The Race of Faith
Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. 4 You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin. 5 And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons: "My son, do not despise the chastening of the LORD, Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; 6 For whom the LORD loves He chastens, And scourges every son whom He receives." 7 If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? 8 But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons. 9 Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness. 11 Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. 12 Therefore strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated, but rather be healed.
Prayer: Dear God, show us in Your word what this life is all about. Give us faith to put our trust in Jesus. And help us follow Him through every difficulty until our race is won. Amen.
Dear Friends and Fellow Competitors in the Race of Faith,
Some of you who have actually competed in athletic races are familiar with the words: "Runners take your marks – Set – and then the "Crack" of the starter’s pistol! You remember the anxiety, the intensity, and the desire to explode off the starting line. In many cases months or years of training were put to the test in a matter of seconds. Many of us who have not actually placed our thumbs and knuckles on the edge of the starting line can, however, watch with awe and amazement. We can experience the excitement and the thrill of victory as well as the emptiness and the agony of defeat.
Centuries ago the early Christians were familiar with the Greek athletic games. They saw in those contests many things that corresponded to a much more important race – the race of faith. It is that race that I would like to talk about today. Faith is a gift of God that transforms us. It shows us what this life is all about. It enables us to know God, to believe in Him and to follow Him. However there is a lot that stands in the way of faith: sin, temptation, and evil itself.
Today God is calling you to this race. The following words were written by a man who probably never competed as an athlete. He was, however, very familiar with athletics, and he compared athletic races to the race of faith. These are the opening words of the twelfth chapter of Hebrews: "Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God."1 Most of us are spectators when it comes to athletics. But all of us are called the race of faith – The race of faith in Jesus Christ.
Looking Beyond the Agony
We have a young man in our congregation from Ethiopia. When he lived in his former country he managed a Christian bookstore. In the area where he lived there were people who vigorously opposed the Biblical teaching of Jesus Christ. They did not mind if you watered down the Bible and said Jesus was a prophet. But if he were to say that Jesus is God’s Son and the only Savior from sin, he would be met with a barrage of verbal attacks. In their anger they would throw stones and break the windows. Finally there were threats of violence and death. This young man had a choice to make, "Do I tell the truth and suffer?" or, "Do I please the enemies of Jesus and stop telling the truth?" He chose the to tell the truth without compromise. His wife knew that he would either go to prison or be killed, so she urged him to seek protection in America. Now for two years he has been separated from his family.
All over the world there are Christians who are suffering this kind of pain and difficulty. How do they do this? How would we endure this if we were faced with such challenges? Athletes face the problem of pain. In fact the word for "race" used in the verse above is the Greek word "agon." This is where we get the word "agony." Runners in the race of faith are also going to know pain of many different kinds. One of the worst kinds of agony for the Christian is rejection, ridicule and persecution. But the writer of the Book of Hebrews says, "Consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls."2 Followers of Jesus can look to Him who endured the fanatical rage of unbelief – taking it with Him to the cross in order that He might overcome it. Jesus died in persecution, but then He rose from the dead to show that all attacks against God and His people are only temporary. They cannot outlast or overcome the enduring love of God.
In the race of faith we are bound to run into resistance and ridicule. People who don’t want to be saved – those who are satisfied with a life of sin – resent anyone or anything that challenges their way of life. In our nation there is a growing trend to remove any references to faith from the public sphere. "Faith," they say, "should be a private matter." But isn’t that a clever way of really saying, "Your faith should be a private matter."? On the other hand, "My belief that there is no God…" which is certainly a kind of faith, "…This is really the truth." As frustrating and even agonizing as this might be, it shouldn’t come to us as a surprise. Again and again God’s servants ran into this problem. But they looked to Jesus, "the Author and Finisher of our faith" and continued running despite these obstacles and frustrations.
One good example is Stephen, he was the first disciple of Jesus to be killed for his faith. Stephen was a deacon. You might say he was a member of the Committee for Social Ministry. He along with six other men were chosen to see that the physical needs of the other disciples might be met. But some did not like the good things Stephen was saying and doing in the name of Jesus. They argued with him but could not stand up to his wisdom. So they seized him by force, put him on trial, and carried him out of the city and stoned him. Through all of this Stephen kept his eyes on Jesus. The Bible says Stephen died gazing into heaven, looking to Jesus.
