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The Race Set Before Us
I recently read a fictional story about a young woman who – in early childhood - had been badly injured in an explosion. One side of her face was deeply scarred. The story told of something that happened frequently to this unfortunate young woman. A child saw her scarred face and ran crying to his mother. The scarred woman just smiled and gave a little friendly wave to the boy and continued on her way.
Her companion asked her, “How can you be so gracious when that happens?”
I have learned to run with endurance the race that is set before me.
That response parrots an admonition given by the writer of the Hebrew letter.
The very fact that we are alive testifies that we have a race to run, and that it requires endurance.
Such races often stem from extreme misfortune:
It brings to mind soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. Some return healthy, their bodies intact, but others are disfigured, with limbs mangled or destroyed by IED’s.
Young men and women barely out of adolescence experience the horrors of war and life-altering injuries, and are then discharged into a society in which many disapprove the war and blame anyone who fought in it.
Instead of being honored as self-sacrificing heroes by a grateful nation, returning soldiers – even severely injured ones – are sometimes treated with contempt.
War-hardened veterans are sometimes unable to function normally in civil society.
Some have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) - their minds affected greatly by the horrific experiences of war.
It’s not just war injuries, though. Many others, like Job, suffer calamities not of their own making.
Some suffer from debilitating health conditions, like MS or epilepsy.
But sometimes a race is set before someone by that person’s own actions:
A girl who has had a secret abortion to hide her sin, and immediately regrets it deeply, and as penance must carry a heavy burden of guilt for the rest of her life.
Yes, she set the race herself, but it is nonetheless the race that lies ahead for her.
Or one who has committed one of those sins that many Christians consider to be grounds to ostracize for life persons who have been guilty of them and are bereft of the companionship and support of fellow pilgrims.
They are left to run the race before them in loneliness and shame – or find friends among those outside the Christian fellowship, who find nothing wrong with the sins that have alienated them from other Christians.
It’s not only guilt that lays out a hard race to run.
We’re not confining our thoughts to the things in which people are victims of their own actions or things that befall them.
We’re also talking about races by which a worthy and sought-after result is pursued.
II. We Have a Race
Although it is true we all have a race in common as a church and within it as individuals to carry out its mission, that’s not my primary focus this morning.
Today I want to direct our thoughts to our individual races that are before us personally – either as burdens to bear or challenges to meet.
Hebrews 12:1-2 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, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Clearly, a connection is being made between our race, that of Abel, Abraham, Noah, and Moses - and that of Jesus.
Notice that “set before” appears twice in these two verses:
…race that is set before us…
…joy that was set before him…
Also note that endurance is mentioned twice:
…let us run with endurance…
…endured the cross…
Things like this in scripture are no accident.
In his earthly walk, Jesus was an active participant in this aspect of the human experience.
A race was set before him before his birth.
We know what his race was because it’s spelled out in the first 4 books of the New Testament, and the doctrinal and eternal implications are revealed in the Acts, letters, and Revelation.
Let’s consider the admonition of the author of Hebrews in context.
This slide shows the context of the “let us” group in the opening sentence of Chapter 12.m
The preceding chapter - Hebrews 11 - is one of the most familiar passages in the bible.
It tells us what faith is, the substance of things not seen, and the evidence of things hoped for.
The chapter briefly narrating the stories of several familiar heroes of faith, some of them named but whose races are not described, and others who are not named but their races are described.
Read Heb 11:35-40
Just as Abraham, Moses, and Rahab – and Jesus - did not all have the same race, we all run our races in different lanes.
Your race is not my race, and my race is not yours.
III. The Kind of Race
The race is not always picked by the runner.
• Abraham wasn’t looking to relocate.
• Joseph wasn’t hankering to move to Egypt for the rest of his life.
• Rahab didn’t go in search of some spies to hide.
These and the others ran the race that came before them.
The race is not a contest of speed - it is an endurance race.
We are not competing against other runners, in fact, as we run we cheer them on.
The Battle of Marathon was fought in 490 BC during the first Persian invasion of Greece. A legend states that, while he was taking part in the battle of Marathon, Philippides, the Greek messenger, witnessed a Persian vessel changing its course towards Athens as the battle was near the end for the Greek army. Interpreting this as an attempt by the defeated Persians to rush into the Greek capital and claim a false victory in the Battle of Marathon and claim supremacy authority over Greece. The legend says said that he ran the entire distance – about 26 miles - without stopping, and burst into the assembly with the intelligence that the capitol would come under attack, and then he collapsed and died from exhaustion.
Molly ran the Boston marathon, but not with any idea of being the first to reach the finish line, or to do better than other runners.
Molly ran to complete the race, and was pleased with the simplicity of that achievement.
IV. Paul’s Race and Endurance
Real life is full of twists and turns, and it sometimes seems to be entirely out of our control – or under the control of others.
How often have you started your day with some certain things you promise yourself you will do today, no matter what?!
But “matter what” happens anyway, at your day ends with everything you promised yourself you would do no matter what, did not get done.
Such may have seemed to be Saul’s circumstances when he was on the road to Damascus.
He left Jerusalem, most likely by the Damascus gate we talked about last Sunday (to do otherwise would require extra travel).
He carried letters from the high priest to the synagogues at Damascus, authorizing Saul to find any who belonged to “the way,” as the Christians were known, and bring them to Jerusalem as prisoners.
As he came near Damascus, a bright light from heaven appeared and a voice spoke to him.
Saul asked, “Who are you?”
