Over the last few weeks, there have been a couple of stories in the news, the one very prominent and the other hardly even noticed. Though totally unrelated, each in its own right can create valuable lessons for us as we put them both together.
The first story was huge, and I think many of its analogies are obvious. Many people, like my wife Nancy, really enjoy watching the Olympics and performances from some of the greatest athletes in the world. Then there are the others, the old stick-in-the-muds, like me, who find them too politically subjective and boring. Whether you found them interesting or maddening, though, there was one story that could not help but grab most of the world's attention this year: Michael Phelps, the award-winning swimmer and his eight gold medals in this Olympics alone, not to mention all that he has won before.
He has nearly become a legend over the past two weeks and the topic of articles and conversations all over the world. His ability to swim races with the phenomenal success that he has enjoyed over the past eight years, since he was fifteen years old, has led almost everyone to wonder how someone could accomplish what he has done!
Nancy told me the other day that, because of Michael Phelps' successes, aquatic clubs and local swimming facilities all around the United States are reporting an unprecedented interest in learning to swim. Both adults and children are flocking to the centers in numbers that have not been seen since Mark Spitz's accomplishments back in 1972. Everybody wants to be like Michael Phelps. People have been so stirred by the accomplishments of this one man that many have now decided that they, too, are going to commit their time and effort into becoming just like him. Michael Phelps is merely a man, but for the sake of the analogy that I would like to draw in this message, I want us to look at him strictly in terms of the sport in which he competed.
I would like us to consider carefully the four points in this analogy. Even though they may seem obvious and somewhat simplistic and the scriptures almost all memory scriptures, I think that they should help inspire us to understand our own calling to be among those accomplishing the impossible: following our unrivaled standard of perfection in Jesus Christ!
Point 1 is that special gifts are provided as a starting point to make everything else happen.
Michael Phelps has been identified as a man who has been blessed with the perfect physique of a swimmer. Here are a few things that were written about him before and during the Olympics:
Seeing him up close as he emerges dripping from the pool, the first thing that strikes you is his physique. He has the outline of a cartoon superhero, with broad shoulders and a huge torso tapering down to small hips and strikingly short legs—a combination that provides minimum resistance beneath the waterline.
Unlike most people, he also has an extraordinarily long arm reach, with his arm span some 7.6 centimeters longer than his 6-foot, 4-inch height. This effectively means he has extra longer "oars" to propel a shorter body through the water.
Perfectly formed for the pool, he looks less assured on dry land.... Safely ensconced in water, he is another animal, cutting gracefully through the pool like an amphibious mammal.
This gift is clearly seen in his signature underwater turn, where he tends to go down deeper to the wall than other swimmers, performing a dolphin kick and rocketing back to the surface, often leaving the rest of the pack in his trail.
Logic should say he shouldn't go down deep, but he beats people off that last wall. There is nothing scientific yet to explain why it is effective to take that trajectory.
John 1:1-4, 10, 14 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men...He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him...And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
Philippians 2:6-7 Who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.
John 5:26-37 "For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself, and has given Him authority to execute judgment also, because He is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation. I can of Myself do nothing. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is righteous, because I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me. If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not true. There is another who bears witness of Me, and I know that the witness which He witnesses of Me is true. You have sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth. Yet I do not receive testimony from man, but I say these things that you may be saved. He was the burning and shining lamp, and you were willing for a time to rejoice in his light. But I have a greater witness than John's; for the works which the Father has given Me to finish the very works that I do—bear witness of Me, that the Father has sent Me. And the Father Himself, who sent Me, has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His form."
Jesus Christ was God who became fully man, in every sense of the word, and as a man He was fully aware of His need for the gifts He possessed to accomplish His mission for which He volunteered. He had the Spirit of God as a man in full measure, doing nothing of Himself but doing extraordinary things to complete the work the Father had given Him to do. Jesus Christ is head and shoulders above all men, but He, too, needed the gifts from the Father to complete His job. Those inspired to be like our standard, Jesus Christ, have also been given access to the same gifts.
John 1:11-13 He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
Romans 5:5-11 Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.
John 3:1-16 There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, "Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him." Jesus answered and said to him, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Nicodemus said to Him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit." Nicodemus answered and said to Him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered and said to him, "Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life."
We, who are called to follow the perfection of the One who sets the standards, need to grasp the vast number of gifts that have been given to us to accomplish our purpose. We just barely touched on them here, and this now leads us to our second point.
Point 2 is that we must recognize these gifts, constantly sharpen our focus, and resolve as to what they are intended to accomplish.
The following is what Michael Phelp's coach, Bob Bowman. said about him:
"It was mainly his physical talent and real competitiveness that stood out," Bowman told Reuters, recalling what had caught his eye in his mischievous charge when he was seven years old. Looking at him today, Bowman said Phelps has managed to move beyond great and become a once-in-a-lifetime athlete, thanks to his mental strength. "A number of things make him the swimmer he is, but I think it is largely psychological. He can relax and focus on what he is doing when under pressure, and, actually, this sort of environment makes him perform better," Bowman said.
