This sermon was preached on August 18, 2013, at Lufkin First United Methodist Church.
Common English Bible (CEB)
29 By faith they crossed the Red Sea as if they were on dry land, but when the Egyptians tried it, they were drowned.
30 By faith Jericho’s walls fell after the people marched around them for seven days.
31 By faith Rahab the prostitute wasn’t killed with the disobedient because she welcomed the spies in peace.
32 What more can I say? I would run out of time if I told you about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets. 33 Through faith they conquered kingdoms, brought about justice, realized promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 put out raging fires, escaped from the edge of the sword, found strength in weakness, were mighty in war, and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured and refused to be released so they could gain a better resurrection.
36 But others experienced public shame by being taunted and whipped; they were even put in chains and in prison. 37 They were stoned to death, they were cut in two, and they died by being murdered with swords. They went around wearing the skins of sheep and goats, needy, oppressed, and mistreated. 38 The world didn’t deserve them. They wandered around in deserts, mountains, caves, and holes in the ground.
39 All these people didn’t receive what was promised, though they were given approval for their faith.40 God provided something better for us so they wouldn’t be made perfect without us.
12 So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, 2 and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne.
Any runner, any cyclist, any swimmer can tell you the one thing they are most afraid of in the course of their chosen sport. Now, I say that knowing that there are phobias for everyone, each as individual as the amount of people there are in the world. I’m not talking about a fear of dogs, or spiders, or anything like that, though those are legitimate fears. I’m talking about a state that happens when you push your body too far, too hard for too long. It’s something called “The Wall.”
The Wall is what happens when you run out of glycogen in your body, which results in an increase of lactate acid being produced by your muscles. Because of this buildup of lactate acid, it makes it almost impossible to keep moving. Your body shuts down. No more running. No more biking. No more swimming. Your body has told you to stop, and it HURTS. Badly. You can’t keep going, but you are in an incredible amount of pain. Think of the worst muscle cramp you can, and then imagine that it doesn’t stop after just a few minutes. That’s the wall. It’s when you run out of fuel. Your marathon, your race, your workout is over. Kaput. Finished.
People who run, bike, or swim know this fear all too well. If you’ve not experienced it before, it can deter you from even trying to exercise, or do a race like a 5k or a marathon, or a bike race, or something like that. I certainly don’t want to experience it—but who does? Do you want the mother of all cramps? I sure don’t. The wall is a real thing in running, and it is kind of scary. However, it’s not just in exercising that we experience the wall.
I tell you about the runner’s wall because it’s a physical, bodily phenomenon. At the same time, it points to something a bit more spiritual. We can hit the wall in our jobs, when we work too long hours and have too little time to enjoy with our loved ones, or when your boss is breathing down your neck to get something done on the fly. We can hit the wall with our families, when the relationships and bonds that we have become strained and difficult to maintain, when the joy of being someone’s partner, mother or father, sister or brother, grandma or grandpa is no longer there and is replaced by too much disappointment and grief to go on. We can even hit a wall when it comes to our relationship with God. When you try with all your might to do your best to be a follower of Christ, when you volunteer, when you tithe, and when you make every effort to make a difference, and your faith is rewarded by despair, emptiness, exhaustion and disappointment, you have hit a wall in your faith. When you your questions don’t get answered, when your soul is not fed and you have run dry of the living water, you hit a wall in your faith. And my brothers and sisters, don’t imagine that it doesn’t happen to everyone every once in a while. It does. It’s a common experience.
Every Christian has their moments of doubt, despair, and exhaustion. I’m afraid, maybe, it’s because the work of Christianity is probably the most idealistic of any kind of ideology or religion that I can think of. Christianity aims to change the world. That’s its chief end and goal—and the good news is, the work has already begun, through the work of Jesus! Jesus came and ushered in the Reign of God, the one that is among you now and will also be coming in the future. Jesus, God incarnate, changed the game, and thus began the process of the world changing. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, ate with sinners, and set at liberty the oppressed! These are the kinds of things that ushered the kingdom into existence, and it was a vision of the things to come. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, the final obstacle to establishing the kingdom of God was abolished. That obstacle—sin and death—no longer constrains us. In that act, the long work of God reached its culmination, and a new chapter in history began. Not the final chapter, but just the next chapter.
It’s hard to see the big picture sometimes, and the story of God and God’s people is one the biggest pictures we have. It’s no wonder that we can get lost in it, that we feel like we’re overwhelmed in our faith, especially one as remarkable as faith in Christ. Imagine what it would have been like when the movement was new? Like, say, when the Letter to the Hebrews was written? I imagine it would have been far more difficult to live as a Christian back when Christianity was new, considering the kind of predicament it put people in. You see, while Christianity emerged out of Judaism, the beliefs of the Christian faith even then didn’t line up quite well with established Jewish faith, and certainly not enough for the Jewish elders of the time. And while a great deal of the followers of Jesus were gentiles, it wasn’t an entirely gentile faith either, given that Jesus himself was Jewish, taught in the context of the Jewish God, and exhorted a very Jewish flavored faith informed by the Jewish scriptures. So you see, it was a very in-between faith—a faith with great truth, a faith that appealed to a vast and varied collection of people, but it was also a faith that felt like a major break from the past, and change like that can be terrifying to anyone. Not only that, with the kind of persecution that that they faced, from the government, or from the religious establishment, or even from their own families, it would make sense that new converts would begin to lose their steam, and feel like the wall was closing in on them.
