In our previous post we began looking at the epistle reading for Septuagesima Sunday:
“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. 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. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 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)
When St. Paul says, “Run in such a way as to get the prize,” the implication is that some may not get the prize. Some may not run in the right way. Many, perhaps, who have entered the race will be disqualified. The apostle goes on to explicitly make this point himself in the verses immediately following this text. He recalls Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, pointing out the disastrous results of failing to follow Christ.
“For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.” (1 Corinthians 10:1-6)
These verses are rather chilling. Paul does not point back to the pagan nations who had no relationship with God, and who were judged for their wickedness. He points back to God’s own people, to those who had been triumphantly led out of slavery in Egypt, to those who had passed through the divided waters of the Red Sea, watching as God wrought for them a great victory over their enemies, to those whose thirst was quenched by water from the rock in the dry desert, and whose hunger was satisfied by the bread of heaven. He points to those, who, despite beginning “the race” and benefiting from every spiritual blessing in Christ, did not make it to the promised land.
Paul says these things occurred as examples and warnings to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. He then goes on to point to several specific examples of the evil things in which the Israelites engaged (idolatry, sexual immorality, grumbling—yes, grumbling!) declaring, finally, to the Corinthian Christians and to us: “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall.” (1 Corinthians 10:12)
The ancient Israelites did not keep their eyes on the prize. They did not recognize that God was with them in the wilderness. (Amazingly, the apostle declares that Christ accompanied them.) They did not keep their eyes on Christ and refused to follow Him into the home He had promised them. They stopped running for the crown that lasts. Indeed, they became distracted by lesser crowns and so lost the race.
Let us be stopped in our tracks by these verses. Let us heed the apostle’s warning. And let us not allow any of this to remain theoretical. The forty-day “training season” of Lent begins next week. It is patterned after Jesus’ forty-day period of fasting and testing in the wilderness, which was, itself a recapitulation of Israel’s forty years of testing and wandering in the same wilderness. May what we “give up for Lent” this year not be a random exercise. Rather let us specifically identify the “lesser crowns” we know right now are distracting us from keeping our eyes on Jesus. And may we put in place a practical Lenten discipline by which we give them up forever.