Running the Race Together (Hebrews 12:12-17)

Our recent sermon (July 22) was unable to be live streamed.  No worries!  You can enjoy the manuscript below through an old, yet still valuable skill….reading!  You can also review any previous sermons on the Sermons page.

One of the great objections to faith in our day is that it is impractical.  That faith doesn’t directly impact my life.  Why embrace the belief in God if it doesn’t nothing for me?  Of course, I believe this objection does not make sense of the Christian faith because it is very practical.  Others have sought to forsake belief in place of action.  No one will commit themselves to a creed, but rather simply to a body of moral principles.  Yet, behind every moral principle is a creed that is joyfully embraced.

Consider recent cultures discussions about justice.  Behind justice is a creed of human dignity, love of neighbor, and a longing for equality.  These doctrines drive practice.  What we believe drives what we do.  Thus, everyone, whether they are explicit about it or not, has committed to a creed- to doctrine- to faith.  Doctrine has been treated as such an ugly word, yet everyone has a doctrine.  Even if this doctrine is not explicitly recognized or if it is held inconsistently, it is still present.

The word “therefore” makes this connection.  In the Bible, the word “therefore” draws a bridge from belief to action.  Therefore, is there for a reason- to call us to consider how the doctrine being taught should impact our daily life.  The author of Hebrews has been encouraging Hebrew believes to continue forward in their faith instead of going back in the Judaism they left.  He spent the first 10 chapters proclaiming one message: Jesus is Better.  Jesus is better than the priesthood.  Better than the lambs that were sacrifices.  Better than prophets.  They should look to Him rather than to what they left.

He then began teaching about the life of faith.  He offers over 20 examples of faithful living in Hebrews 11.  We look to their example and we look to the Ultimate Example- Jesus Christ- and we run the race.  Chapter 12 he describes the Christian life as a race.  We must run the race with endurance, looking to Jesus as the Author and the Finisher of our faith.  But, the race is not easy.

He then turns to offer encouragement to suffering saints.  Their suffering was not purposeless, God was going to use the suffering to discipline them and cause them to grow.  We suffer because God loves us as children and discipline is evidence of His love rather than evidence against His existence.  From a Christian perspective, the problem of evil has been thoroughly dealt with in the Goodness of God and the cross of Jesus Christ.  Hebrews then turns to our morning passage and the author grabs a second wind.  He continues speaking about the Christian life as a race, but here He wants to make it applicable directly to us.  What should I do with the news of the Christian race and the reality of suffering?

We must look below the surface, or we might miss the authors point.  God is not wanting us to think all about ourselves in this race.  No- he is speaking to the Hebrews collectively.  He is speaking to their family of faith.  If we were able to see the Greek laid out in front of us we would see all the verbs before us are 2nd person plural.  In the south we use the word, “Y’all” when we want to express this.  “Y’all strengthen your knees, and y’all straighten your path.”  Our race is a community project.  So, when we hear about our individual races, we cannot forget that we run with a community.  We must run the race together.

First, we need to strengthen ourselves.  See verse 12.  When you’ve been running the race, exhaustion can set in.  You will even be tempted to give up and give in.  Your hands will get drooping, your knees will be weak- but you must strengthen them!  This carries the idea of restoration or of fixing a dislocation.  Notice the end of verse 13, “so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.“

Here the Scripture is encouraging us to grab our second wind, or for some of us maybe our twentieth wind, and keep running.  Keep pursuing.  The author of Hebrews is directly quoting from Isaiah 35.  In that text we are told about the coming days when deserts shall bloom with flowers.  Imagine the rolling deserts covered in blossoms- and the blind, mute, and lame being healed fully and completely.  Isaiah is calling the people of God to not give up because the race is worth it.  Hebrews is echoing that for us this morning.  The author will touch more on this in a few verses, but we can see how the reality of the race should lead us to encourage one another.  We need to run next to our brothers and sisters and exhort one another to continue running and to look to the prize!

How many of us have tired in the race?  How many of us have knees that are disjointed?   Certainly, our Christian race looks different as our lives change, but the race remains.  In this race, none of us are filling the bleachers or sitting on the sidelines. There is no such thing as retirement from service to God.  On Wednesday nights we were studying this very idea in a book by Donald Whitney, he is a professor at the Baptist Seminary in Louisville.  He said, “God’s Word has no place for spiritual unemployment or spiritual retirement or any other description of a professing Christian not serving God.”

