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What It Takes To Be A Winner

Sermon
Defining Moments
First Lesson Sermons For Advent/Christmas/Epiphany
This text for the fifth Sunday of Epiphany is probably the most sublime passage of Scripture in the Old Testament. It is the poetic description of the soaring of eagles. The Jewish people were in exile and it is likely that every one of them had looked up at the sky, seen eagles soaring, and cried out in their souls to the Lord to give them the freedom of the eagles. They were beginning to doubt that God cared for them. They desperately needed assurance that God was still in charge and that he cared about their plight. Isaiah, the great prophet of the exile, was trying to give them encouragement and so, very eloquently he said these words:

Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth does not become weary or tired.
His understanding is inscrutable.
He gives strength to the weary.
And to him who lacks might he increases power.
Though youths grow weary and tired,
And vigorous young men stumble badly,
Yet those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength;
They will mount up with wings like eagles,
They will run and not get tired,
They will walk and not become weary.


Is your mood that of weariness? Goodness knows, we're entitled! This is what the Jewish people felt in their exile. They were ready to give up, and Isaiah was trying to tell them that power and strength were available to them in the renewable form of soul power. Hopeful waiting would put them well along the way to running a successful race. They needed to know the key ingredients to being able to win over their own weariness and discouragement, and that is what Isaiah gave them in this poetic expression of God's gift of courage. Soul power is available to each of us just as it was to God's people in exile, and this is what will win the race of life.

Athletes who participate in the Olympic Games know well the importance of hopeful waiting. It is the time when long hours are spent in practice, skills are honed, timing is perfected. All in all, it is a very busy time -- but it is waiting for the moment of performance, of hoping for the victory that the waiting has prepared them for.

The summer of 1996 brought the Olympics and two and a half million visitors to the city of Atlanta. Not only had the participating athletes been in a period of hopeful waiting but so had the city of Atlanta and all the surrounding areas. The city had to be ready to greet and host these millions of people. It was an overwhelming task, but everyone got in the spirit of anticipation, of hopeful waiting.

There have been many stories of Olympic heroism, of athletes who had to overcome incredible odds in order to participate in an historic event. Nadia Comaneci was the first young lady in Olympic competition to ever score a "ten" in gymnastics. When she returned to her home in Romania, she immediately became embroiled in political turmoil because the repressive government would not give any kind of concessions to her as she tried to build a life around gymnastic exhibitionism. She had to leave the country and her life was very difficult. Finally, she was able to put her life together in this country.

Olga Korbut, also a gymnast, fell off the bar in Olympic competition. This was a dark moment for her, and everyone said that this would ruin her career. However, the next day she returned to win two gold medals.

Life demands as much courage and hopeful waiting from us as it does from the Olympic athletes. Life is a challenge of Olympic proportions demanding courage. Most of us express our courage in ways that are not in the spotlight; for example, the family who receives the word of cancer in a loved one and finds the courage to go through the "valley of the shadow," or families who are going through devastating infidelity, and know humiliation and insecurity but manage to know that they do not stand alone. God does not grow weary. A rebellious teenager, the death of a spouse, or deadly depression presents an unwanted opportunity to "wait and hope" for the strength of the Lord to uphold and renew our courage. Life demands Olympic courage from each of us at different points in our lives.

These encouraging words of Isaiah to God's people can be ours for living in these difficult days. In verse 28 he assures the people that God has power, and in the twenty-ninth verse he says that God gives power to the faint and weary. God has power and he gives power. Then in the next verse he says that we're wrong if we think that power is with the young -- those who live under their own power break down. Nobody can make it under his own power. The challenges, hurdles, the weights and bars that we have to walk across like the gymnasts are too tough for us to do alone. It is the clear message of the Bible that human beings cannot make it through life under our own power. Even the youth will grow weary and the young (people) will utterly fall.

Isaiah then moves into a rhapsody about waiting hopefully on the Lord. This is the same kind of waiting that occurs while a mother waits on a baby to be born. Or like the farmer who has planted and is now waiting for the harvest. It is the same idea we find in Galatians when Paul says, "In the fullness of time [when time was pregnant], Jesus came." It is a purposeful waiting. The root word means string, rope, or cord. So we are to hold on to the rope during these waiting times, knowing that the answer of God is coming. The writer of Ecclesiastes very wisely said that there is a right time for everything. God, in his time, will take care of it. Then he says, "While you wait, you appropriate the future." The future response and answer becomes strength for life now. Faith is not a means by which you achieve victory but living by faith, hopeful waiting, is the victory itself. Victory is achieved when we understand God's timing and live with hopeful waiting.