Are you faced with challenges to your faith? You may be a youth in junior high or high school. Classmates may be trying to get you involved in immorality or alcohol abuse. When you resist, you’re put down. Are you college student? Have you heard a professor ridicule Bible believing Christians, accusing them of less than average intelligence? Are you being challenged with unethical practices in the workplace such as lying to customers or stockholders? When you question these practices, do your superiors question your loyalty to the company and the future of your career? These are all serious challenges to the faith God has given us in Jesus Christ. Yet the Bible reminds us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses – those who have run the race of faith before us. Over and over again it is clear that Jesus can and will lead you through such challenges.
Accepting Discipline from God
There is another competitor that makes the race of faith difficult – this competitor is the burden of our own personal sin. Anyone who has watched the Olympic games cannot help but notice that every athlete is trained and equipped for success. Whether it is for running, swimming, jumping or throwing, the athlete places every ounce of his or her energy into the contest. There is no excess baggage, no unnecessary weight. The ancient athletes stripped in order to gain maximum speed and agility. Typically they were trained. The Greek word for "train" is "gymnazo" which gives us our English word "gymnasium." Today there are several ancient stadiums that still survive with their 200 yard course along with the starting and finishing lines.
One of the worst problems for the Christian who is running the race of faith, is both the weight and the entanglement of our own personal sin. We may have every intention of running the race, but our indifference to the accumulation of sin in our life is a serious problem. Like poor training habits or improper equipment they slow the athlete down and prevent him or her from doing their very best. We know as Christians that God forgives sins. We sin constantly and must daily confess our sins to God. But God’s forgiveness is never an excuse to disobey God willingly. Indifference to sin creates two problems for the Christian. First of all, this attitude, if it continues unchecked, can undermine our faith altogether. Secondly, it certainly encumbers our life with unnecessary burdens that slow us down and make the race of faith very difficult.
The writer to the Hebrews reminds us that God disciplines us for the race of faith: "My son do not despise the discipline of the Lord… for the Lord disciplines the one He loves and punishes every son He receives."3 On the one hand the Lord challenges our sinful thoughts, words, and actions with His word. In Revelation 3.19 Jesus says, "As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent." These words were spoken to the lukewarm Christians in ancient Laodocea, and they are spoken to us to keep us from drifting away from Him. On the other hand God allows us to feel the temporary consequences of sin so that we might avoid the permanent consequences of losing the race of faith. Years ago my football coach not only taught us what to do, he trained us with discipline. When we made serious mistakes we were punished with extra wind sprints. He didn’t do this because he liked to make us feel pain. He did it to help us avoid much more serious pain and failure when we were in a real game. We respected him for it. We knew he wanted us to win. In the same way God allows us to feel the temporary consequences of our own sin or even the consequences of living in a fallen world with all of its problems so that we might be disciplined and trained – exercised in our Christian faith.
Years ago we had a man in our congregation who loved to talk about this verse from the Book of Hebrews… "God disciplines every son He loves." Les had been suffering from diabetes for years. Both legs were amputated above the knee. He was bound to a wheel chair and could rarely get out of his house. But these circumstances could not diminish Les’s cheerful disposition and his good faith in God. Les would tell me several times a year: "Pastor, you know the Bible says that ‘God disciplines every son He loves.’" But then with a twinkle in his eye and a chuckle, he would launch his favorite punch line, "I just wish He wouldn’t love me so much." Les was a special person. Every physical difficulty that he endured was accepted because he knew that God only intended it for his ultimate good.
Sharing God’s Holiness
In our modern Olympic Games there is probably nothing more inspiring to me than the awards ceremonies. I can only imagine what it must feel like to stand on a platform with a gold medal hanging around your neck while your national anthem is played. From that moment on those athletes will be remembered in the record books not only as competitors in the Olympic Games but as a gold medal winners. What an honor! What a conclusion to their years of training and preparation!
