There’s an important question I want to ask you this Sabbath morning. I know that our focus has been on Beijing and the Olympic Games flickering back to us on our TV screens. It’s hard to get much else done, isn’t it, when the competition is so mesmerizing. But here is our spiritual thought for today: can an Olympic winner have a gold medal . . . and then later not have it? Once the computerized scoreboard flashes your name in lights as the winner, can your prize be taken away? We shared in a previous sermon the tragic story of decathlon winner Jim Thorpe, who did indeed have two gold medals—and suddenly they were gone.
There’s a special passage of Scripture which makes Christians think about the Olympic Games and about competing for glory. It’s written by the Apostle Paul to the Christians in Corinth, and you can find it in chapter nine. Here it is: “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. 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.” Then he goes on with a personal testimony about what this means in his own life and daily struggle with temptation: “Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize”(v. 24-27).
It’s interesting to note that Paul and his contemporaries knew all about the Olympic Games, of course. They’d been going on for hundreds of years already. In fact, if you study through the excellent text notes the New International Version scholars provide for this passage, here’s what they have to say: “The Corinthians were familiar with the foot races in their own Isthmian games, which occurred every other year and were second only to the Olympic games in importance.”
We could explore many spiritual issues out of these four verses—the importance of training and sacrifice, the single-mindedness of a Christian. But today I’d like to consider with you that one key phrase: “A crown that will not last.” Have you ever gotten a prize that didn’t last, an honor that soon faded, a good score that was later canceled? Have you ever thought you were going to get a scholarship—and then didn’t? We have all had the experience of having good news get snatched away. Even the gold medals being given out right now over in China are such temporary prizes. The tiniest fluke, the least mistake, the barest traces of an illegal substance in your bloodstream can rob a person of the trophy they deserve.
Probably this phrase—“Munich 1972”—epitomizes the tragedy of missed Olympic opportunities. And of gold medal robberies. Let me share a couple of difficult stories to break your heart.
A California runner named Eddie Hart and teammate Rey Robinson were good bets that year to win gold and silver in the 100-meter race; everyone in attendance who paid attention to track and field gossiped about their chances of victory. They had both hit the tape in 9.9 seconds and qualified easily in the morning round. There was a quarter-final competition coming up later, but coach Stan Wright told them to relax; it wasn’t until about 7:00 that evening.
Okay. So they kicked back and enjoyed some casual R & R. It was mid-afternoon when the two men began to leisurely get ready to head from the Olympic Village over to the stadium. All at once, on a TV monitor, they saw sprinters lining up for a start. “What’s that?” one of them asked. “It must be a taped rerun of the trials this morning.”
“No,” someone else said. “This is live.”
Both men suddenly felt sick to their stomachs. This was their race! The coach had referred to a program printed a year-and-a-half ago; the revised schedule had them slated to run their second qualifying race at 4:30. In other words—right now! They rushed to the track . . . but it was too late. The race was over, the results were in, and there wasn’t a thing in Germany anyone could do about it. The next morning, when the real 100-meter final was run, Eddie Hart and Rey Robinson sat in the stands with other tourists and watched as Ukrainian sprinter Valery Borzov won with a time of 10.1, and accepted the gold medal either one of them might well have won. The dream of a lifetime was gone because someone didn’t read the right words on a page.
Here’s Disaster Number Two: a young 16-year-old swimmer named Rick DeMont, also from California, stunned the crowds there in Munich by unexpectedly winning the 400-meter free-style, edging out Australia’s Brad Cooper in 4 minutes 00.3 seconds, a new Olympic record. They handed him the gold medal and he said “Thank you very much.”
But hold on. Several days later, just as DeMont was about to climb onto the platform to compete in the 1500-meter swimming race, officials came to confront him. It seems that when the routine drug tests came back, they discovered that tiny traces of something called ephedrine had been in his system. Rick, an asthma sufferer all his life, had stated clearly on his Olympic entry form that he used this prescription medicine . . . and the amount found in his system was minuscule, clearly not performance-enhancing. But someone, either the U.S. medical staff or persons unknown, had failed to get young Rick DeMont the official medical clearance he needed. Now, after the fact, the IOC wasn’t about to be flexible. No, the Rules Committee said, he could not swim in the 1500-meter; what’s more, the gold medal he’d already won was taken away from him and given to the Australian. Look in any record book even these 36 years later and you see the name “Brad Cooper” listed there. It’s as though Mr. DeMont never even made the trip to Germany.
