Sermon for Septuagesima
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
February 20, 2011
On Monday of this past week pitchers and catchers reported for the traditional opening of America’s pastime – Spring Training and the resumption of Major League Baseball. It’s been interesting to see many of my friends on facebook make posts counting down the days to opening day and the start of another season. While a fan of baseball I certainly don’t follow it to this level. However, I think that it’s important to think just a moment about this ritual that all athletes go through each year as they embark upon another year of competition on the field of play.
This past Monday was February 14 and opening day of the baseball season is not until April 1. That is 45 days of practice and preparation for the regular season – a season that lasts 162 games from April 1 until late September. For those who continue to the World Series you are looking at the potential for an additional 19 games taking the total to 181 if a team played the maximum number for a season.
That’s allot of work for a trophy and a title. It’s allot for a pennant and the title World Champions. These are folks who are work incredibly hard, put in the time, training, and discipline, embrace correction in order to improve and succeed at an even higher level than before. Baseball isn’t the only sport with a pre-season to help the athletes ease into the rigors of the season of competition that lies ahead. In fact, all the major professional sports have a number of weeks building up to the big day when everything counts, records matter, statistics are kept for all time.
If you noticed in the prayer book the title over the Propers today said “PRE-LENTEN SEASON.” We have a period of three weeks, today and two more Sundays before our annual pilgrimage through the season of Lent and the disciplines that we attempt to cultivate as we strive to keep a Holy Lent and recognize more fully the events that lie ahead during Passiontide. It is an attempt to embrace more fully the condition of man as that part of God’s creation that was fearfully and wonderfully made, and yet fell from that most intimate communion with our Creator. We will hear again on Ash Wednesday and every service until Palm Sunday that God does not hate anything that he made, and that still includes each of us in our fallen state of grace.
Our pre-season, if you will, is a time in which we can prepare our mind, our heart, and our will to the life that discipleship requires. The readings that we will hear over the next seventy days, Septuagesima basically means seventy and marks the countdown toward Easter. As we heard last Sunday, we need this time to continue on that lifetime vocation of being pure as our Lord Jesus is pure. Our life as disciples must involve a lifetime of discipline.
Just like the athletes who have begun spring training, we as Christians must begin the Pre-Lenten training that lies ahead.
St. Paul uses two different images in the Epistle that speaks about the work training that hopefully help us to recognize the dangers of a lazy Lent. He speaks about two different athletes as he describes the Christian life – one of a runner, and one a boxer.
From the image of the runner we see our journey as a race, not as a sprint or a short distance run, but that of a marathon. I don’t know if anyone here has ever trained for a marathon before. I’ve never trained for one personally, but I’ve been to Runner’s World dot com, and I can tell you that the regiment is structured and long to prepare to embark on a 26.2 mile endurance run. For most who train to run a race of significant distance, whether 10K, half or whole marathon, the prize for the vast majority is simply finishing. Knowing that the months of hard work, training, honing the body has paid off, and the runner crosses the finish line feeling a sense of pride and accomplishment that many never experience. First prize in an event such as these is not even on the radar screen, but seeing that completed time is what urges most forward.
Perhaps many recognize that proverbial laurel wreath that the top finisher receives upon finishing first is simply a perishable and corruptible earthly crown that will eventually gather dust and be forgotten. St. Paul in our Epistle this morning says that only one who races will obtain the prize, but that prize is an earthly prize, but a prize and an inheritance that is incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away. In the race that lies before us all, there are many winners, not just the one who finishes first. In actuality, there is only one winner, one who finished first, and in fact, he already possessed a crown of glory that was His from the beginning of time.
In our Lenten journey that lies before us, we must always remember that like the marathon runner, our training will require work, and lots of it. It will require study, prayer, fasting, alms giving, works of charity, and most of all worship. The training that we endure will drive us to continue to work even harder. Many who train for a race admit that the more they train, the more they want to train. I know whenever I’ve done any type of training such as this, and looking at me you might wonder if I’m actually telling the truth, I would agree. My motivation was somewhat skewed because I actually didn’t like to think about getting things going again whenever I took time off. The motivation to jumpstart things again was harder after a prolonged time off than the perseverance of keeping going.
Our Christian lives are no different. Think about the times in your lives when your prayer life is fruitful, worship truly speaks to your heart, relationships are fulfilling, and God is nearer than in times past. It causes you to want to pray more, study His word more, engage in works of charity and the like. This is when you can truly sense the work paying dividends, and it urges you onward. This time of Lent that awaits us beckons us to reflect more deeply and intentionally upon those aspects of our lives that require more structured training and discipline. It’s a time to make a more diligent examination of conscience and ask the Holy Spirit to guide you and enlighten those areas that need correction.
One thing to keep in mind here is that the discipline of Lent is not optional. If we are going to wear and embrace the title of disciple, then the discipline of Lent is ours to accept and embrace wholeheartedly.
The other image that Paul puts before us is that of the boxer. The training of boxers and the training for runners is quite different. Long-distance runners aren’t necessarily concerned with short bursts of speed and energy, but need to know how to tap into their reserves toward the end of the race. Boxers on the other hand have only 3 minutes in the ring their opponents in each round and most are over in 10 rounds if they go the entire distance. Think about it. A boxer is only in the ring actually competing for a maximum of 30 minutes with a short break every 3 minutes. A marathon runner will whittle away the miles over the course of 3 or 4 hours depending on the average time per mile. The boxer must maintain a great degree of stamina in short bursts, and be constantly aware of changing circumstances.
Paul gives both examples because we are tempted to ask the question, so what is it? Is it stamina or is it strategy? Is it endurance or bursts of energy? As is so often the case, the answer is YES. It’s not an either/or situation, but a both/and. We must be prepared to encounter the temptations and assaults of the world, the flesh, and the devil when they come upon us unawares, and we are in the midst of temptation before we know what’s happened. We must have the endurance, the patience, the temperance to continue to wage war against those besetting sins that we take into the confessional each and every time we kneel down before Almighty God. It’s both, and Lent is an opportunity to draw closer to the one who is the expert trainer in both disciplines.
Spring Training for the upcoming season of Major League Baseball began this past Monday. It is a time for those chasing the temporal crown as champion of America’s pastime to prepare their bodies for the rigors of the upcoming season. The Season of Lent, the spring training of our souls if you will, is upon us once again in order that we might prepare our mind, our bodies, and our wills to be conformed to the One that we hail as Lord, the One who is holy as we strive to be so, that we might obtain that crown of immortality that awaits all who call upon the blessed name of God – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.