St Michael’s, 15th November 2015
Readings – Hebrews 12:1-13; Mark 13:9-23
So there you are, halfway through your run. You’ve started well, at a comfortable pace, and at first you felt great. But as the race has gone on, your legs have started to ache and you are beginning to blow. You are about halfway through, and there’s a little voice in your head that’s telling you now might be a good time to slow down, or take a breather. After all, it’s still a long way to the finish, and at that precise moment you are seriously questioning whether the effort is worth it.
So how do you keep going? In my limited experience, I suggest there are three things you can do at that point.
The first is to follow the other runners. Pick out a particular T-shirt in front of you, or find someone setting the same pace. Stick with them, keep them in your sight, and suddenly you will find the end is nearer than you think.
Secondly, focus on the goal. Think what it’s like to cross the line with a personal best, or remember the feeling of having exceeded your expectations. Then you will know all your pain and suffering has been worth it.
And thirdly, rely on your fitness. There’s a reason why you’ve been out running in all weathers, and why you keep putting yourself through your exercises. It’s precisely for times like this, so that your body can go beyond its usual limits, and you can achieve more than you thought possible.
Follow the other runners, focus on the goal, rely on your fitness. And what’s true of a physical race I believe also applies to the spiritual race that we call the Christian faith. You see, the point of a race is that it’s about following a fixed course and finishing it no matter what happens. Isn’t that also exactly what our life as a Christian is all about? We talk, don’t we, about walking in the way of the Lord. We use that big long word “righteousness” which means quite literally “being on the right way”. The whole imagery and language of the Bible sees our life as an ongoing journey with Jesus where we are called to find out the right way to live for Him.
This all sounds very fine and wonderful, but as we all know, there’s plenty out there to knock us off course, to stop us from going on in the spiritual race. And the unknown writer of the book of Hebrews was fully aware of this fact as well. That’s why throughout the letter we find a whole series of warnings designed to alert his readers to the dangers that they were facing. Here are just a few of them:
#The danger of drifting away: We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. (Hebrews 2:1)
#The danger of having an unbelieving heart: See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God (Hebrews 3:12)
#The danger of not growing in spiritual maturity: In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! (Hebrews 5:12)
#The danger of being lazy: We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised. (Hebrews 6:12)
#The danger of giving up: Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:25)
There are probably several more warnings that I haven’t picked out, but I hope my selection will resonate with at least a few people here today. It would be surprising indeed if there wasn’t someone this morning who is drifting away from the Christian faith, or turning away from the Lord, or someone who has stopped reading their Bible or decided being a Christian was too much effort, or is on the point of giving up on the church. Most of us at one time or another face all these temptations, and that is why today’s passage is so important. It was written to Christians who were in danger of being knocked off course, to encourage them, to help them understand what they were going through, and to give them fresh hope to persevere.
So let’s turn without any further ado to Hebrews 12:1. But before we start explaining the passage, it’s important to notice the little word that stands right at the beginning of the verse – “Therefore“. Now in the Bible “therefore” is always an important word. It tells us that what we are reading follows on from something else, and if we want to make sense of what we are about to read, we need to glance backwards at what has gone before.
What has gone before in chapter 11 is a wonderful passage all about the nature of faith. Lynda preached on it a couple of weeks ago, and if you haven’t heard or read her sermon, then I would certainly urge you to do so. The passage begins with these words in verse 1: Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. But rather than backing up this verse with all kinds of abstract arguments, the writer shows what he means by recounting the stories of the great men and women of the Old Testament and how all they achieved was by faith. To us who probably don’t know the Old Testament very well, some of these stories may be unfamiliar to us, but they were very well-known to the readers of this letter. The people mentioned were the spiritual superheroes of the day whose achievements were famous. Yet as Hebrews 11 makes they were all very ordinary human beings with very real faults and failings who only did what they did through faith.
