Subject: How do we cope with the ups and downs of our spiritual journeys?
Complement: The Christian life is a marathon, not a sprint, so we must throw off the things that slow us down and stay focused on how God is making us like Christ.
In fourth grade I ran a race — with a plan — for the first time. It was field day and one of the events was the 440 yard run. At 8 years old, a 440 feels like a mile – at least. So before the race an upper classman who I knew told me I should use strategy for this race. “Don’t sprint to start the race, he suggested, but hang back and conserve your energy. Then in the last 100 yards, sprint past everyone else who will be tired.” This was the strategy that Dave Woddel used in the 1972 Munich games to win the gold in the 800 meters. If it worked for him, it might work for me. And it did. Though I did not win the race (I came in second), I ran a good race and it was the first time I ever had a plan.
Today we talk about running a good race – it is the race of your life, or more specifically, your journey of faith. It will go better and be more transformative if you have a plan.
Today we look at three verses from the book of Hebrews. They are filled with athletic, running images. But beyond those images are some concrete guidelines for how to run a good race. Here is the passage:
12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer (or author, archegos leader founder) and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
The journey will be easier with a cloud of witnesses cheering us on.
The passage begins with the word “therefore” which always looks back to what preceded this verse. In this case, it is the whole of chapter 11, what is often called the “Faith Hall of Fame.” Chapter 11 chronicles the faithfulness of many generations of men and women from Israel’s past. In particular it reminds us that they were faithful: by faith Abel made a good offering, by faith Noah built an ark, by faith Abraham left his home and traveled to an unknown land. Now, the author says, with all these people serving as examples, run your race of faith.
The image of running surrounded by a cloud of witnesses makes us think of marathon runners entering the stadium with everyone cheering. But the word the author uses here is “witnesses” and a Christian witness is someone who points others to Jesus Christ. So to have a cloud of witnesses around you is to know people who have run the race, who have walked with Christ, and can now spur you along as well. So this is less like a stadium full of cheering fans and more like a group of upperclassmen telling a young freshman that he can make it despite feeling overwhelmed.
In our lives the cloud of witnesses comes from two main sources. First, chapter 11 reminds us that the scriptures are filled with people walking with God. There are good examples and bad examples in scripture, but all of them are meant to reveal something about God. Your race will go better if you regularly spend time in reading the Bible. The other place to find a cloud of witnesses is in small groups. This is how Cornerstone promotes intentional community. We encourage you to be in a small group so that you can share your life with others and see them walk with God as well. Your journey will go better if there are people around you to cheer you on especially people who have walked with God longer or more faithfully than you.
The passage says that since we have this cloud of witnesses we should throw off everything that hinders.
The journey will be better if you throw off what entangles you specifically sins and destructive habits.
The image in this passage is pretty easy to see. If someone is preparing to compete in an athletic contest they often take off the extra clothing that they may have been wearing during the warm up. This is dramatic for basketball players who wear pants and sweatshirts that have snaps down the sides. They walk onto the court and literally rip off their outer layer to prepare for the contest ahead. This is also colorfully displayed in the NYC Marathon.
The NYC Marathon is a large race run across five boroughs in the first weekend of November. What that means is that there is a line of 50,000 runners on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge waiting to start the race almost two hours before it begins. And it is November. Everyone is bundled up against the cold but when the race starts they cannot run with all that clothing on so when the race starts they begins discarding clothes and throwing then to the side. Eventually the 100K+ pieces of clothing are picked up and given to the homeless. These runners are literally “throwing off everything that hinders” to “run with perseverance the race marked out.” Your journey will go much better if you throw off what entangles you.
The image in Hebrews can point to clothing but it can also point to extra weight. Runners are better when they shed extra weight, but that is not something that can be thrown off on race day or even on the first day of training months earlier. Weight must be shed slowly day by day through new habits. Both of these images, the clothing that is immediately shed and the weight that can only be burned off over time, apply to the journey of faith.
There are sins that you know are entangling you, behavior that you need to repent of and cast aside. You can make the decision today to turn away from certain destructive behavior because God says they are sin and because you can see they hinder your walk. There is probably something that comes to mind even as you consider this. Cast that aside. But there are probably other things in your life which cannot be so easily changed. If you want to be more diligent in prayer or faithful in stewardship, if you want to build a life of service or be a good parent, you cannot do that in one day with one decision. You need to develop habits that will lead to a healthier spiritual life, much like an athlete must change her diet to be completely healthy. So what are the habits you need to put into place to run your race well? Consider for a moment: What is hindering your spiritual journey? What pulls you away from Christ? What vies for your affection?
Paying attention to these deeper habits is key because running the journey of faith in Christ is not a sprint, so it cannot be accomplished in one decision. Dave Woddell did not win the gold in Munich in 1972 just because he had a good strategy on that day. He had spent years in disciplined training before that day. Life is like that. It is a marathon and not a sprint.
This is a long run not a sprint.
The author says that we must run with perseverance which shows that this is a long race. If life were a sprint he would say, “run with speed.” But we all know that life is a marathon and not a sprint and the journey of faith is a marathon in two specific ways. First, since it is a marathon you can keep going even if you stumble and fall. In a sprint, if you fall the race is over. This is what happened to Mary Decker in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. She got tangled up with Zola Budd and fell. In a race that fast she was done as soon as she hit the grass. But in a long race you can stop and refuel. There have even been cases where the leader in a marathon turned in the wrong direction and had to be directed by police back to the course. That is the nature of a long race. You can fall down and still keep going. This is good news for all of us who need a correction, a change of course. God is not done with you. Start again on the right course today.
Also, a long race is rarely run on a flat track. Most of the time the race winds throughout the countryside. You cannot see where the end is and you don’t always know what is around the corner. You have to run the race before you, hills and valleys. Life is like that. There are high points and low points, easy sections and brutal uphill climbs. The point is to keep going. But it is not just a journey. It is a journey with a purpose, a race with an ending. What is that goal? The author makes it clear.
These are not just self help rituals. These are patterns and habits designed to make us like Christ. Living today must be connected to some greater goal and that goal is to be like Christ which is why the author calls him the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
As you travel the journey of faith keep your eyes on Jesus as he is the only thing that will remain constant.
The author calls him the “pioneer and perfecter” of our faith. This means that our journey starts with Jesus. We really begin this race of faith when we understand who Jesus is and what he came to do. When you understand that you are separated from God by your sin, but that Jesus came to atone for that sin and offer you forgiveness, then you begin the journey as a child of God. It is when we surrender our lives to Jesus that we begin life as one of his followers. Up to that point our journey is just to find the starting line of the race.
But Jesus is also the perfecter or the end point of our race. Jesus is the “way;” he is also the destination. Our goal is to be like him in every area of our lives and that is the journey of a lifetime. There is a lot of sports imagery in this sermon, but there is one place where the image breaks down. In sports you reach your pinnacle early in life, and then no matter how you train you are never as good as you were at that point. But spiritually we can always grow and we can always be more like Christ. This is why the people who bless the Christ Child in the gospel of Luke are two of the oldest people. Luke pictures Simeon and Anna as the holiest people in the story. This is why they recognize Jesus for who he is.
The author of Hebrews wants us to be like Jesus in every way, but there is one fact about Jesus’ life that he really wants us to see. Jesus endured in the face of opposition. Jesus faced opposition from the Roman government and the religious authorities. Eventually they would conspire to execute Jesus on the cross. It was meant to be painful, lethal and humiliating. The writer of Hebrews says that Jesus “scorned” the humiliation of the cross. Jesus did express concern in the garden of Gethsemane, but there is never any sense that he feared being humiliated. Jesus was always misunderstood even by those who followed him. Their opinion never mattered to him. Jesus wanted people to know that he was the Messiah for their sake. It was never about his expectation or ego. He only cared about one thing: the will of the Father. Jesus was committed to doing the will of the Father because he knew that what brought his Father glory would ultimately mean joy for him.
The author of Hebrews wants us to focus on Jesus as our Savior and as our Lord. He wants us to emulate Jesus even in the face of opposition so that we care only about what honors God. If you follow Christ faithfully you will be out of step with the rest of the culture, no matter what culture you live in. The author of Hebrews wants to prepare us for that and calls us to face opposition with love and faithfulness.
The race is long and we need to cast off the sins that entangle us. We need to develop habits that help us keep going which includes having a cloud of people who cheer us on. But we need to stay focused on our Savior Jesus because he puts our lives in perspective. In him we see the depth of our sin and the depth of God’s love. We understand what God has done for us, which motivate us to love and through that love will come change. It sometimes seems that real change comes from wanting to change everything, of hating yourself. But that change is short-lived. Real change comes from being loved and walking, even running, in that love. It is that journey that makes us the person who God calls us to be.