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 12:1-2
What a year 2008 has been! Gas at $4.00 a gallon, economic meltdown, government bailouts, political mega-change, terrorism in Mumbai, war in the Middle East, Hurricanes Gustav and Ike in Texas, tornadoes in the South, wildfires in California, floods in the Midwest, Cyclone Nargis killing thousands in Myanmar, thousands of Christians persecuted by Hindu extremists in India – plus the personal crises in our own lives that don’t make the headlines but do make a lifelong impact. When a tornado destroyed a dorm at Union University in Jackson this past spring, one of the students trapped under three tons of debris later said, “Someone outside reached out and grabbed my hand. It felt like life had been given back to me.” That’s why we’re in church today. Someone outside is reaching out and grabbing our hand and giving life back to us, so that we can run the race of 2009 magnificently.
That’s the metaphor in our passage – a marathon race. We don’t know what 2009 will hold for us, but the course we’re going to run has been set by God: “. . . the race that is set before us.” Our part is to run our course in 2009 by faith. Nobody wins a marathon by drifting. People win marathons by staying focused. A marathon isn’t easy. If it were, it wouldn’t mean anything. People don’t get trophies for sitting around. And God has set before us a race to run and a prize to win. It isn’t easy. It isn’t meant to be. But it’s worth everything. Let’s think that through together.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…
In chapter 11 the author gives us a guided tour of the biblical Hall of Fame. We see Abraham and Sarah and Moses and others. Year in and year out, their lives counted for something. Their lives made a statement. When we look back at these people, what are we compelled to say? One thing. They lived by faith.
What then does it mean to live by faith? It’s more than some people think. The author says that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). In other words, faith feels – assurance and conviction are deep feelings – faith feels and knows that there is a good, strong answer to this question: Is my life worth living? Is my race worth running? The answer is Yes. Why? Not because of what my life is right now but because of what my life will be forever. What makes any race worth running? The prize at the end. The marathon runner doesn’t see the finish line and the prize until very near the end of the race. But he has an assurance and a conviction of two things: one, the prize is there; two, it’s worth the effort. Even so, God has promised us a great reward. It’s real. It’s waiting for us. It’s not far away. Therefore, what we’re living for, the real meaning of our lives, lies in what we don’t have now and what we can’t see now, things that only God can give us in eternity. If I would be devastated and emptied and hollowed out by the loss of my present blessings, then I’m not living by faith, no matter how much I may thank God for my present blessings. But if my heart is drawn on to eternal things promised in the gospel, if I am measuring this life by rewards I will never see in this life, then I’m living by faith.
When God says to us, “I want you to risk everything on my promises, I want you to live by faith in a future you can’t see yet, he is not asking us to sacrifice our happiness; he is asking us to stop sacrificing our happiness. He is asking us to connect our happiness with things not yet seen, because those unseen things are in fact the only happiness that works – and not only out in the future but even right now. No matter how much we gain in this life, if it’s going to be taken away, we can never relax. But God has so much more for us out in eternity, and how we feel about that and what we do with that right now before we get our hands on it means everything to God. “Without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists [he is real] and that he rewards those who seek him [he is rewarding]” (11:6). God is so pleased when he sees this in us. He is so pleased to see in us a practical faith that he is real and rewarding, beyond all this world, so that we seek him and run toward him as the goal of this life. But it is impossible to please God by drifting with our culture. Nearly everything in our culture is geared to get you to stop running the race and pull off to the side and settle down watching their flat screen TV and eating their snack foods and losing your opportunity at life while they take your money and go off to their vacation in Bermuda. That is not living by faith, not on anybody’s part. But that is how the world works, and God wants to free us from all this fraudulence. That’s why he is calling us to live by faith. Living by faith means treating God as a better reward that all this world. And when we do, we find him to be better than all this world. We experience him that way. Jesus said, “According to your faith be it done for you” (Matthew 9:29). Are you living by faith?
The wonderful thing is, we don’t have to deserve this. The people in Hebrews 11 didn’t deserve it. Do you see how chapter 11 doesn’t focus on their many failings? Rahab the prostitute is one of the heroes in chapter 11. Why? Because what mattered most about them and what matters most about us is not sin but faith. We don’t live by avoiding sin; we live by prizing and seeking God. The most important question about you is not “Do you sin?” but “Does your lifestyle treat God as more real and more rewarding than all this world?” God has promised us a better country and a heavenly home (11:13-16), lasting pleasures (11:25) and greater wealth (11:26). That is our future, freely given in Christ. As we run toward those unseen treasures that only God can give, not dawdle but run there – that’s how we prove today that we too are living by faith.
