People can be so wrong.
Last Saturday the northern edition of a national Sunday paper went to press just after Kelly Holmes had won her second Olympic Gold Medal in the 1500 metres. But it was just before the UK sprint relay team had remarkably won their Gold Medal. So what did the newspaper say the following morning? Under the headline Worst British Performance it said this:
"No sprinter in the 100m final. Darren Campbell was injured, Mark Lewis Francis and Jason Gardner could not make it past the semi-finals. Lewis-Francis may only be 21 but former 100m Olympic champion Donovan Bailey stated that he had the potential to top the world rankings come Athens. [And] Gardner is the reigning indoor 60m world champion. Not good enough.
Within minutes of that going to press, those three runners plus Marlon Devonish were winning Gold and beating the American super-runners. People can be so wrong.
And millions get is so wrong about the Christian Race that we heard about in our New Testament reading. They deny that there is such a race. But many of us are here tonight because, on the contrary, we know that there is a "race marked out for us" - as individuals and as a church. So before the Olympic Games and athletics go from our minds for another four years and in the context of this Commissioning Service, I want us to think about the Christian Race that the writer to the Hebrews talks about in Hebrews 12 1-2.
Maybe there is someone here tonight and you genuinely think this is all make believe - and there is no race. Can I say that we always have people asking questions about the Christian faith, and you are always welcome. But because I'm going to be talking tonight mostly to convinced believers, can I urge you not to get it wrong in respect of what it is you think you are rejecting. You see, our focus tonight is on Christians living and working for Christ over the next 12 months. But you really need to begin with the foundations. And we have Christian Foundation courses just for you - ask Jonathan Redfearn about our Christianity Explored courses. You there learn that to begin the Christian Race you don't have to be a good runner. You simply need faith in Jesus Christ. You don't begin the race because you have already run well in the Christian equivalent of Olympic Trials. And God is rewarding you. No! You begin the race not because of what you have done, but because of what Christ has done for you on the Cross at Calvary where he bore your sin. So much by way of introduction.
I now want to have just two main headings. They are, first, (and briefly) THE RACE and, secondly, HOW TO RUN - and under that heading I want to have five short sub-headings.
Look at the second part of verse 1 of Hebrews 12:
"let us RUN with perseverance the race marked out for us."
Notice three things. First, the obvious - namely that you and I are encouraged to "run". You see, once you are a Christian you can't stand still. If you don't go forwards, you go backwards. Can I urge all of you tonight about that basic truth. This is one of the main lessons of this letter to the Hebrews. In Hebrews 2 verse 1 it says this:
"We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away."
Here the picture is not of a race. Rather the picture is of a boat. Some years ago David Cowper (a Newcastle man who holds a number of world sailing records) asked our family to join the celebrations on his new boat. He was aiming to be the first person single handedly to sail through the ice bound north west passage. Before he set sail there was this little party. At some point I was to pray for him, for the boat and for the voyage - a bit like our prayer this morning at the official opening of 3 Osborne Road. It was Autumn and late evening and the intention was to sail from Newcastle to Blythe. However, while we were still in the Tyne and approaching the two piers, a very thick fog came down and visibility was zero. It was quite frightening with no radar and the possibility of large shipping around. So we virtually stopped dead. We hoped the fog would lift. But in that eerie silence and not being under-way the boat was drifting and then suddenly, crunch - we were on the Black Midden Rocks.
It is the same in the Christian life and the Christian Race. If you don't move forward, you drift. You don't stand still. And if you drift, sooner or later there will be one "crunch" or other. That is true of us as individuals. It is also true of us as a church. That is why we are concerned to move forward at JPC with our new vision as we seek to be more faithful in Godly Living, Church Growth and Changing Britain. So you have to "run" and run forwards.
Secondly, verse 1 says,
"Let us run THE RACE.
In the original, the word for race implies conflict. It is the same as the word for a "fight". So it is clear that the race you are called to run if you are a believer, is going to be hard. There will be a struggle.
Thirdly, verse 1 says it is ...
"... the race MARKED OUT FOR US".
On a running track you need to keep to the track. You can't run across the grass where the field events are taking place and dodge the javelins to cut the corner off in a 400 meters race! That is not on. Similarly God has a track for you - he has a plan for your life and for my life. And it is a good plan and you need to follow it. The Bible says (Ephesians 2.10) that
"we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do."
