There is a story that's been making the rounds in recent years about a woman named Denise who routinely went to the grocery store and one afternoon had an experience that was anything but routine. As Denise got out of her car in the supermarket parking lot, she noticed something unusual! In the car parked next to her, a woman was seated in the driver's seat, her arms were draped over the steering wheel, her head was resting on her arms, her eyes were closed tightly. She was not moving a muscle. She was perfectly still.
Denise thought to herself, "That's odd. Is the woman OK? Is she in trouble? Is she sick? Has she had a heart attack? Has she had a stroke? Has she fainted? Or maybe she's just resting or sleeping or praying?"
Denise wondered if she should say anything but finally decided to go on into the grocery store and do her shopping, then check back later to see if the situation had changed. Forty-five minutes later Denise had finished her shopping and came back to her car. Immediately, she noticed that the woman in the next car was in exactly the same position as she'd been in earlier and was still absolutely motionless-arms draped over the steering wheel, her head resting on her arms, her eyes closed, not moving at all.
Denise then became really concerned. She went around and knocked on the window. No response. Now, at this point, Denise probably should have gone to find a security officer, but wanting so much to help and feeling guilty that she hadn't helped earlier, she opened the door and said to the woman, "Are you all right?" The woman replied weakly, "I've been shot!" "I've been shot in the neck," the woman said.
Now, let me quickly tell you that this is going to turn out all right, but at that moment Denise could not figure it out because there were no signs of foul play, no blood anywhere, no bullet holes in the car windows. Denise then examined the left side of the woman's neck-nothing. She examined the front of her neck-nothing. Denise then went around to the passenger's side, got in the car, looked at the right side of the woman's neck-nothing there either. Then Denise got on her knees, leaned back over the seat and examined the back of the woman's neck, and there she found not a bullet or gunshot wound, but rather she discovered-are you ready for this? -an uncooked Pillsbury biscuit stuck to the back of the woman's neck. Denise looked at the back seat and saw a sack of groceries. At the top of the sack was a can of Pillsbury biscuits that had exploded and obviously had propelled the uncooked biscuit forward, hitting the back of the woman's neck.
When Denise told the woman that she had not been shot at all but rather had been hit by a flying biscuit, the woman didn't believe her at first. So, Denise peeled the biscuit off the back of the woman's neck, showed it to her, whereupon the woman straightened up, smiled weakly, said, "Thank you" and drove off.
Now that story is intriguing to me for a couple of reasons. First of all, think of what it says about the violent society in which we live. A world so volatile that when a woman hears a loud pop behind her and then feels the thud on the back of her neck, her first thought is, "I've been shot!" But also the story reminds us of the sad fact that there are so many people in our world today who have given up and quit on life, who are emotionally and spiritually like that woman-emotionally and spiritually paralyzed. They feel crippled and incapacitated; they feel powerless and immobile. They feel helpless and hopeless. They've been so hurt by life that they're afraid to move, afraid to act, afraid to live, because they believe they've been mortally wounded, so they give up, give out, and give in. They throw in the towel and quit on life. They go through the motions, they get up, they go to work, they watch TV, but they have no energy, no strength, no zest, no fire, no passion because they're spiritually and emotionally paralyzed. They've given up and quit on life.
They need someone to come and save them. They need someone to come along and peel the biscuit off the back of their neck and say to them, "Hey! Look! It's not as bad you think! You're not mortally wounded. You can have a new chance, a new start, a new birth, a new beginning, a new life. There is one who can save you, one who can turn it around for you, one who can heal you. So, never give up. Don't give up, don't give out, don't give in."
Against this backdrop it becomes even more meaningful to hear the apostle Paul say, "I have fought the good fight. I have kept the faith. I have finished the race." Against this backdrop the words of Jesus ring out even more powerfully as we see Him hanging on the cross and saying with his last breath, "I've done it. I have completed it. I have seen it through. It is finished!"
All through life and in every field and especially in faith, we see the importance of this kind of determination and perseverance and trust in God. One of the most beloved and colorful sports personalities of our time was a man named Jim Valvano, "Jimmy V" as he was known affectionately to sports fans around the country. Jim Valvano tragically died just a few years ago after a year-long battle with cancer. He was just 47 years old. He will be remembered as a great basketball coach. His North Carolina State team won the national championship in 1983, upsetting that great Houston Cougar team that featured Hakeem Olajuwan and Clyde Drexler. Jim Valvano will also be remembered as an outstanding TV analyst, an eloquent inspirational speaker, and as a lovable, wisecracking humorist. But, most of all, he'll be remembered for his courage, for the courageous way he faced a debilitating illness.
A few weeks before he died, he was honored on national television and to that vast viewing audience, he said this: "Today, I fight a different battle. You see, I have trouble walking and I have trouble standing for a long period of time. Cancer has taken away a lot of my physical abilities. Cancer is attacking and destroying my body, but what cancer cannot touch is my mind, my heart, and my soul. I have faith in God and hope that things might get better for me. But even if they don't, I promise you this: I will never, ever give up. I will never, ever quit. And if cancer gets me, then I'll just try my best to go to heaven and I'll try my best to be the best coach they've ever seen up there." Then, pointing to his 1983 championship team, he said, "I learned a great lesson from these guys. They amazed me. They did things I was not sure they could do because they absolutely refused to give up. That was the theme of our championship season: 'Never, ever give up!' That's the lesson I learned from them, and that's the message I leave with you. Never give up. Never, ever give up!"
That's precisely what Paul is saying in our text for today. Never give up. See it through. Finish the race. Now let me be more specific with three thoughts about this. Are you ready? Here's number one:
First of all, never give up on your commitment.
