Run to obtain the prize.
A Sermon for Septuagesima
February 5, 2023 at Holy Communion
1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Matthew 20:1-16
“So run that you may obtain the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:24). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
At the top of our bulletin is an unusual word: “Septuagesima.” The “sept” means “seven.” “Septuagesima” refers to the Sunday which is approximately seventy days before Easter, the third Sunday before the start of Lent.
The only reason for pointing that out is that, even though it still may seem like the Christmas season ended only a few days ago, we are already in the countdown to Easter. The readings for this Sunday and the next two are meant to prepare us to observe Lent well.
Think about that. If Lent is a time of preparation for Easter, then why do we need to prepare for our preparation?
It’s because Lent is a time for spiritual renewal, and genuine renewal is hard work. Observing Lent means much more than just putting up with a more somber tone in the readings and sermons on Sundays. It’s a time when we put extra focus on the challenging disciplines which stretch us, like fasting and almsgiving and study and service. If Lent is “stretching,” if it’s a form of spiritual exercise, then preparation is necessary. We need to get pumped up. And we need to be warned in advance: now is the time that you should be thinking about your Lenten discipline, so that you’re ready to put it into action when Ash Wednesday comes.
When athletes aren’t prepared for the race, they don’t finish well. They spend their energy on the first lap, and then they’re done. But it matters a lot more how you finish than how you start.
That’s just what Saint Paul has to say in our short Epistle. The spiritual life is like a race. Not everybody who starts the race finishes in such a way as will win a prize. The ones who win a prize are those who train with discipline and are ready to compete and finish well.
In Christian life, the prize is fulfillment in God. The reward is having a lively, full, and satisfying relationship with God, unhindered by anything that interrupts that relationship, such as sin, lukewarmness, or distraction. But getting there is difficult. Our “race” is the life-long challenge of disentangling ourselves from everything that holds us back from God.
The sad, surprising, and even terrifying thing is that if we don’t finish that race well, we will not win the prize. It is shocking what St Paul says at the end of our reading. He says, “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, the most important missionary in the history of the Christian faith, seriously entertained the possibility that he might fall short of attaining communion with God.
Paul knew that it doesn’t matter how you start; it’s how you finish. He made a good start, but unless he pressed on to the end, it wouldn’t matter.
It’s a stern warning for us. It doesn’t matter whether we started well. Whether we have five or fifteen or fifty-five years of active faith and church membership behind us, what counts is the end. What counts is what’s ahead of us, and whether we embrace the next leg of the journey with determination and resolve.
Our Gospel reading says much the same thing, but it puts a more positive spin on it. It’s the famous parable of the labourers, and the master who pays his workers equally regardless of whether they worked the whole day or only the last hour (Matthew 20:1-16). It doesn’t matter whether the day started late or early: if you just show up for work, you’ll get your reward, and everybody gets the same.
For those of us who think of ourselves as having come late to the party, it’s a great encouragement. And for those of us who think of ourselves as the people who have been hard at work all our lives, it’s a reminder to rejoice in the generosity of our God. Today is the eleventh hour, today is the moment of decision, and no one who puts his shoulder to the plow will lose his reward. Why? Because it doesn’t matter how you start; it matters how you finish.
We can apply this to ourselves as individuals, of course, as we have been doing. “Now the is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). “Now” is always the time to make a serious and disciplined commitment to the spiritual life.
But I also want to make one application to our life as a community. You have run well. The longer I’m here the more I know about your years of diligence and faithfulness. It is a credit to you. You have worked since the first hour of the day. But as I say in my report for the Annual General Meeting, which I ask you to to read carefully and consider, the next few years might be hard. Much is asked of us if we want to thrive. The next stage of our life together will prove what we’re made of, and whether we can make a good showing for ourselves, and then pass the baton.
All of this we do with prayer. In the words of our opening hymn, we pray, “Uphold me in the doubtful race, nor suffer me again to stray. Strengthen my feet with steady pace still to press forward in thy way.”