Coaches and Spectators (Olympic Games Sermon 3 of 4)
Based on Hebrews 12: 1-12
Since we have such a great cloud of witnesses, the writer says. What cloud of witnesses? Who is the writer referring to? For that we need to go and look at the chapter before our reading for today. Chapter 11 of the letter to the Hebrews is a “Who’s who” of the heroes of the faith, but it takes great care not to give glory to them, but to repeat over and over again that they were only able to do the things they did BY FAITH. This is like a verbal version of a photo gallery lining the walls of the hall of fame:
Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, the red sea parted, the walls of Jericho fell, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, the prophets, the Martyrs
"39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect."
So many of these “cloud of witnesses” would love to know what we know, would have loved to see what we have seen, to have our Lord and Saviour, the Messiah having come in glory, to have the Holy Spirit at work in the Church, as we have.
So how do we honour them, they on whose shoulders we stand? We are part of such an ancient lineage. We stand in a history of faith, we uphold ideals and we stand for something and strive to do our best, just like all those who compete in the games do, in part, to honour those who have gone before. That is why it is such a scandal when they cheat, as they are not just dishonouring themselves, or letting their supporters or coaches down, they are letting down all those who have striven fairly and honestly and competed in the right Spirit.
They all strive to be part of the Olympic legend and to pass the baton down to that next generation, knowing that their time at that level is only short.
If only we as Christians had the same humility and peace about how short our time is, and how we can do more good for the kingdom in handing on what we have learned and raising others up, than we can by holding onto control or the right to have our say or to do things the way that they have always been done.
There are two main groups that I want to talk about in the games, out of those who do not compete.
The first is spectators. Any athlete will tell you what a difference it makes having the roar of the crowd, especially a home crowd, cheer you on. Strange times we are in now, aren’t we, that there are no spectators at these games? No adoring public watching on? And among the spectators there are two main groups I think: those who have been there and done what the athletes are doing: past champions who know what it takes to get there, and who know exactly what the athlete is doing and going through. They might be remembering their glory days, and beaming with pride that their fellow countrymen are bringing glory to their nation or side or team,
And the other group, adoring fans, or once every 4 year watchers who have no idea about the technicalities of the sports but just marvel at the athletic feats. We are they who will watch the gymnastics and tut-tut when a vaulter takes a big step on landing, like we have any idea why, or what we could do any different. Or who watch the diving and use words like pike and tuck and nailing the entry, and it is the only time in 4 years we will use these words or even care about them, until the next games. It is a spectacle for us, but for the past champions I think it is something deeper, to watch the next generation run, and compete.
The second group who do not compete, but are there in the stands, and have helped the athletes earn their medals, are the coaches. We have seen in these games how Dean Boxall, the coach of Arianne Titmus, went berserk when she won gold. But I think I get why. Can you imagine the hours and days and years that he has put in alongside of her, trying to get her to this goal? He has been just as invested in this as she has.
Coaches are there in the background, but they earn glory, too, and they share in it.
Some coaches have themselves been athletes at an elite level, but some have not, simply being someone who is able to get the best out of their charges, and promote them on to higher things.
And these people are very important for us to think about, because for many, even if we feel like we have not reached very far in our journey of faith, not gone as missionaries and baptized thousands, or converted the nations for Jesus, or become Bishops ourselves, we need to realise that not everyone is in the roles that get the glory, like an Olympic athlete. In fact, only a few ever do, really. There are 486 athletes in the Australian Olympic team, including the team sports. The live population estimate at the time of writing this was 25,785,824, which means that .0018 percent of the Australian population gets to make the Olympic team.
But think of their coaches, and physiotherapists, and dieticians, and sports psychologists, and masseurs, and parents who have driven them to practice when they are children, and all their past coaches and managers and supporters and the numbers start to swell. They have all played some part.
There was a man who felt compelled to run a particular race, to take on a particular thankless, punishing task, and he did alright in his time, but why he is most remembered is because he trained one prodigy, one successor who far outstripped him in fame and in achievements and effectiveness. Isn’t that what every coach wants? For their student to go on and work wonders, to reach the very heights? Because doesn’t the coach get to share in that glory, and in every amazing feat that their student does?
The story I am talking about, some of you may have already twigged to, is not an athlete, or a swimmer or diver, but the man’s name was Elijah. And his student: Elisha.
Elisha went on to give the Shunammite woman a son by the power of God’s word, and then to raise that son back to life when he died as a youth, he did so many more miracles, and by the power of God blinded a whole army! You can read about many of these amazing things in the book of 2 Kings.
But the point is that Elijah had a big part to play in all of that!
Or what about Ruth, one of my favourite books of the bible? Ruth, who was loyal, and loving to her mother-in-law, and brave enough to go with her to a nation other than her own out of duty, and would never see the greatness that was to come from her line, when God would eventually bring King David as her great-great-grandson, from whose line of course we know Jesus came, and brought blessing and healing and life to ALL nations. She played her part. Not just a spectator, maybe not a coach, but a supporting role.
We all, you all have a part to play in God’s history of salvation. Our names may not go down in history, our pictures not hung on a wall of heroes in a hall of fame, but we are part of God’s plan in the life of someone out there. And it doesn’t have to be our children or grandchildren.
You can play a part in the faith journey of someone, young or old, just be being interested in them, praying for them, praying WITH them, caring about them. We don’t have an institute of sport, we have an institution of faith, and it is even more important.
Why? Because just like you and me, every one of those athletes competing in the games will die and their bodies will go back to the soil. Olympic glory doesn’t grant immortality. But God’s glory does. Your coaching or supporting role in someone’s life may just be part of God’s plan to grant eternal life with him (to them.)
Don’t be scared of the awesome nature of this. It is a wonderful privilege to be part of the plan of God. So let us run the race.
And we will finish with a prayer: God of all times and places, when our time comes to pass the baton to those who come after us, and join the great cloud of witnesses in heaven, help us to do so gracefully, and together with you and all those who have gone before, cheer on those who strive to see your kingdom come.