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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

August 18, 2013

Aiming Straight

Isaiah 5:1-7; Hebrews 11:29–12:2

              The word “therefore” is an adverb, and it often catches the ear and grabs your attention.  It means “consequently” or “hence,” and you expect it to be followed by something that summarizes or draws together a subject.  One of the best “therefores” I have ever come across is found at the beginning of the twelfth chapter of the Book of Hebrews.  You will remember that the eleventh chapter is the great chapter on faith.  “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.”  The great hall of fame of those who lived and died “by faith” is recounted.  The author tells us of their lives, and we remember much of the Biblical narrative and men like Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Moses.  They all lived “by faith,” we are told, and their lives changed the world, and keep changing the world for good.  “Yet all these,” he says interestingly, “though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God has provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.”  That “something better” is, of course, Jesus Christ.  But it is also those of us who through over two thousand years have followed Jesus, and lived by faith in Him.

             Then comes as wonderful a “therefore” as you will ever find!  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin that clings to us so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

             Faith is likened here to a race, and I like that for I have a little experience in my life with that race that in so many ways is like life, the marathon.  If life is like a race, it is not like a one meter hundred or two hundred meter dash, or even the four hundred meter run.  No, life is far more like a marathon, a long distance run, an endurance test, a race you can only run by somehow finding the will to keep running long after you feel like quitting, a race that is more of an adventure, a trial, a struggle between your ears to keep putting one foot in front of another.  Of course, Hebrews is not the only book of the Bible to liken the life lived by faith to a race.  At the end of his life, Paul writes to young Timothy and says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”  Don’t we all want to be able to say this someday when our time on this earth draws to a close?

             The author of Hebrews believes that we can.  It is why he writes his letter to a struggling young Christian Church in desperate need of encouragement.  He says first something very simple: “Run the race that is set before us.”  If life is like a race, you have to run the one that is set before you.  Everyone’s race is different.  No two races, no two lives are the same.  When my son Josh was in high school, I became for five years a cross country parent.  For much of the year, cross country seemed to rule our lives, and certainly his.  I learned that every cross country course was different.  They would each lay out their course with those huge orange cones used to mark road work on our highways.  You cannot run whatever course you want.  If you want to run successfully, and contribute to your team, you have to run the race that is set before you.  So it is in life.  Hebrews calls Jesus “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”  For Hebrews, Jesus is the one who has gone out ahead of us and set the cones in their places.  The Bible tells us that God knows our end from the very beginning.  God knows all the days, and all the ways of your life.  And scripture here tells us to “run the race that is set before you.”

             We are often tempted to compare our race to others, to think, “If only I had his life,” or “if only I had her job,” or “her looks,” or “his athletic ability,” or “if only I had his family advantages,” or “a husband like her’s.”  Have you ever noticed how we rarely compare our lives to those whose lots are decidedly more difficult or troubled than ours!?  We are tempted to spend our lives wanting, wishing for some other race to run, some other, some better life to live.  But God says, “Run the race that is set before you.”  “Live the life I have given you to live.”  “Face the challenges and accept the burdens I have given you to bear.”

             This summer Connie and I went on a trip to Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon and the north rim of the Grand Canyon.  The first day in Zion we took a rather tame five mile hike up the Virgin River and back.  But the second day we had a choice: an eight mile hike or a five mile hike.  I wanted to do the eight miler, but Connie announced to the group that I had bad knees and would be doing the five.  We should have considered what kind of destination is labeled “Angel’s Landing!”  It was not just steep, the final part of it followed a narrow path along a sheer cliff drop-off to our left, and we learned that since 2001, six climbers on this route have fallen to their deaths.  The last stretch up we held onto chains and climbed a steep rock face and then shared lunch on top, only to follow the same narrow path down, with no other route than “the one set before us.”  Both of us were exhausted by the scary views both up and down, as there was only one way that would take you safely to the top.

