In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Do you remember field day? The day every spring when you got to spend the entire school day outside playing games; it was the best. A friend of mine once told me about a field day experience he had. He had been chosen by his team to represent them in the bike race. As he waited for the starting gun to sound, his adrenaline pumping, his palms sweating, he was determined to win the race and not let his teammates down. He sized up the other contestants and was surprised to see that most of them were not exactly known around the school as athletes. “I’m going to crush them,” he thought.
The gun sounded and he took off, pedaling furiously, head down, wind rushing past his ears. As he rounded the first turn, he noticed that no one else was around him, and he grew excited, pedaling even more furiously. He crossed the finish line a moment later and threw up his arms in victory, but as he coasted over to his teammates, instead of being greeted with cheers and high-fives he was asked, “What were you thinking?” in colorful language I won’t use in the pulpit.
You see, the bike race was a slow bike race, with the object being to see how long you could take to ride your bike along the track, while staying within your lines, while not allowing your feet to touch the ground.
My friend hadn’t realized that this particular bike race was a different kind of race.
Today I’m preaching on the beginning of Hebrews 12, in which we read, “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”
We don’t know for sure who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews, but we know to whom it was written: Christians who were undergoing persecution for their faith in Jesus—specifically, Christians who had converted from Judaism to Christianity and in doing so had stepped out from under the protective umbrella of the Roman Empire which recognized Judaism. These Christians made themselves vulnerable to persecution because at that time the Roman Empire did not yet recognize Christianity.
As the persecution of Christians became more widespread and severe, many of these Christians were playing it safe by reverting to Judaism. The writer to the Hebrews was therefore encouraging them to persevere in their faith in Jesus.
Along these lines in the Letter to the Hebrews, the writer demonstrates the superiority of Jesus over the various aspects of Judaism—that Jesus is superior to all the prophets of the Old Testament because he is the Son of God, that Jesus is superior even to Moses because Jesus fulfilled the law, that Jesus is superior to the entire sacrificial system of the Old Testament because in his death on the cross he atoned once and for all for the sins not just of Israel but of the whole world.
And in light of all Jesus is and all he has done, the writer exhorts the Hebrews to run with perseverance the race marked out before them.
The metaphor of running a race is something we can all relate to—we run our businesses and run our errands. We race to get ahead in traffic, race to get ahead in the check-out line, race to get ahead in life.
This idea of running has been reflected in many songs through the years:
As Jackson Browne sang in the 70’s: “Running on—running on empty, running on—running blind, running on—running into the sun but I’m running behind” (“Running on Empty,” title track of 1977 album).
Or as the band Collective Soul sang in the 90’s: “Are these times contagious? I’ve never been this bored before. Is this the prize I’ve waited for?…Have I got a long way to run, have I got a long way to run” (“Run” from 1999 album Dosage).
Or as Lady Antebellum sang just a few years ago: “I run my life, or is it running me? Run from my past, I run too fast, or too slow it seems” (“I Run to You” from their 2008 debut album).
And it’s not just running externally, internally we may find ourselves running from anxiety, running from the truth, running from the past, running out of time.
And the running never stops, and the faster and longer we run, the more tired and behind we feel.
And so the metaphor in today’s passage from Hebrews that compares the Christian faith to running a race may not sound like good news, especially in our hyper-competitive, pathologically competitive society. Who needs yet another race to run? And yet the passage today says, “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”
Often this scripture is used as a sort of Christian motivational speech to inspire you to pick yourself up and be a fully-committed Christian—but this kind of motivational speech can ring hollow and be as helpful as the motivational speeches given by Chris Farley’s classic Saturday Night Live character, Matt Foley, the motivational speaker who tries to motivate people with hyped-up speech called “Go For It!” but who lives alone “in a van down by the river.”
