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Citius! Altius! Fortius!

Philippians 3:12-14

The title of today’s sermon is “Citius! Altius! Fortius!” The three Latin words are actually the motto of the Olympic Games: “citius, altius, fortius—faster, higher, stronger.” Since we are now immersed in all the glory and excitement of the Olympic games in Athens, I thought it appropriate to remember that the great apostle Paul frequently used the athletic imaginary of the Olympic Games to communicate the truths of the Christian faith. Remember, please, that Paul was writing to a world heavily influenced by Greek culture—a world where the Olympic Games then captured peoples’ attention every bit as profoundly as they do now. That’s why Paul knew that, if he could translate the truths of our faith into athletic terms, people would respond. Now interestingly enough, among all of Paul’s athletic references three seem to mesh beautifully with the Olympic motto: “citius, altius, fortius.” I’d like to play out this Olympic theme as it relates to living the Christian life in our time, and I would like to use some Olympic athletes to illustrate the points. So let the games begin…

Citius—Faster. 1 Corinthians 9:24.

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.”

“Citius” means “faster”—and that speaks to me of the urgency of desire which ought to be ours as we strive to become everything God intends us to be. I think here of Jim Thorpe, the great American Indian athlete, who led our US Team in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. As the team was sailing across the Atlantic toward the games, everyday on the deck of the ship the team would have a workout. One day, the coach found Jim Thorpe sitting on the deck with his head down and his eyes closed doing absolutely nothing. Exasperated, the coach said, “Thorpe, what are you doing?” Jim Thorpe never raised his head nor opened his eyes but he said, “I’m picturing myself winning the decathlon.” You see, he was picturing himself becoming all that God had given him the capacity to be.

That’s the message for us. One of the most distressing things that I see in life is the obvious aimlessness of so many people. They are drifting anywhere instead of going somewhere, and to drift anywhere is a certain way to arrive nowhere. Therefore, I plead with you to catch a vision in your life of what God wants you to be. He has made you. He wants you to live for Him. Try, then, to discover what your life would be like if you were to seriously and energetically pursue God’s will in your life. Run after that prize for all your worth. It may not be easy. In fact, it may be terribly hard but victory in the end will be worth it.

Let me tell you about a young girl named Wilma. She was born prematurely which affected her health, and then what’s worse, she contracted polio. The disease left her legs useless. She could move about only in huge steel braces. Yet she came to believe that God did not mean for her to live the rest of her life in those braces. The doctors said that the only possibility—and it was a remote possibility—would be to engage in a horrendously painful regimen of exercise. But this young girl out of her faith in Christ gave herself to that program. Sometimes it exhausted her to the point where she couldn’t move. Sometimes it pained her to the point where she screamed in agony. But she stayed with it year after year until, at last, at age 12 the braces were gone for good. A couple of years later she had grown to be six feet tall but she weighed less than one hundred pounds. She was awkward and ungainly. Her sister, Yvonne, played on the high school basketball team, so Wilma decided to try out. She was so ungainly that the coach wrote her off as a hopeless case. However, watching her workout with the basketball team was a man named Ed Temple who happened to be the women’s track coach at Tennessee State University. He thought Wilma might have the makings of a runner, and so he began to work with her. The training was difficult because she still had that ungainly awkwardness. Eventually she went on to Tennessee State, worked a full-time job to pay for college, carried a full academic load, maintained a B average, and kept working on her running. There were times when defeat seemed inevitable, but she would not quit. Her faith in Christ kept her going. She kept saying to herself, “With Christ all things are possible, therefore I can do it.” And do it she did. The vision of what God wanted her to be kept pushing her faster and faster. Then there came a day in 1960 in the Olympic Games in Rome when she represented the USA in the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash, and the 400-meter relay. She won all three races—three gold medals, and three world records. It was an unprecedented performance. When it was all over, her single comment to the press was, “To God be the glory.” Her name, of course, is Wilma Rudolph, and until her death just a few years ago, she spent her life in the tough, poor areas of our nation finding young people of promise and then enabling them to become everything God wants them to be in obedience to Jesus Christ.

Dear friends, commit yourselves to pursue God’s will in your life no matter the cost. Run to win that prize. Citius—faster.

Altius—higher. Philippians 3:13-14.

“But one thing I do forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

Paul is reminding us that if we are ever going to win in the race of life, we have got to forget the failures that are behind us. In the 1924 Olympics, Charles Paddock of the United States was favored to win the gold medal in the 100-meter dash. After the starting gun, true to form, Paddock took the lead. He maintained that lead through most of the race, but then near the finish, he was being pressed by the other runners in that race. With the finish line in sight, for what reason no one knows including Charles Paddock, but for some reason at that moment Charles Paddock turned and looked back at his rivals. In that flash of a second England’s Harold Abraham swept by Paddock and won the gold medal.

