Run the Race, Prepared

ILL. Shannon Faulkner made headlines a few years ago as she crusaded to become the first female cadet at The Citadel, an all-male military academy. After a prolonged court battle, you’ll remember, she finally won the right to enroll. But she couldn’t endure the exercise program required of all cadets. So a few days later she dropped out & we’ve heard almost nothing of her since.

ILL. In contrast, there is the professional tennis player, Monica Seles. You may remember that a few years ago a crazed man jumped out of the stands & plunged a knife into her back. It was a terrifying experience, but she did not allow that to stop her. Once her wound healed, she began a rigorous exercise program, regained her strength, & last year won the British Open & placed 2nd in the U.S. Open.

A. I like to hear stories about people who won’t give up. Quitters aren’t much of an inspiration, but people who stay with a commitment even though the going gets tough are a source of great inspiration to all.

ILL. Do you remember the man who came to Jesus & said, “I’ll follow you wherever you go”? Jesus said, “Before you make that kind of commitment, you need to realize that foxes have holes & the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.”

“In other words, if you follow me, realize that there will be difficulties. There will be times when you will not know where you’ll sleep, or where your next meal is coming from. There will be difficult & discouraging times. But after you realize that, & then put your hands to the plow,” He said, “don’t look back.”

B. When people start the Christian life, & then quit when the going gets tough, they can become an object of ridicule to some & a source of discouragement to others. That’s the reason Hebrews 12:1-3 is so important.

Listen as I read it, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders & the sin that so easily entangles, & let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author & perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, & sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary & lose heart.”

Now in this passage the Christian life is not compared to a wind sprint, but to a marathon. In a wind sprint you run as fast as you can for a short distance, & speed is the critical factor. But in a marathon, endurance is the critical factor. Will you make it all the way to the end?

Paul said, “I’ve kept the faith. I’ve finished the course. Therefore there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness. And not for me only…”

PROP. Finishing the race is critically important for all of us who would be followers of Jesus. And this Scripture gives 3 words of advice to help us run the race of life faithfully.

I. INSPIRED BY THOSE WHO HAVE GONE BEFORE

The first is to remember that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, & that we can be inspired by those who have gone before.

A. Notice that chapter 12 begins with the word “Therefore.” That connects it with the previous chapter. And in chapter 11 the writer gives a long list of people who have been found faithful.

1. For instance, in vs. 7, he mentions Noah. Remember Noah? He spent 120 years of his life building an ark – 120 years!

ILL. Now I must confess that patience is not one of my finer virtues. And every once in a while, when something I’m concerned about seems to be moving too slowly, I’ll complain, “Why is it taking so long?”

Then I can feel Noah whispering in my ear, “Kid,” he says, “how long do you say you’ve been waiting? It took me 120 years to build the ark, & it was never easy. People ridiculed me & said, `Are you sure you really heard God? Maybe you just heard someone else.’ I tried to warn them of the judgment that was coming, but no one would listen. So I kept on building, & when the floods came the ark became the vehicle of our salvation. You need to keep on, keeping on, too.”

2. Next, in vs. 8, is Abraham. Abraham, called from his home in Ur of Chaldees to a place that God would lead him; Abraham, who in his old age was told that he & Sarah would conceive & bear a son; Abraham, who was told to take this precious son to the top of the mountain & offer him as a sacrifice. This Abraham passed every test.

So when you become discouraged, here is Abraham whispering in your ear. “Listen,” he says, “if you follow God, the world will probably think you crazy because God’s ways are not their ways. But listen carefully to what He tells you, follow in His steps, & be true to His will.”

3. Or go on to vs. 22 & the story of Joseph. Remember, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. In Egypt he was accused of crimes he didn’t commit, & thrown into prison. He was down about as low as a person can get. Yet he remained true to God. But then the tables are turned, & suddenly he is very powerful, Prime Minister of Egypt. He has control of money & grain & food & people. And yet, when he is at the top, he is still faithful to God.

So here is Joseph saying, “Look, it doesn’t take much to be faithful when things are going your way. But when you are at the bottom, & everything seems to be falling apart, make sure that you’re still faithful.”

4. The list goes on. There’s Moses & Samson & Samuel & David & more besides. There is a great cloud of witnesses who gather to cheer us on. They whisper in our ear when we become discouraged, & they say to us, “Don’t give up! Don’t lose heart. Don’t quit, whatever you do.”

