Scripture: Hebrews 11:29-12:2
My wife grew up in a White Sox family, but other than having that tribal affiliation she is not that big of a sports fan . .. usually. That changes every four years. Every four years she suddenly knows what a record setting pace in butterfly stroke is, she knows what kind of stumble can earn a half a point deduction, and she even knows the rules of water polo. My wife loves the Olympics, especially the summer Olympics. This last week had her favorite events, gymnastics and swimming, but she will continue to watch the next week as track and field takes center stage. While I do not have her zeal for the games, I do love the concept of the world coming together to compete. I looked over the list of events and I noticed a couple of things. First, trampoline jumping is a sport, who knew? Second, looking over the list of Olympic events, it is clear that as humans we love to race. At the summer Olympics there are 306 events, and 112 of them are races. At the Olympics people race by running, walking, swimming, riding bikes, paddling boats, and sailing boats. There will be races that are sprints and races that are long distances. There will be individual races and there will be team races. It is divided up over a variety of different disciplines, but when you get down to it, racing is probably the favorite type of sport in the world. It does not matter if it involves just our bodies, an animal, or a machine like a car, boat, or plane. Somewhere in the world it is being raced somehow. Henry Ford once famously said that “auto-racing began five minutes after the second car was built.” The intense desire to compete by being the first one across the line seems to be hardwired into our being. People love to race, and that has probably always been the case. In the Bible there are a few sports analogies and metaphors. Every single one of them has to do with racing. This morning’s scripture encourages in verse 12:1 “let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” As we consider this scripture and how we run our race, I think there are three points about running the race this scripture can teach us.
First, one of the most important ingredients to running a race is fuel. This is a lesson that Indy Car legend Mario Andretti learned on multiple occasions. In the 1972 Indianapolis 500, Andretti was running at the top of the pack, but with only six laps to go he ran out of gas. Then in 1991, he was running 5th and with ten laps to go he ran out of gas on the back stretch. It is not just racecars that need fuel. Swimmer Michael Phelps, when he is at peak training and competition like right now, consumes about 4,000 calories a day. In between swims this can include an entire pound of cooked spaghetti. All of those calories and carb-loading are necessary because he expends and enormous amount of energy in the pool. In the same way, the race of discipleship that we are to run requires fuel. The fuel that discipleship needs is faith. This morning’s scripture mentions that it is by faith that the heroes of the Old Testament were able to accomplish what they could accomplish. This morning’s scripture mentions all that the heroes and prophets faced, and it credits their ability to thrive in those pressing circumstances to their faith. Faith is the fuel of discipleship. We started this morning’s scripture in chapter 11 at verse 29, but if we jump back to 11:1 there is a perfect definition of faith: “Now faith is the confidence in what we hope for and assurance what we do not see.” As disciples of Jesus Christ our hope is in Christ alone. Our hope is found in Jesus’ blood and the forgiveness from sins made known on the cross. Our hope is rooted in the promise that there is nothing in heaven or earth that can separate us from the eternal love of God. Our hope gives us an assurance, a blessed assurance, that even though we do not see God in all God’s glory we know that we are destined to fly away and spend an eternity in the presence of the almighty. Hope and assurance are the building blocks of faith, and this faith is what should empower us in the morning. When we rise, it is our hope in Christ that should motivate us to take on a new day of potential. When the news is bad, when the unexpected happens, when the storm rolls in, it is our faith, our hope and our assurance, which allows us to power through the worst life has to throw at us. We know that on our own we may not be able to make it, but we also know that we are not on our own. The God in whom he hope has given us the unshakeable assurance that we are not alone. Brothers and sisters in Christ, how much fuel does your discipleship have this day? Are you full and running the race with perseverance or do you feel empty this day? If you feel like you are running at or below the “E”, then take heart. May you focus your heart and soul on the reasons why you can have hope, and you may seek the assurance that God is with you. Hope and assurance create faith, faith is what the ancients were commended for, and faith is the fuel that propels our faithful discipleship forward.
