Sermon published by Pastor Joel Pukallus
Bible reading: Romans 8:31-39
So today we begin the first of three/four sermons on the Olympic games, and the athletic language that is used in the New Testament. Much of it is in the writings of the Apostle Paul, but some, as we will see in the third of our series, is in the letter to the Hebrews. People used to think that this letter might have been written by Paul, although it is widely accepted now that this is not the case. The most likely candidate for the author to the letter to the Hebrews is Apollos, another Jewish Christian, and sometimes travelling companion of the Apostle Paul.
But as you may recall, the Bible talks about races and training and staying the course and winning a prize or a crown, but it doesn’t mention medals. These came later, after biblical times. There are winners and losers in God’s Word; some get medals and others depart from the Games empty-handed. So while this is a big thing in the world at the moment, and even more exciting now that Brisbane has been announced as the venue for the games in 2032, we are going to spend some time in athletic mode. What can we learn from these athletes?
Did you know that the Olympic Games have a long history of spiritual significance. The modern Olympics were preceded by the Olympian Games, which go all the way back to the year 776 B.C. They were held in the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia, and the athletic contests were held as a means of paying tribute to Zeus. In a book entitled The Decathlon, by Frank Zarnowski, he writes: “The Greek physical contests were religious affairs. Those who took part did so to glorify a deity. And common belief was that the prizes came from a god.
Almost 3000 years ago, in a field beside the river Alphaeus, a man by the name of Coroebus won that first 200 yard foot race, and received a crown, or a wreath, made of the branches and leaves of a wild olive tree. And from there it has grown. This is the report of the first winner at any of the games. . . .
His name went down in History. But do athletes compete for themselves or for their country? Is it actually an aim of the games to be the country that wins the most medals? National pride would seem to suggest that it is, and we will constantly see the medal tally, showing which nations are winning the most medals as a nation. But you may be interested to know that is not officially in the rules of the games.
The “policy” is that, officially, Olympic medals and prizes and records only go to individuals or teams. “The IOC does not keep national scores,” says one official report.
So who wins in the games? A country, an individual, their team, their coaches and families, their supporters? What is victory for them, and what is victory for us? Do we have to be the best in the world? Is it victory just to be included in the team, or to make it to the finish line?
The reason that the sermon text is the one we have today from Romans, is that a few different bible translators have verse 37 of our text for today saying, instead of “More than Conquerors” we have “complete victory.”
And this is important. Victory is an important word.
Look again at our photo introducing our sermon theme. As well as the brand name that every runner wears, the second one from the left is sporting one of the three most recognisable logos in the world. Can you spot it?
What is it? Nike. It is pronounced different ways by different people. But that brand name is not just a modern made-up word or an acronym, it is a Greek word, and it is pronounced Ni-kay.
So as an ancient Greek, if you climbed the hill to the famous Parthenon in Athens, to go and see the Acropolis, which housed a great statue of the Greek Goddess Athena, you would pass, on the way up the steps, a much smaller little temple, called the temple of Athena Nike. (In fact, it is still standing there today) Can you guess what Nike means?
It means victory. And Paul says that in God we have complete victory. We are more than conquerors.
Victory in the Olympic games is never given to you, it is earned hard, in the long hours of sweat, and recovery from injury, and pushing your body to the very limits of endurance. There is no such thing as an overnight success at this level, as athletes push themselves sometimes all their lives closer and closer to the limits of the human body in their quest to live out the Olympic motto, “Citius, Altius, fortius”, Faster, higher Stronger.
You remember that other famous Australian Olympic moment, our first ever Winter Olympics gold medal? To do a Bradbury, has become a recognised part of Aussie slang. And people say it like he didn’t deserve it! But can you imagine the years of hard work and blood and sweat and tears that it took to get himself there? He wasn’t just some chump who was in the right place at the right time. He deserved to be there in that final race.
That is where we are different to the best physical examples of what it means to be human, that we see competing in the games. We DO have our victory given to us. Yes we run the race, but we run it together. Yes we discipline ourselves, and we train, and we keep the faith, but we can’t do any of that ourselves by our own strength.
St Paul says in 1 Corinthians. “Praise be to God, who GIVES us the victory, through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The nations of the world might not see the Olympics as a spiritual or religious pursuit any more, but the games can still have significance for us. It can still teach us some important lessons about the faith, as it did for at least two of the bible writers. I want to share with you this short true story that tells us a little something about real victory is.
Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.