The author of Hebrews would over and over encourage us to continue running.  He told us back in verse 2 that the race must be run with endurance.  Run the race to finish.  Run the race without stopping.  Proverbs 4:18, you know what it says the Christian life is like?  “The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day.”  John Piper comments on this passage saying, “The Christian life is not moving toward night; it’s moving toward noon.”  As we run the race of faith, we should pursue light faster as we grow older, not darkness.

Did you recognize that regardless of your age, God has ministry for you to do?  So many of us spend all our time looking at what God did through us that we are ignoring what He could do right now.  We are focused on past obedience and using it as an excuse for present and future disobedience.  Is your prayer the same as the Psalmist in Psalm 71:18?  “So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come.”  Even as we finish the race will we run with all our might?

Will we be able to say along with Paul in 2 Timothy 4:7-8, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing”?  Friends, your race will not be met with a pension or a 401K plan.   Your life does not end at 65, and neither does your obedience.  Have our knees grown weak and our hands drooping?  Will we be strengthened to run the race until the end?  Have we become content with the prize?  It won’t be ours if we give up running.

The passage says we must strengthen ourselves, but we also must straighten our path.  Did you see verse 13?  “And make straight paths for your feet.”  The word for “path” hear means the track left by wheels.  If I were to illustrate this in the modern day, consider the last time we had a huge snow.  Accumulation everywhere.  You could go to the road and you saw a truck that drove straight through the snow.  The tracks left by the truck?  He says make that path straight for your feet.  To do this requires a path to be cleared, then requires discipline to stay on track.

First, have we cleared the path?  Is our path cluttered?  Friends, this is important.  It is so easy to convince ourselves that busyness is holiness.  That productivity is blessedness.  That God is pleased with the checks on our check list.  Is this obedience or are these things cluttering the path?  Could there be things in your life, friends and influences, keeping you from running the race?  God’s Word to you this morning is to clear the path.  Clear out the clutter.  Do whatever it takes to pursue His Will and His way.  Clutter will not just make the race difficult, it will leave you lame and out of joint.

Second, He calls us to stay on the straight path.  We often may feel a drift, but we must stay in our lane.  We must stay on the path.  I can illustrate with an experience from my own life.  I had thought I should begin running- bad idea, right?  I began my run on my green belt.  I felt alive, I felt the wind all around me, I felt my blood pumping.  I was great…until my food slipped off the path and I tripped and ended up on my face with scrapped knees and scrapped hands.  The most embarrassing part of the story- there were people around who saw me fall and just kept moving along!  I needed to concentrate on keeping myself on the path.  Brothers and sisters, we are spiritually clumsy!  Have we made our paths straight?

Over and over, the Scripture describes the path as obedience to God’s Word.  To stay on the path…hear me here…you must know what the path is!  Even if you are driving with a GPS, you must study the road and the path in front of you.  The Word is the lamp for your feet- it is the narrow road we are called to walk.  Do you know the path ahead, so you can be prepared to run?

This is a Word to all of us: you cannot run the race of faith alone.  You won’t finish it.  You need other believers, you need a faith family.  You need a church.  Our spiritual second wind requires a community to run with!  We’ll see this even clearer as the passage continues.

We are to strengthen ourselves, straighten our paths, and strive for peace and holiness.  See verse 14. “Strive for Peace with Everyone.”  This means going to extreme pains to pursue peace with everyone.  Paul carried commands like this to almost every church he wrote too.  Consider what he writes to the Romans 12:18, “If it be possible, as much as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.”  Have peace among self because you cannot have unity and you cannot run the race of faith together if you will not have peace among yourself.  Part of what we should be running after as we run the race of faith is a life of peace.  Do we do this?  Will we go the point of inconveniencing ourselves or putting ourselves in awkward conversations to be at peace with others?  Do we have to be the winner all the time?  Certainly, that wasn’t Jesus’ attitude for us!  He joyfully endured OUR cross!  Can’t we live at peace with someone who wronged us?

Is there someone in your life that you do not have peace with?  We must stress how the word “strive” is an active word.  Peace in your relationships will not just come.  Peace is not passive.   Consider what this meant for the Hebrews.  They were suffering incredible persecution.  They were getting their good stolen, their friends and family thrown in prison.  Yet they did not create the strife.  The text says we to strife after peace, but it does not say we will always attain it.  Regardless, we are not to be the source of the tension or the source of the drama.  Christians- we cannot run our race if we are constantly dealing with drama, especially drama we caused.  Pursue peace- repent of ways you’ve hurt people, seek to listen and understand.  Especially, and this is important, don’t seek to be the “winner.”  It is far better to be at peace than it is to be the winner of a losing battle.  Strive for peace with everyone.