We look at the people in chapter 11, and every one of them is bearing witness that this race can be run. We’re surrounded by these people, the passage says. It’s as if the ones who’ve already finished their race, instead of going to sit down and relax, are now lining the track as we run by. And they’re cheering us on and saying, “Keep going. We made it, and you can too. He’s worth it. Just don’t quit.” And looking at what they went through (11:35b-38), you and I can never say, “Right now in my sorry life God is asking too much of me. This race is unrunnable.” We can never say that, because all these witnesses – not a few superhuman standouts here and there but a great cloud of ordinary people like us – their lives prove that God is able to strengthen us and motivate us all the way to the finish line. If we do feel so overwhelmed that the race feels unrunnable, then maybe we need to think about this next phrase:
…let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely…
What are we supposed to do, in order to run the race of faith through this world? Two things. The first is, simplify our lives. “Let us also lay aside every weight.” Today we think a lot about weight loss, especially after Christmas. When runners get ready for a race, they strip off everything that won’t help them run well. They’re not asking, “How can I hold on to as much possible and still stumble along?” They’re asking, “How much can I get rid of?” Even so, faith does not ask, “How much of my life can remain unchanged as I go into 2009?” Faith asks, “How can I run like the wind with this new opportunity God is giving?” It’s a very personal question, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer. But what are those few, glorious, God-centered things you long to accomplish before you die? And how does 2009 fit into that plan? Well, how are you going to change, for it to start happening and gain velocity in your life? We know from The Lord of the Rings how important it is to throw away that precious thing that has too great a hold on us. It is freeing to simplify our lives – how we spend our time, the TV we watch or don’t watch, how we use our money, how we go after new relationships. Faith asks, “What okay things in my life are just unhelpful?” Even non-sinful things can hold us down. Jim Elliot said, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.” Faith forsakes okay things, in order to get lean. What do you need to get rid of as you go into 2009, so that your heart can be free to seek God and to help others seek God? “Let us also lay aside every weight.”
“. . . and sin which clings so closely.” What is that favorite souvenir sin, the most darling one of all, that slows you down? Sin promises to be the high-octane added ingredient to supercharge our lives. But the truth is, sin is a drag. There is no sin you and I have ever committed that made our hearts lighter. The prize we’re running for is so great, no sin is worth hanging on to. We don’t need to go into 2009 dragging our 2008 sins along with us. The Bible says, “God will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19). If that’s what God does with all our sins through the cross, won’t we let them sink out of our sight into the depths of his grace? The more you put yourself under the law, ironically, the more you bind yourself to your sins. Believe the gospel of God’s grace to you, and you can change, you can lay aside that clinging sin. You can enter into this new year as a new person in Christ, and you’ll be unstoppable.
…let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…
Here is the second thing God wants us to do, to run the race of faith. Off-loading weights and sins is only preparation. Let’s also get on the track and run the race. Let’s accomplish the task God has set before us. Others have. Now it’s our turn. The baton is in our hands. We’re going to pass it on to the next generation very soon. By now, many of us don’t have far to run. I checked the actuarial tables at the Social Security website, and they tell me I have maybe 21 more years to live. That’s nothing. 21 years ago – 1987 – seems like yesterday. My race is nearly run, and I still have work to do. So do you. It comes down to how we use this new year of grace 2009, one day at a time. Laying aside the weights and sins – that was a call to repentance. “Let us run with endurance” is a call to faith. Let us run – not drift, not waste 2009 without focus and accomplishment. 2009 is a gift from God, an unrepeatable opportunity for faith to translate the moments of time into the rewards of eternity. Weakness doesn’t disqualify us; being tired doesn’t disqualify us; the only disqualifier is quitting the race and settling down into the fraudulence of this world. Jesus is waiting for us out there at the finish line. Let’s see him there. He isn’t far away. What are we waiting for? 2010? Why is that better than now? If we don’t use our now well, why should he give us his then?
