Well, I want to start this evening by asking you a question. It’s a question I was first asked just over 20 years ago when I had the privilege of being one of the first ever UCCF Relay Workers. Depending on who you speak to we were either the classic prototype Christian Union student workers, or the Guinea Pigs. I’d testify to the latter as we were pretty clueless and needed a lot of training. One of the things I most remember from our training was this question that they asked at the end of our time on Relay: Where do you see yourself in 10 years time? It stood out to me as it challenged us to have a clear vision for our future lives, and it makes me wonder… what are your hopes and dreams for the future? Where do you see yourself in 10 years time?
Well I don’t know what you came up with there – But the Bible has a clear vision not just for the next 10 years of your life, but for the entire rest of your time on planet earth, and it could be summed up with just one word. That word is: “RUN!” “Run the race.” The New Testament frequently uses the concept of a race to represent how the Christian should live, and we find it most famously in Hebrews 12 verse 1.
There the apostle Paul reflects on the lives of those who have gone before and run in faith right to the end. Now the writer urges his readers to remember these men and women of great faith and to see them as witnesses to what we do, as he says: “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...”
At first glance I’m deeply discouraged by that verse. All those great heroes of the faith mentioned in the Hebrews 11 are looking on as I run the race. Moses who resisted the temptations of status, fleeting pleasures and earthly treasures is watching on from the grandstands as I singularly fail in each of those 3 areas. Noah who “when warned about things not yet seen, was willing to make a public fool of himself by building an ark to save his family” – That same Noah is spectating on my cowardly efforts to warn friends of the coming judgement. What must they be thinking about as they watch my feeble performance? Abraham must be turning to the Lord God in disgust, “Oh Father, surely we don’t have to have Matthews up here do we?”
Fortunately this crowd of witnesses don’t watch us, they testify to us. And what they testify to is the faithfulness of God. The writer’s point is to bring witnesses before us who will declare that Faith Is Worth It. They have gone before. In God’s strength they ran well. In faith they ran right to the very end and they finished the race. Now it is our turn; we must run it too and learn from their example.
It’s a fantastic picture. Moses is at your elbow as you approach the starting line. Abraham and Joshua cheer us on from the stands. So too are thousands - millions of unknowns who went through hell on earth and proved God true. Now they are straining to speak to us, to tell us something; and about someone...
And what we learn from them is this: If we are to run the race of faith well and make our lives count – then we are going to have to throw off things that will hold us back and keep our eyes focused on Jesus who made our salvation possible, keeps us, and will lead us home.
Let’s look at the first of those things - our need to:
1. Throw Off Whatever Could Hold You Back (v.1)
There are 2 things which could keep us from running well here. Can you see them there in verse 1?
First of all we need to "lay aside every weight” – We need to get rid of everything which slows us down. We cannot run weighed down with worldly baggage. Cast your mind back to the 2012 Olympics. When you saw athletes warming up for their race, they weren’t wrapping up warm and sticking on extra layers – even though for some of them summer in London was colder than winter back home. No- they were stripping off all the unnecessary clothing they had. It would have been absurd if you had seen Mo Farrah coming round the back straight with his tracksuit still on, or Jess Ennis trying to get over the hurdles with a backpack on.
I saw a documentary a while back about soldiers in training – and they followed a group of women who had just come back off some seriously hard night manoeuvres. As the Officers debriefed them they got them to unload the backpacks they’d been wearing on their way round, and it was incredible - there were cans of deodorant, bags of make-up, high heeled shoes, – a couple of them even had hairdryers with them. The officers went ballistic: “Why are you carrying all this stuff that you don’t need? You’ve had to carry it all the way round.” Nothing wrong with a hairdryer in the right place, but in the middle of the woods with no electricity… I don’t think so!
So ask yourself… what could possibly weigh you down as you seek to run for Christ?
There are all kinds of things in our lives that we pursue in life to the detriment of our spiritual lives. These are things which aren’t necessarily wrong when we start out, but they drag us off course if we over prioritise them. A hobby which becomes an obsession. A house that becomes more than just a home. A lifestyle which becomes an expectation. A relationship that becomes our sole hope for intimacy. A job which becomes a driving passion.
Many of us are students, or doctors, or teachers, or even Christian workers first... and then Christians second. Our priorities are skewed and our faith suffers.
I guess one of the things that most weighs us down most in running for Christ is our stuff – our money and our possessions. For those of you graduating this summer you must be most looking forward to potentially having a bit more money. The luxury of being able to buy Heinz baked beans rather than Tesco value is no mean thing.
But we know that money brings with it the temptation to love it… and what it can do for us. Money seems to promise security, status and satisfaction – as with it we can buy almost anything our hearts desire. But true security, status and satisfaction are only to be found in Jesus.