And just because they had faith, it didn’t mean life was easy. Lynda reminded us in her sermon just how many suffered for what they believed, and all the different kinds of unusual punishments they endured. But every case they kept going – why? Well, Hebrews 11:13 tells us: All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. Their faith was based on a hope which for them was far in the future. But they persevered because they knew that one day they would share in a heavenly reward with all God’s people.
And so just before our passage today begins we read in Hebrews 11:39-40: These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. That’s why our passage today begins with that word “therefore”. Our writer wants to remind us that in the spiritual race we are not alone, that we have other runners we can follow, and that we share in the same hope as them.
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 (12:1) Because when you realise just how many other people have already run the race, and how many people are still running the race with you, sin suddenly becomes far less attractive. We are part of a great army of people across the ages who have become part of God’s plan of salvation that spans from before the beginning of time to the very end. So why would we want to get mixed up in anything that takes us off course?
Yes, sin may seem in the short-term very attractive. It may promise an easy and comfortable life for now. It may make us feel better about ourselves. But it has no long-term benefit. Sin will not help us take our place among the saints who stand around the throne of God. It will not give us access into the presence of God our Heavenly Father. It will not save us from ourselves. In fact, as Paul writes in Romans 6:23, the wages of sin are death. So if we persist in sin, we can end up thrown out of the race, with no hope, no future, no relationship with God through Jesus Christ. And surely all of us would wish to avoid that fate.
So if we want to keep going in our faith, we need to follow the runners.
We also need to focus on the goal.
I don’t know if anyone else still remembers the cycling time trial race in the London 2012 Olympics. Each rider was sent out at two minutes, and the rider who had set the best time so far got to sit on an enormous throne at the end of the course. The goal of the riders who were still out on the road was to post a better time so that they could sit on the throne instead. And in the end we had the famous picture of Bradley Wiggins taking his place and being crowned champion.
However when it comes to the spiritual race the writer to the Hebrews is describing here, the first person out on the course has already taken the throne and we can never hope to unseat Him. His name is Jesus. He is the author, or as some versions put it, the pioneer, and perfecter of our faith. Not only did He first complete the course, but He also set the course we are called to follow.
That is why our passage goes in verse 2 to say: Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Now we don’t talk much about Jesus being sat at the right hand of God. We usually focus on his ministry here on earth and on the cross, and not on what He is actually doing at this very moment. But actually the fact Jesus is occupying the place of honour next to His Heavenly Father is really important. It tells us, first of all, that sin and death and evil have been defeated once and for all. It’s for this reason that our writer calls Jesus the perfecter of our faith. His work has been finished, and in one sense there is nothing more that He can do. The final victory has already been won, even if the battle is still raging.
But this doesn’t mean that Jesus is any way inactive. Because what Jesus is doing for us now at the Father’s right hand is praying for us. As Paul tells us in Romans 8:34: Christ Jesus, who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. And on account of Jesus’ prayer for us, the way into God’s presence is always open for you, and for me. So if we believe and trust in Jesus’ name, then we are able to approach the throne of God at any time and any place. That is the amazing truth and privilege at the heart of the Christian faith, and one for which we should be continually and sincerely thankful. We can pray in the name of Jesus, knowing that our prayers will be answered.
Of course at the moment we have little idea of what the throne of God looks like, or what it means to literally stand in God’s presence. But because Jesus has sat down at the right hand of God, it is guaranteed that one day we will be where Jesus already is. That is, if you like, the finishing line we can look forward to, the goal on which we can focus. And on that day all those heroes of faith we’ve already met in chapter 11 will be alongside us. We will be rubbing shoulders with Abraham, with David, and with all the saints across the ages, full of praise and wonder and glory. Isn’t that an incentive to keep going when times are tough? To resist the power of sin? To stay committed to the Lord Jesus and to carry on praying? Knowing that one day we will be with Jesus in glory. Forever.