             Hebrews says, “Lay aside every weight and the sin that clings to you so closely.”  Maybe there is some baggage you need to let go of and leave behind this very day.  But “run the race that is set before you.”  Live the life God has given you to live.

             Second, if you are to finish the race and run it well, you have to keep running.  Hebrews says, “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”  Perseverance is utterly essential to every race, and it might be one of the most important words any person can ever hear and heed.  Corrie ten Boom said, “When a train goes through a tunnel and it gets dark you don’t throw away your ticket and jump off.  You sit still and trust the engineer.”  We are unbeaten by life as long as we keep trying.  In 1968, in Mexico City, as the long shadows fell upon the Olympic Stadium, now practically empty, a lone figure entered, wearing the colors of his nation, Tanzania.  He was running with a limp now, bleeding from a fall, the last man to finish the Olympic marathon.  “Why didn’t you simply quit?” he was asked by ABC’s Jim McKay.  John Stephen Aquari said, “My country did not send me seven thousand miles to start this race.  They sent me this far to finish it.”  So it is with Almighty God!  God did not send you here simply to make a start of life.  God put you here, gave you life, in order to finish the race that is set before you.

             Starting a race is fun.  I have run five New York City marathons, and I will never forget the thrill and excitement of the start – bands play, Frank Sinatra sings New York, New York over the loud speaker system.  (“If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere!”)  Boats in the harbor spew water high in the air, and in the distance you see the Manhattan skyline.  But the race does not really begin until the pain sets in, and there is no finishing any race, any life, without learning to run through the pain.

             I read the Bible as much as I can.  (I know, you pay me to read it; there is no virtue in that!)  But sometimes I am surprised by a verse that never spoke to me before in quite the same way.  That happened this week in Proverbs 24:16 – “A righteous man falls seven times, and rises again; but the wicked are overthrown by calamity.”

             We don’t often think of righteousness in this way.  We tend to think righteous people do not fail, or do not sin, or never fall.  The Bible here says exactly the opposite.  There is no shame in falling or failing.  We all fall and fail, especially if we are really trying to live a full life, a faithful life.  All of us who have lived have fallen.  Most of us know what it is to be knocked down by life – by an illness, or a job that went south, or a death, or divorce, by a broken relationship or by some family tragedy … we all fail and fall.  But the only real shame is in not getting back up and by perseverance running the race that is set before you.  God’s word to us all today is, “Get back up and run.  And if you cannot run, then walk … put one foot in front of the other and never, ever give up.”  Do you know the runner’s prayer?  “Lord, if you can pick ’em up, I can put ’em down!”  Perseverance.  Don’t leave church without it!

             Finally, the race is all about the finish line, the end or goal of it all.  Hebrews says, “Run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”  Jesus is our goal, He is the great end towards which we run.  He is our life and we run well only when we keep our eyes fixed upon Him.  It is why we worship each week.  It is why we read the Scriptures and why we pray.  It is why we listen for His words to us.  They are life itself!

             Stephen Covey wrote the best-selling self-help book of the 1990’s, Seven Habits of Highly Effect People.  One of the things he said is, “Effective people begin with the end in mind.”  Covey says, “People are either led by their dreams or followed by their problems.”  Thomas Watson was asked once when he knew IBM, the company he created, grew and led, was going to grow into the large, worldwide corporation that it became.  This Presbyterian Elder said, “From the very beginning.”

             A few years ago I met Bob Murphy at Linville, North Carolina, on the putting green, giving a lesson on the art of putting.  Bob Murphy once was the 1965 United States Amateur.  He said, “Don’t look at the green or the ball.  Look at the hole.  You don’t look at the steering wheel when you drive.  Keep your eye on the hole.”  The hole is where you want to end up!

             Keep your eyes fixed upon Jesus.  He is the “pioneer and perfecter,” the “author and finisher” of our race.  “And He who began a good work in you will carry it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ,” said Paul to the Philippians.  Listen to his words.  And hear this word, this day: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

                                                                                     Amen.

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