Summit/Mt. Airy Joint Worship Service August 19, 2007
GRACE AND THE CHRISTIAN RACE Delivered by Jim Eby Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Life is a race. We began it before we understood it was thus. And then the celebrations and the tragedies of our lives begin to make us aware there is a finish line out there somewhere.
And somewhere about the middle of life, for most of us, we come to grips with the reality that God have given us what we have so we can make a difference. Sometimes, that happens at an earlier time in a person=s life. There was a young man of 19 who was working with a friend putting up a sheet rock ceiling in a house they were rehabing. He did a foolish thing, trying to balance himself with one foot on a ladder and the other on the fireplace mantle as he reached almost beyond his reach to place a dry wall screw in the ceiling and fell, and somehow drove the cordless drill bit into his neck, hitting a jugular vein. Six months later, when he had miraculously recovered from what should have been a fatal accident, he could no longer look at life in the same way and he knew the reality of being surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses. And each moment has become very precious to him. He runs his race with new and deeper understanding and purpose today.
Sometimes it takes about half a life time to come to know how precious the present moment really is. And there are times we think it would be nice to drop out of the race and just sit in the bleachers and cheer on the others.
Perhaps that was what the author of the letter to the Hebrews sensed about the congregation to whom he was writing. That they were becoming tired and just wanted to rest.
And so, he writes to these who have started the race to encourage them to finish the race they have begun as disciples of Jesus. In the last two verses of our New Testament reading this morning, like a dedicated coach, he gives four sound pieces of advice concerning how to finish the race.
According to Hebrews 12:1-2, if we want to finish the race:
Remember who is around us.
Remove what is on us.
Rely on what is in us,
and remember who is before us.
He begins by exhorting us to remember who is around us. ATherefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.@
He uses the word Asurrounded@ and the imagery of a race and wants us to see ourselves as athletes in the arena. The writer wants us to vision a coliseum like the one in Rome, where the field is in the center, and around the field are seats, like a modern day sports arena. As we run the race, we are surrounded by a host of persons. As we struggle to win the prize of the contest of life in which we were born to care for this wonderful work and love our neighbor as our selves and thus love the one who gives us life, we do not do it alone. In the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, the writer provides a catalog of people who, in various ways, have demonstrated overcoming faith, faith that survived in the crucible of existence; faith that flourished under fire; faith that knew how to hold on and hold out. Hebrews 11 calls to mind such notables as Abel, Noah, Abraham and Rahab. These inductees into AThe Hall of Fame of Faith@ now occupy the seats in the coliseum, which surrounds the track on which we are currently running the race of life.
The author of Hebrews says to all current runners, AIf you are planning to finish the race, remember that a great cloud of witnesses surrounds you.@ There are persons in the coliseum seats who are invisible to the naked eye, but visible to the spiritual eye. The writer stresses that those who surround us are witnesses, not just spectators.
There is a profound difference between a spectator and a witness. A spectator is someone who watches you go through something. A witness, in the biblical sense, is someone who has gone through something. We can finish the race because in the stands we have some witnesses, not spectators; witnesses who dashed through danger and dilemma and lived to tell about it. While in the midst of struggle, there is nothing like the testimony from someone who survived a similar struggle to bolster our faith and courage.
Witnesses are those who have been through trials and turmoil and have found out for themselves that God is a Awaymaker.@ We can finish the race; we can hold on; we can resist the temptation, if we remember who is around us cheering for us. As we run, the witnesses listed in Hebrews 11 exhort us, but these are not the only witnesses.
There is a young woman in the Summit congregation who recently shared with us a year ago she was working her way through a valley of deep darkness and it was the prayers and presence of the congregation who encouraged her to make her way on through the darkness and out into the light she enjoys today.
If you gaze around the seats of your coliseum, you will see many others, as does that young woman. There are other heroes and heroines of holiness who have walked the planet since the writing of the book of Hebrews. Who do you see? George Washington, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Franklin? Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King? Mahatma Gandhi, Lech Walesa?
Or maybe it is your maternal or paternal grandparents, or some Asaint@ of the church who taught you the hymns of the church and told you the Bible stories that continue to shape your understanding of who you are and whose you are. Those and so many other are rooting for you even now.
