count.
He doesn't beat the air, wasting time, but he makes sure that every punch lands where it ought to.
We all can attend sporting events and take a lesson from what happens. We should observe all things in life through the eyes of faith and see where the Christian life is imitated in the world. Where our life in Christ and our striving to win heaven is imitated.
The prize here, says Paul is an imperishable wreath or an imperishable crown. The crown of those days was celery leaves….real plants that would only last a short time. Thus it was perishable.
Paul is calling us to pursue an imperishable wreath…an imperishable crown.
One that never fades.
Peter speaks of this very thing as well in his first letter.
1 Peter 1:3-7
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (ESV)
This message of endurance here, notice is from the man who (briefly dropped out of the race) who formerly ran from Jesus at the arrest and denied Him three times.
Look at what the Gospel has done to him. Look at how encouraging he is and look at what hope he reminds us of if we persevere to the end.
It is Christ who has caused us to be born again…thus enlisting us in the race. And at the end, it is Christ who causes us to not only persevere, but to cross the finish line and obtain the prize. And….Chrsit is the prize too!
Paul has one last line here and it too is important. He says, “…discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (ESV)
Paul is concerned here and is telling us that we too should be concerned that our behavior, our conduct should not contradict the doctrine we believe…the faith that we profess and confess.
He doesn't want to be preaching this to others and yet have it come to naught…or to have his message and conduct not be the same as what he is requiring of each of us.
So with Lent in view, we begin this day to hear what Paul is telling us. See the Christian life as a race in which all things we do either help or hinder our running…and further bring other competitors down through our own hypocrisy.
Let us each look to the race we have been running, check ourselves daily as to our running, and look to Christ who is the author and finisher of our faith…the author and the one who gives us grace to finally finish the race. Amen.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, J. (2010). Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians (Vol. 1, p. 308). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.