As most of you know I’m a runner and have been one for about 20 years. I don’t run as fast or as far as I used to but when my schedule permits I still get in about 20 miles a week. Over the years I have run in half a dozen races. I’ve never won or even come close to winning—but I always finish—perhaps hours after everyone else—but I finish.
One of the things that interests me about races is looking at all the things runners do in order to stay in the running. For example: In the minutes before the starting gun fires, they make sure their shoe strings are inserted in their shoes in a way that they won’t come untied. And—speaking of shoes—I’ve noticed runners all have their preferences. Some prefer gel soles. Others like air as a cushion in their shoes. Some wear shoes that look like feet. Runners also wear the right clothing. When I was in high school people ran with heavy sweatshirts on—but these days the preferred running garb is made of a light wicking material—because unlike sweatshirts that get heavier as you run—this wicking stuff pulls the sweat away from your body. And—as a professional sweater I like that. Some runners carry water bottles on a special belt—others wear a camel on their back to re-hydrate. I just drink whatever the race provides. Well, I could go on because there are all sorts of running tips out there.
The reason I bring this up is because in the 12th chapter of Hebrews the writer compares the Christian life to a race. In so doing he gives wonderful wisdom as to how to stay in the running when it comes to the lifelong marathon we all run toward Christlikeness. In the interest of time I’ll only read the first six verses but keep your Bibles open to chapter 12.
1 – 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 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.
4 – In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.
5 – And—have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when He rebukes you,
6 – because the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and He chastens everyone He accepts as His son.”
Okay—here’s the first “running tip” the writer gives us.
(1) Learn from the RUNNERS who have run BEFORE you.
This first tip brings to mind an 8k race I ran in a few years ago. I was about a mile from the finish line and was losing steam fast. Then I saw up in front a guy much older than me with a huge pot belly zooming on as he neared the finish line. I mean this forerunner had a great final kick. I told myself, “If he can do it I can.” So I picked up my pace. He still beat me but I did run faster! Well, it is the same in the Christian life. When we feel discouraged—when we feel like dropping out of the race—we need to remember the Christians who served our Lord before us. We need to remember all the people who have gone before us—all the people who didn’t give up—the people who have already crossed the finish line. We need to remember how they ran the race. That will inspire us to stay in the running.
Look at verse 1 where it says, “Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses…let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Now, you need to understand—there are two Greek words for “cloud.” One is “nephele” and it means a small detached, sharply outlined cloud. The other is the word “nephos” and it means a MASS of cloud.
Well, this is the word the writer uses here. Referring to the heroes of the faith in the last chapter—and countless others like them—he says that the people who have—in faith—followed God are so numerous that you cannot see the end of them. They are like a great mass of clouds which covers the whole sky.
This is an important principle for us to hear—for so often we feel like we are all alone in our attempts to live in obedience to God. At times we can become like the prophet Elijah and crawl into our caves of discouragement and say, “Lord, I’m the only one who is really following you. I am the only one who is keeping the faith.” Well, the writer of Hebrews would respond, “No—that is not so. You are not alone when you choose to align your life with God.”
As we watch the news and it makes us feel like faith has NOT overcome the world we need to remember the picture painted in this text from Hebrews—we need to remember the mighty host with whom we hold fellowship every time we serve in God’s name. It is indeed a multitude that no one can number.
In fact, let’s take a moment to consider the cloud of witnesses surrounding us! There is Peter and John who stood before the Sanhedrin saying, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than God, you be the judge—for we cannot stop speaking what we have seen and heart.” (Acts 4:19) There is Deacon Stephen. Remember him? As he was being stoned to death for his faith he said, “Look, I see Heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God…Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Acts 7) Remember one of the early church fathers—a guy named Polycarp—in the coliseum of Rome with the voice of the emperor crying out, “Polycarp, renounce your Christ or you shall die!” and hear Polycarp respond, “Caesar, accept my Christ and you shall live!” See John Bunyan in a prison for his faith declaring, “I am determined, God being my helper and shield, to stay here until moss grows over my eyebrows rather than surrender my faith.”
