In The Zone

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Next weekend begins the NFL regular season. We are a month away from the MLB playoffs. NBA basketball and NHL hockey will be starting again in October. And MLS is in full swing with playoffs not starting until November, but nobody in America cares about soccer until the World Cup which won’t be until next summer.
But all of that pales in comparison to the fact that our local coed church league softball is in its third weekend and our team is undefeated!
Anyway, I’m sure that this is a good time of year for a lot of sports fans. Plenty of exceptional athletes to watch while in the back of our minds thinking that could have been us if we’d made a few different choices in high school.
But in all actuality, there is a specific line that separates the athletes we watch in the major leagues and those that stay in the minors and especially those that aren’t athletes at all but only watch them on TV. The difference is focus.
If you do any reading on what makes some of the greatest athletes so great, it’s not generally their physical abilities. Yes, they are very talented and work very hard to stay that way through hours of training and practice, but the difference between the best of the best and the rest always boils down to focus. The difference is mental, not physical.
The best athletes, the ones who make it into the hall of fame. The ones who get the biggest paychecks and win the most trophies, are the ones who have mastered focus. The ones who know how to get in the zone and stay there. You see it in their faces before and during their competition. It’s often something the commentators blabber about when there’s nothing else to say and they can’t just be quiet. “Look at his focus. Nothing can distract him now. He is so in the zone.”
But focus – laser focus – being in the zone – is not only a difference maker in sports, it’s really the difference maker in everything worth doing, and especially when it comes to the spiritual race marked out for us as described multiple places in Scripture.
One such place will be the focus of my talk today. I covered it briefly last week.
SLIDES Hebrews 12:1-3
1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
Paul also spoke of a race, and used racing as analogy for this life we lead in Christ.
In the retelling of his journey into ministry to the Galatians, Paul speaks of his first meeting with the Apostles, and why he even met with them.
READ Galatians 2:1-2
1 Then after fourteen years, I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. 2 I went in response to a revelation and, meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders, I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain.
Later in his first letter to the Corinthians, a place where they had olympic type games, he uses the metaphor more detailed.
READ 1 Corinthians 9:24-27
24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
And at the end of his life, in his final letter to his fellow minister, he speaks of finishing his race.
READ 2 Timothy 4:6-8
6 For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
And indeed, the Christ Following life really is like a race, but it’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon. A lifelong marathon that is not over until you die and cross the finish line into heaven and receive your prize.
Many people seem to think this life is more like a walk through the park, or maybe even a jog down a path, or a bike ride around town. Those activities are similar to a race, but they lack one important detail. A race has a goal. A destination. A purpose to it. And it’s not just your personal enjoyment. The point of a race is to win. To accomplish the goal.
And what is that purpose for which we race? What is it that wins us a crown? How do we win this race called life?
God tells us very clearly in his word.
SLIDES Romans 8:28-29
28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 
I’m not going to get into the predestination question. The point Paul is making in this passage is not about predestination, but about the purpose of our salvation. God chose each of us before the creation of the world to be conformed to the image of his Son. Jesus did not come to earth and suffer torture and death on a cross just so you and I could live how we want and get to heaven in the end. He came to restore the image of God that humanity lost in the garden when Adam and Eve decided they could be their own gods and define good and evil how they saw fit. In that moment, humanity’s spirit and connection with God died. And each human thereafter, including us, are guilty of the same thing. We begin life sitting on the throne that isn’t ours, and we define the world around us as we see fit. And it it wasn’t for Jesus, we would live our entire lives that way and die still on the throne and get the just reward for our treason.
But God intervened and sent his only son, Jesus, to live the life of complete surrender and submission to the will of God that we refused to live, showing us and telling us how to do it. Then he allowed us traitors to execute him for our treason. But he didn’t stay dead. He rose from that grave and is alive today in power and glory. And in a bizarre plot twist that baffles the mind  – the murdered now risen King of Kings offers us forgiveness and reconciliation with God because His death paid the debt we owed for our treason if we would put our faith in him and what he’s done and get off of his throne and call him Lord. If we would do that, we would be saved.