Have you heard about the young college man who went into a photography studio one day? He had a framed picture of his girlfriend. He wanted the picture duplicated. This, of course, meant that the picture had to be taken out of the frame. In doing this, the studio owner noticed that there was an inscription on the back of the photograph. Here's what it said, "My dearest Tom, I love you with all my heart. I love you more and more each day. I will love you forever and ever. I am yours completely for all eternity." It was signed "Diane," and it had this postscript: "P.S. If we ever break up, I want this picture back." Sounds like Diane wasn't that committed!
On the other hand, consider this: Recently I ran across a list of great people in history who made it to greatness because they absolutely refused to give up on their dream. Totally committed, even though they faced major discouragements early on, they would not quit. They persevered because they were committed. For instance, did you know that after Fred Astaire's first screen test, the MGM testing director wrote this memo about him: "Can't act. Slightly bald. Can dance a little." Did you know that Beethoven's teacher said that he was hopeless as a composer and Caruso's teacher said he really didn't have a voice at all, and Thomas Edison's teacher said he was too stupid to learn anything? Did you know that the editor of the Kansas City Star fired a young cartoonist named Walt Disney because he said Walt Disney couldn't draw and wasn't creative? Did you know that Albert Einstein couldn't speak until he was four years old, couldn't read until he was seven, and that his teacher described him as "mentally slow, unsociable, and adrift forever in his foolish dreams"? And Winston Churchill not only failed sixth grade but also went through a lifetime of defeats and setbacks and failures before he finally became the prime minister of England at the age of 62.
That kind of unwavering commitment is essential in the Christian faith. We can't do it halfway. We can't be wishy-washy about it. We can't be lukewarm. Total, complete, unshakable commitment is required!
Listen! There will always be someone around trying to discourage you, trying to pull you down, and draw you away from your faith commitment. "You can't do it," they will say. "It's not relevant anymore," they will say. "It doesn't work," they will say. "Try this instead," they will say.
Now, let me tell you something with all the feeling I have in my heart. Don't you listen to that! Don't be taken in by that! Don't be put off or shaken by the world's discouraging words. Don't you waver in your commitment to God. The only way we can fight the good fight and keep the faith and finish the race is through unflinching commitment.
That's number one: Never give up on your commitment.
Second: Never give up on love.
In this tough world in which we live, there are moments when it seems like hate and prejudice and hostility are ruling the day. When we hear about churches being set on fire and little children being shot down in drive-by shootings and innocent people being blown away by terrorists' bombs. In moments like that, it seems like hatred is winning. But I don't believe that for a minute. Because I know that love is the most powerful thing in all the world. Jesus showed us that on a cross, and I believe it with all my heart and I am committed to it.
So, don't give up on love, don't quit on love, don't throw in the towel on love. Put love first. Make love the theme of your life.
Now, let me hurry to say that when it comes to love, it's not enough to talk a good game. Christian love is active.
In one of the "Peanuts" cartoons, Lucy, who has a big-time crush on Schroeder, comes to him one day while he's playing his little piano and she says, "Guess what, Schroeder! If you don't stop playing that piano right now and show me that you love me, you know what I'm going to do? I'm going to hold my breath until I pass out!" Schroeder looks up from his piano and says, "Breath holding in children is an interesting phenomenon. It could indicate a metabolic disorder. A forty-milligram dose of Vitamin B6 twice a day might be helpful. I think that's probably it, Lucy. You need Vitamin B6. You might also consider eating more bananas, avocados, and beef liver!" As he goes back to playing his piano, Lucy looks out at the reading audience and says, "I asked for love and all I get is beef liver!"
In that "Peanuts" comic strip, Charles Schultz was probably trying to say something akin to what the apostle Paul said at the beginning of the love chapter. Remember what he said, "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol." Or in other words, when it comes to love, high-sounding words are not enough. Christian love by definition is active goodwill. It is sharing the sacrificial love of Christ with the world. So, the point is clear: Don't ever give up on your commitment and don't ever give up on love.
Third and finally: Don't give up on Jesus.
In our hectic world, we can so easily become the victims of what Marshall McLuhan called "implosion"-all kinds of ideas and clauses and philosophies exploding in on us, vying for our attention and energy and loyalty and resources. What do we believe in? Where do we put our weight down? What do we give our heart to? Who do we trust?
Well, we have the answer. We've had it all along. We've had it for over 2,000 years. It's in the Book. Jesus Christ is the answer...yesterday, today, and forever.
So, don't be taken in by all these exotic, high-sounding fads that come along screaming for our allegiance. Just give your heart and soul to Jesus!
At a Promise Keepers rally recently, one of the leaders did an interesting thing. There were 42,000 people present. The leader said to them, "On the count of three, I want you to shout out as loud as you can the name of the town where you now live." The men shouted out a variety of names and it sounded like the Tower of Babel. Then he asked them to shout out as loud as they could the name of their religious denomination. Again, total chaos. Then he asked them to shout out as loud as they could their favorite sport. Once more, complete confusion. Then he asked them on the count of three to shout out as loud as they could the name of their Savior. In perfect unison, 42,000 people shouted out clear as a bell the name of Jesus!
Now, what was that leader trying to say? Simply this: Some of us like football, others like basketball or baseball or golf. Some of us are United Methodists, some are Baptists or Catholics or Presbyterians or Episcopalians. Some of us are from Houston and others are from Dallas or Austin or Washington or Seattle. But the one thing we share in common, the one thing that unites us, the One who saves us is Jesus.
So the point is clear: Don't ever give up! Don't give up on your commitment. Don't give up on love. And whatever you do, don't give up on Jesus.
Let us pray. O God, help us in the rough and tumble of life to not give up, to not give out, to not give in. We pray in the strong name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen.