On your marks, get set, go! The Olympics get underway in Rio just three weeks time. I can hardly believe its four years since we hosted them here in London! I hope, like me, you are looking forward to an exciting fortnight of sport – ideally involving lots of gold medals for Team GB!
For every athlete at the Olympics, the events in Rio will mark the culmination of years of training and preparation. Years of hard work and self-discipline. And those hoping to win gold medals at the Games will need skill, courage, determination and perseverence to succeed.
Today’s reading from Hebrews was written to encourage Christians to keep going in their faith and never give up. To show the type of perseverance that athletes at Rio will have to have. Because Hebrews chapter 12 compares following Jesus to running a race. To a long race, in fact - more like a marathon than a sprint.
As we look at this passage we will be finding out what the Christian race involves, what former athletes have achieved, and what the winning formula is. In other words, we’ll see how we can complete the race Christ has set before us.
- The race set before us
It may not feel like it, but as we sit here this morning most of us are in a race. Because in verse 1 of our passage today the author of Hebrews describes the Christian life as a race. If we’re people who’ve put our faith in Jesus, we’ve begun a race that we’ll be running for the rest of our lives.
But what type of race is it? What does the Christian race involve? Races can vary in their length, their terrain, their route and even the mode of travel. A short run on a flat athletics track is very different to a cycle race over the Alps or the Pyrennees!
Well if we we were to turn back in our Bibles to Hebrews chapter 10, and look at verses 22 to 25, we would see what the Christian race involves. In those verses, we are told that the Christian race:
- Involves “drawing near to God” by faith in Christ – enjoying God’s forgiveness and friendship, rather than fearing his righteous wrath against our sin;
- The Christian race also involves “meeting together” with our fellow believers, week by week, Sunday by Sunday, to “spur one another on towards love and good deeds”;
- And thirdly the Christian race involves holding fast to our hope of Heaven - looking forward to the great “Day” when Christ will take us to glory.
- The race has been run before!
In a world of temptation, trials, sin, suffering and persecution this race may look very hard, even impossible. How can we keep going in faith, hope and love for the rest of our lives? It sounds a daunting prospect, like standing at the starting line of the marathon with 26 gruelling miles ahead, or standing at the bottom of a huge mountain you are about to cycle up and over.
But the good news is that the race has been run before, the course can be completed, the finish can be reached! The author of Hebrews wants us to be encouraged by knowing that others have already completed the Christian race, and are already in glory, cheering us on!
Because our passage today points us to great heroes of the faith who completed the race God set before them. The type of heroes we read about last week in Hebrews chapter 11. Men like Abel and Abraham, Jacob and Joseph. They are a “great cloud of witnesses” showing us that it can be done. It is a great psychological boost to know that the task we have been set has been completed by others before. It’s a great encouragement to know a task is not impossible, because others have already done it.
As we face ordeals, opposition or other temptations in our life, let’s be encouraged and reassured that countless other Christians throughout time and across the world have been through even, greater trials and yet kept running to the end. They have now crossed the finish line, completed the race, and are celebrating their salvation in the Kingdom of God.
I remember running the Fleet half-marathon in Hampshire about ten years ago. My friend Andy was an excellent runner, and completed the course in barely one hour and twenty minutes. It was such an encouragement to me, as I staggered towards finishing line about half an hour later, to see him still there cheering me on and urging me to the finish. In a similar way, Christians of previous generations want us to complete the race they have long since finished. We are to imagine them urging us on, shouting “Come on, you CAN do it! I completed the course and so can you!”
- The winning formula!
If you saw Andy Murray win his second Wimbledon championship last Sunday, you may have seen his coach Ivan Lendl sitting up in the stands. Lendl looked close to tears, as he saw the player he’d coached secure another championship victory. And like Lendl - like any expert coach - the author of Hebrews offers us three pieces of priceless advice as we embark on our race. Advice we need to hear to complete the course set before us. And the first (in verse 1) is to “throw off everything that hinders”.
i) Throw off everything that hinders
At the Olympics you won’t see a world class runner standing at the start line wearing a suit of armour or carrying an enormous rucsac. Nor will we see an overweight or obese athlete trying to win the 100 metres sprint. Athletes know that to be successful and fast at running you need to be light. So that’s why they will wear lightweight running kit and be carrying no excess fat on their bodies - we’ll see plenty of lycra being worn, but no-one whose obese.
In a similar way, to be successful in our Christian race we should throw off anything that might slow us down, anything that could be hindering our faith, inhibiting our love or destroying our hope. Its important to realise that the things that may be holding back our faith need not be bad things. They may be good things that are getting in the way of our walk with Jesus. For example:
- Are we devoting so much time to our work that we have little time left for a midweek house group meeting or even our private prayer time with God?
- Or does our social calendar crowd out our church commitment, so that we only meet with other Christians occasionally rather than regularly?
- Or does our love of television, a good novel or social media crowd-out time that would be better spent reading our Bible, serving at church or loving our neighbour?