Can you imagine the pain of being so close and then missing out completely? Of making that long airplane flight home with nothing in your suitcase but your dirty laundry?
Stories like these give the words of Paul new meaning, don’t they? Let me ask you this Sabbath morning: aren’t you grateful for a crown that can’t be taken away, a medal no Olympic committee can strip you of? “We run to get a crown that will last forever!” Paul says. We labor in the vineyard with Jesus for a paycheck that no one can garnishee, for a harvest that no enemy can destroy.
Here’s another point to consider. Especially in the year 1972, if you’re old enough to remember, incompetent judging and dishonest judging were a huge Munich nightmare. A number of the officials had to just plain be let go for obvious bungling. Or for partisan posturing that went far beyond the pale. And as I’ve already shared, there were painful moments when well-meaning athletes had to face the accusing faces of men and women determined to take back their gold medal. It always hurts to be accused, but especially if the accusations are false, with no merit. Maybe you’ve had that experience right here at home, where a boss let you go for something that was a misunderstanding, or a professor gave you a low score that you didn’t deserve.
You know, that takes me to the very back of my Bible: Revelation chapter 12, where there’s almost a parallel experience described. Notice: “Then the scene changed and I seemed to be at Calvary. I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, ‘Salvation has come; the power of our God is revealed and His kingdom is established, as is the authority of His Christ.’” Now listen to this: “Satan, the accuser of our brothers who accused them before God day and night, is now cast out from the sympathy of the angels in heaven forever” (v. 10).
I have to admit, I love that verse! There’s something in all of us that responds with praise to God for the fact that one day the Accuser will be gone. Satan the crooked judge, the accusing gold-medal thief, will be forever barred from the Olympics of eternity.
I suppose the Munich Games’ fateful finale happened when the American and Russian basketball teams came down to the last three seconds in the final game; the U.S. squad’s Doug Collins had just dropped two pressure-cooker free throws to give the red-white-and-blue team a one-point lead, 50-49.
Then came a series of strange, Twilight Zone rulings that I won’t bother to list for you these 36 years later. Instead of one bad call, it was something like five of them piled on top of one another. TV replays later made it fairly obvious that judges from the former communist-bloc nations blatantly made up to five illegal calls that gave the Soviet team one extra shot at a basket, which they made to win by one point. If you were watching back in 1972, you probably recall that there was very nearly a riot. The Olympic spirit and the 5,000 doves released from the stadium and all the “goodwill” just about died right there. People all around the world complained that this was the athletic scandal of all time. The closing ceremonies were essentially ruined.
So, brothers and sisters, yes, here in this world of human greed and sinful shortcomings a gold medal can be taken away. There in Munich, the International Olympic Committee offered the American basketball players silver medals . . . and to a man, they refused them. With blood in their eyes, they got on a plane for home and left those silver medals behind.
Well, you know, these have been tough stories to share here in church this morning. I hope as the Beijing experience unfolds that this kind of heartache may never be repeated. But in this world, do you know something? Nothing is sure! Gold can be lost, medals can be denied, and prizes can even be rejected by a team of young men who feel they were cheated.
A reputation can be lost overnight. A woman can be married in the morning and a widow by that evening. A fortune in the stock market can evaporate in one devastating day. Newsweekmagazine once showed the picture of a blue-collar worker, just an ordinary guy, who worked with his hands for a certain company his whole career. He didn’t flit around; he didn’t go across the street to where the grass was greener. He came to work on time and didn’t ever leave early. What’s more, even though he was just a regular guy with a wrench in his hand, he saved diligently and didn’t go on fancy vacations. By the time he turned 65, he was proud to look in his 401k pension portfolio, and see that he had piled up something like $1.4 million of assets. He and his wife had dreams of trips to Hawaii and lots of rides on the Ferris wheel with their grandkids.