Or another way to put it, that would get us a ticket into the race.
Similar to the various races they have around here, like the Rock n’ Roll half marathon going on today that is blocking our KOA members from being here, those races are not free to run in. You have to pay an entry fee, which gets you your number and other stuff.
Well, the Christ Following race is also not free to enter. But Jesus himself paid the entry fee for us with his blood. And you and I can only get in if we acknowledge our own sinfulness, admit that we deserve death for our treason, and accept the gift of forgiveness and salvation from Jesus that he gained for us by dying on the cross and rising again from the dead.
That’s part of how you and I are saved.
I say part because the ticket Jesus procured for us is not a spectator ticket. It’s a runner ticket. You don’t need a ticket to be a spectator. We are all spectators by default. And spectators don’t win any kind of prize. Not even heaven.
It’s very clear in Scripture that our salvation is not a free ticket to heaven. It is entrance into a lifelong commitment to being conformed to the image of Jesus and serving Him as your Lord and King.  I already showed you the image part in Romans 8, the Lord part is Romans 10.
SLIDE Romans 10:9-10 
9 If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.
I’ve spoken on this many times. The “confess with your mouth” is more than just saying some words. It is saying what is true about yourself. Saying what you are in personal agreement with.  You cannot confess Jesus is Lord unless to you he really is.
It’s a both-and. Jesus is either your Savior AND Lord – or he is nothing at all. You are either a spectator or a runner, and only runners get the prize. With the prize ultimately being that you and I are transformed into the image of Jesus, the Son of God.
And that process – that transformation from a sinful self absorbed human being into a person who resembles Christ in word and deed is what Paul refers to as the race.
And unlike most races we run on the ground, this race is not circular. You don’t finish where you start. You start one place and end up in an entirely new place. This race is meant to be a one way constant progression from one place to another without doubling back, and without looking behind.
As Paul also said, in speaking of his prior “achievements” before knowing Christ…
SLIDES Philippians 3:7-15
7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
And this is the same mentality that we should share as fellow followers of Christ. As Paul says in the very next sentence:
15 All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.
We should all picture our lives – not just the church part – but our whole lives as a marathon race that is not about getting somewhere, but about becoming someone different than you are now. It’s about becoming like Christ. And if you don’t think that is true, then I pray God will make it clear to you.
Just as I showed you before in my job description.
SLIDES Ephesians 4:11-13
11 Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. 12 Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. 13 This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ.
My job is to equip you to run the race well, but not based on my own intuition and wisdom. My task is to show you what Scripture says and try to put it into perspective for you and exhort you to do what it says. Fortunately Scripture has a lot to say about this, but there are two places that I believe give the most direct practical guidance. One is the passage we started with today.
SLIDE Hebrews 12:1-2
1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. 
This passage describes how to run the race well. It involves a negative and a positive.
The other passage that comes to mind for me, which is the passage I consider as the blueprint for spiritual growth, is…
SLIDE Romans 12 
1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
This passage too describes how to run the race well, and it too involves a negative and a positive. Or rather a STOP DOING and a START DOING.
Just like in a physical race. If you want to be the best, there are going to be things that you must stop doing or take out of your life – like cake and couch potatoing. And there are going to be things you must add – like vegetables and training.
It’s no different in the most important race of your life.
The STOP DOING:
Hebrews: Throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.
Romans: Do not conform to the pattern of this world.
The pattern of the world is a life full of sin that entangle and distractions that hinder us. This is the starting place for all of us. We begin life this way and grow into adults with even more of it. We get sucked into the ways of the world as our brains are flooded with every picture and every voice telling us what to want and how to be EXCEPT the one voice that tells the truth. I’ve spoken on this many times. It’s the world of the dirty faucet on full blast with only a trickle or nothing at all coming out of the clean faucet. It’s the world where people think they are seeking the Kingdom because they go to church for a few hours on Sunday when the remaining hundreds of hours are spent fully and willingly immersed in the world. And the root of it all is THE SIN. THE SIN that we know best. THE SIN that we can call the shots. THE SIN that makes us believe those lies that are so clever they sound like the truth because the lies make us feel good about ourselves. And it entangles us and trips us up and blinds us to the point that we’re not even running anymore.
