Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Creston, Iowa;
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-3, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Perseverance isn’t a word you hear much of these days. Oh, you might have heard some about it in reference to the Olympic athletes, especially those long distance runners. Here St. Paul tells us to run a race with perseverance. Perseverance implies pain and sacrifice. That “no pain; no gain” attitude, pushing on no matter what. That’s the attitude we love to talk about when it comes to sports. We always admire the football player who perseveres through the pain and plays hurt because his teammates depend on him. He endures for the sake of something greater. We admire the Marathon runners who collapse at the end of their grueling jaunt, and those guys who play water polo. It’s hard to imagine treading water that long, but they endure and more because the love the game and they want to win. Now even though we admire perseverance athletes, and we even strive for some ourselves in our own personal “training” goals, somehow, even though we like to talk about it, even though we admire it in athletes, it doesn’t seem to carry over to our spiritual lives. But that’s the race Paul is talking about in our text. He’s talking about persevering, enduring in a spiritual race. That’s a little different from what we usually want to hear at church. That’s usually not what we want to hear from God, either. We’d really like the quick fix, 10 fast and easy steps to a more meaningful life. We come to worship expecting to feel God’s presence right now; expecting God to give to us what we want for good living. “God, I want patience, and I want it now.” “God, if you love me, take away my pain, now… heal me now… save my spouses life now…” When it comes to spiritual perseverance, spiritual endurance we fall pretty short of the mark.
And so Paul’s words to us today are about spiritual perseverance. He knows where we are. He saw it in the Christians he wrote to. He knew it was common among those congregations he founded. I guess people then were just as sports minded as they are today. Paul must have known because he used this illustration that most of us can relate to. One that is even fresh in the minds of those how’ve lingered in front of the gray glow late into the night, to see the Loral leaves placed on US athletes and national anthems played. Paul is telling us how to endure in the most important race of our lives. The spiritual race; the eternal race; the one we dare not fail.
He starts out by telling us we are not alone. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. If you’ve been watching the Olympics you’ve seen the crowds play an active part. You’ve been in the stands a an important football or basketball game. Paul wants to call that picture to our minds. He says there’s a great cloud of witnesses all around us. You know how the crowd can affect an athlete. Boos and cat-calls make it difficult to do your best. Cheers and screams of encouragement give an extra boost of confidence. In Paul’s day the crowds were the same. The people around didn’t just witness the event, they participated in it. And yet, Paul’s great crowd isn’t standing around looking on at our race. The crowd that he’s revealing to us is the ones who have already run the race. They have gone before, they have finished already. They are not standing around watching us run, but by their example they have shown the right way to run. Paul wants us to remember that we run on the same track, we participate in the same trials; we suffer the same pain, and need the same perseverance and endurance as they did. In spite of it all they ran in faith that the promises of God were true. In fact, they ran as if the promises of were a reality even though they had to suffer. They ran through the pain. They show us that even when all seems lost, when the pain is too great to continue on, that perseverance comes from Jesus. We keep our eyes on him and run anyway. You know about some of the other faithful runners, that’s what we learn about in Sunday school. Just think faithful athletes like David, who struggled with sin just as we do, who endured even though his sinful nature threatened him. When he fell into sin with Bathsheba, when he committed adultery, he saw his sin and repented and turned to God for forgiveness. And even though he lived with the pain of death over and over again in his family, God called him a man after his own heart. David endured because he knew that God promised a Savior from sin. He depended on that Savior to remove his sin. And then there’s Moses, who gave God’s laws to God’s people. Yet, he, himself, was guilty of breaking them. He disobeyed God in anger and lost the promise to enter into the Promised Land for himself. But he persevered and brought the people to the Jordan River. And there were others, many, many more who ran. Remember the endurance of Shadrack, Meshack and Abednigo who faced death in the fiery furnace, because they wouldn’t pray to Nebuchadnezzar as god. But, God saved them from certain death and literally stood with them and protected them in the fire. On and on the list goes… And the list of witnesses that Paul is talking about even includes faithful runners who used to sit right here with us. They also ran with perseverance facing pain, and sickness, and even death. They had trouble in their lives because of sin. But they ran through the pain. All of them had one thing in common and without it they would have all failed, they would have all quit. The one thing they had in common was Jesus. He was the goal that they ran towards. He placed the Laurel leaves of victory on their heads when they finished. Paul’s point is that we are not alone, we run just as they ran. We know the race can be finished. We have many examples to prove it.
Jesus, too, ran a race of perseverance. In fact he is our best example of one who ran the race. He ran His race of pain and suffering for us. He saved us from our sinful course in life. He is not only our rescuer, but also the author and perfector of our faith. That means that he gives us the faith that we need to run. That means he gives strength to continue when the race gets difficult. It is faith that sustains us as we struggle against the world that would have us forget Jesus. It is faith that gives us the strength to endure against the painful attacks of Satan. It is faith the keeps our eyes on Our Savior even in the face of temptations from our own sinful flesh.
We can endure in all this because our every weight, and sin which clings so closely was carried by Jesus in His race for us. He runs carrying our sins, our failures, our selfishness, our trouble and pain. His race is a race to the death. Its finish line is a bloody death on the cross. He spent His whole life running toward that goal, looking to that prize. Not because He enjoyed the pain, but because He loves us more. He removes our burden of sin so that we can run, and shed every weight and sin that clings so closely, and run burden free, keeping our focus on Him, drawing our strength from Him. He becomes the perfect example, running the race for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. And victory that he won, is our victory. You know how marathon runners douse themselves with water from bottles given them as they run? It removes the sweat and cools them off. Baptism is our dousing. Only baptism does more than remove a little road grime. Baptism connects us directly with Jesus race. When that water is poured on to us we are connected to Jesus life, his whole life. And just as he persevered, just as he ran through the pain, it is his promise to us he will give us what we need to run too. And even more than that, his victory is our victory. Jesus’ death and his resurrection over death that makes his race perfect. And baptism is God’s promise to us that our race will end just as his did. Just when all seems lost and we close our eyes in death, we will open them to see Jesus.
For us now even though He has finished the race for us, we still have training to do. Any race requiring perseverance requires training. Just like any coach who pushes his athletes to perform better, Jesus does the same for us. Just like a father who disciplines his children, so does Jesus also. In fact, He shows us His great love through that discipline. Actually, the pain and trouble that God allows along the way are a blessing. After all, what would happen if God never corrected us when we strayed from the course? What would happen if we were never chastised for our errors? What would happen if God didn’t use the strong hammer of His word to point out our guilt? We’d never finish at all. We’d be lost in our sin. We’d be sitting on the side of the track, comfortable-ly lost. But God is our Heavenly Father. He loves and cares for us more than we can know. That’s why Paul could write these words to the Roman church:
More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5, ESV)
The race that we’ve been given to run isn’t always an easy one. But the outcome is assured. The victory is ours. We will finish and even more than that we have the victory. It’s been assured to us by Jesus’ victory, even though from our point of view the race sometimes seems lost. We suffer failure, pain, sorrow, and loss. Perseverance isn’t easy. But God’s promises to us are true. Jesus has run a perfect race. He bore all our pain and suffering on the cross. He gained our victory and he gives it to us freely. He gives us all that we need to endure, to persevere in the race. We run with the great crowd of witnesses, with our eyes fixed on Jesus, in him we persevere. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds and eyes on Christ Jesus. Amen.