…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith…
Literally, it says, “Looking away to Jesus” – looking away from our present surroundings and fixing our eyes on something beyond. We can only focus on one thing at a time. If we’ll fix our eyes on Jesus, we will go the distance. Every other focus is energy-depleting. But Jesus began our faith, and he will complete our faith. We’ve all stumbled many times, and we’ll keep stumbling in 2009. But we don’t run this race on our own. Even our faith comes from Christ, and he is committed to us. When you are weak, he is still strong. When you fail, look to him and he will help you get back in the race. He performed a miracle to get you going, and he will sustain you by his power all the way to the end. And here is the emotional fuel to keep us going:
…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.
What kept Jesus going when he was running his race through this world? The joy that was set before him. When he was whipped, when the nails were pounded into his hands and feet, when the crown of thorns was driven into his scalp and the spear into his side – when all this was being done to him, he was thinking about something. He kept it before his mind’s eye. He had a way to keep saying Yes to the will of God, moment by moment, whatever happened. What was it? What could he see by faith? “The joy set before him.” He didn’t just gut it out. A joy was set before him.
Jesus lived by faith too. His divine nature didn’t give him a free ride. He humbled himself down to the level of our non-advantaged experience. He ran his race the same way we run ours – by looking beyond the pain of the moment into the joy of the future. And what was the joy that meant so much to Jesus? It was the thought of you and me, fully redeemed, with him in eternity. He could see it out ahead, by faith. And for him, that was no meager joy. It was so massive, so happy, he endured the cross. So now we know. We know how to get free and really live. There is a joy greater than all this world. Let’s savor it by faith in God’s promises. We can even treat our crucifiers as our future joy, because God will use us to save some of them.
In The Possessed, Dostoevsky told us what’s at stake for us in having something infinitely great to live for:
The one essential condition of human existence is that man should always be able to bow down before something infinitely great. If men are deprived of the infinitely great they will not go on living and will die of despair. The Infinite and the Eternal are as essential for man as the little planet on which he dwells.
In America today, despair can feel comfortable. Have you ever thought, “I feel like getting in the car and driving out onto the interstate and I think I’ll just keep going. Hey, I have a credit card. And I’m so sad, so disappointed, what’s the point of trying any more? Anything has to be better than this” – have you ever thought that way? When our thoughts go there, what does the gospel say to us? The gospel does not say, “Don’t do that. What would everybody think?” The gospel does not say, “Don’t do that. You’ll be such a loser.” The gospel says, “Jesus found the joy you long for, and he knows how you can find it. It’s at the end of the race you’re running right now. Don’t quit. It isn’t easy. And some people may think you look stupid. But Jesus Christ is a joy big enough to satisfy you forever. And there is no other joy anywhere.”
Think about it. All the depressing powers of evil came down on Jesus at the cross, and they lost. He absorbed all our evil and despair into himself, and gave back love and hope. So God raised him from the dead and seated him on an eternal throne. Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth is given to me” (Matthew 28:18). Jesus is in the control room of the universe right now, moving everything toward his final victory. And if we will look to him as all our hope, he will lead us and protect us and provide for us and forgive us all the way to our finish line. He didn’t fail one person in Hebrews 11, including Rahab the prostitute, and he’s not about to fail you now. This world will fail you and disappoint you and break you. But every promise of God will come true for everyone who chooses him as their North Star through the darkness of this world.
One year from now, if we aren’t already in heaven, what will we say as we look back on 2009? Here are some things we won’t say about 2009. “Jesus forgave most of our sins, but not every single one.” “That place he said he was preparing for us in heaven – he feels bad about this, but the slow economy has put the project way behind, and in fact he can no longer guarantee anything. But he’s hopeful!” “You know, the world was right about faith – it’s only a little religious garnish on the side of the American Dream, and no way is it worth sacrificing for. Right now is all we have.” I don’t think we’ll end up having to say those things. Here is the only question about 2009. A year from now, will we describe the race we’ve run with words like focused, joyous, faith-driven, eternally significant? There is no reason at all why we can’t live 2009 that way every day. Jesus will help us the same way he has helped so many before. Let’s adios those non-essentials, let’s keep our eyes firmly fixed on Jesus, and let’s run, let’s run to win, let’s have fun running, let’s run together.