Don’t ever think you are alone when you are on God’s side. You’re not! Millions have faced the same pressures and obstacles you do and with God’s help they kept going. You can too! I remember attending the PROMISE KEEPERS rally on the mall in D.C. years ago and the thing that most hit me that day was not the audible sermons but the visual one. I mean, men of faith stretched as far as the eye could see. It was indeed a “great cloud of witnesses.” Listen. When we walk by faith and not by sight we join the procession Christians from every age who have believed that God is and that it is worthwhile to serve Him no matter what the cost.
One of them was a man named Thomas Bilney. In 1531 he was burned at the stake because he was convinced that every person should read the Scriptures. Watching in the crowd was a man named Hugh Latimer. Latimer looked at Bilney and decided he wanted to find out about something a man would die for. Hugh Latimer ended up becoming a Christian and eventually became an archbishop. Then Bloody Mary came to the throne, and many more Christians were martyred. Hugh Latimer was one of those, as was his co-worker and friend Archbishop Ridley. When they were being burned at the stake, Latimer looked at Ridley and said, “Be of good cheer, Master Ridley. Today we shall light a flame in England that no one will be able to put out.”
Where do you think Hugh Latimer got that kind of courage? Let me tell you. He got it because every time he closed his eyes he saw Bilney burning at the stake and praising God. We must never forget the faith of Christians in the past. You will be surprised at what it will do for you in the present—and the future. Their courage—their “here I stand, I will never stop following Jesus” attitudes provide tons of inspiring models for us to emulate. So—learn from the runners who have gone before you!
Here at Redland we have our own great cloud of witnesses—Christians who served Jesus faithfully down through our 50-year history. The way they “ran” — the way they worked hard to reach the lost — the way they served the needy—they faith they had to grow this church—is a wonderful inspiration for us all!
Here’s the second “running tip” the writer gives us.
(2) Get rid of any HINDRANCE.
Look at verse 1 again: “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.” Now—in the first century when runners came to the stadium where the Olympic Games were being held they would enter wearing long, flowing, colorful robes—
—kind of like the big processional we see today before the Olympic Games with all the various colorful uniforms. Well at the first Olympics at the last minute, right before the race began, these runners would suddenly disrobe and you would find all their robes lying all around the starting line. In fact, many runners in the 1st century ran in not much more than their birthday suit because they didn’t want anything to impede them as they ran. Well in the Christian life—we have things that impede us and slow us down.
First there is outright sin—and as the writer says, it does so easily entangle us. It can stop the race of the strongest runner—it can cause any Christian to stop in his or her tracks. About 30 years ago I took a group of senior adults—you know people about my age—to Longwood Gardens. We had a great time and as a thank you one of those wonderful saints gave me a Venus Fly Trap. I put it on my desk and kept a close watch on it but I was never able to see it get a fly, perhaps because I fed it hamburger—but that’s what these plants do. They catch flies and consume them.
Listen to a description of how these amazing plants work:
“A fly lands on one of its leaves to taste one of the glands that grow there. Instantly three crimson-tipped, finger-like hairs bend over and touch the fly’s wings, holding it firm in a sticky grasp. The fly struggles mightily to get free, but the more it struggles, the more hopelessly it is coated with adhesive. Soon the fly relaxes, but to its fly-mind things could be worse because it extends its tongue and feasts on the sundew’s sweetness while it is held even more firmly by still more sticky tentacles. When the captive is entirely at the plant’s mercy, the edges of the leaf fold inward, forming a closed fist. Two hours later the fly is an empty sucked skin, and the hungry fist unfolds its delectable mouth for another easy entanglement.”
I share this because it’s a picture of the way sin works. I mean sin looks good—it entices—but before we know it we’ve stopped running altogether while sin sucks the spiritual life out of us.
Please note—the phrase here says, “THE sin that so easily entangles.” It refers to a SPECIFIC sin or sins that we are most likely to commit—the sin that most easily gets us in its grip. Some translations call it a “besetting sin” but it refers to our “favorite” sins as individuals—our unique weaknesses—those areas where we are most likely to be entangled. Well, what is your “besetting sin?” What is your Achilles heel as a Christian? Is it sensuality or dishonesty? Is it envy or laziness? Is it pride or ingratitude? Is it gossip or sewing dissension? Well, the writer says—whatever it is—get rid of it—like the robes of the first Olympic runners, strip it off and leave it behind.
