We are about to start new year. It is a natural time for us to reflect on how we’ve been doing spiritually during the year we are leaving behind, and also to plan the way ahead for the months to come. In other words, we need to take stock. We need to put ourselves through a spiritual MOT. The government forces us to do this with our cars annually; I’m asking you to do this voluntarily. As with our cars, this takes a bit of effort and there will be a price to pay. However, it is positive and beneficial activity. When our mechanic identifies that actually our tyres will soon need to be changed, as does the timing belt and the air filters and spark plugs, and that a section of our exhaust needs replacing, when the work is completed, we will have a safer car which runs much more smoothly. It is clearly worth it.
What’s the best description of the Christian life? What really captures what living as a Christian is like? The Bible uses different images. It is like a battle. It is like servants working in a vineyard. Here, in Hebrews 12, the Christian life is described as a race. ‘… let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us…’ (Hebrews 12:1) All images show it’s a life of hard work!
The writer of Hebrews is concerned for his readers. They were thinking about giving up the Christian race. They were flagging. He wants to encourage them to keep going. The whole letter is designed to encourage Christians to keep going in the faith – to keep on trusting in Jesus and the good times and the bad. By giving up Judaism, these Hebrew Christians faced pressure from their families and communities. Some also had to bear financial loss and some were even persecuted. Giving up was a real temptation back then. Today it is exactly the same. Some of you might be considering giving up.
Let’s be honest. We all know many people who used to be running the Christian race with us out on the tracks, but they are no longer doing so. We can think of people in our families and in this church, or other churches we have been part of, and they are disillusioned, confused or sucked into a sinful pattern of life and have given up. Perhaps you are one of them. Perhaps you will be some time soon. People are constantly tempted to stop running because the race is hard. How does this happen? Could it happen to us? These verses go a long way to explain much of what is going on.
I want us to consider today how we can run the race well. If our running has been poor, I want us to think how we can make changes so that we might make progress once again. God doesn’t want part-time Christians, or people who follow him half-heartedly. ‘I will praise you, Lord, with all my heart.’ (Psalm 138:1) God wants our best. He wants all our heart. He wants us to take the race seriously and run well.
Realise we are in a long and hard race. The word for ‘race’ here is agona, where we get the word agony from. It’s not a short race like the 100 metres, but it is far more like a marathon. It takes great perseverance to run this race, because it lasts the whole of our lives. That’s tough. We need encouragement. We need incentives. There are hills to climb sometimes. There are obstacles in our ways and many temptations. This requires sustained effort.
God wants a lifetime of service from us! The Christian life is long-term thing, heading to a final goal. And in one sense, everything we do is part of that race. Each and every day we take new strides in the race. As you go through the rest of this day, the choices you make, what you do with your time, how you treat others, time spent with God, all of this is part of the race. Our lives are made up of small moments, and we want to journey along the track trusting in Jesus as we go.
Let’s consider 5 things which will help us to keep going in the race of the Christian life.
1. Trust in the providence of God
Notice the race is ‘marked out for us.’ (verse 1) Who marks out the race for us? God has marked it out. We don’t get to choose our own lane. God has planned out the conditions, and this includes seasons where the running is easier and seasons when it seems impossible to carry on. In the hard times, we must submit to God, who has marked out our way, and has done so for a reason, though he doesn’t explain the ‘whys’ to us most of the time.
God is the master of your race. He has marked out your race and determined your track. And he wants you to get on with it and run. Sometimes we might look over our shoulder and see others getting on more easily. They have an easier track. Sometimes we might think, ‘God, it’s not fair that you expect me to keep going with all of this going on. I’m so tired of the obstacles. I’m so tired of the race’. And then we see many friends and neighbours around and life looks easier for them, because they’re not running at all. They are just focused on enjoying life. We might even wish we weren’t in the race.
But let’s pause and consider just how wonderful it is that we are not just running any old race. We are running the King’s race. And each of the stages of the race are there for a reason. God has been honest with us, telling us that the race will be tough. But even the hard things in your life just now have great value and significance, because God is using them all to forge us more into the image of Jesus. None of the hard stuff is pointless! God is working it all for our good. He has designed the track so that even the obstacles and hills will make us fitter and more reliant on him.
I don’t know what temptations, hurdles and pits lie before me in 2024. But I believe that God wants me to keep on running, trusting that they are there for a reason. And I know that one day we will reach the finishing line, and run through the tape, and receive an everlasting prize.
2. Be inspired by those who have already finished the race
‘… we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses.’ (Verse 1) Think of a marathon runner who is ending a lung-busting race, and made her way into the stadium. The supporters in the stadium rise to their feet and cheer her on, and she has extra energy to keep going to the end. That’s exactly what’s going on here.
