The Reason to Endure

March 10, 2010 (Midweek 4)

Hebrews 12:1-3

1 Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart.

Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.

I. The Christian race

Whoever the divine author of the letter to the Hebrews was, he was well versed in the Olympics of the day. He compared Christians to the runners in the ancient games in Greece. Just as there was only one winner at the finishing line, so we Christians must make every effort to reach the goal without distraction. Coming in second or third was not the point. There is only one who is awarded the crown of victory. So we must make every effort not to lose that crown which is ours through the victory of Jesus, our Savior.

A foot race is a good analogy for the Christian’s struggle to stay the course, keep the faith, and receive the prize. People who run in long-distance foot races—even for fun—go through a great deal of preparation.

First of all, you don’t enter a race until you have trained for it. In the Isthmian games of Greece, all competitors took a solemn oath that they had trained at least ten months before the race. Without training, you might be able to take off like a shot. Perhaps you could even stay up with the marathoners for a few hundred yards. But before long your lungs would be burning, your legs would be like rubber, and your heart would be making its presence known in no uncertain terms.

We Christians are trained too; trained by daily putting to death our sinful nature and rising in our baptismal grace. We ought to be well practiced in letting Christ’s forgiveness move us to say NO to temptation and YES to holy living.

Second, the runner carefully selects the right equipment. His shoes must be designed for the long haul. As for clothes: nothing long and flowing to obstruct the legs or arms. The runner must wear something that is light and that breathes easily. The Hebrew Christians addressed in this epistle were becoming entangled in worldly thinking that threatened a successful finish to their race.

Third, a runner must be prepared for the ultimate test of wills in order to endure. A track coach pointed this out when he recalled a race he ran during his college days. He was shoulder to shoulder with another runner in a long distance race. He felt like he was sprinting just to keep up. Although his brow was burning up and his heart was pounding, he tried to appear as cool and composed as possible to his opponent. He turned to his opponent and said in as cheery a voice as he could muster, “Doesn’t this feel great?” The opponent looked at him in disbelief and soon dropped back and gave him the victory. Spoken or unspoken, for better or worse, that’s the sort of dialogue that goes on in a runner’s head. Likewise, the voice of our sinful flesh tries to convince us that the race is just too taxing for us to finish. Our adversary, the devil, taunts us with all our weaknesses and sins. In this way he makes our heavenward race a grueling, brow burning soul-struggle.

II. Endurance lost

Those addressed in the letter to the Hebrews were in terrible danger of falling away from their newfound faith in the crucified Christ. They were tempted to return to their Old Testament worship as if the Messiah hadn’t come. Life would be so much easier and trouble free if they didn’t have to explain Jesus to hostile family and friends. If they turned from the cross to their old Jewish faith, they would be free from the wrath of their relatives. But they had tasted the heavenly gift. For a short time their eyes were enlightened to see Jesus of Nazareth as their Savior. But the noonday heat of persecution and the thorns and thistles of the cares of this world seemed too much for their faith. They were in danger of denying the Crucified Christ.

We don’t need to look far to see that many people today are no different. At one time God called them into His kingdom. In the school of the Holy Spirit, they went into strict training. They lived a life of joy with the knowledge that Jesus’ cross was their cross. And, by God’s grace, they embraced it. It was their habit to say, “Kyrie, eleison—Lord, have mercy!” The Word of forgiveness was the oxygen they inhaled as they ran the race towards their heavenly goal.

All too sadly, some believed for a while and then fell away from the faith. How did they lose it? Did their parents drop the ball? Did they learn it from the people around them who talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk? After confirmation did they believe they were done with learning and growing? Perhaps the delusion is, “I can always repent tomorrow.” I will just follow Jesus later.

Is it any wonder that the writer of this epistle to the Hebrews has such an urgent tone? He sees the soul-destroying deception in all of this. How easily we can be set off course by a thousand tasks of life (some less worthy than others) that distract us from God’s Word and sacrament! God said to the one who could only think of his worldly business, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” (Luke 12:20).

God will not hold out His hands forever. “I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). Only when the Word is being spoken do we experience the day of salvation. Only then do we know that the Holy Spirit is present with His saving power. We don’t know if He will still be speaking to us tomorrow. In fact, we don’t even know if there will be a tomorrow. If we despise Him today and do not listen to Him when He can be heard, we are in danger of pushing Him away forever. But to presume to convert ourselves is to presume to do the work that only God, the Holy Spirit, can do. If someone has spent a lifetime devising excuses for despising the means of grace, how will that person suddenly change this addiction in the final hour?

What about those who rely on the righteousness of their past—or of their parents—will that save them as they grow fat and flabby—unfit for the race. If they are asked how they would fare if a full-fledged persecution of Christians took place, they usually respond with something like, “Oh, when that time comes, I’ll be ready.”

If you cannot run a lap now, what makes you think that tomorrow you will be able to ramp up your courage and summon enough stamina to run a marathon? If you can’t bear the little crosses for Jesus today, what delusion makes you believe that “I will go to prison with you and to death with Jesus” (see Luke 22:33) tomorrow?

With such deception and mind games at every turn, who can hope to endure to the day of our Lord’s return? There is hope for those who earnestly ask that question.

III. The endurance of the great cloud of witnesses

See how amicably and encouragingly the apostle urges the Hebrews and us to endure: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses . . .”

The word “Therefore” lets us know that we should look at the chapter before the reading (Hebrews 11). On the sidelines of your heavenward race are the likes of faithful people.  Such as Abel—the first martyr for the faith. Noah who, in holy fear, built an ark. Abraham who believed God’s promise despite his age. Also Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses clung to the deliverance of God in a yet unseen Messiah. They endured much persecution and many trials for their faith and were not disappointed. There were judges, King David, the prophets, and God-fearing women—who through faith conquered kingdoms and administered justice. All these and many more call to us from the stands: “Throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and   . . . run with perseverance the race set before you.” Even as the souls of those who were slain for the Word of God pray from under the altar in the Book of Revelation: “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” (Revelation 6:9-10).

Your track is lined with that great cloud of faithful witnesses—all the blessed departed—saying, “By the grace of God, we made it! By His (T) grace, you can too!” They were once where you are now struggling to keep the course. But now they are where you shall be, if you persevere. They are covered with white robes, washed in the blood of the Lamb. They are living evidence that if we run the race with an undivided heart, we will finally receive the crown of life.

IV. Jesus’ patient endurance restores ours

As the saints throughout the ages encourage you, they would not have you look at them. They all point to the Savior: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of your faith.” As we strain for the finish line, we see our Savior there. He began our faith and brings it to completion. Jesus sent his Holy Spirit into our hearts using the Word and water of Baptism. Even now Jesus allows only those trials into your life that keep you looking straight ahead at what He patiently endured for your salvation: “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him(Hebrews 5:7-9). In our heavenly race, we are urged to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of the faith. But in particular on the suffering of Jesus.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus requested that His heavenly Father save Him from death. So horrible were the pangs of hell He would have to bear for us. So He prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup of suffering to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done” (Matthew 26:42). And we remember that just hours later Jesus loud cries from the cross as he drank from that cup: “ Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’—which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Matthew 27:46). Indeed the Father had forsaken His only-begotten Son. All because He wanted to free you from sin and give you eternal life. But notice how Jesus addressed the one who forsook Him! Through patient endurance and the comfort of God’s Holy Word, Jesus in the garden called Him My Father” and with his dying breathMy God”. Through all of His suffering, He patiently endured and clung to the hope of the resurrection. As we know, on resurrection morning, Jesus’ Father did not let Him down. Nor will the Father refuse his Son’s prayer and petitions for our forgiveness.

Instead of removing the suffering, his Father’s will was done. Jesus’ suffering paid for your sins. It was the only way God’s justice against us could be satisfied. Because of it we have eternal life. He who knew no sin became sin on our behalf.

In your heavenly race, fix your eyes on Jesus, “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. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

And that’s why we preach Christ Crucified. For the cross is the very power of God, the power to save. For there on the cross, Jesus endured to end and paid the price in full for your sin that you might be forever in heaven with Him. In Jesus name, amen and amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, AMEN.