B. Now when I get discouraged, I think not only of the great saints in Scripture, but also of people who have crossed my path, & who have inspired me.

ILL. I think of an elder who was a Sunday School teacher & faithfully taught for many years. Our church built 3 different times while he was there, & gave away some of our people to start 4 other congregations. Now those are emotional experiences to go through. But each time this elder was a strengthening element in the congregation & he stayed the course.

ILL. I think also of my father who was still going strong even after he retired. His ministries were always pioneer-type ministries that didn’t pay very much. He served on two foreign mission fields. He started 5 Christian colleges & established at least 36 churches that I know of. He wore clothes that probably should have been given to Goodwill, & sometimes traveled with an old suitcase held together by a belt. Often money was in very short supply. But he always stayed the course.

He had a motto in his office that read, “You can get anything done IF you don’t care who gets the credit.” And in the very last sermon he preached before his death, at the dedication of a new church building, he challenged us with these words, “If you’re ever going to do anything for God, do it now!” What an inspiration he was to me, & still is today.

APPL. So when I think about quitting, I feel their hands on my shoulder. I hear them saying, “If we can do it, then you can do it, too.”

SUM. We need to be inspired by those who have gone before us, & to realize that at the same time we’re looking to others for inspiration, we are the inspiration for someone else. Someone is watching us, & if we stumble & fall then they, too, will be discouraged.

II. BE PREPARED FOR THE STRUGGLES THAT WILL COME

A. The second thing the writer of Hebrews says is that we need to be prepared for the struggles that we will inevitably have to face, & he begins by saying, “…throw off everything that hinders.”

ILL. This week I looked at the old winter topcoat I used to wear when I lived up in St. Louis & Cincinnati. It is heavy & cumbersome, & I’m so thankful that I live down here in Brownsville & don’t have to wear it anymore.

As I prepared this sermon I thought about the joggers who run past my house each morning. They have put aside everything that hinders because they don’t want anything to keep them from reaching their goal. Then I thought, “Imagine trying to run a race wearing my topcoat. I wouldn’t last long at all!” That’s what the writer of Hebrews is saying. Those things that hinder us, whatever they might be, throw them off!

It might be previous relationships. Now we shouldn’t give up all those relationships that are outside of Christ when we become Christians, because if we do we’ll never win the world to Jesus. If we just sit around & talk to each other we’ll never be able to win the lost. So maintain those relationships unless they drag you down & pull you away from your walk with the Lord.

ILL. Do you remember when Jesus came to the house of Zachaeus & Zachaeus looked into the face of Jesus? Some of his wealth he had gained dishonestly, & he said, “I’m going to give it back fourfold because I can’t look into the eyes of Jesus & keep this dishonest money at the same time.”

Maybe you have some possessions that are hindering your witness for Christ or are distracting you from serving Him. Maybe you need to get rid of some habits that may, in & of themselves, not be sins, but they’re so time consuming, or so distracting that you can’t focus on Jesus. So you need to get rid of them, too.

B. Then the writer says that we also need to get rid of “the sin that so easily entangles” us. Now that is probably the best word we can find for sin. It’s entangling.

ILL. As I read this passage I think of the old Tarzan movies. When I was a young man Johnny Weismueller was Tarzan, & in every Tarzan movie there was always an underwater scene where Tarzan, with his knife between his teeth, jumped into the water & swam to the rescue of Jane or Boy or Cheetah or whoever was in the water. And you just knew something was going to happen.

The music would intensify & you knew that at some point something was going to reach out & grab him. It seemed like it was almost always an enormous octopus. You could just see its eye at first. And then a tentacle would suddenly reach out & wrap around his ankle. You think, “Tarzan, you can get away from that.” Then just as he was about to escape here came a second tentacle. It would grab the other ankle. Then here came another tentacle & another one, & pretty soon he was all entangled & couldn’t get loose.

You think, “Oh, this is the end of Tarzan.” But thank God for the knife between his teeth. He grabs it & starts cutting off tentacles, & soon an inky cloud comes out of the octopus. And Tarzan was free.

Sin is like that. Just a puff. Just a drink. Then pretty soon out comes another tentacle. Just a thought. Just a lustful look. But then comes another tentacle. Just a little lie, a slight rearrangement of the truth, & out comes another tentacle & soon we are completely entangled.

