Scripture: Hebrews 11:29-12:2
I really like history because often life is stranger than fiction, and history is full of quirky little things to discover. I can vividly remember when I uncovered one of these quirky facts in college. I was taking a Greek History class, and the assigned reading covered the battle of Marathon. After the Greeks won over the invading Persians, a solider ran from the battle site of marathon to Athens to inform the Athenian leaders of the victory. The textbook mentioned this distance was right around twenty five miles. When I read this it stuck out to me as odd, because I had heard of marathon before. I had heard about this battle and the runner, and I had heard it was to honor him that marathon races became a thing. I had heard that the distance of the marathon race was the distance that this warrior had run after the battle. Yet, I knew a marathon is 26.2 miles, so why then is the original distance only twenty five miles? In finding that answer I discovered an odd little story. It turns out that at one time the traditional distance for a marathon was twenty five miles. However, in 1908 that all changed. The summer Olympics were being hosted in London. At request of Queen Alexandria, the marathon course was altered. She wanted it to start in the lawn of Windsor Castle and she wanted the finish line right in front of the royal box at the Olympic stadium. Making these additions to the already planned route, boosted the distance from 25 miles to 26.2 miles. For whatever reason this London course became the standard, and the length of a marathon became standardized at an odd length that is actually more than the distance the race originally comes from.
Today, around the world there are over 800 marathons held. All kinds of people seek to successfully completely a marathon, and you usually know when someone has done it because they put a 26.2 sticker on the back of their car. For those who have completed that accomplishment, that is wonderful for them. For me though, the sticker I should put on the back of my car would state 0.0 (I do not run). Running 26.2 miles sounds like the exact opposite of a good time to me. I am not a runner, but apparently the authors of the Bible were. In his epistles Paul uses a couple of racing analogies, and in this morning’s scripture the author of Hebrews also compares our faith to a race that we are to run. There are a lot of different ways to race, even on foot. However, as we consider this morning’s scripture I think the kind of race that our faith can best be compared to become clear. Faith is not a sprint, it is a marathon.
This morning’s scripture comes from Hebrews, which is one of the more puzzling books of the New Testament. Much like the English royal family arbitrarily changed the distance of a marathon, the translators of the King James Version associated Paul as the author of Hebrews. However, going all the way back to the third century this was highly doubted and questioned. Hebrews is a book in the bible where the author is impossible to determine. It is likely addressed to Jewish converts to Christianity, but where this community of faith was located is also nearly impossible to determine. There are a couple of other oddities about Hebrews. It is not an epistle in the sense that Paul’s letters are. The structure of this document is different, and it has led biblical scholars to consider Hebrews less of a letter and more of an early example of a sermon. The language and carefully crafted sentences in Hebrew are more line with ancient oratory tradition as opposed to ancient letter writing standards. The theory is that Hebrews was written and sent with the intent that it be preached. Despite this book having so many unknowns, the early church recognized Hebrews as divinely inspired because of the truth held within.
Even though we cannot say for certain who wrote Hebrews and we cannot say for certain who the original audience was, there is still something that is familiar about the context. Hebrews was written to an established church, not new converts in the first years after the resurrection. Hebrews was written to a group of Christians showing signs of weariness and apathy. It was written to a group who had been around for a while, and was getting distracted by other things. I have been a part of a lot of churches in my life, and they were ae older, established churches. So it has been my experience all established churches struggle with feelings weariness and apathy. Established churches struggle with clinging to doing what has always been done while being tired from always doing the same thing. This is a normal struggle that is just part of being a community of faith together. This means Hebrews was written for churches like us, churches that have been around for a while and need to be regularly encouraged to throw off everything that hinders. .. And run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”
If following Jesus is a race, then it is absolutely one that requires perseverance, which is why a marathon is such an apt analogy. Being a Christian is not a one-time sprint to say a sinner’s prayer. It is not a heat race that we run for just an hour on Sunday mornings. Being a follower of Jesus is meant to be a race that is for the long haul. It is a race that where we are meant to go the distance, and the distance is our entire lives. I like how Eugene Petersen, author of the message paraphrase, describes this race. He wrote about in a book with the same title, the Christian faith is a long obedience in the same direction. The race marked out for us, might have a lot of ups and downs, but it has no turns. It is a straight shot to Jesus, a bee-line to the cross. The direction we are to run is to our Lord and Savior, to love God the Father like he does, to have compassion on others the way he does, and to follow his teachings in all our ways. This is not a goal we will reach overnight, and so like a marathon runner, we need to be prepared for a long run in the same direction.
