Sunday, September 7, 2008

Finish Line Faith

The Olympic Games...two solid weeks of athletic competition and patriotism. The media switched their focus from the presidential election to cover table tennis. Kids were allowed to stay up past their bedtimes to see if Shawn Johnson would win the overall title. Companies like Wheaties, VISA, and Coca Cola developed new logos to capture new comsumers by manipulating the spirit of the games for their products.

You would think anything that would alter life so drastically would have more of a lasting impact. But even though details were fresh on our minds before each competiton began, there is one thing we remember when it's over: the winner.

Think about it. In the 100 meter men's sprint, can you tell me which runner took the first lead? No. How about second place? Probably not. But what can you tell me?

As a runner, you can probably tell me that Jamaica's Usain Bolt broke his own world record in that race to win the gold. He joined the ranks of Carl Lewis in winning gold in both the 100m and 200m. Not to mention, he shattered Michael Johnson's record that no one thought would ever be broken.

Do you see a pattern here? No one remembers how you started unless you finish well.

Let's go through two Biblical examples. First, let's talk about Judas Iscariot. He started out pretty well. He was one of the original twelve disciples of Jesus. I'm sure his family and friends thought he was a good man to be that close to Jesus. But what is he remembered for? He was the one who betrayed Jesus Christ. For thirty pieces of silver, he handed his Savior over to be crucified. (See John 18 for the whole story.)Today, if someone betrays you, you may even call them a "Judas." No matter what good he did with his life, even 2,000 years later, he is not remembered for accompanying Jesus for his three years of ministry on this earth. He is remembered as a traitor.

On the other hand, consider the apostle Paul. He got off to a pretty rocky start. First of all, his name was Saul. You know what he did all day? Persecuted Christians. (Check out Acts 8 for the details.) But the Lord had other plans. He blinded Saul with a great light, Saul was converted, and God changed his name from Saul to Paul. God told Ananias, Paul's teacher, that Paul was a "chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel." (Acts 9:15) From that moment on, that's exactly what Paul did. He preached the Gospel to those who had not heard the name of Jesus. He wrote over half of the New Testament. He started more churches that we can even begin to count. When we think about Paul, we don't think about the innocent Christians that he killed in his life before Christ. We think about the amazing relationship he had with the Lord and the amazing testimony of his life, bearing the name of Christ, proclaiming joy in persecution and suffering.

Think about this in your own Christian life. After you make a decision for Christ, things are going pretty well. You pray and read your Bible. You might even tell someone else about Jesus. But what happens? Life starts getting busy. Priorities change. Before you know it, your relationship with God is about as meaningful as your relationship to your sixth cousin twice removed.

In 2 Timothy 4:7, towards the end of his life, Paul wrote, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." Paul may not hsve had the lead at the beginning of his Christian walk. In fact, he wasn't even in the race. Others who got a better start dropped out along the way. Their endurance couldn't take the pressures that are promised to us when we follow Christ.

Jesus didn't teach that we might face hardship. He assured us that it was inevitable. Matthew 10:22-23, Jesus says, "You will be hated by all because of My name, but it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved. But whenever they persecute you in one city, flee to the next; for truly I say to you, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes." Notice that he doesn't say IF they persecute you. It says WHENEVER they persecute you.

Not everyone wins a race. It's the same way in the Christian faith. Jesus said, "The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few." (Matthew 9:37). Paul had what it took because he understood what it meant to cross the finish line. He practiced the same message He preached. And here's just another amazing fact about our incredible Father God. He doesn't just give gold medals to those who finish first. He gives a gold medal to everyone who finishes BEST.

In I Corinthians 9:24-27, Paul writes, "Don't you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Oherwise, I fear thst after preaching it to others, I myself might be disqualified."

You may be a casual runner like me. I'll never win a gold medal in the Olympics for Track & Field. I'll never know what it feels like to stand up on that top box while the Star-Spangled Banner plays in the background with a gold medal around my neck...until I get to heaven. To hear God say, "Well done, my good and faithful servant," will overshadow any Olympic ceremony.

I remember training for my first marathon. I followed the training plan exactly...until two weeks before the race when an injury kept me from running the race. I trained for months and had nothing to show for it. I did get another chance. Above, you see me crossing the finish line and beaming for the camera.

As a marathon runner, I'm continually asked, "What in the world motivates you to keep running for 26.2 miles?" Easy - the accomplishment in crossing the finsish line. That doesn't mean it wasn't difficult...that I didn't hit the infamous "wall" at Mile 20. But I pushed past the pain, and the finish line was well worth it. When you think about it, the Christian life is the same way. Some miles are harder than others. It can even hurt.

But having faith - finish-line faith - will always be worth it.

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