Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. I know that it may be hard to believe based on my present body type, but I used to be a runner. I was never very competitive, short as I am, but I enjoyed it. In high school I ran a couple seasons of J.V. cross country. Of course, that was 18 years and 60 pounds ago! Yet even during college and seminary, I found friends with whom I ran regularly just for fun and exercise. Running was a good way to clear my mind, destress, and pray. I haven’t done much running since moving to Colorado, but I keep buying new running shoes every couple years, telling myself that I’m going to “get back into it” one of these days. Usually, I just end up wearing them to mow!
Many of you, I know, are runners. You get up early before the heat of the day and get in your miles before work and the kids call you back to the daily grind. Other people probably have a hard time relating to the idea that running can be anything more than an extreme form of self-torture. I’m reminded of the funny line in Back to the Future: Part III: “Run for fun? What the [heck] kind of fun is that?” Most people run only out of necessity, not for pleasure.
Yet there is something captivating about watching a good foot race. Right now we are in the middle of the Summer Olympic Games in Rio di Janeiro. Many of us will tune in to watch Usain Bolt of Jamaica, the fastest man alive, go for the gold yet again in the men’s 100-meter dash. Others of you will be drawn to the hurdles or marathon or perhaps even that most unusual of track and field events: power walking!
Whether you are an athlete or a spectator, running is an unavoidable part of life. The anonymous apostle who wrote our epistle reading was also enthused about running. In Hebrews 12 we read:
“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” (Heb. 12:1-2, ESV).
In our epistle we hear about another track and field event, one that is metaphorical but much more difficult than any single sports event. Today’s Scripture is about running the race of life.
Some people say, “Life is a journey,” but, more specifically, life is a race from cradle to grave. The nature of the race is different for everyone. To some it seems like a marathon, to others the 100-yard dash. For many it’s more like running the hurdles—with a monkey on your back and your feet tied together! The devil, the world, and our flesh (our old, sinful nature) put all kinds of obstacles in our path: temptations, trials, tribulations, the death of loved ones, disease, disagreements, and disappointments. Some of our challenges and failures are of our own making. Many are not. But the result is the same: running the race of life is never easy.
That is why we are often tempted to cheat or take shortcuts. The devil points out all kinds of dangerous paths that we are prone to take in our wayward wandering. Then God has to reroute us through various detours to get us back on track. Yet thanks to God’s grace, our sin never disqualifies us. Whether your race is 8 minutes, 8 years, 18 years, or 88 years, we all get to the finish. We all die. What matters is this: will you finish the race driven by fear or living by faith?
Life is hard, and the race is long. Sometimes it can be quite agonizing. (In fact, the Greek word for “race” in our epistle [Heb. 12:1] is agōn, the Greek word from which we get the English word “agony”!) Yet life is better when you don’t run it alone. In the Garden of Eden, God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone…” (Gen. 2:18). And in Hebrews 10, the author urges us not to neglect meeting together and gathering with other believers, but rather to encourage one another, “and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:25). Christians need each other. Believers belong together. “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” (Eccl. 4:9-10).
I stated earlier that I don’t run anymore. Why not? Partly because Colorado summers are scorching and the sidewalks are too icy during the winter. Partly because of laziness. But mostly because I don’t have a running partner. When I was in high school, I ran several miles at every practice with my team. During college and seminary, I ran with my friends. But running by yourself isn’t fun. Nobody wants to run alone. It’s hard to stay motivated to run early in the morning when you’re tired if you don’t have anyone to meet. It’s hard to keep going on the daily jog when you get tired and sore without another person to cheer you on and say, “You can do it, Chris!”
I remember one particularly painful race during my short cross-country career. It was a cold, rainy October day in Wisconsin. The temperature was about 40 degrees, and morning fog lay heavy over the course, which was on a bluff above Lake Michigan. I just couldn’t get warmed up that day, and after the first half mile, a sharp, stabbing pain in my side nearly crippled me. I slowed to a walk, but the pain wouldn’t go away.