The voice answered, “I am Jesus.”
That changed everything.
Saul left Jerusalem with a definite plan for the future, and was diligent about running the race before him.
It never happened.
Instead, a new race was set before Saul.
God told Saul by way of Ananias what his new race was to be:
Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name's sake. Acts 9:15-16
That advance notice notwithstanding, Paul (as he was now called) might have been inclined to question whether he was running the right race when he was persecuted because of the message he preached.
Surely the Lord is telling me to stop what I’m doing and find out what I’m doing until I figure out what I’m doing wrong.
Paul may have felt that he was again deflected from the race set before him when he was arrested, taken to Caesarea and held prisoner there, and later shipwrecked on the Mediterranean island of Malta.
But even at Malta, Paul was not off track.
He was running the race set before him, praying for and healing the sick father of Publius, the island’s governor, and many others.
When the time came to leave the island, Paul was honored by the people of the island, who supplied the needs of the ship’s crew as they continued their voyage to Rome.
It would be absurd to suggest that Paul was not sharing the good news of salvation to the people of Malta.
Of course he was, for that was the race set before him.
But for being Rome’s prisoner, Paul might never have come to Malta Island.
Still a prisoner, Paul came to Rome.
One might have thought he had been totally derailed from his mission.
But no. Imprisonment was – at that time – the very race that was set before him and the way he was to run it with endurance. He had a mission – the same as the other apostles – to carry the gospel to the world, and that included the capitol of the Roman Empire.
Paul struggled with an inner conflict he described repeatedly as “sin that dwells within me.” (Romans 7).
He suffered from a thorn in his flesh (2 Corinthians 12), neither of which is our primary topic today but either or both of them can be seen as the race set before him.
And yet, at the end of it all, he says:
I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.
“Course” is from dromos, which Vines defines as running a race – literally or figuratively, as in Paul’s case).
Paul was saying to Timothy,
I have finished the race that was set before me.
The cloud of witnesses ran their races by faith, by faith…”By faith Abraham…by faith Joseph…by faith Moses”…and it is no exaggeration to say, “by faith Paul…”
V. What if I don’t like the race set before me?
What if I don’t think it’s a race I can run?
Jonah didn’t think much of the race set before him.
But the message Jonah brought to Ninevah was heard and obeyed. Ninevah repented.
Someone may way “The race set before me isn’t important enough for me to put any effort into it. Why are my stellar abilities being wasted on this insignificant race I’m caught up in?”
I pick up pennies that I find on the ground.
Someone once told me if you have 100 million pennies you’ll have a million dollars.
At about a dozen a year, I’m finding pennies too slowly for that to be much motivation.
I pick pennies up because they’re interesting.
I always look at the date the coin was minted.
For fun, I imagine myself having a conversation with each penny I pick up.
This penny was minted in 1948, 73 years ago.
I ask, “Mr. Penny, where have you been and what have you been doing for the last 73 years?”
In my imagination, Mr. Penny answers:
Oh, you have no idea what it’s like to be a penny.
No one cares much about me because I’m nearly worthless.
Lots of people won’t even bend down and lift me off the ground.
People see my lying there and pass by on the other side.
I’ve been run over by cars and trucks, lost and been found more times that you can count, kept in children’s piggy banks for months at a time.
Thrown into fountains because someone makes a wish.
No one talks to me.
You’re the first person who’s talked to me since I can’t remember when.
Do you ever wish you were a hundred dollar bill?”
Mr. Penny answers:
Well, if I was a hundred dollar bill I woudn’t be treated this way.
But I wouldn’t make a very good hundred dollar bill, so...
I run with endurance the race set before me.
I do have a job to do. My job is to make change come out even for people.
No one can do that quite as well as I can.
And I help children save in their piggy banks and learn the lesson of looking to the future.
It’s not all bad. I’ve traveled all over the country, been in practically every state.
I’ve been in every kind of store from Starbucks and McDonald’s to the store that’s named after me – JC Penney.
Sometimes I even get into Life Choices bottles with my rich cousins – nickels, dimes, and quarters.
Besides, I happen to know that the average lifetime of a hundred dollar bill is 15 years.
I’ve been around for 73 years and I can still do the same job as a brand new penny.
VI. The Race Set Before You
You can take a lesson from the lowly penny.
There is a place in the monetary system for the penny.
There is a place (or a race) in the kingdom of God for you.
The Hebrew writer refers to it as an endurance race.
Run with endurance the race set before you – but how?
The writer doesn’t merely tell us to run the race, but how to do it with endurance:
• Lay aside every encumbrance
• Lay aside the sin that easily besets us (not easy!)
• Look to Jesus
? Author of faith
? Perfector of faith
For the runner to endure, the race is run by faith:
A cloud of witnesses successfully endured. That they are “witnesses” does not suggest that these heroes are personally watching as we run our races.
But their very lives are witness to the victory of their faith.
“By faith” each one endured and won the race.
Someone may suggest, “Oh, it would take a huge amount of faith to run the race before me, and my faith is so weak.”
How much faith does it take to do big things like Abel, Abraham, Noah, and Moses?
Mustard seed faith moves mountains.
Mustard seed faith is not negligible!
Endurance would not be mentioned if the race was an easy one.
It is not a question of the size or strength of our faith. It is a matter of the strength of the one in whom our faith is placed.
What is the race set before you?
Beyond a shadow of doubt, you have one.
Like the heroes of the past – you will run with endurance the race set before you by faith, or not at all.