Have you ever had one of those terrifying dreams where you’re suddenly in something like an athletic situation way beyond what you’re capable of? There are nine other basketball players on the floor . . . and . . . YOU. And of course, five of the nine have jerseys that say “Lakers” on them. Kobe Bryant and his pals are right there next to you—and they’re HUGE! Huge and quick! And on play after desperate play, they just blow right past you. Slam dunks and rim-rattlers . . . and it’s all your fault. You’re supposed to be defending against them, and you’re just not able to do it. You wake up from your nightmare in a cold sweat. People in the stands are pelting you with hot dog wrappers and full cups of soda. Your own wife is waving a banner calling on the crowd to trade you to the Trailblazers—or even tar and feather you.
As we watch the Olympic Games coming to us all the way from Beijing, maybe you have a bit of that same feeling. These people are so far ahead of you and me. Their physical talents, their agility, the unbelievable endurance, the skill . . . here are thousands of people who really belong in a different universe. We turn off our TV sets after watching NBC all evening, and go outside and try to run one mile—and it takes eleven minutes. There’s no sense buying a plane ticket to London, England for the year 2012, because the U.S. Olympic Committee isn’t about to invite us. No way.
And yet we find in the story of these Olympics a spiritual truth that gives you and me great hope. The great achievements of others, the heroic gold medals others are winning for God don’t have to make us discouraged. Here’s why. In the race toward God’s Kingdom, there’s plenty of room for you to win.
That may sound kind of trite, but let me illustrate.
A cover article in Newsweek back in 1996 was entitled “Year of the Women: Why Female Athletes Are Our Best Hope for Olympic Gold.” Sportswriter Frank Deford then told the story of a number of U.S. female athletes who had a real shot at gold medals down in Atlanta, Georgia. And some of the statistics were very interesting.
In the first modern Olympic Games, Athens 1896, women were completely barred from participating. Golfer Margaret Abbott was the first American woman to win a gold medal, in the year 1900 in Paris. It wasn’t until 1948, London, that high jumper Alice Coachman became the first African-American woman to win a gold. As recently as 1976, just 32 years ago in Montreal, the male-female breakdown on the U.S. team was six to one. Women were still almost a rarity. But by the time they got to Atlanta, the ratio stood at 4-3, almost 50-50, with close to 300 females wearing star-and-striped sweats for the 1996 games. Overall, women made up 37% of the worldwide field of participants that year.
What does that mean? Very simply, the door’s been thrown open; a whole new segment of society which didn’t used to even get onto the playing field can now participate AND win! These six words tell it all: “All can play, all can win.” In fact, as Deford’s title indicates, more and more we can expect to get our best performances from the better half. We’ll see how the gold medals get distributed from China. Plenty has changed from the early days of the Olympean Games where women weren’t even allowed in as spectators, and where the mother of Pisidorus was almost thrown off a large rock to her death as punishment after slipping into the stadium to see her son win. Being born female no longer means that you don’t have a shot at a gold medal.
I like how in the Bible, which certainly comes to us from rigidly male-dominated cultures, God allows this principle to come shining through. So many times it was the women and even the young girls, who played pivotal roles. Miriam. Queen Esther. Rahab. Mary. The little slave girl—we don’t even know her name—who stepped forward and witnessed to the power of her God before Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram.
Sometimes we look at ourselves in the mirror and we see severe handicaps. It’s not our fault; it’s something we were born with, but we feel disqualified. “Well, that’s it,” we shrug. “I can’t compete.” But you know, the annals of history and especially the Olympic Games are bursting to overflowing with the stories of people who overcame huge odds to go on and win gold prizes.
Have you ever heard of Rafer Johnson? Maybe you saw him as a returning Olympic hero carry the torch on its final leg during the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. He took home the decathlon gold medal in the 1960 Olympics in Rome with a new record of 8,392 points in the grueling ten-event, two-day competition.