The author of Hebrews had more than likely witnessed his fair share of people starting the race strong, but justifiably losing steam along the way. Not only that, he witnessed people confused as to where they fit into the grand scheme of God’s story with God’s people. Are they Jews, or something else? The author of Hebrews addressed this problem with this letter. Hebrews is Old Testament interpretation 101 for Christians, and it’s worth paying attention to, because it’s purpose is to put the Christ in context with the Old Testament story.
Hebrews has a fairly repetitive, but effective, way of going about re-telling the story of what was then the Bible (there was no New Testament yet to speak of, and wouldn’t be one for a few hundred years when it was established.) What the author does is, essentially, go down the list of almost every famous and memorable character from Jewish history, and assert, reiterate, and generally proclaim that they did what they did by faith. He even defines faith. I’m sure you’ve heard it before. It’s Hebrews 11:1. “Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see.” By faith, Abel offered God a worthy sacrifice, Noah built the Ark when called to do so, Abraham became a stranger in a strange land for the promise of a future. By faith, his children were faithful to God, Joseph was merciful to his brothers, and Moses followed God’s orders to lead the exodus to the promised land. Faith made the walls of Jericho fall. Faith made it so that Rahab was saved. It was faith in God, Israel’s God, the God of Jesus as well, that did all these things. This is the point that he wants to get across. Faith can do amazing things—and he doesn’t even cover all the rest of the amazing things faith can do. There’s time enough to cover that in time. What he’s doing is acknowledging how faith has worked in the past. For his audience, though, and for us, he’s also trying to get to our troubles; what if faith doesn’t always pay off like we think it will? What if bad things do happen to us?
The truth is, we are not alone. People in the past, faithful people, honest people, good people, have been through horrible and unjust things. The author mentions persecution, prison, stonings, beheadings, lions, oppression, exile, and mistreatment. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Throughout the ages, there are faithful people who have received injustice and violence, simply because of their faith in the face of evil. They did not receive abundance in life. The good news is, they receive abundance in the second life, the eternal life earned by Christ on the cross.
Which gets us to the point of what the author of Hebrews is trying to get across, and what we should take the point to heart. Let’s run the race of faith set before us. Let’s run it. He doesn’t say win it—it’s already been won! Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of the race, and Jesus has won it for us all already. We set too much emphasis on winning these days, anyways. The point is not to win; the point is to run, and run knowing that before us came a whole host of people, faithful and passionate for God. We run because they ran. We run not because it’s easy, but because it’s worth it.
We run, and knowing that we are supported by the witness of the saints that came before us, we can make it to the finish with style. Hebrews goes through many of the classic Bible stories and puts them in the context of faith to drive home the point that faith matters. Faith mattered to the saints of our past, and faith matters to us. The people that came before us weren’t perfect—far from it. They all had their own dry spells. They all had their times when their faith hit the wall, and they wanted to abandon it all, pack it in and go home. Even though it ran thin sometimes, their faith held true. They stumbled, but they didn’t quit. They ran. They pushed through the pain, and made it.
I’m not telling you to minimize your own struggles. I would never do that. We all have our demons to face, our obstacles to deal with, our mountains to climb. Some might take the form of physical weakness or turmoil, some might be relational, some might be spiritual. All of them are valid, and all of them are important. Your struggles are real, just as the saints’ struggles were real. But as we run the race, we learn from the faith of those who ran it before us, and who surround us now, cheering us on in the faith, yelling down the halls of time, “You can do it! Just a bit further! You can do it!”
Perseverance is important, this is true. However, just as important is practice and preparation, rest and rejuvenation. You can’t go running 24/7. You need nourishment and nutrition. You need reflection and encouragement. You need time, practice, and a community to support you. This is where the church comes in. In scripture and bible study, we receive our teaching and instruction. In communion, we receive the nourishment of the bread of heaven. On Sabbath, we receive the restorative rest that our bodies were designed for. In mission with one another, we put our faith into practice. In prayer, we reflect on where we have been, where we are going to, and communicate with God, our pioneer and perfecter of faith.
The race is hard—if it was easy, everybody would do it. That’s what it means to be a Christian. Though the race is hard, we run it with perseverance. We run it knowing that we are surrounded by loving people, alive and dead, and that in Jesus Christ, we have been shown the way.
Yes, there will be times when you hit the wall. Yes, it might be painful.
But don’t let the wall make you quit. Rest, restore your soul, and keep on running. You will never be alone. God will be with you. Amen.
“’When you can’t run anymore, you crawl… and when you can’t do that…You find someone… to carry you.’–Firefly