SCRIPTURE:  Hebrews 12: 1-2, 12-17

In the name of the God who creates us, redeems us, and gives us life. Amen.


          Have you watched the 2016 Olympic Games? They end today. Traditionally the last competition of the Olympics is the running of the 26-mile marathon. Then comes the closing ceremony. But it is not too late for you to enter the Olympics.

          The writers of the New Testament were familiar with the Olympic Games that were observed 500 years before their time in Greece. Every major city had a stadium where athletic contests were held. Among the many games was the foot race, or the relay race, and what we call the marathon.

          In fact, we get the name “marathon” from the Greeks. It was the site of a major battle between the Greeks and the Persians. The Greeks sent one of their fastest runners, Pheidippides, to bring help from Sparta, 150 miles away. By the time Pheidippides returned, the battle was over and the Greeks had won. The Greeks then sent Pheidippides to run another 26 miles to Athens to tell them of the victory. When he entered the city gates he cried out, “Nike, Nike!” “Rejoice! We conquer”, and fell dead.

          Early Christians drew analogies from these athletic games as a way of speaking of the need for discipline and discipleship in the Christian life. Life is like a marathon. In a marathon bursts of speed are not the object. It is the steady pace of endurance that counts.

          The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews writes like a track coach, sharing important information on how to run the race of life.


                                       I. DRESSED FOR THE RUN

In writing to the Hebrews, this track coach tells his readers that they are to lay

aside every weight. That is, they are to lay aside that which would hold them back.

          Any runner knows that if you are going to run a race you need to give yourself every advantage. Runners do not wear raincoats, sweaters, and jackets because they are too cumbersome. Such articles of clothing would slow runners down, making them feel restricted.

          One cannot run 26 miles, 385 yards wearing saddle oxfords, penny loafers or wing tips. Rather, one wears carefully designed running shoes. Even socks are of a special material and thickness. All of this is to give the athlete every advantage to win.

          The writer of Hebrews had this same thought in mind when he spoke of the race that is set before us. “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.”  We may not always know when we are taking on the additional weight of sin. That is what makes sin so insidious, it builds, layer upon layer, until we discover that we are having a difficult time running the race.

          I thoroughly enjoy sermon preparation because I learn so many things in my research—either reading or searching the web. In preparing for this sermon, I learned something that I know will be such valuable information and you will all be so glad you came this morning.

          Did you know that airplanes get heavier as they get older? Not just the accumulated dirt on floors and seats. It’s worst than that. It’s the sand, oil, and grit that collect inside the closed cavitities of the wings, fuselage, and tail. These places often become homes for nesting critters as well. Every five years, an older plane has to be put on the scales to establish new weight and balance. Now, aren’t you glad you came to church this morning to get this valuable information.

          People can be like those airplanes; taking on weight, not just from eating, but from ordinary living. What weighs you down, in the long race of life? The object is to travel light, so we will want to do away with the extra weight of sin and guilt, pride and jealousy, dishonesty and hypocrisy, meanness and envy. Such items cling and they impede the running of the race.

          There are some marvelous stories that come out of the White House regarding some embarrassing moments of our presidents. There is a delightful story about  former President George W. Bush on the evening he escorted the wife of the President of France into a state dinner at the White House. Suddenly she stopped and spoke to the President in French. President Bush had no idea what she was saying, so he just smiled and nodded until an interpreter explained to the President that he was standing on her gown. You cannot go very far when you or someone else is standing on your garment. There are some things that cling and drag us down. Such things need to be rejected if we are going to make a good run for Christ.

          It is not too late to enter the Olympics, but we must be dressed for the run.

                    II.RUN WITH PERSEVERANCE

Perseverance is defined as “continuing with patient effort --- continuing to do

something in spite of difficulties and obstacles.” Perseverance also means to “adhere to some purpose or action or belief” even when everything seems to be telling us that we ought to quit.

          I have run in 3 marathons and a race with a weird distance of 20 miles that was called the Longstreet 20 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Marathon runners come to an invisible barrier called “hitting the wall”, usually around the 20-21 mile range. When this happens the electrolytes in the body have been depleted. Every muscle cries out, “Stop!” In their mind they are saying to themselves, “This is too much. Quit! I can’t go on.” It requires an enormous degree of determination to overcome this kind of protest and to stay in the race.

          A high-powered motivational speaker was brought in to speak at a convention of 2000 sales persons. He said, “Did the Wright Brothers ever quit?” The sales force thundered back, “No!” The he asked, “Did Charles Lindbergh ever quit?” Again, the thunderous response, “No!” For a third time he sang out, “And did Joan of Arc ever quit?” the sales people, really getting in the spirit of things, shouted back, “No!”

          For the final time he bellowed, “Did Thorndike McKeester ever quit?” Silence fell over the convention. Finally, some courageous soul timidly spoke up and asked, “Sir, forgive me for asking, but who is Thorndike McKeester? I have never heard of him.” The speaker thundered back, “Of course you never heard of him because he quit!”      

          There is a time to quit but maybe some of us quit too soon. Maybe there are some who quit too soon on a marriage or quit too soon on a career. Maybe some quit too soon on a friendship or some other meaningful relationship. Maybe some quit too soon on the church. For that matter, maybe some quit too soon on God. Maybe there are some who quit too soon on life.       