Scripture says to throw that off. To get rid of everything that holds you up from pursuing Christ with all of your being. As Jesus pointed out in his Sermon on the mount…
READ Matthew 5
29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
This is not a game. To run the race well – to run it at all – we must cut out the things that we know hold us up. We must stop conforming to the pattern of the world. Stop listening to the lies and believing them.
And INSTEAD…
The START DOING:
Hebrews: Fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
Romans: Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
I’ve said before that winners make changes and losers make excuses. It’s true. Scripture tells us that to be transformed, to be conformed into the image of Jesus, to finish the race well – we must renew our minds. We must change the makeup of our brains. We must turn off the dirty faucet and turn on the clean faucet.
And what exactly is the content of the clean faucet?
It’s Jesus and His Word.
We do not renew our minds with just anything. We renew our minds with Jesus by fixing our eyes on Him. By looking away from all other things and focusing on him.  Why?
Because among many other things, He is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
In other translations it says founder and perfecter, or author and finisher, and others. Whenever you see words that vary between translations, it’s a good time to look at the greek as it’s probably a word that does not translate easily into a single word in English.
AUTHOR/PIONEER
Original Word: ἀρχηγός
Transliteration: archégos
Definition:  properly, the first in a long procession; a file-leader who pioneers the way for many others to follow. It does not strictly mean “author,” but rather “a person who is originator or founder of a movement and continues as the leader.
PERFECTER/FINISHER
Original Word: τελειωτής
Transliteration: teleiótés
Definition: a perfecter, completer, finisher. properly, a consummator, bringing a process to its finish
Jesus is the one who started it. He continues to lead it. And He will bring it to completion.
He not only bought the ticket to the race for you. He’s running it right there with us. Or rather, we are following close behind him because he is the one who knows the way. Actually he IS the way. It’s not a track you can look at a map and run on your own. He IS the track. The path is wherever He goes.  And if you stick with him, he will bring you to the finish.
Paul spoke of this elsewhere
SLIDE Philippians 1:6 
I am sure of this, that he who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
Again, Jesus is the one doing most of the work.
What is our task?
To get in the zone. To focus on nothing else but Jesus. If you take your eyes off of him you WILL go astray. But God is good and though we go astray a thousand times, if we turn to look for him, he is always right there ready for you to follow him again.
If you want to win this race, there is really only one way. It’s Jesus. He is the way, the truth, and the life. No one gets to the finish line without him. He IS the finish line.
And make no mistake. It’s not really a matter of you wanting to win the race. It’s the purpose for which Christ saved you. If you have no desire to fulfill that purpose, to be conformed to the image of Jesus, then I would argue that your salvation is in question. God does not save us to be spectators. He saves us to be runners.
But not runners on our own. This is not a solo race, and we are not in competition with each other. Yes, salvation is personal, but the journey is a collaborative effort.  We are all on the same team with the goal of helping each other along. We can and should help each other to throw off the things that hinder and the sin that so easily entangles. We can and should help each other stop conforming to the pattern of this world. We can and should help each other keep moving, keep running, keep fixing our eyes on Jesus and renewing our minds.
This is why you’re not going to stop hearing me talk about life groups. Sunday morning is not enough. You need to develop friendships with other believers to the point that you can actually open up your lives to each other so that you actually can help each other. Not only that, but the life groups provide a place to renew your mind even more than you can on your own or from my teaching. And as you get even more serious about wanting to run well, we have other training opportunities to take you even farther such as the Transformation Training I did with a group in the Spring. I’ll be doing it again next Spring for those that want some intense mind renewing.