The second element from racing and this scripture that we can learn is we should not do it alone. Successful racers never do it alone. In the Olympics one of the racing events that I think is a little under-rated is rowing. It usually gets TV time during daytime hours on the back up cable channels. One of the things though that is fascinating about rowing though is how in sync the team is. If it is a team or just a partner they move in perfect coordination, and the team that is the most coordinated together is often the winner. Even in individual races, no one goes at it alone. In auto-racing, everyone know the pit crew and mechanics have just as much responsibility for a win as the driver does. Even when there is not a support team, there is a support team. Competitive runners and swimmers will tell you they owe a lot of their success to their coaches, their trainers, their sports medicine professionals, and the people in their life who act as their cheerleaders. No on goes at it alone, and our faith should be the same way. The world does not need, and the gospel is not advanced, by lone ranger Christians. Verse 12:1 of this morning’s scripture states, “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. Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” This morning’s scripture gives us plenty of biblical examples of this great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us. We can absolutely learn from these biblical examples, but we also surrounded by a cloud of witnesses in the pews right now. To run the race with perseverance we need to rely on each other. When one of us struggles, we should help one another throw off all that hinders and avoid the sin that so easily entangles. There is a video from the 1992 Olympics that illustrates what we should do.
Derek’s father saw him struggling, and he came beside help to help him run the race. He did not wait, for his son to ask for him. He did not even wait until he had proper permission to get onto the track. He did not tell an official, “call me if you need anything.” He saw his son struggling and went to help. That is the example that we need to follow. When we see one another hindered or entangled, we need to do better than sympathetically say “I’ll pray for you” or “call me if you need anything.” We need to do something, we need to come along side one another. We need to serve one another and we need to encourage one another to be confident in what we hope for and have an assurance in what we do not see. We were never meant to follow Jesus in isolation, but always in community. It is only as a community that we can run the race marked out for us, as we rely on one another to be that cloud of witnesses who encourages us, inspires us, and when we fall runs alongside us.
The final thing we can learn from this morning’s scripture about running the race of discipleship is where our focus should be. In racing there is a quote, I think it is a bit unrefined, but it gets the point across. The quote goes, “winners focus on winning. Losers focus on winners.” I am not a big fan of the use of the word loser, because winning should not be everything. However, I like that the point of the quote is on focus. Those who win are more focused on being the first across the line, those who do not win are focused on beating someone else. According to the quote, the focus of winners is on the end goal whereas the focus of people who do not win is a bit more distracted. In our discipleship, the final element is also on focus. After we throw off that which hinders and entangles, after we begin running the race with perseverance, the scripture continues in verse 12:2that we should be “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” The focus of our mind, hearts, and souls. Better yet the focus and sole object that entire live points to should be Jesus, our Lord and Savior. All that we do and all that we are should be devoted to following the trail of love and service that he pioneered. That is our end goal. Now the problem with the winners quote, is that it puts all of the focus on winning and losing. That is fine for 100 meter dash, but life is a lot more complex than that. Winning and losing at discipleship is not easily measured. There is also the fact that we will have setbacks, we will have failures, and we will have losses. That is why I like this quote from all-time great basketball player Michael Jordan better. Jordan said, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
I love the honesty of that quote, because it acknowledges that there will be failure and failure does not mean we should quit. When we fall, we get back up again. When we take our eyes off of Jesus, we refocus them. When we get lost in the weeds, we look up and find our way again. We do this because we have a race to run.
The race of discipleship is a lifelong race. As such, it is a bit different than any other race that is ever run. Sometimes it is an endurance race, other times a sprint. Sometimes we need to make frequent pit stops and other times we stay on the track. No matter how our own race goes, we all of the same goal. Jesus is the finish line, and to live more like him is our objective. We do this by being fueled by a faith that is based in hope and assurance. We do this with one another, and we do this by keeping focused on him. No matter what hurdles we face, no matter what debris is on the track, no matter how banged up we get, we keep our focus on Christ. May we do that. May we rely on one another as a great cloud of witnesses and may we run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Brother and sisters in Christ, on your marks, get set, Go!