My coach saw me struggling and told me to quit if I needed to. Giving up sounded pretty good at that point. But just when I was about to step off the course and be disqualified, my stepfather Jim ran up beside me and said, “Chris, I know that it hurts, but you can do this. Let’s finish together.” My stepdad was a natural athlete and high school track star back in his day, but he humbled himself and came alongside me to urge me on to the finish line. Despite the terrible pain, I sucked it up and forced myself to get going again. My time was terrible, and even though it was a grueling experience, we finished the race… together!
The same is true in the race of life. The Christian life is a team sport, not an individual event. Christians need each other because we’re all in it together. The encouraging message from our “Hall of Faith” heroes in Hebrews 11, is that not only are we not alone, but many others have run the race before us! We are surrounded by the same cloud of witnesses as the original hearers of this letter, all the Old Testament saints from Abel and Abraham to Sarah and Rahab. And there are many others cheering us on from that crowded cloud as well, including St. Peter the Rock, who denied Jesus and then, after being forgiven, became a pillar in the Church; and the rugged, old Apostle Paul, who probably racked up more miles in his missionary journeys than any of us will ever earn in airline miles. I never cease to be amazed by the faith of the Virgin Mary, a young girl who humbly believed God’s Word and submitted to his will and so became the mother of our Lord (Luke 1). I can also picture St. Stephan, the first Christian martyr, who by faith preached his first, last, and best sermon at his execution (Acts 7).
And I remember grand, old Polycarp (2nd century), who was offered his life in exchange for cursing Christ, but who, by faith, chose rather to be burned at the stake as he declared, “Eighty and six years I have served Christ, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior?” And how can we fail to mention St. Augustine of Hippo (5th century), who prayed for the City of God as he watched the Vandals sack the earthly city of Rome? And what about Athanasius, the deacon from Carthage, derided by his enemies as the “black dwarf” (a slight against his stature and his skin color), but who, nevertheless, contended for the faith to his dying breath. And don’t forget St. Patrick, the English missionary captured and enslaved by Irish raiders, who escaped his bonds only to return to his former captives with the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Of course, we cannot ignore the magnitude of Martin Luther, that stalwart hero of the Christian faith, who with a bounty on his head contended for the message of the cross—that we are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. And what about that other Martin, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose dream never died even when his eyes dimmed on this world.
There are so many witnesses to mention, that I get overwhelmed just thinking about them: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who counted the cost and paid the price to be a disciple of Jesus in Hitler’s Third Reich; Corrie Ten Boom, the Danish woman whose Christian faith compelled her to hide her Jewish neighbors from the Nazis; and Mother Theresa, who believed that even the so-called “untouchables” needed to be touched by Christ’s mercy and grace. “All these” men and women of God were “commended through their faith” (Heb. 11:39). “By faith” they finished the race. And someday so shall we.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…,” dear friends, “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 and of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2). My fellow saints, Jesus is our team captain, our coach, our cheerleader—and the first across the finish line. Jesus Christ died and rose again to forgive your sins and give you eternal life. He made the trek from heaven above to earth below, through the cross to hell and back again. And he did it all for you! We run the race because Christ has already run it—and won it!—for us. So no matter how difficult life may be, no matter how many stones are strewn along the way, no matter how much pain and sin may weigh us down, we run the race. Some make a strong sprint to the finish; others limp along, barely making it. But by God’s grace, all Christians finish the race by faith.
My favorite race to run was always the Firecracker Four, a four-mile race hosted by my bank on Fourth of July weekend. Regardless of whether you placed first, second, third, or last, everybody got the same prize at the end: a slice of watermelon and an ice, cold beer! Now that’s my kind of race! Who cares about trophies and ribbons?! Watermelon and beer are a better prize any day! An even greater prize awaiting us in heaven: an imperishable crown of life that shines brighter than Olympic gold (cp. 1 Cor. 9:24-25; Rev. 2:10).
So do not grow weary or fainthearted (Heb. 12:3). Run the race with endurance—the race Jesus already won for us. And then on the day of your death or the Day of Christ’s return—whichever comes first—you will be able to say with confidence, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith!” (2 Tim. 4:7). All glory be to Jesus! In the name of the Father and of the Son and of T the Holy Spirit. Amen.