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Sermon blog post: Keep on running

September 11, 2016

Hebrews 12:1-3

Audio available here:

12 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
The short passage we have read today is one that encourages us to persevere in our living as Christians. To be disciplined, to be focused and not to be discouraged. That’s a message that all of us need to hear on a regular basis.

The passage forms part of a letter went to Hebrew Christians. As many will know, the author of the letter is unknown. Whereas most letters of that day opened with the name of the sender, this one does not. It’s as if the writer forgot to use his headed notepaper.

There is enough in the letter though, and specifically in the short passage we are looking at, to speak to us in a relevant way.

The imagery used in the passage is sporting, something which might please some listeners but not others, which is helpful though in thinking about some of the issues.

The first word in the chapter is “therefore” and so we will also spend some time looking at the chapter previous to this one, in order to unlock what is being said.

The context is set in verse 1. We are in a race. We as Christians have a race to be run. I suspect it’s more akin to a marathon than a sprint! Although the application works either way.

As we run there are a number of things we are conscious of. When I run about the only thing I am conscious of is how unfit I am, and why on earth am I trying to do this.

The first thing is what ties us back in to the verses in chapter 11. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. If you’re in the Olympic stadium you’ll be conscious of the noise, which drops as the race is about to start, and then takes off as the starting pistol sounds, until it reaches a crescendo at the finishing line.

The sporting crowd makes a difference. Many in the crowd might be against you, if they’re supporting another runner or another team. But what if the whole crowd is behind you? That’s the picture in these verses. This whole cloud, or crowd, is right behind you, cheering your every move.

Willing you on.

From the start.

To the finish.

There’s encouragement. There’s advice.

But we are let in on who this crowd is. 

Often when you watch sporting events the TV director will zoom in on people in the crowd. For year’s it’s been Andy Murray’s mum, or the wife of the batsman who has just scored a hundred. Or maybe a famous Hollywood actor. Usually in those cases I’m completely clueless.

It is a huge crowd we read about, but they are all highly qualified to spur us on. We are given some examples, some of the biggest names amongst them in chapter 11. So it’s with these great men and women in mind that the letter writer encourages us to look and to run.

I’m not someone with a lot of experience of participating in sport. I have been in the crowd a fair few times though and shouted for my team, or sometimes at my team. When I used to go to see Plymouth Argyle, I used to shout a lot.

“What on earth are you doing?!”

Mark Cavendish is one of Britain’s most successful cyclists in recent years, a world championship and Olympic medallist, and a major contestant in the Tour de France. Recently he was taking part in the Tour of Britain and stopped riding at one point, to speak to a spectator.

The spectator had apparently been shouting abuse at the cyclists, perhaps particularly at Cavendish, and it seems he had some suggestions as to how he could do better.

Cavendish had a suggestion for the spectator too. He got off his bike and offered it to the spectator. Essentially he was saying, “come on then, you sit on the bike, let’s see if you can do better!”

The man didn’t take up the offer.So you see it isn’t always helpful to have the crowd shouting advice at you. Cavendish would always be a better rider than the man in the crowd. And whatever you think of Plymouth Argyle, there’s no doubt that every man on the pitch knew a whole lot more about football than me.

Stick me in midfield and you’d soon find me out!

But who’s in the crowd for the Hebrews. It’s a whole load of people who themselves have run the race of faith and have run it successfully. People who when they speak are actually worth listening to.

John White explains “The writer’s point is to bring witnesses before us who will testify that faith is worth it”.

Because if we’re honest we all have times as Christians if we wonder if it’s worth it.

The crowd says yes.

So who’s in the crowd today?

There are some big names. Right from the early days.

Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses. Men who believed in God’s call on their lives.

Because of faith these great people acted.

Noah built a boat in the middle of nowhere.

Abraham left his home even though he had no idea where he was going.

Moses led the people out of Israel.

Those leading lights are joined by the people of Israel who escaped by faith, through the parting waters of the Red Sea.

It was their faith in God which caused the walls of Jericho to fall.

Great examples of faith to us. Been there and done it and got the FAITH tee shirt.

“Consider them” the writer says. They can inspire us.

But there’s more. Back when I was younger I used to love nothing better than sitting down in front of the television and watching the cricket. From start of play to the close.

And if I had to be away from the TV, then I had my radio permanently welded to my wrist, listening to Test Match Special.

