In It to Win It

Running the race to win... a sermon for Epiphany 6b

SJF • Epiphany 6b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Do you not know that in a race the runners all compte, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.

One of our Lord Jesus Christ’s better known sayings — known by many who may not know it was Jesus Christ who said it — is, “Ask and you shall receive.” Our Gospel passage this morning shows this principle in action. Jesus is not going out of his way to find sick people — he doesn’t have to. Word has spread about this miraculous healer and the wonders he has performed through the various towns of the region. It is the leper who comes to Jesus, not Jesus to him. He comes because of what he’s heard by word-of-mouth, not because Jesus has been engaged in a media blitz like a presidential campaign. The leper has heard, and he comes and he plants himself before this wonder-worker and begs for a wonder to be worked.

And true to the sentiment, “Ask and you shall receive,” Jesus heals the man and sends him away, incidentally instructing him not to spread the word any further than it already has spread — and will continue to spread, in spite of Jesus asking those healed, such as this man, not to spread it!

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Word gets around. Long before, in the days of the kings, word had similarly spread, far from the land of Israel, as far as Aram, about a similar wonder-working man of God with the power to heal. The historian who recorded this tale even gives us some of the back-story: word is spread by a young girl captured in a raid and put to work in her captor’s household as a house-slave to the master’s wife. So word passes up the chain of command from the slave to the wife to the master to a pair of kings, and finally to the man of God himself — and all who ask, receive.

There is a bit of a hiccup when the Aramaean general expects more of a dramatic show than just a dip in the River Jordan. But the good counsel of yet another servant reminds him of the wisdom of following doctor’s orders — and how much easier when those orders are simple rather than difficult! It is as much as to say, You have asked, why not now receive? And he consents and discovers that his prayer is abundantly answered.

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Ask and you shall receive: it seems so simple and obvious. Yet how often, and for how many different reasons, do we fail to ask, and hence do not receive the good things God has prepared for us? Or how many times do we receive, but as what we receive is not quite what we expect, do we turn it down? Do we put God to the test, daring God to act in spite of our refusal to ask God for action? Do we risk offending God by turning down the gifts God gives because it doesn’t seem to us at the moment to meet our needs? Are we like those stubborn husbands who will not stop to ask directions no matter how lost they get? (And isn’t GPS the answer to a hundred thousand prayers, by men and women alike!) Or how often are we like Naaman the general, deciding not to take the simple prescription medication our doctor has ordered, imagining we can make ourselves better by will-power and sheer obstinacy?

No, my friends, the answer is “Ask, and you shall receive.” Kneel in the path if you must to stop his way, and lay out your need before him. Pour out your needs to God in humble prayer. He indeed knows our needs before we ask, but it is in asking that we open ourselves to his healing action.

Namaan could have stayed in Aram, wasting away from his disease, or remained indignant and refused the prescription when it was given. The leper in the Gospel could have chosen not to trouble the wonder-working healer, remained an outcast from his own community until he died. The runner could have failed to enter the race, and would never have achieved the crown. In short, you’ve got to be in it to win it: you have to ask in order to receive.

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A few weeks ago I heard a news story about the upcoming Olympics. The story noted that the sport of boxing has been part of the Olympic games from the times of ancient Greece — but only for men. At the summer games later this year, in London, boxing will for the first time be open to women boxers. Now whether I approve of boxing or not, or of women boxers, I have to say, when I heard the voice of a young Bronx woman who hopes to qualify to box in the summer games, of how proud she is and how much this means to her — I really understood the spirit of bravery, commitment, competitiveness, and the upward call to do all in one’s power to win the race, despite what people may say is appropriate for you; or if you should race at all. You’ve got to be in it to win it. Ask and you shall receive.

Naaman’s wife’s slave might have kept to herself the word of the healer in Israel. His king might have dissuaded him; he might have given in to his own disappointment when he heard what the cure demanded; or his servants might not have had the courage to encourage him to take the cure that was offered. The leper could have held back, thought himself beyond hope and beyond cure, and not troubled Jesus with his hopes. The runners could have sat out the race, and the boxers chosen not to qualify. We could, all of us, simply accept all that is failed and broken in our lives, shrug and cease our prayers.

But God calls us to persist, to pray in faith and in hope to him, to run the race that is set before us with endurance and all the strength God gives. Join in the race, my friends, stretch every nerve and press with vigor on, in the heavenly race that demands your zeal, in hope for an immortal crown.+