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Olympic Christians

February 10, 2002

Matthew 17:1-9


Tony Grant


Three Heroes

Three heroes stood tall on the mountain at St. Anton, Austria. One dominated as The Legend. He was the "Herminator," the reigning Olympic gold medalist. Another was a past World Champion. The third sparkled like a new star, the long-awaited hope, the reluctant hero. That was just a year ago, at the Men's Giant Slalom World Championships, Hermann Maier was favored to capture the gold as he had so many times before. Fellow Austrian Stefan Eberharter, who won the event 10 years before, promised to deliver a competitive race. But Daron Rahlves of Truckee, California, surprised them both by finishing first, covering the treacherous, icy course in a breathtaking one minute, 21.46 seconds. Eberharter took second place, and Maier settled for the bronze.

Ever since the closing ceremonies four years ago at Nagano, Japan, these same three champions have had their hearts set on the gold at the 19th Olympiad that opened last night in Salt Lake City. The ancient Olympic games served as part of a religious festival glorifying Zeus. The games were named for the home of the Greek gods and goddesses. One of these days some Christian radical knothead is going to discover that and want to boycott the Olympics as a pagan celebration. But never mind that. Today's games celebrate not the gods of ancient Greece but the world-class athletes who make extraordinary personal sacrifices in order to be Olympic champions who exemplify the Olympic motto: Swifter, Higher, Stronger.

But the road to victory is often as treacherous as the Super-G run. Last August, Hermann Maier suffered such extensive injuries in a motorcycle crash that doctors considered amputating his right leg. The athletes who converged upon Salt Lake City this past week realize that the possibility of career-ending injuries always looms. The journey to the top is not for the fainthearted.

When Peter, James and John climbed snow-capped Mount Hermon with Jesus so many years ago, skiing was not on the agenda. And yet Jesus in his glory, along with Moses and Elijah, would stand tall together on the heroes' dais.

"Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"

Matthew's story of the transfiguration begins by telling us that the incident took place "six days later," and so provokes the question, "Six days after what?" Six days after the incident at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus asks his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" In that earlier incident, Jesus' questions to the disciples and their answers foreshadow what will become gloriously obvious during the transfiguration.

Although the two stories differ in that the first episode takes place in the company of all the disciples, and the second takes place with only Peter, James and John, there are several interesting parallels.

The first is the answer that the disciples give to Jesus' question, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" They respond, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets" (MT 16:14). In short, the people think that Jesus is a forerunner of some kind--not the actual Messiah, but someone like John or Elijah, or some other prophetic figure who was expected to appear before the real Messiah came. But at the transfiguration this is revealed to be patently false. Jesus cannot be equated with Elijah, because he is seen in Elijah's company on the mountain.

A second parallel is the answer that Peter gives to Jesus' question, "Who do you say that I am?" (16:15). Peter responds, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (16:16). This is also confirmed during the transfiguration when a voice speaks from heaven and says, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him."

In the transfiguration, Jesus is placed in direct continuity and on equal footing with the greatest figures of Old Testament tradition. This implies that Jesus' giving of law and revelation of prophecy will surpass these older figures. The transfiguration implies that whereas one used to listen to Moses, or trust the visions of Elijah, one now turns to Jesus for such matters.

The casual familiarity among the three is also reminiscent of the familiarity portrayed between God and God's chosen messengers in the Old Testament. Jesus speaks to Moses and Elijah face to face, which is just the way Moses is said to converse with God. Jesus' face shines during this encounter, as did the face of Moses after encountering God on Mount Sinai. The transfiguration occurs on a mountaintop, traditionally Mount Tabor in Galilee. Moses and Elijah also communed with God on a mountain—Mount Horeb in Sinai. What is it about mountains and God? But the point is that Jesus is the inheritor of the direct communication with God that Moses and Elijah experienced.

The voice that speaks from heaven during the Transfiguration says almost the same thing that a similar voice said when Jesus was baptized. Thus, the baptism of Jesus and the transfiguration of jesus are linked. At his baptism Jesus was marked for his special mission, and that mark, that designation, is confirmed at his Transfiguration.

