Coming home from a yearly physical one year, Jessica asked me how the appointment went and if I was healthy or not. I said to her … “The doctor said I was as healthy as a Clydesdale ready to run the Kentucky Derby.” Now granted those weren’t the doctor’s exact words, but I had to have some fun with it. As you can tell by my physique, I’m not one who runs. Back in the day, like most boys, yeah, I used to run all the time. But now the only running I do is up and down the basketball court. And even then, I’m not running up and down the court each and every time. Sometimes it’s a slow, gasping for air kind of walk as I observe the 20 year olds sprinting around me.
As I watch our youth run for soccer, track, cross country and hear from them how they either enjoy it or don’t think much of it, I can’t help but think of how crazy they are. But even though I may think their nuts, even though I don’t like to run … our reading from Hebrews 12 this morning says, “Let us run with perseverance the race set out before us” (12:1b).
“Let us run … the race set out before us.” When we think about running a race, we typically think about a competitive event like track or cross country or a marathon which has a starting line and finish line. The whole point of having a race is to see who is the fastest, to see who can cross the finish line first, to see how many people you can beat, to see if you can improve your time. As Christians, you and I are called to run, to run the race which is set out before us.
Now granted, the race the author of this letter to the Hebrews is talking about is not running around the track or through a golf course at a cross country meet. This race is a spiritual one, it’s a life of faith. And in this race which you and I are involved in, you cannot improve your position by hindering others on the course. There’s no throwing of elbows, there’s no hoping that the person in front of you is going to trip over their own feet or over a rock sticking up on the path. There’s none of that kind of stuff because this race isn’t about you competing against someone else. In this race, in this life of faith, if we are competing against anyone, it’s ourselves.
“Let us run with perseverance the race set out before us.” You know, if I’m told I have to run somewhere, I’ve got some questions which need to be answered first. Questions like, why? Where are we going? Where’s the finish line? Who am I going against? What’s the prize at the end? Is this going to be worth it? These are the same kind of questions we can ask of our spiritual race as well.
So where are we going? “Let us run with perseverance the race set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfector of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). We’re running toward Jesus, which is easier said than done. Jesus says in our gospel reading, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door” (Luke 13:24). Notice He didn’t say the super wide door that automatically opens as you approach, He didn’t say to pick the prettiest or most masculine looking door, He didn’t say to pick whatever door floats your boat. No, there is only one door, one door which will lead you to a blessed eternal life. There is only one door, a narrow door, and that door is Jesus (John 10:9). So where are we going? We’re going to Jesus and an eternal Kingdom to live with Him and all the saints forever and ever.
So, “Let us run with perseverance the race set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfector of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). “Let us run.” Hold on a second, that sounds like something I need to do. But I thought I was saved by grace through faith and that this was not from me, but was a gift from God? (Ephesians 2:8). If I’m united to Christ by faith, then why must I strive, why must I run when my faith must be placed on Christ’s striving, on Christ’s doing and not my own? Why run the race when grace tells me that I receive God’s riches at Christ’s expense, that Jesus will carry me right over the finish line if I simply believe? That doesn’t seem to make sense.
Well let me see if I can straighten this out for us. There’s a young man who said that he was a Christian, though he was not prepared to live a Christian life, because, he reasoned, being a Christian hinges on what you believe and not on what you do. And actually, he’s right in a sense. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, right after he explained about the free gift of God’s grace (Romans 5:21) and how all sins are forgiven without any cost to us, Paul raises the obvious question which must have been on everyone’s mind. “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning that grace my increase” (Romans 6:1), that grace may abound? If any sin can be forgiven for Christ’ sake, then why not sin all the more and be forgiven all the more? As one man rhetorically jokes, “I like to sin; He likes to forgive: It’s a perfect arrangement.”
But Paul goes on to explain why this is impossible for the Christian, impossible for the one who died to sin in baptism and is now raised to walk in a new life. This is what the young man didn’t understand. Yes, sins are forgiven. But with forgiveness comes this regeneration, this change of the human heart. The prophet Ezekiel says, “And I will give you a new heart, a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (36:26).
So this young man’s problem was not his logic, it was not his mind … it was his heart. He said he was a Christian, but his heart was elsewhere. His heart was not moved and motivated by the real voice of God and by the presence of God. This young man was not owning the truth that he belonged to another kingdom. Another kingdom with a different ruler. And there is an ethic to this kingdom. “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10).
So why strive to do the work we can’t do well enough when Christ has already done it on our behalf? One reason really. The narrow door. The narrow door is the door of faith where all our hopes and destiny are centered in Christ. Good works and a good life will not advance us towards that goal. Bad works and a rebellious life, they will hold us back because they are destructive. Our reading says, “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely” (Hebrews 12:1). This extra weight, these sins … they hold us back, they weigh us down.
In other words, faith needs exercise. Faith is not something which be tucked away in some remote corner and then pulled out on Sunday mornings for an hour or so. It’s not to be tucked away and then pulled out when there is a crisis and we find we can’t manage it without faith. Faith, if it is to be alive, it needs to be active as it takes us through this constant cycle of repenting of our sins and then being renewed. This image of a race is intentional. It’s one of vitality and effort. This race … it’s not easy. It’s like we’re constantly running uphill and against the wind.
With all this struggling, with all the heartache and pain … is it even worth it? Wouldn’t it be easier to sit back and be a spectator? What prize is there for us?
In the heart of the pain, in the very middle of the tireless struggle … it may seem easier to give up, to throw in the towel. In the heart of the pain, in the very middle of the struggle, Jesus even asked, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me” (Luke 22:42). But knowing what needed be to done Jesus said, “yet not my will, but yours be done.” This is the thing, Jesus knows what your struggle is, He knows the pain your feeling, He knows the burden it places on your life. The writer of our text knows this too. He says back in chapter 4, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (4:15). Jesus knows exactly what you are going through.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith” who have gone before us, “let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the originator and perfecter our faith.” And notice this next part, “Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the pace of honor beside God’s throne” (Hebrews 12:1-2 NLT). Because of the joy of giving you forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life with God in a kingdom where there are no more struggles, Jesus went to the cross. He wasn’t happy about it. He knew it was going to be hard, that it was going to be excruciating, but He suffered the misery and shame anyway so that you can be with Him.
As I said last week, you and I … we have been given a precious gift of faith. It is far more than wishful thinking … it’s a trust in the Words and actions of a Savior and it’s a hope in the promise of an eternal city, an eternal life in the presence of our eternal Savior. Keep on running in faith, for Jesus has crossed the finish line. And on the other side, He calls you to finish in His strength. Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord, now and forever. Amen.