So beware of falling in love with money when you should be falling in love with Him. Our money, our stuff, where we live, how much is in the bank are all things that can potentially weigh us down and prevent us from running the race of faith. Perhaps for some of you the pursuit of money or the fear of not having enough is keeping you from opportunities to grow in your faith through camps and mission trips this summer? Can you imagine getting to heaven and the angels asking us: “Why are you carrying all this stuff that you don’t need?”
"Lay aside every weight” says the writer to the Hebrews. Secondly he says we need to lay aside sin – or as verse 1 puts it – the “sin which clings so closely...” Now most sin is rooted in false theology – sin primarily is unbelief. The writer to the Hebrews has already alluded to that in Hebrews 3v.12: “See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.”
The strategy of the devil is not innovative. He wants to get us doubting God’s promises, so that we will turn to sin for our pleasures. Once we do that then sin has a tendency to stick around – it clings to us as verse 1 says.
For we can actually be worried sometimes that getting rid of the sin in our lives will somehow impoverish us as people and make us less interesting or fulfilled. Which is why we get entangled in lying or gossip or the drinking culture – Because if we don’t we fear we won’t fit and we’ll be branded as dullards.
We can fall into the trap that we deserve our sin. There’s a lot of pressure in life - whether you’ve just finished doing exams or you’re still in the middle of them like many of the CYFA guys still are. There is great pressure in the work place… or on the dole cue. There is often even pressure at home, and it’s very easy for us to develop a “pressure & treats” mentality – where we think “I’ve been good for so long it’s ok for me to have a blow out.” Which is why so many folks get entangled in pornography and all kinds of other sexual sin – As we come to see sin as some kind of safety valve with which to blow off some steam! Many of us have too high a tolerance to sin in our lives.
But the writer to the Hebrews is quite clear – we must “lay aside...sin.” Which sounds quite a placid activity. But the sense here in Hebrews 12 is that we are to throw it off.
Which makes me think of a horse carrying someone on its back when it has decided it doesn’t want to. A little wiggle from the horse won’t get rid of the rider, the rider will hold on for dear life. To get rid of the rider the horse literally has to throw the rider off, and he does that by rising up on its back legs. Fortunately I’ve never experienced such a thing, maybe you have. It’s a big action and a definite decision.
And throwing off our sin must be a similarly definite decision.
We don’t just walk along thinking that we’ll just stop sinning with a few good intentions. No, we must recognise its seriousness and take radical action to get rid of it.
What sins are strangling and choking your life? What sinful habits do you need to throw off? It is that thing you’re thinking of. So act now before you find it clinging so closely that you can’t shake it off.
John Owen writes in his book, The Mortification of Sin: “Be sure to be killing sin or sin will be killing you.” Following Jesus entangled in sin is like running with your feet tied together. Pursuing Christ whilst clinging to useless priorities is like running with a sack full of bricks on your back. Therefore “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, 2 looking to Jesus...”
Which is the second thing we need to do to run well. For we cannot deal with sin or the excess baggage of life without focusing on a greater treasure. And Jesus is that treasure! So…
2. Fix Your Eyes On Jesus (v.2-3)
The idea here is one of intentional focus, a deliberate aim, an all consuming passion. A fixation with Jesus! It’s not a glance once a week on a Sunday. It’s an on-going, continuing commitment. We are to literally keep our eyes glued to Jesus.
John Piper says this in his book Desiring God: “I am constantly astonished that people who say that they believe in God live as if happiness were to be found by giving Him two percent of their attention. Surely the end of the ages will reveal this to be absurd.”
I don’t know if you’ve ever witnessed a Toddlers’ race – As the Father of 3 small children I’ve seen a few. Toddler’s races are a bit of a liability, because Toddlers don’t run straight. So the basic strategy is that mummy goes to the start line and says: “Run towards daddy. Keep your looking at Daddy.” If you let them just meander artistically, pleasing themselves finding their own course they wouldn’t even cross the finishing line, let alone win a medal.
And likewise we are to run somewhere! We are run to someone! Our focus is to be on the Lord as we run the race. We might glance at others, but we are to gaze upon our Saviour.
In one Toddler race I saw one of the other mums gave her kid the following piece of coaching – ‘Cos parents can’t help being competitive even when the kids are only 2! She said to her lad: “You know you’re a bit clumsy so keep looking at your feet. Just make sure that your feet don’t hit one another and you’ll be fine.” Now that is hopeless coaching advice. It more or less dooms you to go head over heels on the turf!
But it’s really easy for us to have our Focus in the wrong place. To be looking at ourselves. To be conditioned by our own failures, worries, problems or future fears – Rather than to be looking to Jesus.
