Has anybody been watching any of the Olympic coverage on TV? I am thoroughly enjoying watching all of these dedicated athletes perform at such a high level. And it is especially gratifying for them and for those of us who are watching, when they win. Like Alex Bilodeau in Men’s Moguls, Maelle Ricker in Ladies Snowboard Cross, Christine Nesbitt in the Women’s 1000 metre long track speed skating event, and Jon Montgomery in the Men’s skeleton race. For these athletes, all of their training and preparation paid off with a gold medal.
In the ancient Olympic games, they didn’t give out medals to the winners of the various events. They were given a crown, not made out of metal like gold, silver or bronze, but made out of plant material, like stems and leaves from an oak or laurel tree, or of flowers. We might think of such things as a wreath or a garland, and we still use such things today, as when a wreath is laid at a cenotaph on Remembrance Day to honour the dead, or when a wreath is laid upon a coffin at a funeral to honour a loved one who has died. But in ancient times they would have been thought of as crowns, and the crown received by the winner of an Olympic event was a very precious prize indeed. Paul picks up on this idea when he writes to the Christians in Corinth, a city that hosted its own athletic games, 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. (1 Corinthians 9:25 NIV)
And just like an Olympic athlete, you and I are in training. Each day we practice and prepare, not for the Olympic games, but for the games of life. We work hard as we strive to get a good job, find the best partner for life, have kids who do well in school and at sports or music. We want to have a good home and a reliable car. We desire to look good and feel good. We want to be connected in healthy relationships with family and friends. And it is not wrong to desire or to work towards all of these things, as long as they don’t become the most important thing in our lives, because these things will not last.
But the problem is this: Many of us are not winning at the game of life. Just look at yourself first thing in the morning and you will see the crooked teeth and the bad breath and the out-of-control hair, and any illusions you had of been the best looking person in your corner of creation will quickly evaporate. But our losing ways can be far more serious than that. The boss calls you into his office and tells you that you aren’t needed here anymore. Your financial advisor phones from the bank to tell you that your loans are in arrears and the situation must be addressed, but you have no money to spare. The teacher phones from school and tells you that she suspects you’re your child has a serious learning disability. Your doctor phones from the clinic and the news is worse than what you had feared. The dream of winning at life comes crashing down around your ears. Heart-broken and disillusioned, you wonder, ‘What is the point of it all?’
Such is the experience of those who are losing at the game of life. In the Olympic games, all of us can remember the name of Alexandre Bilodeau, the first Canadian to win a gold medal on home soil. But who can remember who placed fourth and fifth in the same race? (It was Vincent Marquis and Pierre-Alexandre Rousseau.) One of the Olympic lugers was being praised for his competitive spirit and he was quoted as saying, “Second place is just another name for first loser.” So it is in the game of life, a fortunate few are remembered for doing well. But the rest of us toil along in anonymity, frustration and despair.
And I am sad to say that even in the church we have bought into a performance mentality. We want our church to have the best building, we want our pastor to be the best preacher, we want all the people in the church to be well-dressed with happy, smiling faces and we want all the kids to be quiet, behave and like it. And so when someone doesn’t measure up to those unspoken standards, we turn away from them and we end up hurting those we are called to help.
But we have a God who loves all people, both the winners and the losers in life. And we see God’s love for the loser most clearly in the person of Jesus. Nearly 2,000 years ago, Jesus grew up in the hick town of Nazareth in an area north of Jerusalem called Galilee. He wasn’t a powerful politician, a champion athlete or a skilled warfare tactician. As far as we know, he didn’t win any prizes for his work as a carpenter at the Nazareth Institute of Technology.
Around the age of 30, he left his trade to become an itinerant teacher, and he taught with a wisdom and a skill that amazed his students. But he also challenged those who were, by the measure of that time, winning at the game of life. To some people, Jesus would say things like, “Your riches and your success have come between you and God. Leave them behind and win at life God’s way.” To others he would say, and I paraphrase, “Your religion has come between you and God. You value religious performance more than you value God and the things he values like justice and mercy and grace. Instead of being part of God’s solution to the brokenness of the world, you are part of the problem. Leave your religion behind and win at life God’s way.”