The team that broadcast was made up of a mixture of those who loved the game and those who had played it to a high level. The expert opinion was provided by people like Freddie Trueman.

Freddie was one of the most successful fast bowlers that England ever had. So if he had something to say about the match being played in front of him, he had earned the right to be listened to.

Unfortunately he became known as someone who was very critical of the players he watched. He was not impressed with the modern game. The most common phrase he used was “I don’t know what’s going on out there!”

It was that sort of attitude that eventually it seems lost him the job as expert. One of his fellow commentators said how on one occasion Trueman had said “I don’t know what’s going on out there” 3 times, with increasing exasperation.

And that was just before the captains tossed the coin!

The problem seemed to be that he had been a great player. And he knew it. And the new younger players were not up to his standard. Young players would be demoralised by his comments.

The thought would be “How can I ever be as good as him”.

For us the question might be, “How on earth am I going to measure up against a super star of the faith like Abraham, or Moses? How am I supposed to be encouraged by their example?”

They are so far above you and me.

Well there’s news here. All the people mentioned had their faults. They did great things by faith, but they were far from perfect.

Abraham took God’s plans for a son into his own hands. Sarah scoffed, not surprisingly perhaps, at the thought of having a child in her old age. Noah got drunk. Moses got angry.

And then the writer goes on to talk about Rahab the prostitute, an unlikely example of faith, we might think.

We should be starting to get the idea that God uses imperfect people. So God can use you and me.

The list goes on as the writer sees he is running out of paper.

Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel.

Just look at some of those.

Nervous Gideon.

Samson the violent gambling drunkard.

David the man after God’s own heart. Oh and a murderer and adulterer.

But whatever their faults, and they were many, these people are given to us as examples of living by faith.

Huge personalities.

Big achievements.

But actually not one of them is looking at you and me, as we slip, as we get it wrong, saying “I don’t know what’s going on out there”.

Because they do know it.

These are real people.

Flawed people of faith. Consider them.

As Calvin puts it:

“There was none of them whose faith did not falter…In every saint there is always to be found something reprehensible. Nevertheless although faith may be imperfect and incomplete it does not cease to be approved by God. There is no reason therefore why the fault from which we labour should break us or discourage us provided we go on by faith in the race of our calling”.

Consider them – they can inspire us

The other interesting thing about many of these heroes was that theirs was a faith awaiting fulfilment. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob never got to see this great nation that was promised to them. Moses never made it to the Promised Land.

It’s a reminder to us that our faith is in something that we cannot see. Chapter 11 opens with the words “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. 2 This is what the ancients were commended for.”

At times that not being able to see can get pretty tough. But others have been there. Inspired by the vision of a future given to them by God.

We too as Christians have that sure and certain hope of an eternity in the presence of God the father, worshipping Jesus the Lamb of God, who has taken away our sin.

The writer goes on then to give us some more advice. To throw off hindrances.

If you watch the London Marathon, you can tell who the serious runners are. Or at least, you can certainly tell who they aren’t. They are not ones who dress up in fancy dress, wearing gorilla costumes or turning up as a pantomime horse in the sweltering heat.

If you want to win, you’re not going to do that!

You’re down to the running shorts and vest and trainers. You don’t want anything that is going to weigh you down.

So what is the stuff that we need to throw off in order to run the race?

What are the things which trip us up and prevent us from running the race to win?

There are so many distractions in this world.

Material things.


Also the writer says “sin”.

We can let good things get in the way of living for God.

But we can fall into doing the wrong things too.

Let’s do all we can, with the Holy Spirit’s help, to avoid those things that are going to slow us down in our run for the line.

The recent Olympic games in Rio were very enjoyable and of course very successful for the Great Britain team. The one downside was that many of the major events took place when we were all asleep. It would take a real enthusiast to set the alarm for 2 am to watch Usain Bolt running for less than 10 seconds.

We awoke one morning expecting news of our great hope Mo Farah who was running in the 10,000 metres. The news was not good. Farah had fallen about half way through the 25 laps.

Some of you will know though that I’m only telling you a small part of the story, because not only did Farah get back up, but he went on to win the gold medal. An example to us of perseverance.

And a reminder to us too, that even when we do fall, when we get it wrong, we can still get back up and complete the race. The writer tells the Hebrews, and us, to persevere in the race which is marked out for us.