Who are the great cloud of witnesses? They are the 16 men and women of faith we read about in Hebrews 11. People like Abraham and Moses and Rahab. And what are they witnesses to? To the faithfulness of God. John White says: ‘The writer is bringing witnesses before us who will testify that faith is worth it.’ They have finished the race. They are saying: ‘It can be done. We felt like giving up too but keep on running. You will never regret it.’ In sport, teams are often greatly helped by the cheering of their fans. In our Christian lives, we will be helped by the cheering of believers who have gone before, but we will only hear them cheering if we open our Bibles and read what happened to them! And if we don’t read our Bibles, we’ll miss out on all this encouragement.
For example, maybe you find yourself in seriously sinful and unwise patterns of life. You’re ‘in it’ so deep that your conscience rarely bothers you. But then you open the Bible and you read Psalm 51, and how David was also in that place. He repented and God forgave him and his spiritual joy and vigour returned. David cheers you on. He encourages you that God is gracious and forgiving and it’s worth it getting back on your feet and running again. Or perhaps you are bitter towards God about all the disappointments you have had in your life. It seems like you have been dealt a terrible hand by God. And then you read about Joseph in the Old Testament and hear his words: 20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives (Genesis 50 v 20). Joseph, as it were, shouts at you: ‘It’s all there for a reason. God knows what he is doing’. These witnesses are not dead men to be remembered, but living witnesses to be heard.
As well as the witnesses in Hebrews 11, we have the lives of 1000s of Christians since then who have experienced great suffering and yet persevered to the end. They also cheer us on, if we are willing to listen. This underlines the importance of Christian biography. Why not grab a Christian biography from the church library and hear the cheers of those who have finished the race before us?
3. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus
Yes, the believers of the past are an encourage and inspiration to us. But the ultimate inspiration and example is Jesus himself. He finished the toughest of all races. He faced pain that we will never have to. As well as the searing physical pain of the cross, Jesus was punished for all the sins of all his people, and was forsaken by the Father he had always been with.
But now he is in the place of glory, at the right hand of God the Father. He too can testify that the race is worth it. ‘Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.’ (Verse 3)
‘Fixing our eyes on Jesus…’ (Verse 3) Looking means we know there are many distractions around us – idols- but that we are not going to look to money to drive us, or to pleasure, or to a life lived selfishly, but looking away from idols and to Jesus- deliberately. Where do you get inspiration from? Who is your role model? Who are you looking to?
‘But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.’ (1 Peter 2:20-21)
Keep looking to Jesus. When we think that we cannot go on we remember him- the course that he had- the race he had to run for us. The horror of Gethsemane and Golgotha. And he did it for us. And he triumphed. And in his strength so can we. What was Jesus’ tactic? ‘For the joy set before him he endured the cross…’ Jesus contemplated the fact that his work of saving sinners would bring such joy to his Father. And he contemplated the joy it would bring to the countless people he was going to save. Present joy anticipating these great future blessings helped him to keep going. Likewise, we need to anticipate the joy of Heaven and the approval of our Father, and that will keep us going too.
4. Throw off things in your life which slow you down.
Before I walk in the mountains, I try and make my rucksack as light as possible. It’s hard enough climbing mountains without carrying unnecessary weights.
The same goes for running the Christian race. It is hard enough without wasting energy on things which we don’t need and which ultimately have no or little value. But this is subtle. Because there are many things which are good in and of themselves, but when they begin to occupy too much of our time, they can hinder us and slow us down. Good and legitimate things can end up draining us.
Our smart phones, TV programmes, Facebook, gardening, football, our clothes and appearance, and our hobbies. Are any of these things wrong? Not in themselves. But, they can hinder us if they take up too much of our time. Work, children, and sport: these things are good but they can hinder you if they distract you too much from pursuing Christ. So, as we go through our spiritual MOT we need to ask ourselves, what is slowing me down in my race? What is taking up too much of my time? What do I need to cut back on, so that I can get on with running more seriously?
5. Have a no-nonsense approach to sin
‘…let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles…’ What is sin doing here? It surrounds us like an octopus. Sin prevents us from following Christ. The writer of Hebrews does not mention any specific sins here. We all have different ones which entangle. What sins are entangling you at the moment? Only you can answer that.
But, if you want to run the race God calls you to then get rid of them. Challenge: What are you entangled by today? Is it pride, or lust, or greed, or over-work, or making an idol of your child or children? Do you feel like you can hardly run? Will you take your sins to Jesus? Will you confess them and turn away from them?
Imagine how much your life could change for the better in 2024 if: you waged war on the subtle tentacles of sin in your life, got rid of the things which are slowing you down, keep trusting on the God when the obstacles appear on the track, listen to the voices of those who have gone before us, and keep your eyes fixed on Jesus. Don’t just imagine it – do it. Fix your eyes on Jesus. That’s how we are transformed.
‘And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.’ (2 Corinthians 3:18)