How important, then, to trust him and pray and work to fit in with that plan he has for you. And as a Church we are wanting to fit in with his plan for us corporately. We believe that God is guiding us to a new future of "good works". But it won't be easy for any of us. The writer to the Hebrews says that this is not an egg and spoon race but a tough contest. So much for the race.
Secondly HOW TO RUN- and I want to highlight five principles.
First, BE MOTIVATED BY THE CROWD.
In any sport, a home crowd is a great advantage. England won the soccer World Cup when Britain hosted the World Cup in 1966 and the final was at the old Wembley Stadium in London with a home crowd. So look now at verse 1 where it says:
"we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses."
This "great cloud of witnesses" is a great motivator. But who or what is this "great cloud of witnesses"? Well, it is a reference to all the believers mentioned in chapter 11 - a very well-known chapter that refers to a number of famous people in ancient Israel and to some unknown men and women of faith as well. These people are seen as the spectators.
Think back to that magnificent stadium in Athens and an occasion when it was packed out. Then imagine a vast stadium that is infinitely bigger and similarly packed out. But the people packing it out are the men and women of faith, now dead, and who are with the Lord. There have been, are, and will be myriads of believers all of whom, in some way or other, can witness to the power of faith. Then imagine that we - the present generation of believers - are in the arena - on the race track. In terms of numbers, we often feel a tiny minority in this present generation. That is how these Hebrew Christians undoubtedly felt - a tiny minority. But in reality we are part of a crowd of millions upon millions. "We are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses" and to remember that is a wonderful encouragement.
What do these "witnesses" witness to? They witness to the life and power of faith. And they witness to the fact that having faith in God and trusting him is the best way to live. It gave them purpose in life. And it meant that when they went wrong, God rescued them and then strengthened them in times of suffering. The list in chapter 11 includes some unexpected people. It includes Rahab, a prostitute; Samson, who got himself into trouble after going with a prostitute; Jephthah who sacrificed his daughter; and David, who at one of the same time, was an adulterer and a murderer. But God gave them new hearts and a new faith. We are told that their "weakness was turned to strength."
Do you feel you are too bad to be forgiven? Well, these people of faith witness to the fact that no one is too bad to be forgiven or too good to need to be forgiven. Even people like Abraham, Moses and Samuel were far from perfect. But the early chapters of Hebrews make it so clear that there is forgiveness and new life for everyone through the cross of Christ. So first we need to be motivated by the crowd.
Secondly, verse 1 says:
"let us THROW OFF EVERYTHING THAT HINDERS."
Sometimes for stamina training, you can run with weights attached to you. But when it comes to a race, you strip off and wear the lightest of clothes. There is nothing wrong in all sorts of garments from tail coats and wedding dresses to anoraks and overcoats. But they are wrong for running a race. So it is in the Christian Race. You have to have the right priorities. It may be that things not wrong in themselves are making you ineffective for Christ. Perhaps hobbies are taking up too much of your time, or your career is squeezing out the things of God or something else is.
Thirdly, verse 1 says:
"let us THROW OFF ... [ALSO] THE SIN THAT SO EASILY ENTANGLES."
There are some things you have to throw off that are not neutral, but plain wrong. This is "the sin that so easily entangles". Picture, now, running cross-country and somehow a longish piece of rope is left on the course, and you kick it up and it gets tangled round your legs. You then can't run at all, because you can't move your legs.
Now it depends on your age, your temperament, and a number of other factors which sins will entangle you like that. But you will have weak points. And the devil attacks those. For some it is lust, for others alcohol, or a bad temper, or gossip or another vice. And there are three sins that seem to tempt every one irrespective of age or temperament.
The first sin is pride. Committed Christians can be proud - proud of the gifts God has given them, of their position or status in the church, or, like the Pharisee in Jesus' parable, of their difference from others. Pride so easily entangles. How we all need to work at being humble and to grow in humility as part of Godly living. The second sin is unbelief. Yes, unbelief is a sin. Jesus says that one of the Holy Spirit's great works is to convict men and women of sin and of the sin of not believing in him (John 16.9). There is also unbelief about our own sinfulness and about God's wisdom and about God's mercy. So beware of pride and unbelief.