But note this. Jesus sat down at the right hand of the throne of God after enduring the shame of the cross. You see, there are no short-cuts to Christian glory, no quick fixes that mean once you believe life will automatically get easier or you will live in a state of perpetual spiritual victory. In fact, the writer to the Hebrews warns his readers that things might, if anything, get even worse. Verse 4: In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.
Why is this? Well, you may remember at the start I talked not only about following others, and focusing on the goal, but relying on your fitness. In this passage, the writer of the Hebrews talks in a similar vein about enduring discipline. Listen carefully to what he says in verse 7: Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons.
Now I guess that’s one aspect of our Heavenly Father we don’t like to think about too much. After all, the idea that our Father might want to discipline seems more than a little problematic in our day and age. We live in an era which prizes self-expression and freedom to do what we want where we want. We see discipline as obeying rules and suffering the consequences when you break them, and we definitely don’t want to think God would treat us like that. Maybe that’s why we seldom, if ever, talk about discipline in the Christian life. It sounds like the sort of subject that would put most people off the faith, and not the sort of thing to be widely discussed.
Yet discipline is important, because the opposite of discipline is a lack of discipline, and all know how damaging a lack of discipline can be. Think of a classroom where the teacher has no control over the pupils. Think of a football team where the players keep getting red cards and the manager has been banned from the stadium. Think of a church where everyone behaves just as they wish and belief is simply a matter of personal choice. You see, like or not, we need discipline. Like physical fitness training, it may not seem pleasant, but it is of vital importance.
And why is discipline quite so important? Listen to what the writer says in verses 10 and 11:
Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
God’s greatest desire for your life is that you become more like Him. He is holy and therefore He wants you to be holy. He wants you to be free from the sin that so easily entangles and free to worship Him alone. The trouble is, there is a huge part of us that doesn’t want to become more like God. We enjoy our sin and we want to cling on to our comfortable lifestyle. In this respect we behave towards our Heavenly Father like a child who prefers eating chocolate to vegetables, or watching TV to doing her homework.
That is why God chooses to discipline us. Not because He is a God who enjoys punishing us or delights in suffering. But because He wants to us to learn to rely on Him, to seek out His ways and to delight in knowing and loving Him. And the only way He can do that is to break our pride and our independence, that part of us that wants to keep God at arm’s length and instead put our own desires and our own hopes and dreams at the centre of our lives.
We may wish to protest when we think God is disciplining us, but as these verses tell us, our Heavenly Father is at the end of the day only acting in our best interests. For if we are really serious about living as God’s children, then we need not only to call God our Heavenly Father but actually depend on Him, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute. Because the spiritual race I have been talking about this morning is all about living by faith. And that’s not just believing the right things, but – as we saw in chapter 11 – being willing to step out, being willing to bear the cost and remaining focused on the hope before us.
I realise I have covered a lot of ground this morning, so let’s sum up where we have got to so far. All of us one way or another are probably facing temptations that weaken and undermine our faith. How do we overcome these temptations and keep going as Christians? The writer to the Hebrews would tell us:
To follow the example of others
To focus on Jesus
To endure the discipline of the Father
This leads on to the second “therefore” in the passage. Verse 12: Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees! What’s the connection between this verse and all that’s gone before? Well, it’s helpful to know that this verse is only a partial quote from Isaiah 35:3-4, and that those who first read the letter would know the whole passage. Let me read it you now:
Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.”
So far this morning it has all sounded as if the Christian faith is hard work, as if it’s about keeping going in face of tough, difficult circumstances. But that quote from Isaiah, which is where I want to finish, is a reminder that the race does have an end. The Lord is coming. One day there will be an end to all that hinders us and an end to the sin that so easily entangles. If we have faith in Jesus, we have a glorious future that is so much better than we can ever imagine.
How are you preparing for that future? Will you be ready to cross the finishing line?
Think what it means for you to run the race of faith, and let us all look forward to joining the cloud of witnesses gathered around the throne of Jesus forever. For His name’s sake. Amen.