The only problem was that all of his retirement stock was in something called Enron. It wasn’t his fault, but one dark day he found out that he didn’t have a single penny left. Not one cent. And he had already retired. There was no time to earn it all over again.
Well, folks, these are the hard realities of our world. Don’t put your trust in princes, the Bible says. Don’t think that the things of this world will always last, because we know they won’t always last.
But let’s turn to the Word of God for encouragement right now. You know, all through the pages of the Old and New Testaments is the description of a very special Book. A Book of Life, it’s called. Maybe you remember the gospel song: “Is my name written there, on the page white and fair? In the book of Thy Kingdom, is my name written there?”
Today let me take you for encouragement to the book of Revelation again. Actually, we were already there, so just move back a few pages to chapter three. And Jesus Himself, speaking through His beloved disciple John the Revelator, says in verse five: “He who overcomes will, like them [the victorious saints in Sardis] be dressed in white.” Now notice this. In fact, let’s celebrate these next three words. Read them with me: “I WILL NEVER blot out his name from the Book of Life, but will acknowledge his name before My Father and His angels.”
Isn’t that powerful? Another version says, “I will acknowledge them AS MINE.” Listen, once you belong to Christ, no Accuser can get your name removed from His book. No enemy can erase your heavenly home. No IOC ruling can take away your medal; no muckraking reporter from Sports Illustrated can uncover some dirt to get the Olympic record altered so that your name isn’t there any longer. Not with Jesus in charge! Jesus stands up to the accusations of Lucifer and He says, “Based on My shed blood, based on Calvary, based on the kingdom of grace established by My Father and by Me . . . I claim this person as My trophy. I see their name emblazed in My book, and that’s where it’s going to stay.”
And what gives Jesus Christ the authority to write your name in heaven and then keep it there? Listen, He ran the race before you; in fact, He ran the race for you. And for me too.
I think we have a few gray-haired folks here today who even are going to remember fondly the 1948 games over in London, where a big husky 17-year-old kid from Tulare, California named Bob Mathias won the Olympic Decathlon. Sports fans were sorry to hear, just two years ago, 2006, that this great champion had passed away. But there in London, these two days of competition were absolute torture. It rained the whole time; it was dark and cold. He had to finish the last couple of events almost by flashlight. Everything went wrong; officials accidently picked up his discus marker once and he almost lost the whole thing right there. But young Bob Mathias, still a high-school kid, just stuck it out. He didn’t quit. He didn’t walk off the course, even though the rain had driven away almost all of the 75,000 spectators and he had to stagger through the 1500-meter race, that last exhausting event, with only his mom and dad and a few officials watching.
At the end he was so tired he could hardly move or speak. He was physically whipped and emotionally spent as well. “Never again,” he told reporters. “Never again. No way.” Fortunately he changed his mind and won the same decathlon in Helsinki, Finland, four years later. Someone asked this brave 17-year-old kid what he was going to do now that he’d won the gold, and he managed to grin: “Well, I guess I’ll start shaving.”
But here’s my closing point. When it was hard, Jesus finished too. There in Gethsemane, when Satan tried to get Him to walk off the field of combat, Jesus toughed it out. When it was raining curses on Him at Calvary, He kept on the course. He didn’t quit. And because He finished and won the gold, your name in that Book is never going to come out. Shall we pray?
Father, we pause today amid all of the headlines and glory from Beijing, and thank You for the gold medals of eternal life. What wonderful news that your children can claim victory, through Jesus, and know that our salvation is sure. Thank You for sending Jesus to run this race in our stead, to fight Lucifer in our place, to cross the tape of triumph on our behalf. And when we get to heaven, Lord, the first thing we’re going to do is to lay those crowns and medals at the feet of Your Son. In Jesus’ victorious name we pray, Amen.
Submitted by David B. Smith. Better Sermons © 2005-2008. Click here for usage guidelines.