Think what things may be obstacles to your personal walk with Christ? What might you need to put aside to grow stronger in your faith? For example, I confess that this week I took Twitter off my mobile phone - and deleted several other distracting apps – because too often I was turning to look at them when I woke in the morning, rather than reading my Bible at the start of each day. I wonder, what are the things that hinder you?
ii) Avoid sin that entangles
At the Olympics next month, I can safey predict that you won’t see a world-class athlete arrive at the start line with his shoe laces untied or his tracksuit around his ankles! To complete a race (let alone win it) you need to stay on your feet, avoid falling over and not trip up.
In a similar way, we must avoid anything that could trip us up and impede our walk with God. We must avoid bad beliefs and behaviours that could compromise our faith. That’s what verse 1 means today when it tells us to avoid “sin that so easily entangles”.
For example, if we expose ourselves to ungodly thoughts or unhelpful influences, then our faith and hope can become diminished or even extinguished. Does what we listen to with our ears or what watch with our eyes build up our faith or sow seeds of doubt? Are we filling our minds with what is wholesome, godly and true, or dangerous, destructive and wrong.
We need to watch our actions as well. Are we acquring to bad habits at home or work? Are we developing unChristian character traits, that contradict God’s will? Spend some time in prayerful self-examination, and ask God’s Spirit to expose any attitudes or actions that we need to cast off. Any habits that keep tripping us up and lead us away from Christ.
iii) Fix your eyes on Jesus!
I was reflecting this week on who my role model is for my time here at St. Michael’s. Who is the Church of England clergyman who’s work I want to imitate in my work here at St.Michael’s. Two names that sprung to mind were Sandy Millar and Dick Lucas. Sandy Millar was the vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton in the 1980s and 90s, and Dick Lucas led St Helen’s Bishopsgate over the same period. Both men modernised two small, slightly old-fashioned London churches, and secured their long-term survival. Both Sandy and Dick modernised the worship, upgraded the facilities, preached the Gospel and taught the Bible – exactly the things I hope to do here. They are the two ministry role models I aspire to imitate.
It’s the same in sport. Most top athletes have a hero from the past, someone in their sport they aspire to be like - someone they want to emulate. I expect every young British Olympian wants to be the next Jessica Ennis, Steve Redgrave or Chris Hoy.
As Christians, our role model must be Jesus - we should fix our eyes on him, following his example all the way to glory. This is the third and final ingredient of Hebrews race-winning formula. Because today’s passage calls Jesus the “author and perfecter of our faith”. He is the perfect role model and pacemaker for us as we run our Christian race.
- You see, Jesus is the “author” of our faith because our faith is focused on him. He is the object of our faith. We look to him alone for our salvation. He is the one we are hoping to spend eternity with once our race on earth is run.
- In the meantime, Jesus is also great example to us of perseverance in the face of hardship. Verse 3 reminds us that Jesus “endured opposition from sinful men”, culminating in his crucifixion, yet his trust in God never faltered. Consider what he went through, and our race, our struggles don’t look quite so impossible.
- And thirdly, the risen ascended Jesus is able to keep going in our faith. Verse 2 tells us that he now sits at God’s “right hand”. Christ constantly prays for us in the presence of his Father, asking him to help us overcome all obstacles on our race. And from his throne Jesus pours out his Spirit upon us, giving us the power to persevere in faith, hope and love. Our Christian life and faith begins by God’s grace, and continues by grace. Our journey of faith would shudder to a halt without Christ’s constant help.
As the author of Hebrews sums up in verse 3, if we “consider Christ” and all he offers us, “we will not grow weary and lose heart.” We will finish the race and cross the finish line!
iv) Accept discipline like a son
A good coach will set a tough training regime for their budding young athlete. Without painful gym sessions, early morning runs and a strict diet, a budding sportsman will not realise their potential. Without discipline they will not reach the peak of their profession. An ambitious athlete will accept such discipline.
In a similar way, verses 5-11 today warn us that God will discipline us during our lives. We will face times of hardship, persecution and temptation. Our all-powerful God doesn’t permit these things because he is cruel or callous, but because he loves us. Like a loving Father disciplines his sons, God disciplines his Christians children to help us become more like Jesus.
Its quite obvious when you think about it - how will we ever become more courageous, brave, patient or faithful, unless we face situations when those qualities can be cultivated? Our good God allows us to face trials and temptations in this life because he wants us too to become good. Our Heavenly Father loves us so much that he’s not satisfied by simply making us happy. Verse 1o today says he wants more for us than that - he wants to make us holy. He wants to make Christians children he can be proud of. Children who will reflect his qualities and produce a “harvest of righteousness”. Children who will enjoy his presence forever when our earthly race is run.
Well, as I finish this morning, I hope we’ve seen that the Christian life is like a race. A race in which we need to keep going in faith, hope and love. So when you watch the Rio Olympics in a few weeks time, remember that we’re in a race that will last a lifetime. A race that will end when we enter the gates of glory. A race that will conclude when we hear Christ say to us “Well done, my good and faithful servant”.
So with that great day in mind,
- Let’s “strengthen” our weary limbs and look at those who’ve gone before us;
- Let’s cast aside any sin that hinders us;
- Let’s accept any discipline that comes from our Father;
- And above all, let’s keep our eyes fixed on Jesus - the author and perfecter of our faith.