The third sin you have to beware of, especially in the Western World, is greed or the love of money. As we think about the new vision for this church there will be (and already are) financial needs. I mentioned this in the Vicar's Note in the July Newsletter and the need for us to release some of the money God has given us for his work at JPC. And there are always mission needs elsewhere around the world.
There is wonderful, sacrificial, committed giving at this church - witness 3 Osborne Road and the official opening this morning. And there are some who only can give a very little but in God's eyes are giving enormously, like the widow who Jesus spoke about. But as we heard when we studied 1 Timothy in the evenings of July and the beginning of August, Timothy, the church leader at Ephesus, was to warn the rich of greed (1 Timothy 6.18):
"Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share."
Compared with people in Southern Russia where they have experienced that terrible massacre, and certainly compared with our friends in Mburi in Rural Kenya, most of us are rich in the UK even when we are not as rich as many others. So beware of the sin of greed as well as of pride and unbelief. We need to "throw off ... the sin that so easily entangles".
Fourthly, we are to "RUN WITH PERSERVERANCE".
A wonderful example of perseverance was that Brazilian who seemed to be winning the Marathon. But then a madman rushed out and attacked him. Yet he didn't give up. He didn't say, "Because I won't get Gold, I am going to retire." He persevered. Perseverance is keeping going forward when all the odds are against you.
Perseverance is being like Joshua and Caleb whom we heard about in our Old Testament reading from Numbers 13 and 14. The other spies demotivated the people and made them grumble "against Moses and Aaron". They talked up all the opposition and difficulties in the "promised land". But Joshua and Caleb, as a minority of two, said:
"Do not rebel against the Lord. And do not be afraid of the people of the Land, because we will swallow them up. Their protection is gone, but the Lord is with us. Do not be afraid of them."
Who are you like to-night and as you face this coming year - those ten spies and all the crowd they taught to be negative and faithless, or like Joshua and Caleb? How we all need regularly to remind ourselves of those words of Joshua and Caleb:
"the Lord is with us. Do not be afraid."
So, fourthly we must persevere and not give up as we run the race.
But, fifthly and with this I conclude. And this is most important of all. Verse 2 says we are to...
"... FIX OUR EYES ON JESUS, THE AUTHOR AND PERFECTER OF OUR FAITH, WHO FOR THE JOY SET BEFORE HIM ENDURED THE CROSS, SCORNING ITS SHAME, AND SAT DOWN AT THE RIGHT HAND OF THE THRONE OF GOD."
The word in the original means, literally, you take your eyes off one thing and put them on another. So you are to "look away" to Jesus from someone or something else. First, look away from yourself to Jesus. Some Christians are very introspective. Yes, you do have to examine yourself spiritually, especially when you come to Holy Communion, but only after you've learnt first to look away to Jesus. He gives you such a sense of perspective and balance.
Secondly, look away from your own sin. If you've confessed it, Christ will forgive you. How the devil loves to make some people continually dig up confessed sin.
Thirdly, look away from your own suffering and all those pressures and problems. Instead "fix your eyes on Jesus". Hebrews has earlier said in chapter 4 verse 15 that Jesus is your high-priest who is able "to sympathize with our weaknesses". And remember that by his Holy Spirit he can strengthen you. He is "the author and perfecter of our faith". It is not that we trust Christ just to begin the race and then run on our own. No! He is with us always, to strengthen, correct, forgive, lead, help and encourage us by his Holy Spirit. He, indeed, gives us faith. And he also is our supreme example: "he endured the cross, scorning its shame." He suffered and was made a fool of. Are you prepared to follow in his footsteps? So how did he endure? Answer: "for the joy set before him". He had that big picture as his goal. He looked forward to the fullness of God's kingdom. Do you and I have that sort of hope - hope for the immediate future as you seek to see more of God's kingly rule here on earth, and hope for that ultimate future? That is when God (Revelation 21.4) ...
"... will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."
And what was the result of Christ's suffering? Answer: victory and glory. He ...
"... sat down at the right hand of the throne of God."
Jesus Christ is Lord - and Lord of all. That is the greatest encouragement as we look ahead to this coming year. So this year, and every year,
"since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God."