An Olympic runner must ask himself how he can run faster. As he trains, the athlete learns techniques to increase his speed. Every precise motion of every stride is analyzed to find even the tiniest inefficiency that could slow him down. He polishes and hones his running style until he is as fast as he can possibly be.
If a runner encounters a problem that he cannot overcome, then he becomes frustrated. Perhaps there is a glitch in his stride that he cannot get rid of. If he tries to go faster but cannot, then he may become disenchanted with running altogether.
Are you frustrated? When it comes to your Christian walk (or perhaps I should say, your "Christian run") are you trying to get better, but not succeeding? Do you not have the joy you used to feel at being a Christian?
Make no mistake: The Christian life is indeed a struggle. The race in our text is a painful, difficult fight. We need patience, persistence, stubbornness, and grit.
Let us see how we are supposed to be running this race. First of all, we are supposed to run with this in mind: that a great cloud of witnesses surrounds us. These witnesses are some of the fathers in the faith from Hebrews chapter eleven, like Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and others. If we compare our lives to theirs, we do not look good. Yes, these Old Testament heroes made their mistakes, but who among us would claim to be in the same league as Moses or Joseph? Yet we are supposed to live up to their example.
Secondly, we are supposed to throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. If you examine your life, are there sticky sins that you cannot shake off? Are there things in your life that slow you down or distract you from your Christian walk? Do you try and try to resist certain temptations, but you do not succeed? A runner cannot go fast with something tangled in his legs. A runner cannot go fast while burdened with a heavy weight.
Brothers and sisters, we should not tolerate heavy weights and entanglements in our Christian lives. But it is in the nature of sin that it entangles us. The "entangling sin" even makes our good works defective by giving us pride or making us think that our goodness comes from our works. Then even our own efforts to do the right thing weigh us down, even when we think that we are really starting to get things accomplished.
The third way that we are supposed to be running is this: We are to run with perseverance. That means that we, like Christ, should ignore any pain and shame, and even ignore death itself for the sake of running our race. But we shy away from suffering. We avoid embarrassment. We may say that we do not fear death, but when we come face to face with it, that is a different matter.
A runner who is afraid will be slow. A runner who is self-conscious or embarrassed will be sluggish. A runner who concentrates on his pain rather than the goal will never win. Are we persevering? Are we putting all our effort and concentration into the race set before us? No. We are all falling down and tripping up constantly.
We are pathetic spiritual athletes. We are slow. We are easily distracted. We lack dedication. We do not live up to the standards set for us. We are not driven to excel, but instead are content to avoid practice, avoid conditioning, avoid work outs and proper diet and everything else that would help us in our struggle.
A pathetic runner does not make it to the Olympics. A bad athlete earns no glory. What have we earned? Certainly not eternal glory, but eternal shame; not the joy of victory, but the agony of defeat that lasts forever and ever in hell. That is what our performance as Christians has earned us.
But the text still offers you very great hope. You see, it's not really about your efforts, but about Christ and His work in your place, and about faith in Him.
Christ is the Author and Perfecter of your faith. He is the Source of your salvation, from beginning to end. Even before the world began, He chose you. Throughout history, He was working for your sake to bring God's grace into the world so that you might have salvation. As a child conceived in a virgin and as a Boy born in Bethlehem and laid in a manger, Jesus began His earthly work.
That work led Him through pain and torture and finally to the Cross, where at last He cried, "It is finished!" It is the victory cry of the athlete who has suffered greatly in the most difficult contest ever, and then burst through the finish line. "It is finished!" He completed your salvation on the Cross by creating the perfect object for you to trust. He is your perfect Savior. He finished all the work that had to be done. He delivered complete forgiveness and eternal life to you. Nothing is left for you to earn. All the perseverance and patience, all the struggle and endurance, are found in Christ Jesus.
That single fact changes everything in our text. First of all, the cloud of witnesses is not great because they had good works, but because they had faith. You run the race exactly like them because you have faith in Christ. The way to have faith is to fix your eyes on Christ as the one Source of your salvation and believe in nothing else, especially not in your own goodness. Fixing your eyes on Christ does not primarily mean using Him as an example, but to look to Him as the all-sufficient Savior of your life.
So the race is run by faith in Christ. As a result of having faith in Him, you will naturally want to fight against sin in your life. Sins and distractions try to obscure and block faith. So you struggle against them. Yet remember that the real fight has already been completed on the Cross. The fight is already won for you by your Lord.
The ultimate "throwing-off" of sin happens through faith, not through effort. On the Cross, all your sins are considered destroyed already, and in God's sight all your burdens are lifted off your shoulders. God's declaration of your perfect goodness will be fulfilled completely when you are given a new body without sin, and then you will be perfect in every thought and every word and every deed.
The Holy Spirit keep you in hope for that day, and keep your eyes fixed on Christ and the Cross, to guard you in faith to life everlasting. Amen.
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