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August 15, 2004
I now invite you to turning your Bibles to the book of Hebrews, chapter 11, and follow along as I read 11:29-12:2. Hear what the Spirit says to us.
29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned.
30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days.
31 By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
32 And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets--
33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions,
34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.
35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection.
36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.
37 They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented--
38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised,
40 since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,
2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
A Running Faith
Rosa Gutierrez [see Runningwithvision.com.] has been on the run for most of her life, running hard in competitive races such as the Stockton 10-miler, the Gasparilla 15k race and the Rotary Mission Ten. She runs between 80 and 90 miles a week, plus regular swimming and weight training, and she is able to cover long distances at the impressive pace of six minutes per mile. All of this has been in preparation for the marathon at the 2004 Olympic games, a race in which she hopes to be part of the American team.
Yet, throughout her training, Rosa has kept today’s passage from Hebrews in mind: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (12:1). When she runs, Rosa remembers the men and women of faith who have gone before her, including her mother and her father. They moved from Mexico to the United States with nothing in their pockets, but managed to raise eleven children and live good and faithful lives. They are, for Rosa, witnesses of what it means to overcome life’s obstacles by faith and trust in God. They have helped her to see that when the race is tough and everything seems to be falling apart, she still has something within her to strengthen her, encourage her, and call her to persevere.
That is why Rosa is dreaming of something besides gold medals and personal glory. Her highest aspirations are spiritual growth, drawing others to the Lord, and the glorification of God in everything she does. For Rosa, the race of faith is even more important than the Olympic marathon. “Whatever the outcome, God will be in the midst of it all,” she predicts. She has Olympic Faith.
The Twenty-Eighth Olympiad has just begun in Greece. Throughout these games, the core values of the Olympics are being highlighted, values such as tolerance, solidarity, peace and friendship.
Of course, we need to be realistic about the Olympics. Even the ancient games were plagued with scandals and charges of professionalism. And the Olympics have never been free of politics. At the 1908 Olympic Games, the marathon, originally exactly 26 miles long, was officially increased by 385 yards so that the race could end in front of Edward VII’s royal box in the Olympic stadium in New York. And as you may know today the Olympics are wrestling, no pun intended, with scandals involving drug doping.
But none of that should blind us to the good values that the Olympics promote. Tolerance, solidarity, peace and friendship are good things. So is faith. Faith should be an Olympic value because faith allows each of us, in a well-conditioned body of Christ, to run with perseverance “the race that is set before us.”
Hebrews chapter eleven is a faith chapter. Today’s text begins by recalling the faith demonstrated by “the people” — that common crowd of runaway Hebrew slaves — instead of focusing on the faith of their leader, Moses. Although the fleeing Israelites would later demonstrate their lack of faith, at the critical moment by the Red Sea, their faith stood strong.
Hebrews then mentions one of Joshua’s most famous triumphs — Jericho. Adopting one of the most bizarre military strategies in history, the Israelites marched seven long days around the walls of the city without attacking it. They kept faithful in their strange vigil, and Jericho was delivered into their hands.
Rahab is perhaps the most startling choice in a litany of faithful role models. She was a prostitute. But Rahab is singled out here as a paragon of faith because, like Abraham and Moses, she had faith in the future. Trusting that God was with the Israelite spies, she bravely cast her lot with them, believing in God’s promises.
After a while, it dawns on the author of Hebrews that he cannot enumerate all the examples of faithfulness contained in the Old Testament. In verse 32 he begins offering a shorthand list of individuals and their accomplishments. Military heroes, strong men, kings, and prophets are perhaps not surprising choices for showcasing, although among those highlighted, some had notable character flaws as well as enduring faith — think of Barak’s hesitancy; Samson’s entanglement with Delilah; Jephthah offering of his daughter as a sacrifice; David’s adultery with Bathsheba.
Following this exhibit of national victories faith had won for Israel, Hebrews turns to examples of personal triumphs made possible by faith. In verse 35 the writer mentions “Women” who “received their dead by resurrection” — a remark that must refer to the miraculous resurrection events experienced by both the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:17-24) and the Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4:8, 18-37). But note that Hebrews focuses on the faith of the women, not on the actions of the prophets (Elijah and Elisha).
But this talk of “resurrections” serves to shift the author’s attention away from triumphant works accomplished by faithfulness to the triumph of faith itself in the lives and deaths of believers. While the faith of these women resulted in wondrous resurrections, the faith of others now mentioned leads to a future victory — a “better resurrection” that is beyond mere physical revival.
Martyrs of the Church
Beginning in verse 36, therefore, Hebrews cites a different list of faith “victories” — triumphs that ended in extended hardship and even a martyr’s death for the faithful. Despite the pain and suffering of cruel tortures, despite the difficulty of their lives, these witnesses are remembered for their never-wavering faith. Yet for all their faithfulness, this author admits in verse 39 that these patriarchs, matriarchs and martyrs “did not receive what was promised,” not because God had broken the divine promise to Israel, but because that promise had not yet come. Now the promise have been fulfilled and extended to all creation. This new promise is the “something better” that is a repeating refrain throughout the book of Hebrews. The ultimate “something better” God has provided is Jesus Christ, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:2).
Because of faith in Christ, people were tortured, mocked, flogged, chained and imprisoned. Faith was evident in martyrs who were stoned to death, sawn in two, and killed by the sword.
Perhaps the first real persecution of the Church took place during the reign of Nero, the sixth emperor of Rome. Apparently there was a great fire in Rome that lasted for many days and killed large numbers of people, and, like people everywhere, the Romans blamed the government. Nero, like politicians everywhere, knew he had to deflect the blame, so he blamed the Christians, and he contrived all manner of cruelties to “punish” them for their evil deeds, though in fact they were innocent. According to Fox’s Book of Martyrs, Nero “had some sewed up in skins of wild beasts, and then worried by dogs until they expired; and others dressed in shirts made stiff with wax, fixed to axletrees, and set on fire in his gardens, in order to illuminate them.” During this persecution, the tradition is that both Paul and Peter were martyred.
