Sunday, September 23, 2012

A hard frost fell across the Northland during the night, but we were quickly warmed by the company of friends as we gathered this morning for worship. In his usual manner Pastor Brad greeted us. "I'm grateful you're here today."

Darlene, Chuck and Ken led the worship this morning, lively and upbeat. After Brad's invocation Dawn shared how the young people this year would be raising money for needy families in the Congo. Then Gwen followed, energetically sharing her excitement about this new Sunday School year. The theme was the world, which she shared with visuals, including lollipops that were globes.

After the offering, the Scripture reading this morning was from I Corinthians 9:19-27.

Passion for the Prize

In this morning's message Brad re-visited the life and times of the Apostle Paul, especially his motivations. He began by noting that he did not find Paul to be a heroic character early in his Christian life, but eventually this changed. Perhaps in part this was due to Paul being seemingly different from him.

The 5'7" apostle bore on his body the marks of brutal persecution. His life was devoted to traversing a very harsh, demon-infested world with multiple obstacles. His life ended in a dungeon in Rome, slain during Nero's persecutions.

So what was it that enabled Paul to endure so much and make such an impact on his time? Keep in mind that this was a world that was every bit as opposed to the Gospel as today.

The answer runs throughout Paul's letters, Brad wished us to zero in on passages from I Corinthians 9.

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 someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

The image that Paul used here was the Greek games. We think we live in a sports obsessed society. Check out the Greeks. They measured time in light of the Games. For the Jews, their calendar began with creation. Christians date time forward and backward based on its relation to the birth of Christ. The Roman calendar began with the mythical founding of Rome. For the Greeks everything was measured in relation to the Olympic games, every four years at Olympus and every three years at the Isthmian Games at Corinth. (Corinth was located on an isthmus between Peloponnesia and Greece.) 

Trivia: the word gymnasium comes from the Greek word "gymnast" which means naked.

In these Olympics the athletes competed for the prize, a laurel of leaves twisted into a crown.

Paul's declaration is that "this is the spirit I bring to this ministry. I am competing for the prize and will do whatever it takes to achieve it."

So what is Paul aiming for in his ministry? What is he striving for? Brad points to verse 16 as a clue.
16 For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!

Paul preaches the Gospel because he is committed to preach it. It was a commission. God summoned him to reach the Greek world and he was obligated to follow through.

It would be like a scientist at a great university who discovered a cure for AIDS. Imagine what would happen if she refused to share her discovery, to share this cure with others. Her heart would have to be concrete. So with Paul, he "discovered" the Gospel (God literally knocked him to the ground to get it through his head.) and was obligated to share. And we, like Paul, have the same obligation. To fail to share is to be derelict.

The reason Paul says he gets a reward is not because he shared the Gospel. This was his obligation. It's the passion he brought to his ministry... He was willing to give up any and all rights in order to make Christ known.

What rights? In verse 3 he says he gave up the right to food and drink. In another place he says he gave up the right to be married. He also gave up the right to receive a salary, even though he had the right to be paid. When Paul went to Corinth, he was not seeking Corinthian gold. He wanted Corinthians.

The strength of any cause depends on the people committed to it. It depends on their self-sacrifice and dedication. Only fanatics make a difference in the world. Paul was a fanatic for the Gospel.

Brad noted that fanatics have a downside. They tend to build walls instead of bridges. Paul recognized this and went further. He gave up all his personal rights.

Paul never changed his message ("I preach Jesus Christ and Him crucified.) but he did change his approach anywhere and everywhere, if it would build a bridge. He became a Jew to the Jews, a Greek to the Greeks, a Roman to the Romans. To the educated he was educated and to the "blue collar" working class he was working class. In the end, Paul's passion drove him to do anything short of sinning in order to win others to Christ.

As Jim McKay used to say at the beginning of ABC's classic Wide World of Sports, "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat." Everyone who gives him or herself to winning people to Jesus Christ wins the prize. But the greatest thrill will be the thrill of giving yourself to ministry and through your ministry see men and women come to God. An even greater thrill will be when you stand before your Lord and have him place a gold medal around your neck, and an eternal crown on your head.

Bob Richards, Olympic pole vault champion, said he would ask Olympic athletes how they handled the pain. They never said, "What pain?" Pain was part of being an athlete competing at these highest levels. That goes for running, boxing, swimming and every other physical competition. That is the spirit of the athlete. And that is the spirit of the men and women who make a difference for God in their day. They wil do anything short of sinning to win men and women to Jesus Christ.

That's the passion of the apostle Paul. And Paul says that needs to be your passion as well.

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