His mother believes that it is this single-mindedness, coupled with his fierce ability to focus at race time, that has lifted him into the pantheon of Olympic greats. Michael Phelps himself wrote in his autobiography:
There are times in my sleep when I literally dream my race from start to finish... Other nights...I visualize to the point that I know exactly what I want to do: dive, glide, stroke, flip, reach the wall, hit the split time to the hundredth, then swim back again for as many times as I need to finish the race.
Let us first take a look at Jesus Christ's recognition of His own gifts and the sharpening of His focus and resolve.
Luke 2:40-52 And the Child grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him. His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when He was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast. When they had finished the days, as they returned, the Boy Jesus lingered behind in Jerusalem. And Joseph and His mother did not know it; but supposing Him to have been in the company, they went a day's journey, and sought Him among their relatives and acquaintances. So when they did not find Him, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking Him. Now so it was that after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers. So when they saw Him, they were amazed; and His mother said to Him, "Son, why have You done this to us? Look, Your father and I have sought You anxiously." And He said to them, "Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father's business?" But they did not understand the statement which He spoke to them. Then He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them, but His mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.
Notice, in verse 46, that his parents found Him both hearing and asking questions; and in verses 51 and 52, we see that He put Himself completely under His parents' authority, and He increased in wisdom. He was sharpening His focus and resolve to accomplish with His gifts what He needed to do.
Ephesians 3:14-21 For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height—to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
The apostle Paul reminds us of the great gifts that we have been given and to sharpen our focus on the gifts of God's promises to us through His Son.
There is an interesting aside in this particular set of verses. In verse 16, where Paul prays "that we be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man," the word translated "be strengthened" here is the same word used for "waxed strong" back in Luke, where it said, "the Child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon Him." We have the same access to the strengthening of the inner man through the Holy Spirit.
We must be single-minded in our focus and care and development of the gifts we have been given just like Christ, if we want to be just like Christ. Jesus commands us, in Matthew 6:19-21, 24-34, that our responsibility with the gifts that we have been given is to seek first the Kingdom of God with a sharply focused single-mindedness, and He will pour out even more gifts as He takes care of all the rest.
Point 3 is that our gifts and ever-sharpening focus must be constantly nourished and exercised to consistently move forward toward the perfect goal that they make possible
"Eat, sleep, and swim. That's all I can do," Phelps, who won two more gold medals today, told NBC when asked what he needs to win medals. "Get some calories into my system and try to recover the best I can."
The average man of the same age needs to ingest about 2,000 calories a day. Phelps' diet involves ingesting 4,000 calories every time he sits down for a meal. In his 2004 autobiography, Beneath the Surface, Phelps revealed how he averaged 75km (or 45 ? miles) a week in training and had probably taken no more than four days off in the four years leading up to the Athens Olympics in 2004, none of them holidays.
We read earlier that Jesus Christ drew His strength from the Holy Spirit and going about His Father's business.
Matthew 4:1-4 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, "If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread." But He answered and said, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'"
At the time when His own physical constitution should have been at its weakest from lack of nourishment for forty days, Jesus gives us one of the most important examples and instructions for building upon the gifts that we have been given: eating and digesting every word of God. We need to elaborate a little bit on this now.
John 6:30-37 Therefore they said to Him, "What sign will You perform then, that we may see it and believe You? What work will You do? Our fathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written, 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'" Then Jesus said to them, "Most assuredly, I say to you, Moses did not give you the bread from heaven, but My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." Then they said to Him, "Lord, give us this bread always." And Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen Me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out."
Jesus tells them He is the bread of life, the Word of God, a gift only to those who have been separately called to eat, digest, and use this gift and become like Him.
Turn with me now to a couple of places in the letter to the Hebrews, so we can see that Jesus also had to work to develop strength. His strength and success lead the way for us to work and develop success.
Hebrews 5:5-10 So also Christ did not glorify Himself to become High Priest, but it was He who said to Him: "You are My Son, Today I have begotten You." As He also says in another place: "You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek"; who, in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him, called by God as High Priest "according to the order of Melchizedek."
He worked very hard with the gifts that He had been given to grow even more completely into His office. As we read the following scripture in Hebrews, think about what Christ said, in John 6, about the selection of our calling to receive gifts.
Hebrews 2:1-11 Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away. For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him, God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will? For He has not put the world to come, of which we speak, in subjection to angels. But one testified in a certain place, saying: "What is man that You are mindful of him, or the son of man that You take care of him? You have made him a little lower than the angels; You have crowned him with glory and honor, and set him over the works of Your hands. You have put all things in subjection under his feet." For in that He put all in subjection under him, He left nothing that is not put under him. But now we do not yet see all things put under him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren.
