Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 14, 2016, St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, Texas
Sermon Text: Hebrews 12:1-3
Sermon Theme: “Run with Endurance”
(Sources: Anderson’s Cycle C Preaching Workbook; Harper’s Bible Dictionary; Life-Application Study Bible; Online Running and Jogging Jokes; Footnotes, Concordia Self-Study Bible; original ideas; Emphasis Online Illustrations; Believer’s Commentary)
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
Michael Johnson, winner of four Olympic gold medals and eight World Championships gold medals, and 400 meter world-record setter, is considered the greatest and most consistent sprinter in the history of track and field.
Well, this icon among runners went to a fancy restaurant club with his friends. He was dressed in a T-shirt and blue jeans, attire which violated the dress code of this elegant establishment.
At the door he was told, “Sorry, sir, you can’t come in here dressed like that.”
Michael was quite annoyed at this, and he retorted, “Don’t you know who I am? I’m Michael Johnson!”
“Then it won’t take you long to run home and change, will it?,” said the maitre d’.
Michael Johnson has now retired from running, so the favorite for winning this year’s Olympic gold medal in the 400 meter at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is Kirani James from Grenada. A new hero in the making!?
Back in the days when our sermon text was written, in Asia Minor where Paul, Barnabas, Apollos, Timothy, and others served as missionaries, the original Olympics games, as well as less prestigious track events such as those at Corinth and Ephesus, were greatly loved, enjoyed and followed by just about everyone, including Paul and his fellow workers. I mention this because the picture language used by the writer to the Hebrews is about running a race.
For over a thousand years, the letter to the Hebrews was thought to have been written by the Apostle Paul, but it has since been proven that Paul didn’t write it, in spite of the fact that the imagery in the letter sounds so much like that which Paul uses in his First Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 9, verses 24 to 27.
Since it wasn’t written by Paul, the letter must have been penned by one of his fellow-missionaries. Some Bible scholars think Barnabas wrote the letter, others, including Martin Luther, are convinced it was written by Apollos. It was obviously written by someone who was influenced by Paul. But everybody loved watching foot races in those days!
There were Olympic type games played in the stadium in Corinth as well as in Ephesus, both located in the Circuit where these missionaries worked; and even Olympia itself, where the first Olympics were held, in southern Greece, was located in the general area of their mission work.
Our sermon text begins, “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 endurance the race that is set before us.” This is echoed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:24, “Do you not know that in a race, all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.”
“Let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely.” When you run a race, you don’t want to be weighed down with unnecessary baggage. This verse pictures the runner stripping off his clothes and running light and free. Running free does not mean to be released from all restraints. It does mean that we ask God to help us rid ourselves of unnecessary baggage – worries, anxieties, preoccupation with material goods, and especially, un-forgiven sins. That way, we can focus on the goal that our Lord has set for us and win the prize.
When Apollos, Barnabas, and Paul were going to sporting events, foot races were run totally naked, so that there was nothing to hinder the body. At ancient Olympia and probably at the other stadium sites, women were not allowed to watch the games.
Imagine Michael Johnson running with baggy pants, combat boots, a heavy parka, and a fifty-pound backpack. It isn’t likely that he would have set any Olympic records if he were so attired. The writer of Hebrews says that we need to strip off all unnecessary attire, as we run the race of faith toward the goal of the gospel.
The Christian life, compared to a foot race, calls for hard work and necessitates getting rid of everything that interferes with our relationship with God. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we must run this race with endurance as we struggle constantly against sin. We must keep our eyes on Jesus, or else we will stumble and fall. We are not running for ourselves, but for Christ, which is why we always have to keep Him in sight.
Let us back up to the beginning of our sermon text, where we are told that we are surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses.” This great cloud of witnesses is made up of all the saints who have gone before us, — keeping in mind that all true Christians, living or dead, are saints.
In the three full paragraphs of Chapter 11, some of these witnesses are discussed, — Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Rahab the prostitute. The writer of the Hebrews introduces each one of the witnesses with the words, “By faith.” So the Christian race is a race of faith, and we are cheered on by a cloud of many saints who have run the race long before we started it.
Almost everyone who reads the verses about this cloud of witnesses raises the question, “Can saints in heaven see our lives on earth, as we run the race, and cheer us on?” I won’t answer that question, but I can quote from Luke 15:7, where Jesus Himself says, “I say to you likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.”
As we become aware of the cloud of witnesses surrounding us, we should draw encouragement from them and press on to achieve the goal of the race that is set before us. In running, athletes find encouragement to do better as they look back on what has been accomplished before them. For instance, for a long time, it was assumed that it was impossible to break the four-minute mile. But Roger Bannister first broke that barrier in 1954. Since then, new records for the mile have been set at least 18 times, with the current world record being more than 16 seconds faster than Bannister’s time.
Who knows, — this month in Rio, Kirani James from Grenada may break all of Michael Johnson’s awesome records! Heroes come from many places and in many shapes, sizes, and colors. Look at the cloud of heroes mentioned in Hebrews, — Abraham, — it took a lot of faith to leave his home for an unknown far country and to believe that his wife could have a baby in her old age.
Moses – that he could lead the complaining, back-sliding Israelites through the wilderness to the Promised Land, and think how much faith it must have taken to believe the Lord could get him and his people across the Red Sea. By faith, the walls of Jericho fell down, — Joshua had that kind of faith, but not in himself, no, — in the Promises of God.
True faith is given by God and implanted in the hearts of His saints by the Holy Spirit who does something that no human being can do. You and I may have the privilege of leading many people to Jesus Christ, but we will never be able to implant faith in a person’s soul.
Dwight Moody, the evangelist famous for bringing so many folks to Jesus, was confronted by a reporter one day. The reporter said, “We just saw some of your converts getting drunk behind the church building, what do you say to that?” Moody replied, “I say this, they truly are my converts and not the Lord’s converts. They may be followers of Dwight Moody, but they are not disciples of Jesus Christ.” You see, faith is God’s domain.
Our sermon text concludes with these words, “Consider Him who endured from sinners such hostility against Himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” The greatest of witnesses for us was our Savior, Jesus Christ, Himself. He is the creator of our faith as well as the finisher of our faith. He not only began the race but also finished it triumphantly.
For Jesus, the race course began in heaven, then continued in an incredible way in Bethlehem, then on to Gethsemane and Calvary, then out of the tomb and back to heaven. He endured the suffering and shame and death to now sit at the right hand of the throne of God! He was not only the greatest of the witnesses for us, but also the founder and perfecter of our faith who enables us to run the Christian race with faith, determination, perseverance, and victory.
In the days of Paul, Barnabus and Apollos, the victory prize awarded at Olympia was an olive wreath. Today, in Rio, it’s a gold medal. The prize for the Christian’s race of faith is eternal life. Go for it! Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen.