(Preached at FBC Pauls Valley 2-15-15)
Although I have run for exercise for much of my adult life, I have never been very fast. When we lived in Tulsa back in the 1990’s (when I was in my 30’s) I was probably in the best shape of my life and I had still never broken a 6:00 mile, though I had hovered just above it. Our running club was participating in a road race in Tulsa called The Cherry Street Mile, which had the added advantage of having a long downhill stretch to the finish line, so I was hoping to break 6:00 and set a new personal record. As the run progressed towards the finish line, I could see that the clock up ahead at the finish line was still in the 5:00’s, and I did not have that much farther to go. I looked over at the crowd of people who lined the last few hundred yards to the finish line and I saw an older gentleman who was part of our club, but who wasn’t running that day. I looked up at the clock, then I looked over at him, and I raised my arms and hollered triumphantly: “I’m gonna break 6 minutes!” He pointed ahead and shouted back: “Keep your eyes on the finish line!” (Cheryl always tells me I can’t leave you hanging; I did get my eyes back on the finish line, and I finished with a 5:45 mile, a new personal record, and barring a miracle in my old age, will end up being the fastest mile I ever ran.)
The author of Hebrews 12 is doing for us as Christians what that senior gentleman did for me on the run that day. The Book of Hebrews was written to a group of confessing Christians who were tempted to ditch their faith in Jesus due to persecution, and return to the relatively safe haven of traditional Judaism. So throughout the book, the author proclaims the superiority of Jesus, in His Person and Work. Chapter 11, the one preceding this one, comprises “The Hall of Faith” of those who walked with God by faith through various trials. It is in that context, then, that the author encourages all of us who are following Jesus:
“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of faith …”.
Hebrews says: “Therefore, since we have so great a crowd of witness surrounding us …”. It is speaking of all of the people who have run the race of faith before us. Hebrews 11 tells of the faith of Abel, and Enoch, and Noah, and Abraham, and Moses, and others, and how they endured sufferings, and overcome obstacles, and ran the race of faith which was before them. We each have obstacles, in our personal lives, and in our churches. But you and I are not the first to run the Christian race; others have gone before us, and like the older runner I looked to that day at the Cherry Street Mile, they have advice to give us. We see some of that advice here in the first couple of verses of Hebrews 12:
I. Lay Aside Every Weight
“Let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us …”
This advice just makes sense. No serious runner wants to load himself up with things which will get in his way when he runs. When you see a runner, they generally have a minimum of apparel on (unless it is very cold out) because they don’t have anything to hinder them, or weigh them down as they run. Running clothes are minimal in size, and weight; lightness is a premium, because you don’t want anything to weigh you down when you run.
Hebrews 12 says the same thing is true in Christian race. It tells us to “lay aside every encumbrance”. That word “encumbrance” in Greek is “ongkos”, which means a “weight, a burden, a mass, a load which is bulging.”
That word recalls a certain picture in my mind, from the trip that our church in Louisiana gave us to England for our 10th anniversary there. We spent a month in England, with nothing more than a backpack for road trips. At one point, Cheryl, Michael & I had been to Jane Austen’s home, and we had actually shopped in a used bookstore in her town, where we found a number of classic books. Cheryl loves old books, and so she bought a number of them, stuffed them in her backpack, and when we were finished, we were going to climb Box Hill, which is featured in Austen’s novel Emma. When we looked at the pictures of that climb, Cheryl started laughing. I led the hike up the hill, and from time to time I took pictures of Cheryl & Michael as we climbed. But Cheryl said: “Look how I kept getting farther and farther behind, the farther we went!” But part of the problem was that she had this whole backpack full of books on her back, which weighed her down and made the ascent so much more difficult.
That is just the picture that this word in Hebrews 12 conveys. And unfortunately it is a picture of what too many of us are doing in our Christian life: trying to “run the Christian race” while you are weighted down. What are some of the things that “weigh us down” in our walk with The Lord? We get a hint in the next phrase, where it says “and the sin” which so easily entangles us. The Bible word “and” here can mean “even”, so that it is saying that sin IS the weight. It may be a sin, or it may be something else that is hindering your Christian race.
Would you take a moment right now and ask yourself: what is “weighing you down” and keeping you from being the follower of Jesus that God wants you to be?
— it may be a sinful habit that is like a cancer that is draining your spiritual strength.
— maybe it is bitterness over how you have been treated, or your unwillingness to forgive someone. Unforgiveness is a heavy weight; you can’t successfully run the Christian race with that weight on your back!
— Perhaps it is some friends who are dragging your down spiritually. There may be a person, or some people, in your life, with whom you will never be able to run a strong Christian life. You need to sever those ties so that you can run the race unhindered.
— it may be a love for the things of this world that is keeping you from really being totally committed to follow Christ with all your heart. You can’t run the Christian race and try to run to the things of the world at the same time. You need to put those goals aside; they are slowing you down, so that you can run after the Lord.
— Or it could even be something “good” that you are giving too much attention to, and it is taking your attention away from the race that God wants you to run. It could be a hobby, or watching too much television, or spending too much time on the internet; any number of things that are just slowing you down spiritually.
It may be one of these things, or perhaps something different entirely. If you give it some honest, thought, with the help of the Holy Spirit, you can probably identify what sin is “slowing you down” in your Christian race.
This verse says that sin “so easily” entangles us. It is easy to let something that someone says or does make us stumble. In this verse God commands us to “lay it aside.” For any number of us here today, the ONE thing we really need to take home is this: it is time to lay aside something that you know is slowing you down spiritually, so that you can run the Christian life in a more effective way.
II. Run With Endurance
“… and let us run with endurance …”
It is significant that the verse says “run with endurance” the race which is set before us. The Christian “race” is a race which must be run with ENDURANCE. Someone has well said, “The Christian life is not a sprint; it is a marathon.” How many people have set out to follow Christ, but have turned aside after some period of time? Or who have decided to really commit themselves to God, but didn’t keep up the commitment?
Jesus mentions this very thing in The Parable of the Soils in Matthew 13. He said that when the Gospel is “sown” into the world like seed, that some of it hits the road, and the birds devour it. But some of it finds thin soil, and it seems to sprout up quickly, but it withers quickly away. Jesus said that “plant” is like the person who hears the word and seems to receive it with joy, but just as quickly falls away when persecution or difficulty comes. That’s just another way of saying that the Christian life is not a “sprint”; it is a marathon. It is not how fast you go, but that you keep on going.
I have found that as I have taken back up running after I got POTS, sometimes I just have to slow down. My tendency is to want to go a little quicker than I can go right now, but if I do, I will not finish the 3 miles or whatever I am trying to do that day. But if I just make a conscious decision to slow down, take smaller steps, I may not go as quickly, but I can finish the course for the day.
The Christian life is somewhat like that. We are not called to “sprint” out of the starting gate.
— Jesus didn’t even start His earthly ministry until He was 30 years old.
— John the Baptist did basically the same thing.
— The disciples didn’t just listen to Jesus 1 or 2 times and then go out on their own; they discipled (basically interned) with Jesus for THREE YEARS before they began their ministries.
Rarely do we have that kind of patience. We live in a “microwave” generation. We want things done yesterday. But good things take time: it takes time to make a good meal; it takes time to craft a fine work of art; it takes time to grow a garden — there are no shortcuts for these things. But we think we can “microwave” our church, or our spiritual growth, and we can’t.
A.W. Tozer said, “I have often wished that there were some way to bring modern Christians into a deeper spiritual life painlessly by short easy lessons; but such wishes are vain. No shortcut exists! God has not bowed to our nervous haste nor embraced the methods of our machine age. It is well that we accept the hard truth now: the man who would know God must give time to Him! He must count no time wasted which is spent in the cultivation of His acquaintance. He must give himself to meditation and prayer hours on end. So did the saints of old, the glorious company of the apostles, the goodly fellowship of the prophets and the believing members of the holy Church in all generations. And so must we if we would follow in their train!”
In other words, there is no “short cut”; no “sprint” to the Christian life. You have to spend time, and keep at it for a length of time. This is a good word. For many of us as individuals, we need to just keep at the Christian life. “Run with endurance”. That means:
— getting up and having your quiet time in the morning when you don’t feel like it.
— it means keeping at the ministry God has given you, even when you don’t see it bearing fruit.
— it means continuing to follow The Lord, even when people have hurt you, or oppose you. You don’t let them discourage you and make you stop. You just keep on — sometimes with “baby steps” if necessary, to keep on going.
Someone has said, we tend to overestimate what we can do in a short period of time, and underestimate what we can do over a longer period of time, and I think that is true for us both as individuals, and as churches. Don’t think you have to do everything today; commit to doing a little at a time, and plug away at it until you get there — one step at a time. Don’t think the new pastor is going to fix things overnight; give him time, and be patient, and give him, and the consistent preaching and teaching of the word of God, and the slow but steady work of the Holy Spirit, time, and you will get where God wants you to be — in His time. But the key is: be patient, both with yourself, with others, and with the church. “Run with endurance” and do not give up in the mean time.
When I am running, sometimes I don’t see how I can finish the course ahead of me; the only thing I can do it just take “one more step” — just keep putting one foot in front of the other. And that’s what we have to do in the Christian life a lot of times too. You can’t think about next month, or next year, just keep on putting one foot in front of the other, and “run with endurance”!
III. Run The Race Which Is Set Before You
“… the race which is set before us …”
Perhaps this is a minor point, but I think it is an important one to mention: each of us has to run the race which God has set before us. In one sense, we are all running the same race: that of faithfulness to our calling to follow Christ. But in another sense we each have a particular race which God has set before US. We can’t run anyone else’s race; we can’t run the race we WISH we were running. We can only run the race which is set before us.We each have a different race. Mine is not yours; your is not mine; ours is different from others’. We each have our own race, the one which God has set before us.
Every believer has a race which is somewhat similar (following Jesus to the end) but which is also very unique to them:
— For example, I know of some believers in Vietnam who have set before them in their Christian lives a “race” against family who are persecuting them for believing in Jesus, and who are being pressured to register their secret churches with the government authorities. That is a difficult race — but that is also NOT the race which many of us face.
— We have heard of Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East who are being threatened with beheadings if they do not deny Christ. That is not the race which we face.
— But that is not to say that we don’t have our own race. We have “the race which is set before US.”
We have the race of trying to stay faithful in the midst of prosperity and affluence and ubiquitous entertainment and sensualism, which continually tempts us to turn away from following The Lord.
We have the race of continuing to follow even though we are discouraged by life events, or disappointed in people.
We have the race of staying zealous for the Lord even though we would be pressured to “keep a low profile”.
Some of us have the race of trying to serve God in the face of a spouse or family who is not supportive.
Others of us have the “race” of serving God with a different gift or ability than the one we wish we were given.
You might wish that circumstances could be changed, and that you could run a different race, but you can’t. THE ONLY RACE YOU CAN RUN IS THE ONE WHICH IS SET BEFORE YOU! So determine to run the race that is set before you, whatever it is, with all that God gives you. You are not going to be judged because you didn’t run someone else’s race. You are going to be judged by how you ran the one that God chose to set in front of YOU!
IV. Fix Your Eyes On Jesus
“… fixing our eyes on Jesus …”
The Bible says that in running the Christian race, we need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. This is important. I remember a lesson from drivers ed when I was a teenager: don’t look into the opposing headlights, because you tend to drift towards whatever you are looking at.
In that same vein, this scripture adjures us: “Fix your eyes on Jesus” — Look to Him; drift towards Him, and not anyone or anything else. This is another part of this scripture which applies to many of us today. “Fix your eyes on Jesus” …
— NOT on the next pastor. Don’t do that to him!
I saw a “meme” on Facebook this week that said, “The grass is not always greener with another pastor”! That’s true. Don’t lay too much on the shoulders of your next pastor. He is not going to be the “Messiah” or Savior for this church. JESUS is the Savior for this church! Fix your eyes on HIM, and ask HIM to do what only He can do for the church — through the pastor, and through people like you, in the power of His Holy Spirit.
— NOT on other people in the church, for better or for worse.
Sometimes we fix our eyes on bad people in the church. We see people who are inconsistent, or hypocritical, or selfish, or radical, or stuck in the mud, or whatever, and we let them turn us away from the church, or worse, from following Christ.
But other times we make the opposite, but just as wrong, mistake, of fixing our eyes on GOOD people in the church. We think, “Well, as long as so-and-so is here, we’ll be ok.” But what happens if they die, or leave, or move? I remember an old Amy Grant song from back when I was a youth, which said: “Say goodbye to the feelings, ’cause the feelings go away. Say goodbye to the people, ’cause the people never stay.” As the song went on to say, “We’ve go to be faith-walkin’ people …” with our eyes fixed on the Lord. If we fix our eyes on people — good ones or bad ones — we will be disappointed; we must fix our eyes on Jesus.
— don’t fix your eyes on yourself. “I can’t do this or that.” No, you probably can’t. But “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Paul couldn’t do those things on his own either, so he looked to the Lord to do what he himself couldn’t. This is a key to the Christian race: don’t fix your eyes on yourself, but on the Lord.
Pastors will disappoint you; church members will disappoint you; YOU will disappoint yourself; but if you fix your eyes on Jesus, He will not disappoint you. He is totally faithful; totally trustworthy; He will never leave you or forsake you; and He is absolutely glorious. He died on the cross to pay for your sin, and rose again to be your living Savior. He sits at the right hand of God where He intercedes for you right now with God, and He is coming again on the clouds of glory, and we will be enthralled with His glory in His presence forever and ever, and never tire of Him. Fix your eyes on HIM, Hebrews says.
When I was pastoring in Louisiana, our school had a mile run that each grade would do each year. The kids would train for it, and we had a big day where each class would run it for time. So for fun, and to encourage them, I would get out and run with each of the classes. (One year I ran with 13 different classes — I was sure glad there was a break in between each one!) But even with the training they did in gym class, it was very difficult for many of the kids. So I would pick out some kids who looked like they might need help, and run with them, and encourage them along the way. When they would struggle, I would run alongside them, and say, “Don’t stop; keep going; let’s just go slow.” And many times, they would be able to do it. Often, when we would turn the corner and approach the finish line on the last lap, they would think they were about to quit, and I would say, “You can’t stop now; we are almost there! Look up! There’s the finish line! Don’t look down on the ground. Look up at that banner; don’t take your eyes off of it, just run to it with all you have” — and they would almost always run strong to the finish line.
That is just what this author of Hebrews is doing. He’s saying, don’t let the things of this world drag you down. Don’t look at other people, or discouraging things — just keep your eyes fixed on Jesus — and RUN the race He has set before you until the day you meet Him!