We see that we must not neglect developing our gifts or we will fail. However, if we keep working to develop those gifts, we will be sanctified as He is sanctified. We are bound together with Him!
Romans 5 gives us the formula for success in working to strengthen our gifts to become like Christ:
Romans 5:1-5 Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
Through constant nourishment, by every word of God, we then have the resources to expend that nourishment in application towards God and the brethren
I Peter 2:9-10,21-25 But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy...For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: "Who committed no sin, Nor was deceit found in His mouth"; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
We have quite an extraordinary example of hard work to follow, but we must do this in order to be like Him.
The final point is that, through points one, two and three, we become part of the astonishing witness that stands before the Father, accomplishing what seems to have been impossible to accomplish.
Phelps' enormous body strength and affinity with water is obvious when you look at the sheer number of races he enters. While most swimmers tend to specialize in one or two events, Phelps has entered eight races in Beijing, including the 400 and 200 meters individual medley, 200 meters freestyle, and 100 and 200 meters butterfly. At Beijing, if he makes all the finals as expected, he will swim an astonishing 17 races in just 9 days against the best in the world, a remarkable workload that few, if any, could match.
Isaiah 55:1-4 "Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat. Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and let your soul delight itself in abundance. Incline your ear, and come to Me. Hear, and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you—the sure mercies of David. Indeed I have given him as a witness to the people, a leader and commander for the people."
We see here that Jesus Christ is the main witness of God's truth to the people and leading us forward in the same.
Isaiah 43:1, 7, 10 But now, thus says the LORD, who created you, O Jacob, and He who formed you, O Israel: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; You are Mine...Everyone who is called by My name, Whom I have created for My glory; I have formed him, yes, I have made him"..."You are My witnesses," says the LORD, "And My servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe Me, and understand that I am He. Before Me there was no God formed, nor shall there be after Me."
We see that those whom God has called have been gifted to be witnesses for Him, following Christ's lead. We join the group of those witnesses to witness the power of God awaiting the standard for all mankind.
Revelation 20:4, 6 And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years...Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.
These are those witnesses awaiting Christ who knew their gifts, developed them, and learned to succeed as Christ succeeded. We are His witnesses if we use and develop the gifts that God has given us.
Hebrews 11 elaborates on this select group of faithful, many of whom followed the standard of excellence in faith, only knowing of His promise, using the gifts that were available to them to the best of their ability so that they could witness to us the amazing power of God. With our calling, we get to join this group now and be a witness to others.
Hebrews 12:1-3 ( Phillips translation) Surrounded then as we are by these serried ranks of witnesses, let us strip off everything that hinders us, as well as the sin that dogs our feet, and let us run [or swim] the race that we have to run [swim] with patience, our eyes fixed on Jesus, the source and the goal of our faith. For He Himself endured a cross and thought nothing of its shame because of the joy He knew would follow His suffering; and He is now seated at the right hand of God's throne. Think constantly of Him enduring all that sinful men could say against Him and you will not lose your purpose or your courage!
If we want to be like Michael Phelps in the pool or, better still, Jesus Christ in the Kingdom of God, we need to
1) Have been gifted as He is gifted.
2) Recognize those gifts and sharpen our resolve to use them.
3) Nourish and exercise those gifts.
4) Be a witness for accomplishing the seemingly impossible.
I told you at the beginning of this message that there was another small story that I noticed over the last couple of weeks that we could add to this analogy:
GETTYSBURG, Pa. (AP) Standing just 150 feet from the platform on which President Abraham Lincoln delivered his most famous speech, one of the few remaining "witness trees" to the Battle of Gettysburg has been severely damaged by a storm, National Park Service officials said.
The huge honey locust tree on Cemetery Hill fell Thursday evening. "The top of it is totally broken off, and (the storm) severely damaged 70 to 80 percent of the tree," Gettysburg National Military Park spokeswoman Jo Sanders said. "That means there's not a whole lot left of it. But it didn't kill the tree."
The tree, which stood on the right side of the Union lines, "was there as a silent witness—to the battle, to the aftermath, to the burials, to the dedication of the cemetery," park historian John Heiser said. "I have no doubt that Union soldiers sat under it for all three days of the battle," he said.
Park maintenance officials will assess what to do with the remains of the tree. "When it's something this bad, it's highly doubtful that a tree like that can survive," Heiser said. Heiser said he knows of only three other witness trees that still stand in the heart of the battlefield. Heiser said, "It's a shame when you lose the last living entities on this battlefield," he said. "Nothing lives forever, unfortunately."
On the contrary, brethren, the truth of God is that we have been selected and gifted, with Jesus Christ, to stand with all those selected who have gone before us as a forest of witnesses in this world's battlefield, witnesses with Christ of the astonishing power of God to create in His image and bring men into the everlasting Family of God!
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