Get Ready! Get Set! Go!

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Hebrews 12:1–2 (NLT) Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.* Because of the joy* awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne.

These 2 verses are very important to me.  In fact, they are my life verses.  Christians sometimes have a life verse, one or 2 verses that seem to speak to the person’s life and purpose in Christ.  For me these 2 verses offer direction and inspiration for my life and walk with Jesus Christ.

The first thing that the author reminds us is the great cloud of witnesses of which he has just spoken in ch. 11:  Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Samson, David, Samuel and all the prophets.  And not only these witnesses, but the great cloud of witnesses that have come down through the centuries, the great saints through the ages:  Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and John Wesley, just to name a few.  And all those who have influenced me:  Thomas Oden, Eugene Petersen, Justo Gonzalez, and all my seminary professors:  John A. Cook, Joseph Dongell, Jeffrey Frymire, Richard Gray, Craig S. Keener, Kevin Kinghorn, Frederick Long, Ellen L. Marmon, Stacey Minger, Steven O’Malley, Greg Okesson, Joseph Okello, John Oswalt, Michael Petersen, Stephen Seamands, Timothy Tennent, Thomas Tumblin, Russell West, Ben Witherington III, and many others especially my friend and mentor Rev. Dr. William Sillings.  Then I think about the great saints of the churches I have served and where I grew up in the faith.  I think about Calvary UMC, Windber, PA and especially Rev. Dan Orris who confirmed me and took an interest in me and led me into the life of faith.  I think of all those ladies who took the time to teach children’s Sunday School.  I remember the faith of my grandmother Mary Felix Herdman, and my mother, Carol Martinez.

When you begin to name the names of those people of faith who have influenced me, just one life, it soon becomes a great cloud of witnesses.  I am grateful all those who influenced me for Christ.  I can’t even remember all your names, but in my life y’all have been a great cloud of witnesses, as influential and important as those listed in the Hall of Faith (Heb. ch. 11)

And then the author uses this metaphor of running the race.  Like we are in this great race, like the Olympic marathon, and we are entering the stadium to the cheering throng of believers who has gone before us.  I had the experience of running the Stuttgarter Zeitung Half-Marathon.  It runs 13.1 miles through the streets of Stuttgart.  The finish is in the stadium for the VfB Stuttgart 1893, the professional soccer team.  As you enter the stadium, it was filled with all the well-wishers and family and friends of those running.  They actually film you entering and they announce you as you surge toward the finish line, “Here comes Steven!”  And you feel like a professional athlete, like you are winning the Olympics.  And everyone who finishes gets a medal.

That’s what it’s like to run the race of faith.  “Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses to the life of faith, cast off every impediment and the sin which so easily entangles us…”  (Heb. 12:1)  The word translated as cast off is apothmenoi, meaning to lay aside, to put off in a figurative sense.   The word translated impediment is ogkos, meaning a tumor, mass, magnitude, weight, burden, impediment.  The impediments or encumbrances are those things which might not be sins, but are things that might call us away from the life of faith.  In the parable of the sower, Jesus calls these things “the worries of this life, the lure of wealth, and the desire for others things.”  So Jesus says, “so no fruit is produced.” (Mark 4:19)  Sports are good, but when sports cause us to avoid going to church, for example, they become an impediment or encumbrance to our faith.

The word translated as sin is hamartia meaning sin, missing the mark.  Sin is missing the true end and scope of our lives, which is God.  Sin is an offense in relation to God with an emphasis on the truth.  The basic sense of this word is as if you aiming at a target  and you miss it.  In this case, the author is speaking of “especially the sin that so easily trips us up,” by which he means particular sins and especially the sin of unbelief, that is, leaving behind faith in Jesus Christ.

What the author suggests is that the life of faith is like a race.  And in a race, the runners don’t wear their regular clothing (in fact, in Greco-Roman times, the Olympic athletes would run naked).  But they wear special running clothes, light weight clothing and special racing shoes.  They want to run as fast as they can, so they get rid of every weight that would slow them down.  That is how we should run the race of or life of faith.

“Run with endurance the race God has set before us.”  (Heb. 12:1)  In the Greek, this is the only imperative.  It’s the key part of these verses.  It’s what the author is emphasizing.  The word for race is agon from which we get our English word ‘agony,’ meaning a contest or race for victory such as running, boxing, or wrestling.  So Paul says, “Fight the good fight of the faith…”  (1 Tim. 6:12)  and “Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize?  So run to win! ”  (1 Cor. 9:24)

The word translated endurance is hupomone meaning bearing up under, patience, endurance as to things or circumstance; perseverance, patience, endurance, constancy under suffering in faith and duty.  In the letter to the Hebrews, the author is writing to the church who are suffering persecution and as a result are wavering in their faith and in fact, some may have given up the faith and returned to Judaism.  So the author wants to encourage them to continue to run the race with endurance and patience even in suffering.

How do we run the race of faith with endurance?  “We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.”  (Heb. 12:2)  Jesus is the supreme example of faithful endurance (Heb. 3:1)  Our endurance and perseverance in the Christian life will depend on keeping our focus on Jesus and on his saving work .  He is the champion who has gone before us and has accomplished everything necessary for faith under the new covenant to be a reality.  He is our leader and our supreme example, and he is also the firstfruits of salvation in the resurrection.  His resurrection proves the truth of our blessings of eternal life and the resurrection:  our blessed hope.

Lord, we thank you for this race of faith into which you have invited us.  I’m grateful for the great cloud of witnesses who have been influential in my life of faith, both those I have known personally and those whose influence has been through books and sermons.  I’m especially grateful for the example of faithful family, my grandmother and mother who have run the race and are now looking down on my race and cheering me on to the finish line.  Give me that faith of those who went before me that I might too run the race to the finish.  Give me that faith to endure to the end, following my Captain and Champion, Jesus Christ, never losing sight of Jesus, my Lord, as he runs before me.  Amen.

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