Sermon Hebrews 11:29-12:2
How will you run your race?
The atmosphere is electric. Excitement and anticipation is all around. People leaning forward in their seats, just to get a better look. Children standing on seats unable to contain themselves. Hearts beginning to beat faster. There are others too whose hearts are beating faster, excitement building, unable to stop the anticipation, as they look ahead and focus on one point. The dream to be the best and to do their best has now begun. The athlete in this Olympic race stands at the starting line with now only one goal. To reach the end.
It started four years earlier for this athlete. She had missed out on a chance to run in the last Olympic Games. The next day she returned to her training plan. The early morning starts, the repeated efforts, the weights sessions. How many times had she wanted to give up? How many times did this training regime feel like a treadmill?
You know the routine, you know how it is. Wake up, eat a carefully selected breakfast, train for two hours, home for more carefully selected nutrition, weighed and analysed, short rest, some study only to return to the track again that afternoon for another training session. Recovery that evening in an ice-bath, stretching, more study, food and then bed. Only to be repeated again and again. Now all of this hard work, the set backs, the muscle strain, the early mornings has been worth it as she stands ready for the starter’s gun.
In the Olympics and in many races in life the athlete tries to win, to be the best, but what would you do if after all of that training it came undone? On youtube you can see a clip of the Olympic Games in Mexico City where in 1968 a man from Tanzania ran in the marathon. Soon after starting the race he cramped up due to the altitude and fell heavily. His wounds were hurriedly dressed and although he was in pain with a dislocated shoulder as well as his knee injury he was determined to finish the race. After the sun had set, he entered the stadium to cheers from the remaining small crowd and finished the race over an hour after the rest of the athletes. When asked why he hadn’t withdrawn from the race, he simply replied ‘My country did not send me 5000 miles to start the race, they sent me 5000 miles to finish the race.’ This man’s name was John Stephen Akhwari.
Have you ever been in a race? Perhaps not an Olympic race but a race where there was a start and a finish. How did you feel? Did you prepare your body and mind for the big event? Did you analyse your food and it’s nutritional value to assist you? Did you think about tactics or a plan for how to run your race? Perhaps you decided to go out hard and then fall over the line or hold back a bit and save some energy? What about perseverance? Would you continue even if like the Tanzanian runner you fell?
There are many ways to run a race. Our text today encourages us to, ‘run the race with perseverance the race that is set before us looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of faith.’ Yet unlike an Olympic race, this is the Christian race in life. The race that God has set before us.
In this race the vital thing is to keep our eyes on Jesus. The focus is not to run faster as in the Christian race speed is not important, rather perseverance and keeping our eyes on Jesus. Prayer, reading the bible and coming to worship are ways to help just that – to keep your eyes on Jesus.
There is only one tactic needed to run the race before you-and that is faith. Faith in Jesus Christ, the one who has run his race and now sits God’s right hand. Faith that is not earned, rather it is a gift. Faith that is so vital to us, faith that is already given in our baptism and it’s something that we grow into as we live our life in Jesus. Faith that is gift from God, strengthened by the Holy Spirit through hearing God’s word and receiving the lord’s supper.
We need to live our lives as best we can and be careful not to fall into sin, or return to sin when we have been made free from it. This sin that clings so closely to us and holds us back. When we are not sure if sin is holding us back, think about the commandments. Is there sin holding me back or clinging to me as I run my race?
When an athlete runs, he or she only wears the clothing they need for the race. They only carry what they need and no more that may weigh them down. So look at the clothes you put on. Not only the garments that cover our bodies but those other items we put on. Perhaps putting on more material things to make us feel more successful in life and to even give us more status in the race. Our texts encourages us to lay aside every weight and the sin which clings so closely and let us run. What is holding you back or weighing you down? Lighten your load by giving this all to God and run, not so much to win as you already share the victory in Jesus. Rather run as one who is free to run in faith with Jesus.
As John Stephen Akhwari said his country didn’t lay the race out for him to start but to finish the race. God lays this race out for you to not only in Jesus start it, but to finish it in Jesus. You have the victory in the one who has won the victory on the cross. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus has won the victory over sin, death and the devil. This victory is offered to all who believe, who have faith in the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, as we have heard in the one who has run His race and finished.
Yet while you run your race, there are a great cloud of witnesses who will cheer you on. All of the faithful who have gone before, who have run their race with perseverance, now encouraging you to persevere and run with determination pointing you to Jesus. Imagine running along a road with the path lined with those who have completed the race in faith and now stand there waving and cheering. Imagine the great cloud of witnesses such as David, Samson and all the prophets. Alongside are all the faithful from this congregation who have lived and died in Jesus, who have kept their eyes on Christ and who now cheer us on in our race.
As you look at the people will you see some from your community who are pointing you to Jesus along your journey when you become tired or despondent? Will you point others to Jesus as a witness along their race? Will you pray for those who are burdened? How will the world see you and how will you treat your fellow runners? Just as some had given up on John Stephen Akhwari finishing, you too may have friends, family, team mates or colleagues who will also give up, unlike the faithful, the great cloud of witnesses that remain there until you have finished. They have died and now wait for you and all Christians until we all finally received our inheritance in heaven.
Let’s not forget that you are not running alone? Christ ran the race that God set before him – humbling himself as he ran the race, a path that lead to humiliation, suffering, scourging, and finally to the cross. Christ persevered with this even though he asked his Father if his race could be changed but not my will, not my race Father but yours. No one could run the race for Jesus and no one can run your race that God has called you to run.
It might be time to ask you how your race is going? How is your nutrition going for your race? What if you run out of puff and can’t complete the journey? Be nourished and strengthened to keep running by the power of the Holy Spirit as you gather around God’s word and participating in the foretaste of heaven in Holy Communion. In faith then run, run as a free person by receiving forgiveness of sin and living under the grace bestowed upon you by God. Unlike the Olympic Games where the athlete runs alone, relying on his/her strength and preparation to finish, placing all their faith in themselves, the Christian race has something special about it. Let me re-emphasise the runner never runs alone and the runner places faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus runs with you, he walks with you and binds up your wounds when you stumble and dusts you off, yet also Jesus runs ahead clearing the way for you too. He removes stumbling blocks and carries you when you no longer can move. He is the pioneer and perfecter of your faith. He begins your faith and perfects it along the way. He is the beginning and the end of the race, so live in him and finish your race in him to finally receive, as you have now but fully then your eternal salvation.