But did you know that Rafer, as a 12-year-old kid, caught his left foot in a cannery conveyor belt? He had to have stitches and face weeks on crutches. In 1956, going for his first Olympic gold medal in Melbourne, he suffered a knee injury and then torn stomach muscles. In ‘59 there was more leg trouble, and then serious back trouble due to a head-on auto collision while traveling to his sister’s high school graduation. As late as February, 1960, just a few short months before the games in Rome, he couldn’t even jog. How in the world was he going to participate—and win—the 100 meter, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400 meter, 110-meter hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin, and the grueling 1500-meter run? Ten impossible events, especially in his condition.
But he did it! He trained and he worked and he went to Rome for the Olympic Games. It came down to the last event, his weakest one—the 1500-meter race. He had a 67-point lead over his nearest competitor, fellow UCLA student Chuan Kwang Yang of Taiwan. All he had to do was stay within ten seconds of Yang’s finishing time in this last race, and the gold medal would be his. Rafer was exhausted, but he glued himself to the other athlete, and followed him the whole way. “He clung to him with leechlike persistency,” said one sportswriter, and finished just ONE second back, giving him the gold medal. Despite all the strikes against him, including the lingering racial prejudices that even swirl around here in 2008, Rafer Johnson triumphed. He didn’t let hardships and handicaps keep him from participating.
And here is the biblical reality we glean from these inspiring sports stories. Whatever shortcomings you think keep you from being a player in God’s Olympic Games—God can help you gain victories despite them. There may be hurdles in your way, just like we see on the track night after night in Beijing. You may think the high bar’s set far beyond where you can reach, let alone jump. But Olympic stories and Bible stories give us confidence to know that God has a plan to give you a gold medal.
I want to return to our earlier illustration about how so many women are competing in the Olympic Games today. Why the recent surge in female participation? Why did the floodgates finally open, and give us the opportunity to thrill to the Jackie Joyner-Kersees and Mary Lou Rettons of the world? What happened?
At least here in the United States, many people point to the year 1972 when President Richard Nixon signed into law Title IX, legislation that mandated full equality for women’s school athletics. Up until that time, even though half of all boys participated officially in school sports, only 1 out of 27 girls did so. But after Title IX, in just a few short years, that number has skyrocketed; today well over a third of all American girls take part in school sports, and now a huge contingent of them is heading over to China to compete for Olympic medals.
Now, besides the gender balancing at the Olympic Games, we can notice other benefits for the girls who take part in sports. Those who do also do better in academics, they don’t drop out of school, they don’t do drugs, and they don’t get pregnant.
But the point I want to make is this: that 1972 decision, Title IX, was an official opening of the door to women. “The club is now officially opened,” it said. “Women are welcome.” And the signing of that statement into law reaped huge benefits.
I know you’ll understand when I suggest that here in the Christian church we need to deliberately and prayerfully and officially make the same proclamation. Whoever you are and whatever you are—you can be a participant for God. Regardless of gender. Regardless of handicaps. Never mind where you were born or how you were raised. Don’t ever say to the Nominating Committee: “I’m too young to march in the infantry—of God’s mighty army of service.” The community of believers needs to be avidly and enthusiastically and deliberately and officially open so that all can compete.
It gives me a thrill when I look around here on a Sabbath morning and see in the various arenas of service, a mosaic of humanity. Men and women. Seniors. Teenagers. Toddlers picking up the offering. I love it when kids are brought up onto the stage or platform to sing or share their testimony or tell about their mission trip. But somebody’s got to think to invite them.
Back in 1996, our Adventist brothers and sisters in the nation of the Philippines embarked on a massive Christian adventure called Target 50,000. Fifty thousand people won to Christ in one huge nationwide campaign! And it was largely because of kids that the whole thing worked! I mean it! The teenagers and even the children were swarming everywhere, giving Bible studies, organizing the meetings, handling transportation details, picking up the offerings. The church over there has flung open the doors with their own heavenly-mandated version of Title IX. “Everybody’s welcome,” they proclaim through their loudspeakers. “These Olympics are OPEN!”
There’s no denying we have a ways to go. But as we worship here this morning, I believe this provides us with a big-screen picture of what God wants us to do. It’s also good news that God wants to empower us to do things that used to be considered impossible, and embrace goals that previous generations would have proclaimed hopeless.