Yet, if we want to finish the race, we must not only remember who is around us, but we must also remove what is on us. If we want to finish the race, we must through off the excess baggage that is on us. I have never seen track stars run with heavy winter coats and weights on their back and in their shoes. The New Revised Standard Version translates this portion of Hebrews 12:1 as, ALet us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely.@ One might also translate this phrase, ALet us lay aside every weight and the sin that entangles.@ The word Aentangles@ more clearly depicts what happens to many of us. We carry attitudes and engage in behaviors that wrap around our feet causing us to stumble rather than to sprint. The writer tells us to remove these encumbrances.
It makes sense to remove that extra weight that is on us. I wonder what kind of weight each of us bring to the race today? An unforgiving sprit, and unhealthy preoccupation, a grudge that is so old that we have forgotten what we were mad about in the first place Today is a good time to remove what is on us in order that we might run more swiftly.
We need to remember who is around us, and remove what is on us, but we must also rely on what is in us. The text says that we have to run with perseverance the race that is set before us. In this race, when the road is rough, and the going gets tough, and the hills are hard to climb, we must tap into our spiritual resources. In Hebrews 12:1, the word that is translated as Aperseverance@ can also be translated as Apatient endurance.@ If we are going to finish the race, we need to rely on patient endurance. I want to underline the word Apatient@.
Some people know how to endure, but every minute that the endure they want you to know about it. That=s not patient endurance; that=s grumbling and complaining and trying to gain sympathy because they can=t change their circumstances. This text tells us the necessity of patient endurance -- singing even in the darkest midnight; praying fervently until the blessing comes; shouting AHallelujah,@ even when heartache is on the horizon; handling our grief with grace ; keeping our cool when the heat is on -- that=s patient endurance.
Patient endurance would not be necessary if life were a sprint, but since life is a grueling marathon, patient endurance is a prerequisite. One does not develop an attitude of patience naturally. We must train our muscles of patience, and ironically, the only way to gain patience is by showing patience.
In order to finish the race, we must remember who is around us, remove what is on us, and rely on what is in us. The fourth and final piece of advice is to realize who is before us. After we have checked off these items in verse one, verse two emphatically declares that we are to look to AJesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame and who has taken his seat at the right hand of God.@
We can and will finish the race if we look to Jesus. He has gone before us, and he waits for us at the finish line. Jesus himself realized the value of looking ahead. Jesus knew that there was one primary difference between a winner and a looser. A loser focuses on what he is going through, but a winner focuses on what he is going to. In spite of the horrific pain of the cross, Jesus kept his eyes on the prize. Having won his race, he stands at the finish line cheering for us.
More than that, Jesus wants us to fix our eyes on him. Good track coaches will teach their athletes not to look to the right, to the left, and, by all means, certainly not behind. When you run without focusing straight ahead, there is a tendency to become distracted and trip. If you keep your eyes focused on the finish line, this concentration will prevent you from losing your momentum and your stride. Hebrews 12 tells us that Jesus is at the finish line, and if we need a point of focus, we need to keep our eyes on him.
It=s not too important when we realize we are in the race or how we start the race B It=s all about how you finish. Abraham started out as a liar, but he ended up as the father of the faithful. It=s not how you start; it=s how you finish. Sarah started as barren, but she ended s the only senior citizen in the maternity ward. It=s not how you start; it=s how you finish. Rahab started as a prostitute, but she ended in the family tree of the Prince of Peace. It=s not how you start; it=s how you finish. Paul started as a vi9olent persecutor, but he ended as a gospel globetrotter. It=s not how you start; it=s how you finish. I started as a sinner, but now I am a sinner saved by grace, and through that grace I am on my way to the promised land.
There are those words to the old African American gospel song, ALord, I=m running trying to make 100. 99 2 won=t do. On my knees every day; Lord, please hear me when I pray. Lord, I=m running trying to make 100. 99 11/2 won=t do!@
Keep on running for Jesus until the prize is yours, until he says, AWell done, good and faithful servant.@
God our Sustainer, continue to hold up your goals before us, and by your Spirit, give us grace to run the race you have laid out. Keep us faithful and strong, so people see what we do and are led into closer relationship with you. In the name of our Savior, who showed us how to run, we ask it. Amen.