Greater than the Law and the Prophets

As I mentioned, Moses had stood high upon a holy mountain before. The venue was Mount Sinai, sometimes called Mount Horeb, and it was a forty day event, not the twenty-one day telethon of the modern Olympics. Moses came down off that mountain with a new training handbook including the well-known ten Rules for Spiritual Fitness. Thus Moses represented the law.

Elijah, too, was an OT icon. He faced contests on Mt. Carmel with 400 contestants and the evil queen Jezebel. He had confrontations with kings, appointments with angels, mountain-meetings with God featuring earthquakes, wind and fire. Finally he rode up to glory in a chariot of fire. He represented the prophets

Now they are standing together on another mountain with Jesus, an Olympic triad if there ever was one. Jesus was still something of a mystery at this point in time. He had astonished his followers with miraculous victories over hunger, blindness, bleeding, seizures. Those events alone brought him widespread attention. But he was a quirky hero, telling parables that jarred the crowds, making comments that would make a public relations team squirm, offending those in power.

This trio, Jesus, Moses and Elijah, stood on the mountain in the presence of Peter, James and John, who were stunned to see that it was their Jesus who stood tallest, transfigured before them, taking the gold and gleaming like a star. Who could have know it? Sure, their leader impressed the crowds, but who could have known that gospel would outshine the law and the prophets?

Peter was so stunned he began to talk before he thought. He babbled on about building tents. It was only when The Voice From Heaven spoke that Peter was silenced.

No national anthem resounded from the clouds. Instead the voice of God spoke to all people of all nations with this grand pronouncement: "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!"

This account of the transfiguration outshines the most poignant story of victory we will hear out of Salt Lake City over the next several days. Jesus asked his small band of followers not to spread the news of his mountaintop glory to anyone. The scene caused more than an adrenaline rush; they were knocked silly with fear, but Jesus calmed them and ordered them to keep this experience a secret.

But they were not told to keep the gospel a secret. We may never know what transpired in the conversation that day between Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, but the effect on the disciples was to make them certain that Jesus was the Messiah. They would from that day forward carry the flag of Christ and not lay it down until death.

Five Rings of Glory

They say that Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement, created the Olympic flag at the beginning of the 20th century. He intended the rings to represent the five general regions of the world: Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania. The Olympic flag was first unfurled at the Antwerp games in 1920. And today we see the rings everywhere, from Coca-Cola bottles to M&M wrappers to cans of Campbell's Soup.

Like Peter, James and John, we carry a flag, the flag of the transfiguration. The five rings of the transfiguration flag symbolize the core doctrines of the faith.

Five rings of glory, five rings for salvation’s story.

Mercy: God’s compassion from above.

Love: the foundation ring. God is love.

Grace: God’s favor ring, the favor of a king.

Truth: God lives and deals in truth, always.

Faithfulness: God is with us, always.

Let us talk about these rings in a little more detail.

The ring of mercy. God in his mercy watches over his creation and cares for it. Compassion lies at the root of Jesus' parables and healing moments. Showing mercy dominates both the Hebrew and Greek scriptures. God does not judge us by our works, but receives us in mercy. Therefore, we are called to be merciful even as God is merciful.

The ring of love. Without love, the other rings collapse in a heap of mangled, tangled confusion. God loves us. God has shown his love in the cross. He sent his only son to die for our sins. Our response to God's love is to love God and each other. This is the mark of our Christianity--Our love

The ring of grace. In both the OT and the NT, God reaches out to his people to embrace them with his grace, his favor--to enable them to walk in his way and serve him. In ICR15:10 the apostle Paul says, "I labored more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me." His point was that all that he has done was so empowered and enabled by the grace of God that it was as if God did it and not Paul, at least not Paul alone. God gives his grace to empower us to do his will.

The ring of truth. Long before today's notorious scandals involving Tonya Harding, Michelle Smith and Ben Johnson there was distance runner Fred Lorz. Lorz set the standard for Olympic disgrace during the marathon event at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics.

An event usually rich in prestige and tradition, the 1904 race included a bizarre cast of characters whose antics made it a perfect example of the circus sideshow that was the St. Louis games. The race began in the afternoon despite oppressive August heat, which eventually kept more than half of the thirty-one starters from finishing.