But the writer doesn’t just refer to sins—he talks about “hindrances” and that’s different. You see a hindrance might not be a sin outright. A hindrance is something, otherwise good, that weighs you down spiritually. It could be a friendship, a habit, a pleasure, an entertainment. But it slows you down on your run toward Christlikeness. It fills your calendar so you don’t have time to join God in His work. Like ankle weights it slows you down in your progress toward Christlikeness.
To illustrate this principle let me ask you a question. Have you ever heard of the term “splashed?” I’m not referring to what happens at the end of a ball game when the coach is dowsed with Gatorade. No—this is something that used to happen in a football team’s locker room. I believe it started with the Chicago Bears back in the 90’s. Here’s how it works. The smaller defensive backs and huge defensive linemen engage in a good-natured but weighty battle of intimidation. Following an exchange of verbal assaults, the big guys try to circle and isolate one of the little guys. Most of the time the small defensive backs were able to get away because they are faster than their weightier team mates—but if they are captured they pay a heavy price—literally. For example, years ago defensive back David Tate, who weighed 180lbs was splashed.
He was dropped to the ground and the 300lb William “Refrigerator” Perry piled on top of him.
Then 270lb Richard Dent, 275lb Dan Hampton, and 270lb Steve McMichael jumped on top—that’s 1115 pounds of pain. So—once you’ve been splashed you avoid it at all costs!
Well, many of us allow ourselves to get “splashed” in life—splashed by too many good things—we get crushed under too many obligations—many of them good—but it stops our progress. It pins us to the floor spiritually. To stay in the running, we must not let this happen. We must get rid of any hindrance—anything that keeps us from making progress spiritually. Remember busy-ness can be a bad thing! Here’s a third tip.
(3) Remember your COACH’S training.
Look at verses 5-6 again where it says, “And—have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when He rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one He loves–and He chastens everyone He accepts as His son.”
In the same way that a runner must remember the things his coach taught him—as we proceed on the journey toward Christlikeness we must remember the things God has put in His Word.
One of my favorite writers was Ron Mehl. You may remember my using his book The Tender Commandments a few years back in our study of the Decalogue. Before he died of Leukemia, Ron lovingly wrote a book for his sons. It’s entitled After-Words, and in it he included chapters filled with wisdom about how to deal with money; chapters about the importance of keeping God first, about how to find a spouse—a chapter about forgiveness, etc. This father wanted his sons to remember the things he taught them as they grew up. Mehl knew these lessons would be invaluable as they sought to grow as Christians. Well, our Heavenly Father has done the same for us in giving us the Bible and the writer of Hebrews exhorts us to read this Book of Books. As I said in an earlier sermon on Hebrews—knowing the Bible helps us stay on course—it helps us not drift away.
Well, part of the coaching advice the writer reminds us of in God’s book is the fact that God disciplines us when we need it. Many times the discipline we need to stay in the running is painful—and in those times we need to remember that this is a sign that God loves us. Look at verses 9-11: “We have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in His holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”
John White was a missionary doctor for many years. He died in 2002. In his book Eros Redeemed, he tells of a time when his son Scott was injured while they were on the mission field.
He writes: “When my son Scott was just learning to walk, he fell on a cement driveway and split the area below his chin so deeply that the floor of his mouth was exposed. Hospitals and doctors were 250 kilometers away over tortuous mountain roads. I had no surgical instruments with me. A quick catalog of our resources turned up a less-than-impressive array of one darning needle, coarse thread, one pair of rather blunt scissors, and a pair of eyebrow tweezers. Infection in children develops rapidly and infection in the floor of the mouth can have fatal complications. We also had a little sulfonamide powder. There was no local anesthetic. Rightly or wrongly, I decided to trim and stitch the wound with what we had. We sterilized ‘the instruments’ and I set to work. I could not help but look at the affair from Scott’s point of view. I did my best to explain, but what can a one-year-old understand? Then he was placed on the dining room table and judgment descended on him. Cruel adults seized his limbs and his head so that movement was impossible. Then the father he had trusted became a fearful monster inflicting unbelievable pain on him. How I wished that he could understand that I feared for his life. Mercifully, he still seemed to trust me when it was over. As for me, I caught a glimpse of judgment from God’s angle.”