Do you ever get up in the morning, look at your calendar and know the wind is in your face even before you put on your shoes? Do you feel like you are running through life? Do you think, "I'm tired; my soul is tired." Isaiah says that we will run and not grow weary when we go through life with God's strength.

The last part of verse 31 says: "They will run and not get tired, they will walk and not get weary." This is an important placement of words. We would probably have said that the phrase should be "walk, run, soar." But instead he said, "Soar, run, walk." All of us soar occasionally. It's the feeling you had when you asked her to marry you and she said yes. Or when you found out a new baby was coming; when you got a great new job; or when your child was accepted at his or her college of choice. We soar at moments like that. But we can't live with soaring all the time. Most of us can run, but we get tired. The "walk and not faint" is where most of us find ourselves. Someone asked John Bailey, the great Scottish theologian, "What was the critical difference for Great Britain during World War II? How did Great Britain really win the war?" His response was that the war was won by the plain man at the watch, doing a superlative job in the midst of the bombing. Most of us do more walking than running or flying. I'm talking about plodding through life. It can't always be soaring and running; it is mostly plodding. That's the way life is.

I have found that church is that way. I would like for every Sunday to be like Easter Sunday, but it can't be that way. Some Sundays we soar, some we run, and some we just walk. But God is with us in the walking as well as in the running and the soaring.

What does this mean for my life and yours? Are you facing challenges of Olympic proportion? Are you coming down to the point in your life where there are challenges that you don't want to face? What do you do? First of all, you exchange your weakness for his strength. That is what our scripture for this Epiphany Sunday says. Our strength is not going to make it. The young people fall out, exhausted. But God has strength beyond our imagination, so we can exchange our weakness for his strength. Don't worry, God is big enough to handle our circumstances. So we exchange weakness for strength and take one step at a time.

The second thing we need to do is wait hopefully. That puts us in the process, the rhythm of God which will bring peace.

When I was in seminary, a preacher older than Methuselah was talking to my class of young preachers. He began to unfold the providence of God in his life as the pastor of a country church. He had been a faithful man at the watch. He had run and not grown weary; he had not fainted as he plodded along. Suddenly I realized that there really is a providence of God in our lives. He does care for each of us and will exchange our weakness and weariness for his power to soar when we need, to run as we must, and to walk all the time.

Peter Ueberroth was in charge of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Someone asked him about the defining moment in the Olympics for him. They expected him to relate a story of a great athlete with sinewy muscles and years of training. But Peter Ueberroth said that the most defining moment for him came in the torch relay across the United States. People from all walks of life are selected to carry the torch and every town sees it as a major event.

According to Ueberroth, the torch went through a small, windswept village in the western part of the United States. It was almost a ghost town with just a few stores for the local farmers and ranchers. This was the biggest thing that had ever happened in that town. The citizens wanted to find a way to choose the most representative person, so they decided that all the names of the townspeople would be placed in a hat, the mayor would draw a name, and that person would carry the torch. The mayor drew the name of a little girl, Amy, who had been physically challenged all her life. She could walk but not very well. She could take only a step or two before she would have to sit down. Her family had done everything possible for her, but she was confined to a wheelchair most of the time. For all practical purposes, Amy could never walk more than just a step or two. The selection committee didn't know what to do. They couldn't bear to tell Amy that she couldn't carry the torch. That would crush her. So the word in town was just to ignore the event. Maybe they had made too big a deal out of it, anyway. So the great day came and the mayor was there with just a few people. Amy, dressed in white shorts and t-shirt, was there with her family. National television cameras were there, but only a few townspeople were present. Amy was handed the torch. She got out of her chair and took one step. Everybody gasped. Then she took another step. Another gasp. Another step, then another, and another. It took about thirty seconds before the national news commentators realized what was happening. The tone of their voices and their enthusiasm for Amy went through the national television media and the people of the village at home, watching their television sets, realized that heroic history was being made in their little town. They came from their homes, ranches, and farms and almost instantly the street was lined with people who had come to see Amy carry the torch. Little Amy, with both hands on the torch, took it one step at a time. The people started chanting, "Amy, Amy," with each step until a crescendo went up in the village, "A--my, A--my, A--my," one step at a time until she stepped across the line and handed over the torch.

Only you know what burden you are carrying. Why not exchange your weakness for his strength? Wait for the pregnant will of God to give birth in your circumstance. Receive the gift of wings and legs and of endurance. One step begins it.
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