This is the other reason why a marathon is the best analogy for the race of being a Christian. Every marathon runner will tell you the most important part of running a marathon is keeping pace. It is important to get into a sustainable rhythm, this is why skilled marathon runners purposely slow themselves while going down a hill. They sacrifice speed to maintain their pace. In the same way, being a Christian is all about maintaining a pace. Sometimes when people come to claim the Christian faith they throw themselves into it with vigor. The sign up and volunteer for everything. They get so caught up in doing stuff for Jesus that they forget to keep their eyes on Jesus. Instead of their faith being all about following Jesus it becomes all about the stuff they do. Whenever the main focus of our Christianity becomes about the stuff we do, then we are setting ourselves up for burnout. We are moving at a pace that is not sustained.
On the flip side, is the problem that the author of Hebrews, was addressing. It is less that we burnout in running the race of faith, and it is more that we get tired. We do not want to keep the pace, we get complacent. Complacency leads to apathy which leads to us to being so easily hindered. When we get complacent, then we pull back from living out our faith. We can be in danger of moving from being engaged to all of the sudden we feel like “we just don’t have the time anymore”. Where once we might never miss Sunday morning worship, now it is just so early. We fall into a place of spiritual slowness where we settle for those or any number of excuses we tell ourselves. A faith that once burned brightly, that once was a vibrant stride pursuing a long obedience in the same direction, becomes a cooling ember just sitting on the side of the road.
Maintaining our pace and avoiding that fate is what this morning’s scripture from Hebrews is all about. It reminds us that while each runs our own race in faith, we are not supposed to run it alone. There is a reason why a lot of people who actually enjoy running, try to find a partner or team to do it with. It is easier to find and keep pace if we are not alone, and our faith is the same way. Verse 12:1 of this morning’s scripture states, “Therefore since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” This morning’s scripture gives us plenty of biblical examples of this great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us. These biblical examples show us that in the struggles, the doubts, the hardships we face we are not blazing new trails. There are those who have gone before us, and have shown us the way thorough. The biblical heroes mentioned in this morning’s scripture stand as milestones along our race, to mark how to follow the path in the same direction. We can absolutely learn from these biblical examples, but we also surrounded by a cloud of witnesses in the pews right now. To run the race with perseverance we need to rely on each other. When one of us struggles, we should help one another throw off all that hinders and avoid the sin that so easily entangles.
There is a story from the 1992 Olympic Games that illustrates this. Runner Derek Redmond was a favorite to win the 400m gold, but just 100 meters into the medal race something went wrong. His body failed him, and his hamstring tore. Leaving him unable to walk, much less. However, Derek was determined and he attempted to hop on one foot, almost 300 meters so that he could finish the race. It was an agonizing, tragic sight. Between the pain and the distance odds were Derek was not going to make it. However, he did not have to do it alone. A man came rushing out the stand and pushed his way past the stadium security and ran to Derek’s side. It was his father. When he was broken and unable to go on, his dad came to help him. A full stadium, and a world of spectators at home watched, as Derek and his dad continued around the track until they got just a few meters from the finish. At that point, Derek’s father let his son go so that he could finish on his own the race marked out for him.
Derek’s father saw him struggling, and he came beside help to help him run the race. He did not wait, for his son to ask for him. He did not even wait until he had proper permission to get onto the track. He did not tell an official, “let me know if I can help.” He saw his son struggling and went to help. That is the example that we need to follow. When we see one another hindered or entangled, we need to do better than sympathetically say “I’ll pray for you” or “call me if you need anything.” We need to do something, we need to come along side one another. We need to serve one another and we need to encourage one another to be confident in what we hope for and have an assurance in what we do not see. We were never meant to follow Jesus in isolation, but always in community. It is only as a community that we can run the race marked out for us, as we rely on one another to be that cloud of witnesses who encourages us, inspires us, and when we fall runs alongside us so that we call keep our eyes on Jesus.
There is one final way that our faith is like a marathon. As far as a race goes, marathons are a bit odd because the vast majority of people who show up to run a marathon do so with no real intention to run the race. Only a small handful of participants are there with aspirations to be the first one across, the majority are there just because they want to complete the race. Our faith is a bit the same way too. This morning’s scripture describes Jesus as the pioneer and the perfecter of our faith. Jesus is the frontrunner, who goes before us and who we follow. Jesus is also the one who crossed line first, who won the victory over sin and death. By our own actions we cannot win the race of faith, but we can run it. We can follow Jesus, go a long obedience in the same direction, and we can cross the finish line.
The good news of this scripture, the good news of the gospel, is that Jesus may have won the race but he is now sitting at the right hand of the throne of God. The good news, brothers and sisters in Christ is that Jesus shares that victory. As the old gospel song says, “O Victory in Jesus, my savior forever, He sought me and bought me with his redeeming blood.” So friends may you follow the great cloud of witnesses that has gone before us and may you run after the savior who gave us his redeeming blood. May you stay in love with God, and keep the pace that keeps you on a long obedience in the same direction. May we all realize that we are in this together, and when one of us falls, may we be right there to help each other up. May we throw off all that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles so that we may run with perseverance the race marked out for us. May we follow Jesus all the way as he plunges us to victory, beneath the cleansing flood.