Listen fellow runner—there will be times when we NEED God’s judgement—God’s discipline— in order to continue. When that time comes we must remember our “Couch’s” training—remember that in His book He tells us about this—tells us that He loves us as a father does his children—and that even in bad times—painful times—He is working for our good. To quote a song lyric, in those times we must pray, “Thank You Lord for the trials that come my way. In that way I can grow each day as I led You lead.” Here’s a fourth running tip:
(4) HELP other runners.
You should remember that Hebrews is filled with admonitions for Christians to work together—RUN together. For example:
- Hebrews 3:13 says, “Encourage one another daily, as long as it is called today so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.”
- Hebrews 4:1 says, “Since the promise of entering God’s rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it.”
- Hebrews 10:25 says, “Let us not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing but let us encourage one another.”
Well, we find that message again here in chapter 12. Look at verses 14-16 where it says, “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son.” This part of our text reminds us that we need each other in order to stay strong spiritually. We need each other to “run” our best.
My brother-in-law, Donnie, is a runner. His room is full of trophies and ribbons he’s won in races down through the years. He’s run several marathons. Donnie knows what he’s doing. So understandably, I always do better when he runs with me. I keep a better pace—I run longer—if he’s running at my side encouraging me on. The fact is, it is fun to run and finish—but it is doubly fun to do it together with a fellow runner. The same is true in the Christian life. We need other Christians in order to stay in the running.
The writer reminds us that this TOGETHERNESS—this harmony—is vitally important. And it is. Many Christians drop out of the race toward Christlikeness because of conflict in the church. I’m reminded of a portion of one of my favorite books—Tolkein’s, The Lord of the Rings. In the first volume of that trilogy God-fearing elves join with God-fearing dwarves to oppose the Evil Dark Lord. But immediately they begin to quarrel, calling down plaques on each other’s necks. Then one of the wiser of the company, Haldir, says, “Indeed in nothing is the power of the Dark Lord more clearly shown than in the estrangement that divides all those who still oppose him.”
The fact is conflict among Christians brings glory to Satan and halts our progress. Few things impede the great race toward Christlikeness than arguments and fighting in the church. So we need to always pursue peace. As Paul says in Ephesians we must, “—make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace…and…as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” We need to have those difficult conversations with people that we have ought with. We need to mend broken relationships.
Another way we HELP one another is by loving each other enough to lovingly admonish a brother or sister who has slipped into sin. If we see someone who is like Esau in that they are living for sensuality—we need to do all we can to get them to repent of that and get back to living for things of eternal significance.
This week I read about a guy named George Hartsuff. In 2007 he ended up in jail in Anne Arundel County for refusing to clean up his own backyard. Mr. Hartsuff can’t say he wasn’t warned. City officials have been asking him to do a little cleaning since 2000. Court action to ensure compliance was taken in 2002. On July 5, 2007, authorities gave Hartsuff 30 days to clean out the boats, crab pots, vending machines, and other assorted debris that littered his Maryland yard. When he failed to do so entirely, he was sentenced to 60 days in prison. Hartsuff and his lawyer insisted they were doing their best to tidy things up because they’d already hauled away four 30-yard dumpsters, filled to capacity. Still, city officials and authorities were fed-up. A county spokesman said, “This cycle will keep going until the property is cleaned up. The site would get cleaned a bit, and it got messy again…it was never brought into compliance.”
Perhaps this is an extreme example—but it illustrates the importance of working together to keep each other serving Jesus and living in ways that please Him. There are times when we need to tell fellow Christians to clean up their act. That’s the loving thing to do.
Apologist, author, and speaker Josh McDowell writes: “Tolerance says, ‘You must allow me to have my way.’ Love responds, ‘I must do something harder: I will plead with you to follow the right way, because I believe you are worth the risk.’Tolerance seeks to be inoffensive; love takes risks. Tolerance glorifies division; love seeks unity. Tolerance costs nothing; love costs everything.”
