A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va., on August 18, 2013.
We’ve got a lot of runners in our church – people who jog, folks who run or train others to run 5Ks, gluttons who run half-marathons or longer! But we’ve also got others in our church – like me – who can’t even imagine such training. And I suspect that even our most dedicated runners have to push through the desire to quit in the midst of a long training session or race. In today’s scripture lesson, the writer invokes the image of a long distance race to illustrate the nature of faith. Last Sunday, we saw that Hebrews was written to encourage first-generation Christians to remain true to the faith in the face of persecution. This persecution happened not just once, but again and again, until some were ready to quit the faith. To these Christians, the writer of Hebrews exhorted: “let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”
Here, we see an image of a long-endurance race, a marathon of faith. For followers of Jesus, trusting in Christ is not a 40-yard dash. Trusting in Christ is more like a marathon, run at a steady pace for the long haul. Trusting in Christ is something we do for a whole lifetime, in good times and bad, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. In our culture of “get-rich-quick” schemes, and “getting out while the getting is good” attitude, how do we run our marathon of faith? How can we avoid quitting in the middle of the race? Well, this morning, the text suggests three ways to help us persevere as we run our marathon of faith.
The text first gives us examples and models of those who persevered. Hebrews 12 verse 1 says: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses.” If you’ve ever heard a sermon preached on this passage before, you’ve likely heard preachers painting a picture of runners striding into a stadium surrounded by thousands of onlookers cheering them on to the finish line. That’s a great picture, because anyone who has ever played a sport in a stadium knows how encouraging it is to have thousands of people cheering you on. But in Hebrews, this “great cloud of witnesses” isn’t just any ole crowd of spectators sitting in their seats while you sweat and run. In this passage, this great cloud or crowd were runners who had already fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith. In other words, we are surrounded by a great cloud of role models, who by their lives gave witness to a life of trust and faith in God. It’s like having Hall of Famers Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays and Cy Young watch us play baseball. And because of their witness and example, we are motivated to follow in their footsteps even as they cheer us on.
Who are the Hall of Famers of Faith that the writer of Hebrews names as part of this great cloud of witnesses? Chapter 11 features a list of them: people like Abel who offered a sacrifice acceptable to God, Enoch who never experienced death, Noah who saved all living things from a flood, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph—the founding fathers of Israel, and Moses who led his people through the Red Sea, and Joshua who defeated Jericho simply by marching and shouting. This is a Dream Team of Faith.
Now, you might say, “There’s no way I can ever be like those people. Having them watch over me doesn’t give me motivation, it gives me guilt. Before you despair, keep reading, starting in verse 31: “By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.” I think most of us would agree that prostitution is not a model of virtue and spiritual maturity. Then there’s Gideon, who, after defeating his enemies with just a handful of warriors, made a garment of gold about which the Bible says, “all Israel prostituted themselves by worshipping it.” Samson is also named, who was strong in body but weak in self-control, and ended up collapsing a temple upon himself and others. There’s Jephthah, who made a rash promise that unwittingly led him to sacrifice his only child as a burnt offering. And we know that David defeated Goliath, but he was also an adulterer.
The Bible does not whitewash people’s lives. These heroes of the faith were a mixed bag. I don’t mean that some were righteous and some were rascals. I mean that each person mentioned in this list had good and bad in them at the same time. And so do we. We don’t have to be spiritual giants in order to trust in God. In fact, it just might be the other way around. Trusting in God is the first step toward spiritual maturity. At first, you might have to take little steps. You don’t just decide to run a marathon and the next day you run twenty-six-plus miles. No, you first run short distances and then work your way up. It is the same with the marathon of faith. What little step toward forgiveness today can we take today? What steps toward releasing our fears or anger or covetousness? What steps toward being more generous with God’s gifts?
Throughout history, God used flawed people to do great deeds. The writer of Hebrews didn’t have time to go into details, and neither do I, but briefly mentioned were those who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women who received back their dead, raised to life again.
Now here, you might say: “But that’s not real life. Sure, focus on spiritual victories, spectacular healing, and amazing accomplishments done through faith, but from where I sit, I also see a lot of failure and tragedy. Good people don’t always win, faithful people get diagnosed with terrible diseases, justice does not always prevail, and bad people do not always get caught.”
I’m so glad you brought that up! Look in the next verses starting in verse 35: “Others were tortured… Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison.” Just as the Bible does not whitewash lives, the Bible does not whitewash history. Trusting in God does not guarantee that you’ll live a charmed life where you will never face loss, opposition, or suffering. We probably know of a few heroes of faith in your own family or among your friends, people who trusted in God despite the hardships in their lives. These people don’t have to be a Mother Theresa or a Dietrich Bonhoeffer, they could be people like you and me.
