Well, “March Madness” is over. If you aren’t a basketball fan, you are probably really glad. For a couple weeks, between the NCAA and NIT tournaments for both men’s and women’s teams, and throw in tournaments for small colleges and Christian colleges, there were several hundred games played—many of which were televised.
Just for fun, our family fills out brackets for the NCAA tournament to make it a little more exciting as we watch our favorite teams perform. Two of the teams I picked for the “Final Four” made it—Oregon and Gonzaga, and Gonzaga made it to the championship and would have won if the game had ended three minutes earlier! Since we live near Spokane, there are lots of “Zag” fans here. We have followed most of their games on TV for the past several years so it was very exciting to see them do so well this year, ending up with the best record, 37-2, in Division I men’s basketball.
We happened to be in Spokane for Christian Workers Conference many years ago when the Zags made their first “Sweet Sixteen.” The town went nuts. It was pretty fun. This year they had one of their best teams ever and it looked like they might go all the way, but faltered right at the end of the championship game with the North Carolina Tarheels. It was hard watching the emotional let down suffered by the players at the end of the game. In spite of a fantastic season and the accolades received by the team and players ( Mark Few was “Coach of the Year” and Przemek Karnoski was “Center of the Year”), it is still really hard to lose that final game. It seems that is what is remembered most.
As you think about it, counting the “play-in-games,” 68 teams enter the NCAA Tournament, and 67 of them end their season with a loss! Only one ends up with a win. These teams qualify for the tournament either by their record over the season or by winning their conference tournament so they are all good teams with a winning record but all but one ends up losing their final game. At the end of the tournament, they play some video clips of highlights of the tournament and you see all the highs and lows of emotions, from the agony of defeat to the thrill of victory. And yes, there is crying in men’s basketball!
The Apostle Paul, who used athletics a number of times in his letters to illustrate spiritual truths, writes in a letter to the Corinthian believers about the discipline and training of a runner or boxer in order to be victorious. Paul draws upon his readers’ knowledge of the Isthmian games held near Corinth every two years. He says: “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. And everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” (I Cor. 9:24-27).
Paul wasn’t saying he was concerned about “losing his salvation,” but rather was talking about being “disqualified” from effective service and suffering loss of reward if he didn’t remain faithful. The Greek word he used translated “disqualified,” adikomos, has reference to a “cracked pot”—not one thrown away, but one put on the shelf. When Paul came to the end of his ministry, a prisoner in Rome and soon to be put to death by Emperor Nero, he wrote in his final letter: “…the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up 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 loved His appearing” (II Tim. 4:6b-8).
While only one can win a race or the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, all believers who have self-discipline and remain faithful in serving their Lord, will receive “imperishable” crowns (rewards) in eternity. Heaven is not a “reward,” but a gift to those who have trusted in Christ for salvation (Eph. 2:8,9). In that sense, all believers are “winners,” having escaped the condemnation and judgment in hell we deserve (Ro. 8:1), but when we, as Christians, stand before God at the “Judgment Seat of Christ” (II Cor. 5:10), and give account (Rom. 14:10-12), “each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it, because it is to be revealed with fire; and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built upon it (his foundation in Christ…vv. 10,11) remains, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer loss (of rewards), but he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire” (I Cor. 3:13-15).
To succeed in athletic contests requires much discipline and training. You have to be committed to the endeavor. For a team it requires unselfishness and teamwork and “chemistry.” Paul’s challenge to us is to consider how much effort athletes put in just for the possibility of receiving a perishable, temporary reward and then think about how much more valuable to have similar discipline and dedication toward building up God’s kingdom, where the rewards are eternal. “Blessed by the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you” (I Pet. 1:3,4).
Oh, may we “run to win,” that one day we may hear from our Lord and Savior, “Well done, good and faithful servant…enter into the joy of your Master” (Mt. 25:21). May we have an “abundant entrance” into Heaven. “And now, little children, abide in Him, so that when He appears, we may have confidence and not shrink away from Him in shame at His coming” (I Jn. 2:28).
“Go Zags!” Maybe next year!