Lorz was the first competitor to cross the finish line. He was greeted with cheers from the American crowd and Alice Roosevelt, daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, placed a laurel wreath on his head. Shortly thereafter Lorz admitted the truth. Suffering from cramps early in the race, he hopped into an official's car at the nine-mile mark and rode the next eleven miles of the race. He said he decided to run into the stadium and break the winner's tape as a joke. I suppose tht as long as there are human beings, there will be sin and untruth. That is why it is so good to know that God only deals in truth.

The ring of truth represents the truth of God, or the truth about God. It is knowing God and knowing how to properly glorify and worship God. Ultimately this is the truth that God gives us in his son Jesus Christ. This truth is the foundation of all our relationships.

The ring of faithfulness. God is faithful. God has promised to be with us in tribulation. This we know by experience to be true. That in times of trouble we are supported by the hand of God. God provides what he has promised. This is the real foundation of our faith. We have a faithful God; thus our hope is strengthened and we continue in faith.

In the earliest Olympic games, the competitors vowed three things:

  1. I will use no unfair means to secure victory;
  2. I have trained for ten months; and
  3. I promise to do my best and not to quit.

That kind of commitment captures our imaginations and compels us to wonder what it must be like to ascend to such a high level of discipline and persistence in pursuing a goal.

Much has been said through the years about Christians running the race with endurance, finishing well the course set before us. The Apostle Paul makes effective use of athletic analogies in his letters exhorting fellow believers to press on to gain the prize of Jesus Christ. As we consider the three vows of the ancient Olympians, each has its biblical equivalent challenging us as disciples of the Lord Jesus to pursue the victory with everything we have—to be faithful as the Lord is faithful.

Winning Olympic gold occurs for only a select few. We may not witness Jesus transfigured on the mountaintop or receive an invitation to join God to receive new tablets of the law. And yet, we stand as Olympic Christians when we can bear these rings as the emblem of our faith and practice.

Daron Rahlves is one of six U.S. skiers and snowboarders featured in a red, white, and blue advertising campaign called "Home of the Brave." He was featured shirtless in Rolling Stone magazine last year alongside Andre Agassi and Jason Giambi. As the blond, photogenic Super-G world champion, Rahlves has become one of the dazzling hopes for bringing home the gold in the men's super giant slalom.

He's self-effacing. He's photogenic. He's charismatic.

And he's driving the marketers crazy. Although Daron Rahlves is ripe for making a pile of money in commercial endorsements, and subsequently making millions for the 2002 Olympics and a long line of brand name products, he shies away from fame. While Picabo Street endures as a camera-ready star, Daron Rahlves refuses to "be exciting" on cue. While U.S. teammate Chad Fleischer drew attention to himself in the 1998 games by bleaching his hair and donning leopard spots, Rahlves prefers a low-key profile. "I just wanted to ski for fun. I never dreamed about going to the Olympics. I never even watched the Olympics," he said to Sports Illustrated last summer. "I just wanted to see how far I could go with it. I never felt like I was in it to be an Olympic skier."

Many Christians feel the same way. "Yes, I am a Christian, but I'm only in it for the fun. I never really felt like I was in it to be an Olympic Christian, to go all the way to the cross or anything." But even as Daron Rahlves is called to ski, so we are called to be Olympic Christians.

When the transfigured Jesus calls us to be his disciples, he calls us to be "swifter, higher, stronger" disciples. Official Olympic Mascots date back to the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich - Waldi the dachshund, a popular Bavarian dog, was the first. All mascots reflect the culture of the host country and city, and they inspire a spirit of celebration at the Games. The mascots of the Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Winter Games are inspired by Native American culture.

Many native American stories express the athleticism of nature's creatures:

The hare is swift;

the coyote climbs higher;

the bear is strong.

These traits echo the Olympic motto and thus the hare, the coyote, the bear are the mascots for the Winter Games.

God calls us to be spiritual athletes. We should be swift to speak the gospel. Our souls should ascend to new heights in the lord. We should be strong in the faith. Amen.


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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