Probably most of you are too young to recall this story, which involves one of the gold-medal sweeps of all time. A good-looking California swimmer named Mark Spitz had disappointed his fans in 1968, coming out of Mexico City with one second-place prize, one third place, and one last place.
But now it was 1972, the Olympic Games were in Munich, Mark Spitz was four years older and four years wiser. And people began to wonder how many gold medals Spitz would take home out of his seven events.
If you’re from that generation, maybe you’ve seen the poster. In the 100 meter – gold. In the 200, gold. In the 100-meter butterfly, another gold. Two hundred meter butterfly, gold. And in three team events—the 400-meter freestyle relay, the 800-meter relay, and the 400-meter medley relay, Mr. Mark Spitz and his American teammates draped three more gold medals around their necks. The Olympic orchestra there in Germany got a lot of practice playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” as Mark Spitz went a smooth seven-for-seven.
But all this week, as we figuratively travel to Beijing, China, instead, in search of spiritual truths from the 2008 Olympic Games, here’s the bit of trivia I want you to notice. In all seven events, swimmer Mark Spitz set—or helped to set—a new world record. He accomplished things that had never been accomplished in a swimming pool before. No one had ever swum so fast, and somehow, with the prize of Olympic gold at stake, Spitz was able to reach deep inside and do greater things than anyone could have imagined.
And as the years have ticked by in the past century since the very first modern Olympic Games held in Athens, we’ve seen the steady march of progress as athletes have consistently done better and better than even the most hard-driving coach could have envisioned.
Back in 1896, a hometown hero named Spiridon Louis won a gold medal for the marathon race in a field of—get this—25 runners. He spent the two nights before the race praying; the day before, he fasted! What would today’s carbo-loading trainers think?
A Colonel M. Papadiamantopoulos fired off the starting gun and Spiridon started out on the exact same course that the ancient runner, Pheidippides, allegedly took so many centuries before, carrying the news of the battle victory at Marathon all the way to Athens. But listen to this finishing time: two hours, 58 minutes, and 50 seconds. Now, for a weekend warrior like myself, even that is a fairly impressive number! But in the 112 years since then athletes have shaved almost an hour off that time. In September of last year, Khalid Khannouchi of Ethiopia did it in a cool 2:04:26.
Here’s the point—and this is straight from the Kingdom of heaven. There’s just no limit to greatness, no barrier that can’t be broken. Four-minute miles turned out to not be impossible—Roger Bannister proved it. All those unbeatable swimming records? Mark Spitz shattered seven of them in one Olympic year. Climbing Everest? Not impossible after all, said Edmund Hillary and his brilliant Sherpa companion, Tenzig Norgay.
Here’s what that means to me: if human beings can achieve such greatness through their own efforts, if athletes can push back the boundaries of world records just by sweating harder and trying harder and maybe even crying harder . . . what does that tell us about what you and I can do for the Lord as He adds His power to our efforts?
Here’s a verse which we should embed in the stained glass of our church. I imagine every Christian athlete in Beijing has it pasted up in their locker. Philippians chapter four, verse 13: “I can do ALL THINGS through Christ which strengtheneth me.”
Just a few pages earlier, where this same writer, Paul, is encouraging the believers in the city of Ephesus, he adds this thought: “Now to Him [Christ] who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us” (3:20).
Don’t you love that? I can hear Paul shouting out that cry of hope loud enough that we’d be able to hear it some 1900 years later. “With God at your side,” he says, “get ready to tear up the record books. Push back the boundaries. Expand your thinking! Log onto Wikipedia and update the numbers. Prepare to rewrite history . . . because God’s on the move!”
In so many Bible stories, people encountered situations where it seemed like there was an impassible barrier ahead. There was an Olympic record that just couldn’t be broken. Jesus and His disciples had to feed 5,000 people—and just had one tiny lunch. According to every law of math and calorie counting and every restauranteur’s handbook, that’s an impossible situation. But Jesus just looked up, said a prayer, blessed the food, and set an Olympic record people are still talking about today.
This same Jesus was hiking to make a sick call on a friend’s daughter. Halfway there, He received the news: “Don’t bother going any further; the little girl’s dead.” Well, you and I rush to a person’s bedside as long as they’re still breathing. Maybe there’s something we can do. But as soon as we hear they’re dead, we stop. We turn around and go home because there’s a barrier human beings just can’t break. Death seems to us to be an unshatterable record; nobody can beat it. But Jesus just keeps on walking at the same pace and in the same direction. Because for Jesus—getting to a house five minutes after someone dies isn’t any different than five minutes before. He can wake them up on either side of death! No problem! That Olympic record’s shattered; it’s history! In three short years on this planet, He completely rewrites the record books. “I have conquered death,” He shouts in triumph as He comes out of the tomb Himself.
Let me speak to each of you this morning. God wants to take you to heights you never dreamed of. He wants to give you more victories than ever got listed in your high school yearbook. And it doesn’t matter what you are or who you are or what your ethnicity or gender is.
I find it fascinating to look through some of the numbers the Newsweek article mentioned which goes back to 1996, entitled “The Women of Atlanta.” It’s absolutely incredible how female athletes have pushed back the impossible barriers. Did you know that women today, right now, in Sydney and Athens and other recent Olympics, are surpassing the top men’s marks of just a few decades ago? That’s right. Listen to this:
In 1924, Jackson Scholz, one of the fastest men alive—you may remember this story from the wonderful film Chariots of Fire—did the 200 meter in 21.60 seconds. How did Florence Griffith Joyner do in the ‘88 games in Seoul, Korea? 21.34 seconds. Side by side, if we had a time machine handy, she’d beat Scholz and the whole male Olympic field of Paris hands down. Back in 1904, Meyer Prinstein gave the U.S. a gold medal in the long jump with a big St. Louis leap of 24 feet 1 inch—7.34 meters. How did Jackie Joyner-Kersee do in the ‘88 Games in Korea? 7.40 meters. In the swimming pool, it’s the same thing. Back in 1960, Australian swimmer John Devitt brought the crowds in Rome to their feet with a time of 55.20 seconds in the 100-meter freestyle. But in Barcelona, not that many years later, Chinese swimmer Zhuang Yong, the top female, beat that time by .56 of a second, winning the gold in that same event with a time of 54.64.
So I want to say to our fair-haired Adventists this morning: if your driver’s license has an “F” for female on it, don’t let that stop you. If you got bad grades in school, don’t say to yourself, “God can’t use me.” Some of the spiritual records others are setting here in the year 2008. . . might be yours to break in the year 2012 or even sooner.
You know, we don’t want to be proud of ourselves or of what we think we can do. But let’s be confident in Jesus Christ; what do you say? I loved the story back in ‘96 of 14-year-old gymnast Dominique Moceanu, who went to Atlanta hoping to do like Olga Korbut and Nadia Comeneci and win a gold medal. Do you remember her? She had a terrifying moment on the balance beam where she hit her head, and the whole world gasped and winced. But before that . . . working for years, training and sacrificing, aiming her efforts toward Atlanta, Georgia and the 26th Olympic Games. Except for Sunday, her one day off, she would check in at the gym every day at 7:30 a.m. for a three-hour workout. Then home for lunch and school lessons on videotape, then physical therapy, a massage, and back to the gym by mid-afternoon for another four-hour workout. Dinner, homework, chores, and a couple of quick computer games and TV would get crammed into a two-hour slot right before bedtime . . . and then the alarm went off at 6:50 again the next morning.
A year before, she took the U.S. title at the age of 13, the youngest winner ever. She was one of the tiniest too, at 4 foot 6 and just 71 pounds. But during those endless days and months and years of practice, she had just one word in mind: Atlanta. She knew she was going to get there and be a part of the Dream Team. She had maybe the greatest coach in the business, Bela Karolyi, and she was committed to doing her best. In fact, ever since she was just ten years old, this diminutive athlete had been signing autographs this way: “Dominique Moceanu, Olympics 1996. For Sure!”
You know, I like that confident glow. And as I read my Bible and discover all the records God wants to break through us, there’s no reason we couldn’t sign our names the same way. “Pastor XXXXX, on the way to the Kingdom. For Sure!”
Submitted by David B. Smith. Better Sermons © 2005-2008. Click here for usage guidelines.