There were many other persecutions of the church. One occurred under the emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, around A.D. 161-2. Again, Fox tells the story of Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna who was arrested, tried and condemned. The proconsul urged him to renounce Christ, but Polycarp answered, "Eighty and six years have I served him, and he never once wronged me; how then shall I blaspheme my King, Who hath saved me?"
Every age has produced its crop of those who suffer for the faith. When Adolf Hitler controlled Germany, Christian churches were obliged to accept the racist doctrines of national socialism. The Gestapo monitored Christian clergy and congregations for any semblance of dissent with Nazi policies, and many Christians ended up in concentration camps when they opposed the immoral teachings of national socialism. Perhaps the most famous of these Christian martys was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a distinguished theologian whose works are still read today.
During the Cold War, Christians in the Soviet Union suffered from constant ongoing persecution. Even today in many Muslim countries, Christians are subject to persecution and death, particularly in places like the Sudan and Nigeria.
But always, despite persecution, Christians persevere with an Olympic Faith. Faith that can help us to press on toward “the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). Faith that can propel us upward when life pulls us downward; faith that helps us move forward, when stress and conflict threaten to pull us backward.
When we crash headfirst into hardship, it’s important to remember that we are not alone. In 1932, the International Olympic Committee sent an invitation to China, inviting it to participate for the first time. A letter of acceptance came back, but nothing else until the games began on July 27 in Los Angeles. Cheung Chun-Liu arrived with no notice and speaking not one word of English. Through an interpreter, he explained that he was, in fact, the Chinese Olympic team. In the preliminary heats for the 100- and 200- meter sprints, he came in dead last, spending a resounding total of 40 seconds on the track. The next day he went straight back to China, alone. But as members of the body of Christ, we are never alone. We have this great cloud of witnesses that are with us.
As we watch the Olympic games, commentators will tell us that each athlete is a story of hard-won triumph over great odds. The Olympic athletes have faced injuries and personal failures, mental and physical challenges, financial and emotional stresses. In the past, some were even tortured. We know that it was common practice during Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq for his son to torture members of their Olympic team. Hopefully none of the athletes in Athens today have been tortured, but all have faced struggle, strain, challenge and competition, and now they are sitting at the top of their fields, along with the world’s finest athletes from 202 countries around the globe.
They are surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses” — a field of fellow champions, past and present. Today’s competitors are moved and motivated by the athletes all around them, as well as by the spirit of the Olympics, which has inspired people for thousands of years.
That spirit is especially strong in 2004, as the Games go back to the country of their birth. The original Olympic Games began in Greece in 776 B.C., and were held every four years — one Olympiad — at Olympia until the year, A.D. 393. The Games were suspended for about 1,500 years, and then Athens hosted the first Olympic Games of the modern era in 1896. Now, in 2004, the Games are returning to their roots.
That is the challenge for us, as we focus on Olympic Faith: to return to our roots, to embrace the people of faith who have gone before us, and to carry forward the tradition of record-breaking reliance on Jesus. In order to achieve our personal best, we have to reach beyond ourselves.
Olympic athletes are constantly looking beyond themselves to gain motivation, insight and ideas from their colleagues and competitors. In the same way, we are inspired by the faith of God’s people in every time and place, and we can learn from the way in which our fellow believers have dealt with hardship and suffering.
Are your enemies pursuing you? Learn from the Israelites at the Red Sea.
Have you run into a brick wall? Look to the Israelites at Jericho.
Are you feeling mocked, abused, unfairly convicted and even crucified? Reach for Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2), who endured the cross before experiencing resurrection glory. Jesus was and is the winner of all winners. He conquered death and satan on the cross. Jesus is the ultimate winner in life who encourages us to keep going. He is the one who can save us, motivate us and encourage us to make it in the journey of life. We should always consider Jesus when we are weary and tempted to give up. We should always look to Jesus for support, encouragement and strength.
But, do you know what is the major cause of automobile accidents? People do not pay attention to their driving. They are talking on their cellphone, tuning in a station on the radio, looking at the scenery. I passed a guy in Charlotte rush hour traffic the other day who was reading a newspaper. Any time we take our focus off the main thing and put it on something else we are headed for trouble. Any time we take our focus off Jesus we are headed for a spiritual accident. The reason most people have so much trouble in life is because we lose our spiritual focus. We take our eyes off Jesus.
When Lloyd Douglas, author of The Robe, attended college, he lived in a boardinghouse. A retired, wheelchair-bound music professor resided on the first floor. Each morning Douglas would stick his head in the door of the teacher’s apartment and ask the same question, "Well, what’s the good news?" The old man would pick up his tuning fork, tap it on the side of his wheelchair and say, "That’s middle C! It was middle C yesterday; it will be middle C tomorrow; it will be middle C a thousand years from now. The tenor upstairs sings flat. The piano across the hall is out of tune, but, my friend, that is middle C." We all need a middle C. Relationships change. Health changes. The weather changes (think of all that rain we had this week!). But Christ never changes. He is our middle C. Life is forever changing, but Jesus is the constant we can always trust while traveling life’s journey. Heb. 13:8: “Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever!”
By faith, ordinary people have accomplished extraordinary acts of great love and courage.
By faith, go now to run the race God has prepared for you, trusting that you are surrounded by a great cheering section of those who have already finished. May Jesus lead you, may God’s love uphold you, and the Spirit’s power sustain you, now and always. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 11/29/04