One final tip and we’re done.
(5) Keep your EYES on the finish line.
Look at verses 2-3 where it says, “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the Pioneer 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.”
Our goal—is to become like Jesus—to serve Him in this life such that when we cross the finish line He says, “Great race! Well done thou good and faithful servant!” We need to keep that goal in sight at all times so we’ll stay on course.
When I was in High School I was on the track team. My event was the 180 yard low hurdles. Back then we ran them on a long straightaway. At meets, we often had so many runners in this event that we had to run two heats. I remember watching a fellow hurdler named David Emsweiler. David was a great runner but he was easily distracted. His source of distraction was the girls who always hung out at the finish line. He never finished a race because he’d always look over at them, lose his footing, and fall. I would watch from the starting line seeing David go up and over each hurdle. Then toward the finish line he’s leap over the last and then there would be this cloud of dust telling me David had gotten distracted again. By the way he didn’t care about that because the injuries he suffered from falling on that gravel caused all those girls to gather round him and help him as he limped off the track. He got a lot of female attention because of the wounds he sustained by falling. I hope this helps you remember a very important principle—-we live—we RUN—to please our Lord. Our purpose is to do things that further His eternal kingdom. We don’t run for the passing pleasures of this world. We’ll never cross the finish line with that perspective. No—we must keep the goal of Christlikeness in our minds.
We must run with ENDURANCE this race marked out for us. And of course, our inspiration is Jesus—Who did the same. He ENDURED the cross for us. And as it says in verse 3, we must,
“Consider Him Who endured such opposition from sinners, so that we will not grow weary and lose heart.”
In 1983, Australia hosted its ultramarathon, a 573.7 mile foot race from Sydney to Melbourne. This is a race that takes days to run, and professionals from all over the world came to participate. Shortly before the race began, a 61-year-old sheep herder named Cliff Young, wearing overalls and goulashes over his boots—walked up to the registration table and requested a number to enter the race. The folk at the registration table thought it was a joke—that somebody was setting them up—so they laughed. But Cliff Young said, “No, I’d really like to run.” Well, people still thought it was a joke, but they gave him a number anyway and pinned it on his old overalls. He walked over to the start of the race. All the other professional runners, who were decked out in all their running regalia, looked at him like he was crazy. The crowd snickered. People began to laugh. They laughed even more when the gun went off and the race began, because all those professional runners with sculpted bodies and beautiful strides made their way out—and began to run, but not Cliff Young. He didn’t even run like a runner. Cliff Young ran with an awkward, goofy-looking shuffle. All through the crowd people were laughing, and finally, someone called out, “Get that old fool off the track!”
Well, five days, 14 hours, and four minutes later, at 1:25 in the morning, Cliff Young shuffled across the finish line of the 573.7 mile ultramarathon. He had won the race! And he didn’t win by a nose, with the guy in second right on his heels. He didn’t win by a matter of minutes or even an hour or two. The second place runner was nine hours and 56 minutes behind. Cliff Young had set a new world record for the ultramarathon. It was unbelievable. He became an instant hero in Australia. The press mobbed him wondering what kind of special running shoes he must have had, and they rummaged through his backpack wondering what he’d survived on. They discovered he’d lived primarily on pumpkin seeds and water. But that wasn’t the secret of his victory. You see nobody ever told Cliff Young that when you run in the ultramarathon, you run for 18 hours straight, and then you stop and sleep for three or four hours. So Cliff Young shuffled his way to victory without ever sleeping. He endured running five days, 14 hours, and four minutes non-stop at the age of 61. That’s how we run as Christians. Empowered by Jesus Who lives in us we run with endurance always keeping our eye on the goal. We never stop pursuing that goal.
I know that some of you today are facing some tough problems. Some of you are struggling financially because you need a job. Others are grieving deeply. Some are suffering ridicule for your faith. Others are suffering from wounds caused by fellow Christians. For these reasons you may feel like your strength is flagging—you feel like giving up. DON’T. Remember—Jesus didn’t quit. Keep His example always in mind. Ask for His help—but keep running—keep enduring—keep pursuing the goal of becoming more like Jesus.