C. So the writer says that we need to throw aside all those things that hinder us & all those things that entangle. Then he says, “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”

ILL. Now I’m obviously not a marathon runner. But marathon runners tell us that there are two critical times in the race. The first one is at the beginning. When you begin to run you feel so good, & the temptation is to run too fast too soon. So you expend all your energy & don’t have enough left for the end of the race.

APPL. Some Christians have done that, too, haven’t they? They started out with great promise but didn’t finish the race.

The second critical time in a marathon is at the half-way point. You suddenly realize that you still have as far to go as you’ve already run & you’re already very tired. Runners call it “hitting the wall.” You’ve come to the end of your endurance & you’re not sure you can put one foot in front of the other anymore.

APPL. I’ve seen it happen in the Christian life, too. You’ve been around for a while & you’ve fought the battles, but you’re not sure there is enough energy left to make it to the end, & the temptation is to quit.

SUM. But the writer says that we are to “run with perseverance the race that’s marked out for us.” Don’t grow weary & don’t lose heart.

III. FOCUS YOUR ATTENTION ON JESUS

A. The final word is this, we must focus our attention on Jesus. Notice what he says, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author & perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, & sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary & lose heart.”

Jesus was opposed. Jesus was persecuted. People made fun of Him. And yet He stayed the course. He ran the race. He paid the price. So the writer says that when we get weary & tired we are to “fix our eyes on Jesus.”

Every Christian, every church needs to hear this because it’s so easy to quit. It’s so easy to say, “I don’t have to do this anymore.” But the writer says, “Focus on Jesus. He’s the author & the finisher & the perfecter of our faith,” & one day we’re going to stand before Him as our judge.

ILL. A few years ago the world stopped & waited for the jury to announce its decision in the O.J. Simpson trial. When the decision was finally given & O.J. was found “not guilty” some people cheered because they thought that an innocent man had been set free. Others stomped their feet & pounded the furniture because they thought that a travesty of justice had taken place.

I’m not sure what you think, whether he was guilty or innocent. But you need to remember two things: #1, O.J. Simpson will someday stand before another judge, a judge much greater than Judge Ito. And there he will have to give an account of everything he has done, whether good or bad.

Secondly, Romans 3:23 says, “There is no difference, for all have sinned & fallen short of the glory of God.”

B. You will stand before that judge. I will stand before that judge. And we will have to give an account of everything we have done. Now what is the judge going to say, “Guilty” or “Innocent”?

ILL. If you take the tour in Williamsburg, VA they will explain to you why, even to this day, we hold up our hand & swear that we “will tell the truth, the whole truth, & nothing but the truth, so help me God” whenever we give testimony in court.

The story goes all the way back to medieval times. When someone was being tried for a crime & the evidence seemed overwhelmingly against him, there was a way out. He could stand up & say, “I plead the benefit of clergy.”

Now when he pleaded “the benefit of clergy” everyone was aghast because that was the same as an admission of guilt. But it was his last hope, his last chance. So a clergyman would come in with a selected passage of Scripture, usually from Psalms 51, the confession of David for all the sins that he had committed. He would hand it to the accused & say, “Here, read this.” It was kind of a forerunner of the lie-detector test.

The law said that if he could read it without stammering or stuttering he would be set free even though the evidence against him was overwhelming. But if he stumbled or stammered just one time he was judged guilty. Usually a guilty person could not read that passage without stammering or stuttering. So they were found guilty. But when someone read it perfectly & was set free, they branded the palm of his hand with the brand of the cross.

You see, you could only claim the benefit of clergy one time. So whenever anyone testified in court he would have to hold up his hand so that all could see if the brand of the cross was there.

CONCL. One of these days, folks, we’re all going to stand before the judge of the universe, as guilty as we can be. The evidence is overwhelmingly against us. The accuser will be there to accuse us of all the sins we have committed.

Our only hope is to claim the benefit of the cross. Paul said, “God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of Jesus Christ.” So the writer of Hebrews says, “Focus on Jesus because the only hope we have is our hope in Him.”

So run the race with patience. Don’t lose heart. Don’t become discouraged. Don’t quit. Keep on running the race that has been set before us.

This morning if you’re here & not a Christian, we invite you to come to Jesus & accept His mercy, His love, His grace, & His sacrifice on the cross. We offer you the opportunity to begin a whole new life in Jesus. Will you come as we stand & as we sing together?

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