When I was started at Farmville Baptist in 2005, one of the first people I met was Sarah Terry. She was the Executive Director of the Farmville Chamber of Commerce, and a legislative aid for Congressman Virgil Goode. She also had a recurrence of breast cancer. For two years, Sarah made regular visits to UVA for experimental cancer treatments. She lost her hair, her strength, her weight before she finally lost her battle to cancer on December 1, 2007. But she did not lose her faith, her sense of humor, her joy, or her concern for others. When I visited Sarah during her last week of life, she asked about my mother-in-law. At her funeral, the church was packed, filled with Republicans and Democrats alike, each person there because their lives were touched and made richer by the gift of Sarah’s life. I am inspired by people like Sarah, who despite the challenges of life, persevered in her faith all the way to the end.
In addition to showing us examples of people who persevered, this passage also shows us the way to persevere. We must throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. Can you imagine running any race, much less a marathon, carrying a backpack, lugging a purse, and toting water bottles? Of course not. But it is not just our individual hang-ups and sins that we should throw off. The text does not say, “you should throw off everything that hinders,” but “let us throw off everything that hinders.” This command is directed toward our community of faith in the way we live life together. What is weighing down our church and entangling us? Could it be fear? A mistrust of others? An unwillingness to engage lovingly with those who have different convictions than us? A lack of honesty in sharing our struggles? We can’t run the marathon of faith while weighed down by those things.
But as important as having examples of people who persevere, as important as casting aside everything that hinders us, the most important thing is to know the goal for which we endure. Having examples and being unencumbered is no good if we’re just running around in circles. We must have a goal worthy of our perseverance. Four days ago, children’s writer Fred Bowen wrote for the Washington Post about the Nationals’ vanishing playoff hopes. The Nationals began the season as a World Series contender. Now, some fans think the Nats are playing the rest of the season for nothing. Bowen, however, thinks otherwise. True, they have almost no chance to slip into the playoffs. But if the team plays hard all the way through the season, something good may come of it down the line. Bowen argues that “sometimes when you are playing for nothing, you are actually playing to find out what kind of player and what kind of team you really are. And that’s a lot to play for.”
As Christians and as a church, it is crucial that we be clear about what or who we’re running for. The finish line of the marathon of faith is not a yellow ribbon; it is also not more people in the pews, a bigger budget, or better programs. Frankly, those things don’t last; they are not worthy to be our ultimate goal. The number-one reason why we do anything in church is so that we may become more like Jesus. When things get tough, and it feels like we are running for nothing, we are actually running to find out what kind of Christian and what kind of church we really are. Are we becoming more like Jesus, becoming more conformed to his perfect image?
Each and every person named in the Hall of Fame of Faith in Hebrews 11 looked to Jesus as the pioneer and perfecter of faith. Pastor Timothy Keller reminds us that Jesus is the true and better Abraham, answering God’s call to leave the comfortable and go create a new people of God. Jesus is the true and better Moses, standing in the gap between the people and the Lord, mediating a new covenant. Jesus is the true and better Rahab, sheltering and protecting the people of God in the midst of enemies. Jesus is the true and better Gideon, singlehandedly defeating the forces of death despite overwhelming odds. Jesus is the true and better Samson, not only tearing down a temple, but rebuilding it in three days. Jesus is the true and better Jephthah, demonstrating the power of sacrifice to cover our rash mistakes and deliberate sins. Jesus is the true and better David, serving not only as our king but also as our savior. The saints of the past were good examples and witnesses of faith, but they all point to Jesus who is the perfect example of persevering faith. Jesus cast aside all that hindered him by praying to his heavenly Father “not my will, but yours be done.” As a result of Jesus enduring the cross and being raised from the dead, He is our ultimate goal, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.
In your life, who sets an example of what running the marathon of faith is like? What have they set aside in order to run the race toward Jesus? Like the saints of old, we are all running the same marathon of faith; and our goal is Jesus, who has gone before us as a pioneer, and who is waiting at the finish line to perfect us. As we run, the heroes of faith from the past are with us to cheer us on. What is the next step of faith that you can take today? May we run with perseverance the marathon of faith that God has marked out for us. Amen.
 2 Timothy 4:7.
 Judges 7:4-7; Judges 8:22-33.
 Judges 13;-16.
 Judges 11:30-40.
 1 Samuel 17; 2 Samuel 11.
 I’m indebted to Dr. Timothy Keller, Senior Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City for some of these formulations of how Jesus is “the true and better” fulfillment of these Old Testament figures.
Michael Cheuk is a leadership coach and church consultant at MichaelKCheuk.com. He is a Baptist Center for Ethics / EthicsDaily.com board member, who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.