“Keep on Running” Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Delivered to Church for the Highlands John Henson
Sunday, August 14, 2016
How about that Simone Biles? Hasn’t she been thrilling to watch? Her Olympic accomplishments have been inspiring, especially in light of the Olympic-sized challenges she has faced in her life. As you may have already learned about her (you can read more about her on Wikipedia), Simone entered foster care after her mother, addicted to drugs and alcohol, could no longer care for her. Her grandparents stepped in to adopt and raise her. When she was six, while on a day-care field trip to a gym, the instructors noticed she had a gift for gymnastics and encouraged her to come back. The rest is history. She would continue overcoming challenges in life as well as in the gym, becoming the greatest gymnast of all time. Watching her makes us want to go out and do something great, doesn’t it?
Easier said than done. None of us here are Olympic athletes. All of us here, though, are involved in a race; one beyond Olympic proportions. That’s how the author of Hebrews described the Christian life for his readers in Hebrews 12:1-2, “ . . . let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, . . .” The author, likely inspired by the Olympics, used the imagery of a foot race as a fitting description of the Christian life. The church receiving this letter would have understood the comparison, being familiar with Olympic races as well as with the rigors of living in their context as followers of Jesus. The author reminded them of just how difficult it could be in referring to the kinds of things that have happened to their ancestors and to their fellow Christians who lived out their faith. As you have already heard this morning, some were sawed in two. Others were destitute, persecuted, and tortured. If the author was trying to recruit new adherents to the church, he or she had a terrible marketing plan. The harsh reality of living as a follower of Jesus for them was evident.
So the author set out with the encouragement of a dutiful coach to bring out the best of them and challenge them to keep on running the race of the Christian life. The author informed them how to keep on running: recognizing they were surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, throwing off sin, running with perseverance, and looking at the example of Jesus as the pioneer and perfecter of their faith. Jesus was the model for them for how to focus on the joy set before them while in the midst of the agony of the race.
As Christians today, we are to hear in this text the challenge to keep on running the race of endurance with faith, one each of us entered when we made the decision to become followers of Jesus. And it is the race of our lives. It is a race requiring the kind of faith like we have heard about here in Hebrews. As followers of Jesus, we encounter many challenges along the way to the finish line: discomfort, spiritual lethargy, indifference, self-centeredness, enemies, fear, and doubt. At times, we may wonder why we are even in this race.
So how exactly are we to run it? First, we are to run it with the encouragement of those who are in the stands, our cloud of witnesses cheering for us. Our faith has a rich history with plenty of examples of people who endured challenges. The list of them is a long one and full of stories we need not forget. We need to think about them. We need to thank God for them. We need to hear them as they cheer for us as we race.
Second, we are to run with a model. There is no greater model for us than that of Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. We are to observe how he entered the race, how he trained, how he was challenged at every turn by other people and even from himself. We are to take note of what he did to buffer the temptation to take shortcuts, to run a different race, and to quit. We are to consider his passion for the race and for running. Even more, we are to note how he finished the race.
A third way we are to run with faith is to remember that there is a joyful finish line. We put a lot of focus around here on our earthly work, rightly so since this is where the race is. But we must not forget that our time here is short and will come to an end. This realization for us is not a morbid thought; it is the reality that we are working up to something big, something at the finish line that is beyond our present pain, inconvenience, and labor. It is the awareness that what we are doing now matters for this world and eternity. It is the contemplation of the joy awaiting us when we finish the race; when we get to sit down as Jesus did at the right hand of God when he had finished.
This past April, Sheila Grant ran in the London Marathon. As reported by Metro.Co.Uk, this was the first time she ever ran a marathon and something she had always wanted to do. She entered this marathon for her grandmother, who had just been re-diagnosed with breast cancer. Sheila was making progress in the race, but tripped on a water bottle and fell, fracturing her ankle. She didn’t let this stop her. She said, “It was extremely painful but I hoped it was just a sprain and I could run it out, so my friends and running buddies Paul Taylor-Mills and Matthew Barksby literally picked me up off the road and immediately started me running on it again at pace for the remaining 15 miles.”
As she reflected on the race, she said, “There wasn’t a chance I was stopping after all the support, sponsorship and training I had. It’s the encouragement from the crowd, both close friends and complete strangers cheering you on that make it special and really really lifted my spirits when I was in a tremendous amount of pain. ‘In fact, I couldn’t stop smiling all the way round. It really was a day I’ll always remember.’”
That’s how the Christian life is sometimes. Things are going well and all of a sudden you end up falling flat on your face. Some people stay down and never finish the race. Others get up—with the help of others—push through the pain, and finish the race. That’s what the author of Hebrews challenged his readers to do. And that’s what these words challenge us to do in the Christian life today: Keep on running, getting help from others who have gone before you, and looking forward to the joy ahead.
[An audio version of this sermon is here]