But while the cloud of witnesses can inspire us, the writer does not leave it there. They can only take us so far.

Verse 2 tells us where our eyes need to be. Not ultimately on the crowd, not on those around us, not on the finish line, not thinking about the prize.

Fix your eyes on Jesus.

Jesus can do more than inspire us. He is our supreme example, and it is in him, and only him, that we can have confidence for the race ahead.

As we run the race, “Christ is always near and in sight” – Westcott.

Jesus – the pioneer of our faith.

He is the one who has done everything needed for our salvation. He is the one who has gone ahead of us, not just as an example like Abraham or Samson, but winning the victory before we run.

Jesus – the perfecter of our faith.

There is nothing we can do to save ourselves, but he has done everything perfectly. Even though our spiritual efforts and the things we do can be good, they can never make us right with God. Only Jesus can do that.

And while the cloud of witnesses inspires us, having Jesus firmly in our sights will strengthen us for the struggle ahead.

So what is it Jesus has done?

Jesus too was focussed. His focus, says verse 2 was on the “joy set before him”. In other words his focus was on his ultimate victory. His goal to put us right with God. But that could not be done without struggle and intense suffering.

Jesus was the servant king. Another way of seeing this verse is that he put the joy that was his experience in heaven on one side. He became one of us. He lived for us.

And he died for us.

He endured the cross.

Runners will often talk about a pain barrier. A point where they are ready to give up but know they have to keep going. I usually get that very quickly – just as I get to the end of my road.

Jesus went through the most extreme pain barrier. Facing so much more than we could ever face, although Jesus certainly promised his followers that they would suffer in following him.

He scorned the shame of the cross, the writer says. The curse of being hung on a tree. The humiliation of crucifixion, a criminal’s death for the perfect Son of God.

His goal was the finish line.

His prize you and me.

And where is he now? He is seated at the right hand of God.

One of the enduring memories of the Olympics, was provided in the Tae Kwondo, a strange looking sport, where people get points for kicking their opponent in the head!

Britain’s Lutalo Muhammed was heading for the gold medal, and in the very last second of the fight, his opponent caught him and gold turned into silver. He was in floods of tears. He had missed out on the highest prize in his sport by one second.

But Jesus is on the winner’s platform. He is at God’s right hand. And even there he is on our side. We are told elsewhere that he is there praying for his.

He is the victor. And he is to be worshipped for eternity in the light of all he has done for us.

As verse 3 of chapter 1 tells us, “When he had made purification for our sins, he sat down”.

Consider him, says the writer. When things weigh you down. When you’re feeling the struggle.

When we do sin, we can be forgiven.

When we do fall we can be restored.

Don’t be downhearted. Don’t give up.

Jesus faced such opposition.

But Jesus won.

Ultimately victory is ours if our lives are in his hands. In the hands of the one who is on the winner’s throne.

The former saints that inspire us saw just a partial picture of the fulfilment of God’s promises to them, but it is Jesus who completes and fulfils all those promises.

The writer goes on to say “Don’t give up too soon”. When he says “don’t grow weary” he reminds us to keep pushing for the line. It’s no good collapsing just before the line, you can do that after. Push on through.

One of the funniest memories from the recent Olympics was in the semi-final of the 200 metres sprint, when Usain Bolt, the fastest man on earth, was seen turning to the man running next to him and sharing a joke as he went over the line.

That’s not the way anyone is trained to finish a race. The runner is taught to lean forward to gain the extra inches which will get him or her to the line first. Sometimes it can be a tiny fraction of a second that wins the prize.

So as we continue on in living our lives for Jesus, as we inevitably will struggle, let’s set our minds on those who have been before. Some of the great names we have mentioned. And some too that we have known. And let’s be inspired.

And let’s be focused. Let’s fix our eyes on Jesus. The one who has won the victory for us in advance, and waits for us at the finish line.

It is worth finishing with some words from Isaiah 40:

28 Do you not know?

    Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God,

    the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He will not grow tired or weary,

    and his understanding no one can fathom.

29 He gives strength to the weary

    and increases the power of the weak.

30 Even youths grow tired and weary,

    and young men stumble and fall;

31 but those who hope in the Lord

    will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

    they will run and not grow weary,

    they will walk and not be faint.



From → Christianity, Sport

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