Someone once suggested a formula for spiritual endurance: “If you want to be distressed look within. If you want to be defeated look back. If you want to be distracted look around. If you want to be dismayed look ahead. If you want to be delivered look up.” Now I know that’s a bit corny... But it helps us ask the question: Where is your focus? And how are you going to keep your focus on Jesus?
Well the writer to the Hebrews is really practical as he tells us to: “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or faint-hearted.” The word used for “consider” there means to “give our mind over to think about something”. That’s how can we keep looking to Jesus. We can’t even see him now… But we can read about him in the gospels, and think about the things he has done.
That’s why I make the point of reading one of the gospel accounts of Jesus life and death every summer. Or I read a book that reminds or refreshes me in his great gospel story. AND I know a number of other folks in the congregation who do likewise. Because it’s so easy to drift. To forget what Christ is really like, what he’s done, how he loves us, how he ran. But delve afresh into the gospels and we find the material to chew on and consider as we seek to run with him.
I guess this business of considering and thinking on Christ is why one of the biggest pieces of advice we give to those of you leaving school to go to Uni, or graduating and heading off elsewhere is to make church a priority. As it’s there you will be reminded of and encouraged to focus on the Lord Jesus at every turn – in song and sermon and in fellowship with other believers. You’re not going to get that kind of support and encouragement from your course mates or in the work place are you? So don’t get complacent about getting along to church.
Whether you’re leaving or staying around, or you’ve just pitched up here at JPC – can I encourage you to get involved in a small group. Somewhere like a Home Group or like Transit. Somewhere you can be known and can get to know others. Somewhere you can have opportunity to consider Christ uninterrupted by life’s stresses and strains.
And if it’s not that easy at first, stick at it! I know that we live in a culture that likes everything to be instant, but things that are truly worthwhile in life take time and effort. If you don’t believe me on that, just ask the coffee snobs - There’s no such thing as good instant coffee!
The race we are in is no casual early morning jog. This is a serious long distance race that requires endurance. It requires stamina and determination and is concerned with the long haul rather than the quick sprint. There is to be no wandering off to take the occasional nap, taking time out from the Christian faith, having a sabbatical from church. For when we do that we lose focus, we stop considering Christ – and then we wonder why God feels so far away and our faith is not as vibrant as it once was and it all seems so unreal. Make an active effort to “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or faint-hearted.”
For if we do that, we will not only be prepared to run well when the going’s good, but when the course marked out for us shoots up hill and gets rocky. We need to be prepared for the tough times, because it doesn’t matter whether you’ve been a Christian for 2 days, 2 months, 2 years, or 20 years - there are times when it will is tough to live as a Christian.
I don’t know if you know of Florence Chadwick, but she was the first woman to swim the English Channel in both directions. AND on 4th July 1951, she attempted to swim from Catalina Island to the California coast. The challenge was not so much the distance, but the bone-chilling waters of the Pacific. To complicate matters, a dense fog lay over the entire area, making it impossible for her to see land. After about 15 hours in the water, and within a ½ a mile of her goal, Chadwick gave up.
We will all come up against tough times, when we can’t even see what’s going on and we feel like just giving up – And at those times especially we must continue to keep our eyes on our saviour, Jesus Christ and on our destination, because he will help us to get through the valleys and up over the hills. He blazed the trail for us showing us the way to run in a world where following Him is never easy.
Do you feel misunderstood by those you love? So did he. Have you been abandoned by those you trusted the most? So did he. Do you feel drawn to find a more comfortable and manageable form of religion which does not involve the sacrifice of carrying a cross? So did he. Do you often feel tired and simply worn out, life has taken its toll on you and you just want to rest? Well, so did he. And yet... HE DID NOT GIVE UP!
Why? Well - verse 2, it was because of “the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” What joy? Was it the joy of heaven? The joy of being reunited with his heavenly Father? I’m sure there is great joy in sitting down at the right hand of the throne of God. But surely there is more to it than that? Is there not the joy of seeing those for whom he died being there with him? Isn’t it seeing what he had accomplished? Wasn’t it knowing that those who he had saved would soon be with him there?
You see, Jesus wants to have you in heaven! Do you realise that? Jesus jumps for joy at the thought you might keep running faithfully to the very end of your days and join him in his Father’s perfect heavenly rest. That is why he is beckoning you on, extending his arms out to you like a father at a Toddler’s race. There is a man in heaven who has opened a way to the Father, and now enjoys the kind of fellowship with God that we look forward to.
So, whatever the future holds for us - are we going to have our eyes fixed on Jesus? Because he is calling us to himself and his life, death, resurrection and future return give us all the resources we need to live life well. And the goal of our lives should be to run to him and for him. Is that your goal? Today? Tomorrow? Next Week? For 10 years time? ...For the rest of your lives?
May we in His great mercy live lives which count for eternity and may there be many with us on that last great day giving glory to him.