Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
I Corinthians 9:24-27
(You can listen to this sermon by clicking here)
For twenty years now, I have been dedicated to the world’s most frustrating game: golf. Growing up I would even watch golf with my dad. Weird, I know. One of my favorite golfers was not Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus, but the South African Gary Player.
One day, before a tournament in Texas, Gary was practicing hitting balls out of a sand trap; probably the hardest thing to do in golf. Now a crowd had gathered to watch. So he steps up to the ball in the sand trap, digs his feet in, and swings; the ball goes out of the sand, onto the green, and into the hole. Easy as A – B – C.
A big ole Texan who saw the shot said to Gary, “You get 50 bucks if you knock the next one into the hole.” So Gary steps up to the ball, digs his feet in, and swings: out of the sand, onto the green, into the hole. Easy breezy. The Texan, feeling that this streak must end sometime said, “You get 100 bucks if you knock the next one into the hole.” So Gary steps up, swings, and you can guess; out of the sand, onto the green, into the hole. Much perturbed, the Texan says, “Boy, I’ve never seen anybody so lucky in my entire life.”
Gary Player fires right back, “It’s a funny thing. The harder I pratice, the luckier I get.”
The runners and athletes in the room will understand this. You don’t go from being a couch potato one day to running a marathon the next. Becoming an accomplished athlete requires a strict training schedule, eating the right foods, and direction from a coach. Athletes work hard and control all aspects of their life in order to reach their goal. Running a four minute mile, hitting a ball out of the park, or shooting par do not come naturally. You have to work at it. You have to practice. Athletes don’t depend on luck, but on their training.
As much as we may not want to hear it, our spiritual lives are exactly the same. Believe me, you aren’t going to wake up one morning and suddenly be able to pray without ceasing. You won’t become a self-controlled, sacrificial, serving Christian without practicing self-control, sacrifice, and service. Living a Christian life takes discipline and training. Living a Christian life doesn’t come naturally.
So what’s the point of being a Christian? Where is all this hard work supposed to pay off? An athlete or a golfer may set a goal, but it’s harder for us to set spiritual goals. Now, some may say that the point of being a Christian is to become a nice person. That’s fine and all, but there isn’t much to being nice. Plus, there are plenty of nice people who don’t believe in God. And really, when it comes down to it, Jesus wasn’t all that nice. Bold, yes. Defiant, yes. But nice? Not very often.
Others may say that all of our hard work as Christians is to get into heaven. But that’s already assumed. The central prayer for Christians is “thy kingdom come,” not “help us make it to heaven.” Remember, heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world.
The blessings that we receive when we pray; the love that we share as a community; the hope of everlasting life within God; these are assumed when we follow Jesus. Those blessings are not the final purpose of a Christian life. Those blessings, that love, that hope is simply what sustains us as we push on to that finish line.
The proper goal, the real purpose of Christianity, is laid out for us by Paul. Using athletic imagery, he speaks of running the race so that you may win the prize. Neither does Paul run aimlessly or just do some shadowboxing by “beating the air.” No, he does all these things, he practices self-control and diligence, he follows Jesus, so that he can proclaim this message to others, so that he become like Christ. That’s the point.
The finish line is not some surreal cloud to float on after this life is over. That’s too cheap a vision. The real finish line is this life, this very life, being filled of Christ; even if that requires our death.
Forming yourself into mold of Jesus and becoming a gospel-proclaimer is a long process. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Day by day, as you pray, read the bible, worship at church, do works with the power of the Holy Spirit, you come one step closer to that finish line. Because you will be in the practice of emptying yourself, and filling up again with Jesus.
It won’t come naturally, believe me. I’ve tried to just “let my faith happen.” It doesn’t work. At one point in my life, I only went to church when I felt like it. I only prayed when I hoped God could help me out of a jam. I only gave when I had a lot. I only served where I felt comfortable. But that wasn’t real Christianity, that was some cheap imitation.
In a few moments, we are going to reaffirm our Baptismal Covenant; the true image of a Christian life. The life that we say we are going to live in the Baptismal Covenant requires us to worship, even when it’s inconvenient. This life requires prayer, even when God feels far away. This life requires sacrifice and service, because that is exactly how Jesus lived. And that is exactly how he continues to live in the hearts of those who follow him.
The finish line awaits. Yet today, is not all about endings; it’s about beginnings too. We are blessed to witness the starting line. Holy Baptism. Baptism is not the finish line. A little water and oil on Nathaniel Chudej’s head won’t make him into a fully formed Christian, but it will give him a headstart. Poor Nathaniel. He doesn’t really know what his parents, Steven and Liz, are getting him into. A life of discipline, self-control…prayer, worship, ministry. But he will run the race. With our help, and us helping his parents, he will not run aimlessly or box as though beating the air. Nathaniel will push on to the final goal: nothing less than being formed in the full stature of Christ.
In a spiritual life, there is no such thing as “letting it happen.” There is hard work. There is patience. There is practice. There is the Holy Spirit. But there is no “taking it easy with God.” Let me be clear: if your faith has become comfortable or easy, then I ask you to look above our altar. Faith in God leads to the cross. That is our finish line. The death of ourselves, and the rising of Christ within us. You won’t get there by luck, or freak chance. You will first have to practice emptying yourself, and practice filling up again with Christ. And don’t forget: practice makes perfect.