In his sermon for the Day of Pentecost yesterday a colleague spoke of the Christian life as a marathon. Interestingly enough, just a few days earlier a friend of mine shared a story with me about Cliff Young who, in 1983 and at 61 years old, won a grueling five day 875 kilometer endurance race in Australia. As the story goes, Young arrived at the event wearing overalls and galoshes over work boots and when registering for the race was asked what he’d run in. After replying that he’d run in what he had on people laughed. Young went on to explain that as a kid on his family farm he’d run for three days straight, herding 2000 sheep over two thousand acres, so the five days that it would take him to run this race wasn’t that much of a stretch. When the race started world-class athletes, decked out in high tech shoes, left Young in their dust. And people laughed at him yet again because apparently he didn’t even run, but just sort of shuffled. Five days later, by shuffling his way through each night, Young won the marathon breaking the former race record by nine hours. He then gave away the ten thousand dollars he was awarded for coming in first place to five other runners (he hadn’t realized that there was a prize and said he didn’t run for the money). Cliff Young quickly became a living legend and a year later ran the same marathon. That year he came in seventh place after running through a displaced hip, shin splints and a sore knee.
Despite the power of his story, Cliff Young isn’t a household name. Neither is Spiridon Louis, a common laborer who became a national treasure in Greece after winning the the very first sporting marathon ever run – a 24.8 mile race in Athens when the Olympic Games were revived in the year 1896. A potato farmer and a common laborer defying the odds and the experts… had they both read Aesop? Or perhaps Ecclesiastes: “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong..?” Or maybe Paul: “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it..?”
Early on in his Letter to the Romans the great Apostle Paul writes of boasting in the glory of God. This boasting isn’t a matter of reveling in our own efforts but rather in realizing that all of our accomplishments are only possible by the grace of God. He also commends boasting in suffering because “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us...”
Cliff Young won his marathon because when others were sleeping he just kept shuffling along. As I read his story it seemed pretty clear that when he finished the race he had no idea whatsoever that he had come in first. And when his glory came he gave it away. When asked why he gave away his prize money he said that he did so because he knew that “there are five others out their still running and they are tougher than me.”
It doesn’t take me long to think of those who, right now, can boast in their suffering more so than their glory. So many of you, in so many ways, are engaged in the marathon – you are running the race. Your names are not household names and few of us are even aware of the depth of your struggles. But God is. And with God’s grace, you keep shuffling along, far stronger than me. To each of you, know that your suffering is producing endurance, your endurance is producing character and your character is producing hope. And hope does not disappoint. And while you haven’t reached the goal, press on to make it your own, because Christ Jesus has made you his own. Beloved, this one thing do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. And know that you are winning, even if you don’t see how.