The title ‘Tokyo Olympics 2020’ has an odd ring to it.
Postponed by one year and threatened by the stop-and-go nature of any major global sporting event in the past year or so, it finally took place and was an exceptional achievement.
It was strange to have an almost empty stadium for the spectacular opening and closing ceremonies. It must have been odd for the competitors displaying breath-taking sporting prowess without any spectators being present. As many preachers found during lockdown “performing” without a live audience is an odd sensation.
Athletes who had been waiting an extra year to compete at this Olympics finally were put through their paces as they strove for a medal.
Team GB excelled themselves with 65 medals, gaining fourth place on the medal table. It was magnificent to see so many athletes experience the joy of gaining a medal and standing proudly on the podium.
Yet, for me, some of the most tantalizing moments of the games were those moments when competitors missed their goal by a whisper: the GB men’s relay team that missed a gold medal by 0.01 of a second or the GB sprinter who missed the final by being disqualified for a false start.
Five years of preparation, five years of dreaming shattered in an instant. Winning a gold in the 100 metres sprint takes less than ten seconds, but it requires years of painstaking discipline and training. Elite athletes plan their whole lives around their preparation to be the best in their field. This involves tough lifestyle choices, diet, sleep, work and even when or whether to have children.
Unlike football, rugby or cricket, the core Olympic events are ancient, predating the New Testament era. Paul picks up the language of the games in some of his letters. He spoke of his ministry using the imagery of boxing and running a race. As someone who tries to teach people to preach, I am particularly interested in how Paul connects preaching with focus, disciple and effort. Paul, writing to his young apprentice Timothy, speaks about a preacher being like an athlete carefully following the rule book:
“… anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules” (2 Timothy 2:5).
This meant having discipline and integrity and avoiding short cuts. You can’t compete in a marathon and take a taxi for a few miles half the way through.
Some athletes have been sent home from the Tokyo games for cheating. The philosophy of “win at any cost” often involves paying a very heavy price.
“Preachers may be persuaded that they have to attract a large following and that it is legitimate to employ almost any tactic in pursuit of that aim” (Gerald Bray)
At a time where many preachers are thinking about how they can rebuild their congregations after a rollercoaster ride through the pandemic, this is a timely reminder.
Run the race in a way that rings true.
Be a God-pleaser rather than a people-pleaser.