The writer of Hebrews, however, tells us about a much better conclusion to the race of faith. "[God] disciplines us for our good, that we may share in His holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness…"4 Did you hear the outcome of the race of faith? – Holiness and righteousness. Holiness and righteousness are far better than any gold, silver, or bronze medal. St. Paul also reminds us of the eternal implications of the race of faith: " Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable."5 Holiness and righteousness mean that we are completely free of the power of sin. It is sin that brought death into this world, but it is Jesus Christ that destroys the power of sin and gives us eternal life.
The 2004 Olympic medals have two very important images imprinted on them. On one side is the winged goddess Nike, the mythological goddess of victory. On the other side is the image of the eternal flame. Around the flame are inscribed the opening words of an ancient Greek poem that was written to honor a wrestler named Alcimedon. This victory poem is very interesting because it also demonstrates the ancient Greek quest for immortality and victory over pain, suffering and disaster.
All people ancient and modern have a quest for immortality. We know in our hearts that there must be more to life. Somehow there must be a victory over death and evil. But it is sad to say that most people are looking for that victory in the wrong place. They look to humanity. They look to themselves. Better political systems, improved education, advances in science and medicine are the modern saviors. These are all fine ways to improve our societies and living conditions. But they will offer no victory over sin, death, and the devil.
God wants to enter you into another race – a race in which the victory over sin and death is assured. In this race of faith we look to Jesus, who by His own obedience, suffering, death and resurrection, has overcome all opponents. God trains us along the way and encourages us through every difficulty. Even now He shares with us His own holiness and righteousness so that we can be free of guilt, of every haunting regret, and of the fear of defeat before the forces of evil.
Some of you are not sure if you have faith. You’ve heard about Jesus and are aware of Christianity, but you know that doesn’t necessarily mean you have faith. However, you might have come to the point in your life in which the path you’re on appears to be a dead end. You’ve run the race of education, of work, of relationships… but something still seems to be missing. Jesus interests you, intrigues you. Could He really be the answer to man’s quest for immortality? Could immortality to connected to holiness? And is holiness something that God gives me by trusting in Jesus – for the forgiveness of sins? Get to know Jesus in the Bible, and I think you’ll come to believe that Jesus is the one to look to.
There are others listening to this message who are struggling with doubts. You have believed in Jesus. Perhaps your whole life has been a great race of faith. You’ve endured the agony of persecution as well as the struggle to remove the excess baggage of personal sin. But maybe there’s been a recent shock in your life. Something has hit so hard it threatens to shake your faith in Jesus. The Letter to the Hebrews was written especially for people in this situation. As we look to Jesus we are assured that He is the "Author and the Finisher" of our faith. Our faith did not begin by our own efforts. God called us by His Holy Spirit through His word. Perhaps you were brought to faith as an infant in baptism and you’ve never known a time in which you didn’t believe in Jesus. Others may have discovered later in life that God had called them to the truth in Jesus. Either way faith is a miracle. But as the life of faith goes on, it is important to know that the end of our faith, the finish to the race of faith, will also not depend on our efforts. From beginning to end, this race and our life is in Jesus’ hands. He will give you the victory. Amen.
Let us pray: O Lord God, we all long for a victorious life. But all around us we see defeat. In our own hearts we know too well the failure of sin that leads to death. Yet, when all seems lost, we see that there is one who has risen from the grave. We see Jesus who resisted every temptation. And best of all You promise us forgiveness and life in Him. Bring us into this ultimate race of faith. Keep us in the race. Strengthen our hands and feeble knees. Lead us in the victory of Jesus, who brings us life and immortality. Amen.
1) Hebrews 12.1-2 2) Hebrews 12.3 3) Hebrews 12.5-6 4) Hebrews 12.10-11 5) 2 Corinthians 9.25
Pastor Michael P. Walther
The Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost, August 29, 2004
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, 1300 Belt Line Road, Collinsville, Illinois, 62234
618-344-3151 / fax 618-344-3378
Michael P. Walther, Copyright, 2004
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