August 18, 2013 Hebrews 12: 1-7
Charissa Clark Howe
I have a feeling many of you guessed as soon as you heard the scripture for today where I was going to go with this sermon. I apologize if I’m a little too predictable. . . I’m definitely going to talk about running races this morning. I’m only 8 weeks away from another full marathon and I’m a little bit single minded right now. This is the thick of my training season. It’s taken over my brain to the point that I actually let out a little happy whoop when I saw this was the lectionary passage for this week because I could keep thinking about running WHILE writing my sermon. It’s a sickness. . I know.
With my one track mind, this analogy seems like a no brainer. But bear with me because it’s a good one. Even if you’ve never run more than a mile in your entire life, this is a pretty easy analogy to identify with. We know it’s exhausting to run a race whether we’ve ever done it of not. It’s not one of those cultural references our 21st century brains just can’t seem to get around.
The words “perseverance” and “endurance” are exhausting just to think about. The word ὑπομονή (Hupomoneh) is defined as meaning “the capacity to hold out or bear up in the face of difficulty, patience, endurance, fortitude, steadfastness, perseverance. . .” Yuck! Who wants to do that?! I’d prefer to stay out of the “face of difficulty,” thanks.
Especially in a world where much of our everyday activity is easy. We live for convenience.
Everything is faster, easier, quicker clean up, less preparation. Sure, there is a time and a place for making things quicker and easier to deal with, but usually the quality of the thing or activity suffers when we rush to make it easier on ourselves.
I made brownies from scratch about two years ago for the first time in my life. I was amazed that they took exactly zero minutes longer to prepare and cook than the ones from the box and they are AMAZING! I had always assumed that the boxed mix was faster and easier and probably wasn’t that different so I hadn’t bothered making them the “long way.” But I had REALLY been missing out.
Endurance is a sport for us. I never learned about endurance until I took up a sport. It was a concept and nothing more. Never had it been a reality for me. I didn’t need much perseverance to muddle through my easy little life. Many of us in this culture have taken that attitude. We don’t feel the need to bother enduring much of anything because we are surrounded with ease, speed and convenience.
But without perseverance, we miss out on discipline.
Discipline sometimes sounds like a dark and scary word, perhaps even an unloving or inappropriate one. It’s often associated only with the idea of punishment, but look at how it’s used in here. The author is comparing it to the way a parent teaches a child. We have to discipline our children or they will go totally nuts. Sometimes they go nuts anyway, but they’ll go especially nuts without discipline.
This word has the same root as disciple. This discipline is the process by which we become a disciple. It’s our training, so to speak.
I didn’t just decide one day that I was going to be a marathon runner and start going out to run 20 miles for fun. I had to start with little bits at a time and sometimes it was pretty awful! I’d never run more than a mile in one shot (and maybe not even that far) until I was 30 years old. I had years of bad habits to overcome. I had to start eating better and learning how to keep going when I really wanted to just sit down and watch a movie. I had to learn how to keep running when I’m sore and tired. I had to overcome years of thinking I was too clumsy and not very athletic. I had to combat bad physical habits and bad thought habits. It took a year of careful discipline before I could run that first marathon. And even now, over four years later, I still have to keep working on discipline or not only will I not get any faster or stronger, but I’ll actually begin to get slower and weaker again. And it’s still difficult. I’m still sore from a slow and frustrating training run yesterday. Endurance requires preparation and training. And continued perseverance requires continued discipline. We must be disciplined to reach the goal.
This training for endurance, this discipline is how we learn: how we gain godly perspective on the world around us. God gives discipline though endurance because we are loved and accepted by him as his children. When endurance is pushed aside for the easy road, we miss out on important lessons.
It will be difficult and it’s important to remember what God has to say about the growth that comes out of endurance. Right from the beginning, the author tells us that there are things that will trip us up and weigh us down. In the translation of the passage that we read today, there is a phrase in verse 1 that is translated as “clings so closely”: The sin that clings so closely. The original Greek word used is a little more layered just that, though. It has been translated in other versions as: which doth so easily beset, easily trips up, so easily ensnares us, that so easily entangles. The word in Greek has a sense of closeness, of stickiness and it’s also an obstacle that is nearly impossible to avoid. This is the distraction we are dealing with. We’re told to put it aside, set it down, get rid of it. It’s just going to weigh you down.
In longer races – usually anything over about 10 miles – there are people called “pacers.” These pacers run the entire race with a little sign held in the air for their group to keep an eye on. If you stick with the pacer, you’re certain to come across the finish line within about a 5 minute window of their projected time. It’s very difficult to maintain the right pace in a race, even with a GPS watch and lots of training. There are so many things making the race difficult that it’s hard enough to finish, let alone in the time you are aiming for. There are the distractions of the crowds cheering (and sometimes heckling) there are potholes, bad weather (I was rained on for about 3 hours straight during my first full marathon), aches and pains and blisters where you forgot to apply moleskin on your feet and a whole host of other difficulties and distractions. If you don’t have a pace and a pacer or a running buddy to keep up with, things can go south really fast. Not just physically, but mentally.
Just like in literal endurance races, in the “race” that the author of Hebrews is talking about, we don’t have to go it alone. We have a pacer – someone to help us set down and look past the distractions that weigh us down. “Looking to Jesus!” We’re not just running aimlessly through life trying to keep slogging along. Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith – the faith Jake looked at last week in Hebrews 11 – is there just ahead for us to keep our eyes on as we race. Endurance is hard and God knows that. It’s not easy to go through such a life-changing process.
One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen was an orange slice. There has never been a more perfect piece of fruit in existence than this particular orange. It was just the right color to catch the sun in exactly the right way. It was juicy and ripe. I was salivating just looking at this orange slice.
Here’s the funny thing about it, though: I’m not a big fruit eater. I know I look like a healthy eater and I usually am, but it’s not because I like eating healthy food by nature. If I wasn’t running from a family history of diabetes and heart disease, I’d much rather just eat tortilla chips and french onion dip all the time. And dark chocolate. And when I do eat fruit – because I know I have to – I prefer berries and apples. Blueberries you can eat by the handful with little mess, but oranges are sticky and drippy and messy.
But this orange was different. This orange was given to me by a volunteer standing on the side of the road during the 19th mile of my first marathon. I don’t know that I’ve ever thanked anyone more heartily and sincerely than I did the man who handed me that orange slice.
There is something about running that far that changes your perspective on just about everything. I think that’s what I love the most about running marathons. There is a wonderful feeling of accomplishment at the finish line – a big moment of “Holy cow! I DID THAT!” But it’s more than just that temporary runner’s high after completing the race. Even during the race, you find yourself irrevocably changed. Nothing ever looks the same again after a marathon.
All I did was literally run for a while. Imagine how a lifetime of faith, of running God’s race, would change a person! If a physical human race could transform a fruit into a magical moment, think of how enduring God’s divine race can transform everything around you!
You might just be at the start line of your race. Embrace the excitement, but remember not to shoot out of the corral too fast or you might burn out. Pace yourself and keep your eyes on Christ. You might feel like you’re at mile 19. You’ve been running for a long time and you’re so tired, but you still have a good long while ahead of you. Pace yourself and keep your eyes on Christ. Eventually, there will be a water and fuel stop with oranges. Or if you’re really lucky. . . peanut butter. . . or maybe dark chocolate. No matter where you are, shed the weights and sins that are clinging so close. Keep your eyes on Christ who endured for us so that we might in turn persevere for His Glory.