By contrast, the athletes are focused with remarkable single-mindedness on one thing: training for their event. They devote hours of strain and sweat and tedium to make their way to the winner’s platform. To win the medal that acknowledges their performance and vindicates all the exertion and the sacrifice.
I admire elite athletes, and I’m in lots of good company. That’s probably why preachers and teachers have turned to the arena to find illustrations for the spiritual life. And while it offers important lessons about perseverance and endurance and courage, the world of athletics can mislead us when we’re trying to figure out what it means to have a savior.
Athletes are about performance. They seek to maximize their performance precisely because they know that they will be judged on the basis of that performance. Their aim is to perform well enough to ascend the winner’s platform and to receive the acknowledgement they deserve.
Here’s the problem. You’ll never find a savior on your own winner’s platform. Winners don’t need a savior. They’re just waiting for the medal they’ve earned. You only find your savior when you’re at the end of your rope.
That’s one of the unlikely lessons of the story of the Magi’s visit to pay homage to the Christ child. Like I said, this is an unlikely lesson, so let’s look at that familiar story again.
Some wise men came from the East to pay their respects to the new King of the Jews. We don’t actually know how many of them there were or where in the East they came from or what made them wise. We only know that they saw a star and made their way to Herod’s court in Jerusalem.
From there they made their way to Bethlehem and delivered their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Even though Herod had told them to return to his courts and report the little King’s exact location, the wise men followed advice given in a dream.
And there’s the key. Here’s what the dream led them to do: “They left for their own country by another road.” (Matthew 2:12)
Now at a literal level, we can say that the wise men just took an alternate route. They had been warned about Herod’s murderous intentions and did whatever they could to keep the infant King safe.
But I see layers of meaning in this text, and I invite you to peel them back with me.
We’ll start with the road that the wise men took to find Jesus.
The wise men were, well, wise. They could read the signs of the times. Big things were happening that most people either utterly missed or only vaguely understood. A new king was born. A new kind of king. One whose birth shook up the heavens and would reweave the earth.
They made their way from the East to distant Jerusalem using their own navigational skills. Despite the fact that they made an ill-fated stop at Herod’s place, they traveled perhaps hundreds of miles on ancient roads and unmarked wilderness to find a tiny stable that a modern GPS might fail to locate.
The wise men decided on a destination, set their course, and by their own skill and endurance made their way to their desired journey’s end. You could say they got to the winner’s stand. They made it.
And now they had to go back home, back to their own country, the life they had been leading before they ever left for this crazy journey. Only they couldn’t take the same road back. They couldn’t take the same kind of road.
They could return to teaching or parenting, working at the bank or arguing cases in court, placing stock orders for clients or stocking shelves at the grocery. But they couldn’t do it the same way anymore.
The way of performance and reward didn’t work any longer. Now they had met a savior. They understood the way of grace.
Think about what it really means to need a savior.
You’re at the end of your rope. It seems like you’ve been climbing all along. You’re just sure you’re getting near the top. Nevertheless, you realize that the rope you’re holding is only going up. There’s nothing more below you to take hold of. You start clinging with all you’ve got. It’s a long way down.
This might make no sense to you. Maybe you’re on a roll right now.
Your kids are all champion athletes and star students, you don’t have any conflicts with other people, your parents are healthy as horses, you and your spouse always agree, you don’t have any cavities, you never put on weight at the holidays, and your doctor even asks you for health advice.
Good for you. But at some point, this is going to make a lot of sense to you. That’s because at some point you will realize that all of your best efforts, all of the best efforts of the very best who have ever lived, will wind up at the same place. The end of the road.
It might seem like you’re climbing. But to tell the truth, the rope is always getting shorter. At some point or another, you’re going to be at the end of your rope. And that’s where we see, really see, that we need a savior. There’s something that we want, that we need, that we cannot achieve for ourselves.
We cannot earn another breath, another beat of the heart, another moment with the ones we love. We certainly cannot earn eternal life. However successful or popular or good looking or wealthy or physically fit we may be, our very best efforts bring us all to the end of the road.
Before we reach that final end we catch glimpses of it when we’re at the end of our rope. We can’t save the one we love from a broken heart, a shattered dream, or a terrible ordeal. Our best intentions crush the very ones we set out to help. The elephant in the room refuses to stay hidden and everything is coming undone.
Unless. Unless we take a very different sort of road. Instead of placing all our bets on the quality of our own performance—even our moral performance and spiritual practices—we can rely on a savior’s performance. What God achieves for us and through us and with us in Christ.
Having a Savior means relying on God’s love for us to vindicate all our exertions and disappointments, joys and celebrations, laughter and tears, loves and losses. Paradoxically, relying on a Savior makes the end of the rope the destination we’ve been looking for all along. The place where we can finally let go.