And the winners of the world did not like what Jesus was saying. So they used all the power they had at their disposal to stop him. They ignored him, they challenged him and, when those things didn’t work, they made plans to humiliate and destroy him. The religious leaders of the day had him arrested on false charges. The guards from the temple blindfolded him, beat him, and challenged him to use his special insight to name who landed each blow. The religious leaders orchestrated public opinion to clamour for his crucifixion, and Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of that territory, gave in to their demands even though he knew Jesus was innocent.
And then the powerful Roman army took its turn. Around 500 soldiers gathered around Jesus in the army garrison. They stripped him and flogged him with a whip with multiple strands of leather that had bits of bone or metal embedded into the ends. The Jews set a maximum of 39 lashes, but the Romans had no such maximum. They could flog the prisoner as much as they wanted, and prisoners often died from the flogging alone.
And then, in order that they might mock this one who claimed to be the King of the Jews, the soldiers placed a purple cloak on his shoulders and put a reed in his hand. They wove together a crown for Jesus, but this was not a winner’s crown of oak leaves, this was a crown of thorns. They beat it down onto his head and then knelt in false praise, crying out, “Hail, King of the Jews.” They could have called out, “Hail, King of the Losers!” And after they had had their fun with him, the soldiers took Jesus outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem, to a hill where they nailed him to a cross and hung him there to die.
There were no gold medals handed out that day. Jesus was bruised, beaten, broken and dead. From a human perspective, Jesus lost everything: his position, his prestige, his relationships, his health and, ultimately his life, and he lost it in the most shameful, painful, degrading way possible. Even in death, they couldn’t leave him alone, as a soldier plunged his spear into Jesus’ side just to make sure that the dirty deed was done. His burial was rushed and proper procedures could not be followed because the end of the day was quickly approaching. He was laid in a borrowed tomb nearby and the entrance was sealed. “That was the end of Jesus,” the people must have thought, some with delight and others with despair.
“Loser!” the religious leaders must have crowed as they congratulated themselves. “Loser!” the soldiers might have muttered as they trudged back to their barracks. “Loser!” would have been the cry down through the ages if the story of Jesus had ended right there. But the story did not end there. For Jesus knew something at the very core of his being that we all too often forget. Jesus knew, even as the crowd taunted him and spit on him, even as he hung there naked on the cross with his life ebbing away, Jesus knew that the most important thing in life was a relationship with God, and no matter how much you are hurting, no matter how bad it gets, a relationship with God is always a win. Jesus last words were “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” And then he gave up his life and died.
And on the third day that followed, Jesus rose from the dead, and in doing so, began a new age in the history of the world. Now a new creation has begun in which the dead rise, the blind see, the lame walk and the deaf hear. It started with Jesus, and as we trust him with our lives, that new creation becomes a reality inside of us. On the outside, it’s the same crooked teeth and the stinky breath and the bad hair. But inside, we are a new person. Our heavenly Father looks at our new selves and says, “Ahhh! You are so beautiful! You are so handsome! I love you and I see you as such a wonderful champion!”
And one day Jesus is going to return to this world in a visible way and he is going to complete the process that he has begun in you. He will transform your tired, old, dead body into a new body with straight teeth and fresh breath and every day will be a great hair day! And you will never get cancer or COPD or heart disease. You will never grow old and you will never die! All the other new creation people will be there! And you will see the beautiful face of the one that you have always longed for even if you never knew him. You will see Jesus face to face. He will wipe every tear from your eye!
Jesus makes this promise to you, “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Rev. 2:10b) Because of Jesus, all of you are winners! And that makes all the difference in the world to us! With Jesus, we don’t need to be worried or afraid when circumstances turn against us. We need not be concerned when it seems like we are losing at the game of life. We are only in the preliminary rounds and we know that Jesus will make all things right in the end.
And so, in response to what Jesus has done for us, we practice and prepare, not to become winners, for in Jesus we already are winners. We practice going deeper and further in trusting in Jesus in more and more areas of our lives. And we prepare, not ourselves, but the world, for the Saviour who loves the whole world so very, very much.
Now let’s celebrate! I invite you to do two things: First, turn to the person next to you and say, “Jesus has made you a winner and I am cheering for you!”
Now that you done that let’s do what we do when we celebrate a big win, we cheer! So on the count of three, let’s all give out the biggest, winner’s cheer ever. Ready, one, two, three: Yeah!
(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church on 21 February 2010.)