The Christian faith is not a race in which to prove your individual commitment to Christ or demonstrate your individual spiritual disciplines or prove yourself to be a 100% committed super-Christian for Jesus. When people who embrace this kind of Christian faith feel like they are successfully “running the race,” they tend to become smug and self-righteous, impossible to be around; and when they are not “running the race” so well, they can become vulnerable to cynicism and despair.
But when it comes to the Christian faith, the race is a different kind of race.
A couple illustrations—one from an animated film and one from real life.
In his insightful sermon last week, Dave Zahl gave an illustration from the Pixar film, Finding Nemo, complete with frighteningly convincing whale sounds ☺.
Here’s an illustration from another Pixar film, the 2006 film Cars— sorry, no sound effects this time ☺…Toward the end of the film is the big race and the winner will receive the coveted Piston Cup. Three of the cars in this race are Lightening McQueen, Chick Hicks, and Strip “The King” Weathers.
Near the end of the race McQueen is in the lead, heading for victory and Hicks, who is desperate to catch McQueen but is behind Weathers, hits Weathers and causes him to wipe out.
As McQueen is cruising to victory, he sees on the giant video screen what happened to Weathers. He slams on his brakes and screeches to a halt just inches from the finish line, and then heads back toward Weathers. Meanwhile Hicks takes full advantage of this and races to victory. When McQueen gets to Weathers he gets behind him and begins pushing him toward the finish line.
Stunned, Weathers asks McQueen, “What are you doing, kid?” McQueen replies, I think The King should finish his last race. “You just gave up the Piston Cup, do you know that?” McQueen grins, This grumpy old race car I know once told me something—‘It’s just an empty cup.’
Then McQueen gently pushes Weathers across the finish line.
Another illustration, this one from real life…I recently saw a Special Olympics video on Youtube in which several Special Olympians were competing in a sprint. One of the contestants tripped and fell… and the others all did something you would never expect. Instead of seeing the fallen sprinter as one less competitor to worry about, they all turned back and helped him to his feet. Then smiling, they all linked their arms and crossed the finish line together.
The Christian faith is a different kind of race.
For those who have crashed or fallen in the race of their life, or for those who have won some races only to find themselves alone holding an empty cup, there is a longing for a place where they will be accepted, a longing for a place worth running to. In his song “Graceland,” Paul Simon, while ostensibly singing about visiting Elvis’ home, articulates this longing:
Poor boys and pilgrims with families
We are going to Graceland
My traveling companion is nine years old
He is the child of my first marriage
But I’ve reason to believe
We both will be received in Graceland (from the 1986 album Graceland).
When Jesus came, people longed for a messiah who would lead a military revolt over the Romans, someone who would crush his competitors, a superhero of sorts who would metaphorically win every race.
But Jesus came to run a different kind of race.
Instead of crushing his enemies, Jesus died for them.
On Good Friday, the King finished his last race, not for himself, but for you, especially for those of you, who in the course of running your race, have fallen or crashed.
That is the good news of the gospel.
And although most of us will continue to run our little races throughout the rest of our lives, and maybe even collect some more empty cups along the way, one day our earthly life will end, one day our last race will be finished.
And the King of Mercy, whose grace alone brings us across the final Finish Line, will be there to welcome us, and to give us not yet another empty cup, but the cup of salvation.
In “Holy Sonnet VI,” the seventeenth century Anglican priest and poet John Donne describes this:
This is my play’s last scene; here heavens appoint
My pilgrimage’s last mile; and my race
Idly, yet quickly run, hath this last pace;
My span’s last inch, my minute’s latest point;
And gluttonous Death will instantly unjoint
My body and soul, and I shall sleep a space;
But my ever-waking part shall see that face,
Whose fear already shakes my every joint.
Then, as my soul to heaven her first seat takes flight,
And earth-born body in the earth shall dwell,
So fall my sins, that all may have their right,
To where they’re bred and would press me to hell.
Impute me righteous, thus purged of evil,
For thus I leave the world, the flesh, the devil.
In other words, because of Jesus’ death on the cross, you have every reason to believe that you will be received in Graceland.
- Hebrews 12:1 - 2