That’s the image Paul is trying to create for us. He is saying, “Don’t focus on your failures. Forget them. Leave them in the past.” And when it came to failure, let’s remember that Paul was a first class forgetter! I think of the fact that Paul was a participant in the dreadful death by stoning of Stephen. Yet while Paul knew that that was very much a part of his past, do you know that he never once mentions it in any one of his letters? Or I think of the relationship between Paul and Barnabas—it started off good but turned sour. The Bible says that they had a serious quarrel and went their separate ways. While Paul acknowledged the failure, he never made the mistake of dredging up the details over and over again. He knew that he had failed, but he put it behind him. Or I think of Paul and young Demas. Paul spent a lot of time and effort trying to reach that young man but it didn’t work. Paul noted the failure but then never spoke another word about it. He put it behind him.

I see so many people today who won’t let themselves get beyond their mistakes. The failures of their past are dragging them down in their present and shutting off their future. God speaking through Jeremiah says, “Behold, I will make a new covenant with you. I will forgive your iniquity and I will remember your sin no more.” In Jesus Christ, that new covenant, God both forgives and forgets our sin. We must accept His forgiveness of our sins, and we must forget them as well. For then we shall be able to strive higher and higher toward the heavenly call of God in Jesus Christ. Mark this down: we will never win in the race of life until we learn how not to focus upon our failures but rather to forget them. That’s what Paul meant when he said, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God had called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” Altius—higher.

Fortius—stronger. Hebrews 12:1-2.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Here Paul deliberately gives us the picture of the Olympic stadium filled with people watching the marathon. Paul is saying that life is not a sprint over and done with quickly. Instead it’s a marathon. It’s a long drawn out battle and it requires great strength and endurance to finish the course.

The 1968 Olympic Games. Mexico City. Interestingly enough one of the most moving moments in those particular Olympic Games came in the marathon. But came in a most unexpected way. The well-trained runners began the 26-mile race on the last day of the Olympics. They moved out and circulated through the streets of Mexico City ultimately returning to the Olympic stadium concluding the race with a lap around the track inside the stadium. When the winner had crossed the finish line, there was a great celebration. Then there was the medal awards ceremony with the gold medal winner standing on top of the platform proudly, eyes glistening, as the national anthem of his country was played. When the ceremony concluded, the people in the Olympic stadium then turned their attention to the next and one of the most significant events on the Olympic schedule, the beginning of the closing ceremonies. Some while later suddenly a murmur began to roll through the crowd. They were made aware of the fact that the marathon actually had not been completed. There was one runner still out on the course. All of the other runners had finished long ago—more than an hour earlier, in fact. Yet here came this one young runner from the African nation of Tanzania hobbling his way into the tunnel, headed toward the track, limping agonizingly around the track toward the finish line. His name was John Stephen Akhwari. Akhwari was in great pain. You could see it on his face and in the awkward way in which he pushed himself to keep on running. You see, he had suffered a serious fall in the early part of the race. He had been badly injured in fact he had fractured his right fibula, the bone in his leg, and now he was bleeding profusely. His legs were cramping, his body was becoming dehydrated, and yet he kept on running. Finally, painfully he staggered into the stadium, struggling and limping his way around the track. Suddenly the crowd began to cheer, and with each step the noise grew louder and louder. With each painful step he gained strength from the cheers. His limp became a walk. His walk became a jog. His jog became a run. As he neared the finish line, the cheering in the stadium made one believe that he was finishing first. Immediately after crossing the finish line he collapsed to the ground in utter exhaustion. Later on after he had recovered a bit, a television report said to him, “You were hurt early on. You were injured badly. You knew you couldn’t win the race. Why didn’t you just stop?” I love what the young runner said in reply. He said, “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race. They sent me here to finish the race.”

Oh, there is an incredibly powerful lesson for us as Christians contained in that tiny little slice of Olympic history. And the message is simply this: running the race of the Christian life reveals that perseverance is crucial and determination is essential. It is not enough just to make a good beginning in the faith. It is not enough to run the race well but only for part of the way. No. We must finish the race, and therefore for us as Christians the watchword has to be we never give up. For us as Christians, we never quit. It’s a tough race to be sure with lots of obstacles along the way. And many times along the way we are going to be tempted to give up and quit but God didn’t put us in this race of life just to start it. He put us there to finish the race. So how do we stay in the race for the long haul? Right here in Hebrews, Paul gives us the answer. He says if we look to Jesus, we can see that the end of the race is in sight and we can know that the future is secure. It’s like Ron Dunn says, “You will never know if Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you’ve got. But when Jesus is all you’ve got, then you know that Jesus is all you need.”

So my beloved people, be strong in your faith. Run with perseverance the race that is set before you looking to Jesus, always looking to Jesus. Fortius—stronger.

Well. . .

Perhaps as you enjoy the 2004 Olympic games from Athens you will discover that the Olympic motto “Citius! Altius! Fortius!” will begin to inspire your own triumphant living for Jesus Christ. So take your marks, get set, go! Go for the gold, and “thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

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