We have entered our annual “liturgical countdown” to celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus. This past Sunday in the church calendar is called Septuagesima, or the Sunday closest to 70 days before Easter. It is the first of three Sundays we mark off as a sort of pre-Lenten season. These weeks provide us time to begin preparing for Lent, the 40-days (excluding Sundays) “Fastenzeit” (fasting time) preceding Easter.
So how shall we prepare for Lent this year?
As we answer the question, it might be helpful to consider Lent as a training period, and to think how we might use the time to discipline our discipleship. The epistle reading for Septuagesima Sunday is actually a sports-training illustration from 1 Corinthians, where we read this exhortation from St. Paul:
“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. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
I believe our first impulse is to think the apostle is here simply urging us to a stricter regimen of spiritual disciplines. Look, at these athletes, who enter into a strict training program to run for crown of leaves that won’t last the week. How much more ought we be disciplined in our run for an eternal prize!
There is no doubt that our discipline as believers in those things profitable to our faith is often severely lacking. But Paul says, “Run in such a way as to get the prize.” When we look past the metaphor and realize that winning a crown that “lasts forever” ultimately means outrunning death itself, we realize that no amount of training and discipline on our part alone will ever overcome such an opponent.
Only Jesus has beaten death to attain the crown by resurrecting on the third day and ascending back into heaven. If we would run in such a way as to obtain the same prize—eternal life in God’s presence—we can only do so by following Him. The discipline Paul urges, then, is one of focused discipleship. Jesus, Himself, said (John 14:6): “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Staying focused is critical to any discipline. Olympic athletes understand that to attain the gold, they must keep the goal ever in view. Their entire lives must be reoriented toward achieving the prize. As soon as they begin to lose sight of the prize, they are in danger of losing it. It is no different for us as disciples of Jesus. Our prize is eternal life in the presence of the Father. But Jesus is not only the Way to (eternal) life, He IS the Life, which means HE must be our focus. HE is our prize.
As we prepare for a profitable Lent, then, let us start by fixing our eyes on Jesus. Let us be sure that He and He alone is the focus of all our energies. Following Jesus is not one more thing to be added to our day planner. Following Jesus IS our day plan, indeed our life plan. All other things that we do must be reoriented toward Him.
May we not run aimlessly but with a disciplined focus having our eyes ever fixed on Him, who is the Alpha and Omega, the author and finisher of our Faith.