So, I encourage you to start thinking about what day of the week you can dedicate to improving your running. If you have to cut something out to make it happen, trust me it’s worth it and easier than cutting off a hand or gouging out an eye.
In closing today I want to show you a picture that I think illustrates just one benefit of focusing on and trusting in Jesus.
This picture is an artist illustration of the story found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke of when Jesus and some of his disciples were going across the sea of Galilee in a boat. On the way, Jesus fell asleep after a long day of teaching and healing and such. While he was asleep, a storm came up on the water to the point that his experience fisherman disciples feared for their lives and so they woke him up saying “Don’t you care if we drown?”
Immediately Jesus calmed the storm and turned to them asking – “Where is your faith? Why are you so afraid?”
It’s hard to fault the disciples. I imagine every one of us would have acted the same way. In fact I know I would because I act that way all the time as it is. So much in our lives is out of our control, and so much of it sometimes seems out of anyone’s control – even God’s. We look at the chaos in the world, hurricanes, riots, wars, disease, death, and so on. And we look at our own lives at the things that don’t go the way we want and changes happening that we didn’t see coming and can’t control the outcome. And it very much feels like I’m in a little boat at the mercy of the wind and the waves while Jesus is asleep.
And so I beg him to wake up and his response is – “Why are you so afraid? Where is your faith?”
I often like to say that the opposite of faith is fear. But I think that statement, while true, needs one more detail. The opposite of faith in God is fear.
You see, we all have faith in something. Faith in our own abilities. Faith in the government. Faith in the economy. Faith in our vehicles and buildings and such. We can’t operate without trusting some things that are beyond our control. But what this picture and that story illustrates is that there is only one faith that doesn’t result in fear.
Look at the faces of the disciples. Look at he face of Jesus. If he’s sleeping peacefully and my eyes are fixed on Him and I trust Him completely, what do I have to fear?  But if my trust is really in the boat holding together, or my ability to maneuver it – then I have everything to fear. Because we as finite beings have every reason to fear the things we cannot control if our faith is actually in our ability to control them. But if our faith is in the ONE who actually can and does control everything – if he isn’t worried why should I be?
You see, in that story, no one went overboard and drowned. Yes, it felt dangerous like it was out of control, but it was all totally in control by the creator of the universe who was asleep in the boat. If they had kept their eyes focused on Jesus instead of on the craziness around them, perhaps they could have fallen asleep too.
But do you know why they didn’t? Why they were so afraid? It wasn’t so much because they didn’t trust Jesus. It was because they didn’t fully know him. They only trusted him to the point that they knew him. They had seen him heal people and do cool stuff like that, but up until that point they hadn’t seen him control the weather. Hence why their response was..
“Who is this man? That even the wind and the waves obey him.?”
Our trust in Jesus is not about how much faith and trust we can muster. It’s about how intimately we know the one in whom we trust. If they had already seen him control the weather, they might not have been afraid because they would have known that about him. In fact, the next time they were in a boat in a storm, when Jesus walked out to them on the water, Peter was so confident in him that he asked to get out of the boat and walk with him.  It’s not so much that their faith had increased, as their knowledge of the one in whom their faith was set had increased. Just look at them after the resurrection and the filling of the Holy Spirit. No more fear.
We have the benefit of having access to the whole story even beyond the lives of the disciples, and having the Holy Spirit inside of us. Which means we really have no excuse for not knowing Jesus even better than they did except for our own failure to seek him with our whole hearts. We are so inundated with the things that hinder, and even the sin that entangles that we can be in church our whole life and never really know the one who we call Lord.
But it doesn’t have to stay that way.
So, if you would like to be able to cuddle up to Jesus and sleep through the storms in perfect peace while the world crashes around you, there’s is a way. You have to change your mind about what you consider important in your life, by fixing your eyes on Jesus and dropping everything that hinders you from doing so.
We need to have the attitude of Paul…
SLIDES Philippians 3:7-14
7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
That’s what I call being in the zone. Laser focused. May we all have that drive and run this race together to win.