But we are to strive for more than just peace.   We must strive for, see verse 14, “the holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.”  To be holy is to be set apart, distinct from the world.  To live like Jesus did.  We should stop and let that sentence just wash over us.  Without holiness we will not see the Lord.  Holiness is not an option.  Some commentators have said this must be Christ’s holy life which God credits to us when we believe.  But how do we “strive” after that?

If you are not striving after holiness, this is God’s Word saying this, you will not see the Lord.  Just as you will never attain perfect peace in this life, you will never attain perfect holiness.  But we should pursue it.  It isn’t just for the pastors or the leaders, no!  Holiness is something we all as believers must pursue.  Strive after.  Run toward.  Forsake all else to have.  Jesus describes a believer’s pursuit of holiness when he says, “And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.”  Holiness is something we should make any sacrifice, forsake anything, to obtain.  As Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God!”  Are you striving toward holiness?

Finally, the Scriptures call us to see to it that others see the Lord.  Mark it down: See to it.  We must strengthen ourselves in our race of faith.  We must straighten our path, clear it of clutter.  We must strive after peace and holiness.  Finally, we must see to it that “no one fail to obtain the grace of God.”  We need each other in order to finish the race.  We must watch over one another and exhort one another to finish the race.  This is something the author of Hebrews has done in just about every chapter.  In chapter 3 he writes, exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”  Hebrews 10 says we should not forsaking assembly together as a church but “exhort one another and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”  We need other believers to push us onward in our faith and brothers is our responsibility to speak the truth to one another in love!  Each of us must see to it that no one around us fails to obtain the grace of God- we cannot let those around us perish without warning.

He focused in on two sins that he is calling us to call believers away from.  Bitterness and sexual immorality.  Look what the Scripture says, See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled;” We must see to it that no “root of bitterness” is springing up.  Doesn’t this require us to know each other’s hearts?  We must be intentional to know each other and be in community together.  We must flee and call others to flee bitterness.  He is quoting from Deuteronomy 29 where Moses echoes this warning.  What begins as a root will eventually define and lead to death.  Sinful roots have poisonous thorns- and they must be removed!

Bitterness is deadly, but so is sexual immorality.  He offers Esau as an example.  If you recall, Esau sold away his birthright for a bowl of soup.  What should we learn from him? Look at verses 16-17.  “that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.”  What is the connection between sexual immorality and a bowl of soup?  Both display that Esau was consumed with instant gratification.  Esau wanted his joy here and now it led him to give himself away and to give away his birthright.  He gave away future blessing and when he tried to repent and get it back, he couldn’t.  He could seek it with tears, but he couldn’t get the birthright back.  There are things that you cannot take back.  Something that feels great today may have irreversible circumstances.

Along the pathway there are going to be temptations to give everything away and there will be sinful roots that try to take place in our hearts.   We must be strengthened, we must straighten our paths, we must strive after peace and holiness, we must see to it that none of us fail to obtain the grace of God.  What a race we must run!  The Christian life is not easy.

 

But, Brothers and Sisters, we are not alone.  We have each other.  The author of Hebrews would call of us to consider our commitment to a community of believers.  Without it, you will not make it to the end.  Your knees will give way without others to spur you on or hold you up.

But, why do it?  I started this sermon by talking by the importance of “therefore.”  All doctrine drives practice.  What you believe directly impacts what you do.  What must we believe in order to do this sort of thing?  Because, unlike Esau, we look beyond this moment or even beyond this life- to the City God is building.  He is recreating the world and those who are running the race will get to join Him in His finished product.  Want to a glimpse of the prize?  Open up to Revelation 22.  See verses 1-5.

Please, do not hear this as a simple moral message of “Do Better” or “try Harder.”  You’d be foolish to think this text is all about turning your life around in your own strength.  You’d be foolish to think God is asking you to do this through News Year’s Resolutions- by the way, 7 months in- how is that going?  This text should bring all of us to the end of ourselves and cause us to see that our only hope is Jesus.  We cannot run the race in our own power-only His.  We cannot be in relationship with God on our own- we need His cross and resurrection.  We cannot have our sins forgiven by our good works.  We must come to the point where we let go of our self-reliance and proclaim, “Jesus!  You are my only hope!”  This is a message for all of us, whether we are in the race of faith or desiring to begin it today.  Get off the bleachers and into the race.

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