          Many of the Olympic athletes perform on perseverance

           It certainly had to be sheer perseverance that kept Bob Ireland running in the 1968 New York City Marathon. He was the marathon’s final finisher, number 19,413. He set a record for the slowest time in marathon history. It took him four days, two hours, forty-eight minutes and seventeen seconds. He also set another record. He was the first person to ever run a marathon with his arms instead of is legs, for his legs were blown off in Vietnam.

          When this 40 year-old veteran from California was asked why he ran the race, he gave three reasons: to tell the world that he was a Christian, to test his own conditioning, and to promote physical fitness for others. I like what he said in an interview following the marathon in New York: “Success is not based on where you start, it’s where you finish, and I finished.”

          It’s not too late to enter the Olympics. Life is like a marathon, and we need to make a commitment to the long run. It’s the perseverance that counts.

                                           III. LOOK TO JESUS

            We are told to look to Jesus as our model of spirituality and morality. When the Greeks used the word “look” it meant more than just turning your head and casting your eyes on something or someone. The word “look” was an active verb that means to imitate. When the Greeks told people to look to Jesus, it meant more than just looking at him, it meant imitating him.

          It meant imitating Christ’s love. It was to “copy Christ” as Paul tells us in his second letter to the Corinthians (11:1). Paul knew that we cannot be a copy of Christ. Christ alone is the Redeemer, but we can copy Christ’s spirit, his love, and his humility.

          The best way for us to run the marathon of life is to keep your eye on Jesus while you run. The award winning movie, “Chariots of Fire”, chronicles the story of Eric Liddell, eventually a Scottish missionary to China, who won a gold medal running for the 1924 British Olympic team.

          Early in his life, Eric commented, “God made me fast.” To see Eric Liddell run was to observe a man who experienced ecstasy in exercising the God-given muscles and sinew of a runner.

          Liddell postponed preparations to serve as a missionary to China, in order to reach his running goal of an Olympic gold medal. As the British Olympic team was boarding the boat to cross the English Channel to Paris, site of the 1924 Olympics, Liddell discovered that one of his preliminary heats was scheduled on a Sunday.

          A devout Calvinist, Liddell announced that he would not run. Even when summoned before the British Olympic Committee, which included the Prince of Wales, Liddell refused to compromise his stand. Only the voluntary withdrawal by a British runner who was competing in another event allowed Eric Liddell a place to compete in the Olympics. The rest is history. Eric Liddell ran and won the gold.

          Eric Liddell was a runner who had his eyes clearly set upon his goal, which in his case was ultimately his obedience to Christ and his willingness, if necessary, to forego the extra weight of an Olympic gold medal.

          I suppose in today’s world, such a religious stance seems almost silly. Surely someone could compromise just a little and run on Sunday and realize that would not be a great offense to God. But perhaps that is much of the problem of our society today. Our gaze is fixed on values that are not nearly as important as fixing our eyes on Christ. Maybe if we ran the marathon of life looking to Jesus, we would see less violence in the world. Maybe if most of us had our eyes fixed on Christ, we would see less vengeance. Maybe if we looked to Jesus as we ran the race of life there would be less vandalism in our communities.

          It is not too late to enter the Olympics. Our goals, ideals, and principles could be greatly elevated if we would be willing to look to Christ rather than to the world.

                                      IV. SURROUNDED BY WITNESSES

            One final word. This track coach writing to the Hebrews began his pep talk to the athletes by reminding them that a cloud of witnesses surrounds them. I wanted to reverse the order because I wanted to save the best for last.

          Who are these witnesses? Those who have run the race before us. The writer of Hebrews even gives us their names and the list is endless. These are great men and women who have run the race. They are surrounding us as a cloud of witnesses to inspire us and to keep us going.

          That cloud of witnesses is still there today. People who have run the race and are encouraging us. Maybe it was a mother or a father. Maybe it was your grandfather or grandmother. Maybe it was a schoolteacher or administrator, or a college professor. Maybe it was a friend or a co-worker. They were always there, cheering you on, and encouraging you to stay in the race.

          Charley Paddock was such a person. He was a great public speaker. He enjoyed speaking at high schools to inspire young people. One time he spoke in a school in Cleveland, Ohio. He made a statement: “If you think you can, you can. If you believe a thing strongly enough, it can come to pass in our life. Who knows but there’s an Olympic champion here in this auditorium this afternoon.”

          When he finished speaking, a skinny African American boy came up to Charley and said, “Gee, Mr. Paddock, I’d give anything if I could be an Olympic champion just like you!”

          With that inspiration and the example of Charley Paddock, that young man did go on to the Olympics in 1936 and won four gold medals! His name was Jesse Owens.

          The story does not end there. Later, when Jesse returned to Cleveland and was driving through the streets, he stopped to sign some autographs. One young African American boy pressed against the car and said, “Mr. Owens, I’d give anything if I could be an Olympic champion like you.” Jesse reached out to that young boy and said, “You know, if you train hard, you can!”

          That boy was so excited that he ran all the way home and told his grandmother, “I’m going to be an Olympic champion.” In 1948, he won the 100-yard dash at Wimbley Stadium in London. His name was Harrington Dillard. He not only tied Jesse Owens’ Olympic record, but also went on to break more world records.

          It is not too late to enter the Olympics. You and I are surrounded and sustained by a cloud of witnesses who not only cheer us on but also remind us that in running the marathon of life we need to dress for the race, run with the perseverance, and always look to Jesus.