This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Hebrews 12:1-3
Sermon prepared by Rev. Stephen Terpstra, Hamilton, Ontario. (Learn more at http://www.teamhoyt.com )
Dear People of God,
Rick was born in 1962 to Dick and Judy Hoyt. As a result of oxygen deprivation to Rick's brain at the time of his birth, Rick was diagnosed as a spastic quadriplegic with cerebral palsy. Dick and Judy were advised to institutionalize Rick because there was no chance of him recovering, and little hope for Rick to live a "normal" life. It seemed an almost impossible mountain to climb – to raise this son who could not walk, could not talk, could not eat on his own. Discouragement set in. Their hope dashed. The life they had planned was suddenly changed forever. The race they were running seemed impossible to finish. I am sure you have had moments like this in your life as well. Moments where it all seemed too much. Too much effort, too many challenges, too little energy.
Hebrews 12:1 is a wake up call to see our life as a race and to run it with passion and zeal and energy and discipline. The author of Hebrews wants us to get serious about the race again, to test ourselves to see if we are running or coasting or lounging on the couch. Now, running can be hard work. The race can be long. The journey can be difficult. The road can be treacherous. So how can we finish successfully? Paul gives us three motivations in this text:
- Look back to the witnesses,
- Look forward to the joy
- Look up to Jesus
LOOKING BACK TO THE WITNESSES
The first motivation to run is found in verse 1: "since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses." As we run the race, there is a big, dense crowd of saints pressing in on the track. These saints are the people described in chapter 11 and all the other Christians since then who have finished the race before us.
This motivates us in two ways. First, the point of calling all these saints from chapter 11 "witnesses" is not so much to say that they are watching us, but to say that they are near enough for us to watch them. They are not so much witnesses of our race, but witnesses to how the race can be run in faith. We look out into the crowd and realize that every one of them finished the race, and we are reminded, "It can be done. It can be done." The stands are filled with the great spiritual athletes of the past who have completed their events and are now eager to encourage the new contestants. They are witnesses to God’s deeds, witnesses of Jesus’ power, and witnesses of the faith which only the Holy Spirit can inspire and sustain.
And secondly, we can look at them and see examples of faith and perseverance under every imaginable circumstance:
- there's David who committed adultery and murder, and he finished;
- there's John the Baptist, with his strange diet and bizarre wardrobe, and he finished;
- there's John Mark the quitter, who ran when Jesus was arrested, and he finished;
- and Mary the prostitute, and she finished;
- and missionary William Carey, an infamous plodder, and he finished;
- and Jonathan Edwards who got kicked out of his church, and he finished;
- and Job who suffered so much, and he finished;
- and Stephen who was hated and stoned, and he finished;
- and Amy Carmichael and St. Paul who served as singles, and they finished;
- and there's grandparents, and uncles and aunts, and friends, and they all finished.
Perhaps you could name some other witnesses that have inspired you. Maybe you can picture them now. You witnessed how they ran. You saw how they finished. You know that they have received their reward. And so we can look at them and say “Well, by the power and faith that got them through I'm going to finish too!” That's the first way these witnesses motivate us.
LOOKING FORWARD TO JOY
The second motivation to run is joy. By far the most overlooked reason for running the race, for giving your spiritual journey every ounce of effort you have, is for the sake of joy. Jesus himself, we are told, endured the cross and scorned its shame for this reason – for the joy that was set before him. It may be hard now. It may be that you haven’t always had it easy. But look to the joy!
Look to the promises of the gospel which are laid out before us in such abundance.
- “I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full.” John 10
- “Do not be afraid . . . I will give you the crown of life.” Revelation 2
- “This is the confidence we have, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” 1 John 5
- “The Lord will rescue you from every evil attack and will bring you safely to his heavenly kingdom.” 2 Timothy 4
- “The righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their father.” Matthew 13
- “In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus, into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you.” 1 Peter 1
- “Everlasting joy will crown you heads. Gladness and joy will overtake you, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” Isaiah 35
As C. S. Lewis put it in his sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” “…if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Therefore run because of the joy offered you. You are destined for greatness. There is a prize waiting for you. As Paul says:
- “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3
- “Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called.” 1 Timothy 6,
- “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” 2 Timothy 4
There is a crown, a prize, a goal for which we are striving – and it is nothing less than eternal joy in the loving presence of God himself. As Paul reminds us in Romans 8, “our present sufferings are not even worth comparing to the glory which will be revealed in us.” Run for the joy. Run for the prize.
And so we ask ourselves some hard questions:
- Am I running to win the prize?
- Do I value that glory more than anything else in my life?
- Am I making that reward look so appealing that others want it to?
- Am I motivating the students to run by constantly pointing to and personally valuing the promises of the gospel above all else?
LOOKING UP TO JESUS
By now it might be easy to hear the command, "Run the race!” and conclude that finishing the race depends on us. But that is not how it works. The writer has something else in mind. He says, "Look to Jesus - Consider him.” He is the foundation of our faith from start to finish. He went first by enduring the cross and despising the shame; and he ran perfectly so that he is now sitting down triumphantly at the right hand of the throne of God (v. 2; cf. 2:10).
He is not just our example, but our redemption, the foundation of our faith. He is the perfect model for faith from start to finish. He trusted his Father from beginning to end in his earthly race. And he is the giver and sustainer of our faith from start to finish. Hebrews 13:21 says, "May God equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in you that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ." The God who began a good work in us is going to complete it—through Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of our faith.
So don't even begin to think that finishing this race will be dependent on your strength. We run in the strength that God supplies that in everything God may receive the glory through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 4:11).
We see what this looks like in the gospel story of Peter and Jesus on the lake. Jesus walks out to meet the disciples in their boat in the middle of the lake. They are terrified. But Peter calls out and believes. Then, despite the apparent danger, Peter steps out of the boat. Peter walks on the water. Can you imagine what faith it must have taken to take that first step? The swirling winds whipping at your clothes; the tumultuous sea churning around you. And you can just imagine the disciples’ reaction, those consummate naysayer’s, “Peter, get back in the boat! What are you doing? It’s dangerous out there. Don’t be foolish. Get back here!” There will always be naysayer’s who try to hold us back when God commands us to follow him. “You want to be a missionary--where? You want to go to what school? You want to start what ministry? You want to give up what luxury? You want to make what change? You want to serve in what office of the church? You’re headed for disaster. You’ll sink for sure. Get back in the boat!”
Perhaps you can think of some people who have tried to hold you back. People who have discouraged you from doing what you knew was right, what you knew God wanted, where you believed God was calling you.
But Peter doesn’t get back in the boat. Peter walks on the water. How? He keeps his eyes fixed firmly on Jesus. As soon as he looked away he sank. But as long as Peter fixed his eyes on Jesus, he was able to walk on water.
And so we are encouraged, commanded, implored to fix our eyes upon Jesus, lest we grow weary and lose heart. Keep him always in your sight. Focus on his power and his majesty and his glory and his holiness. Fix your eyes upon Jesus, and thereby run with perseverance the race marked out for you.
Now our text tells us that if we want to really run we have to get in shape. We need to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.” You can’t run when you are weighed down. You can’t run when you are tangled up in a net or rope.
This requires some effort and some planning. So I encourage you to sit down one day in the coming week and take a little time to make a game plan. On a pad of paper, write down some of the things that are impeding your race.
What are the weights in your life? The seemingly innocent weights and encumbrances that are not condemned in the Bible, but which you know are holding you back in the race for faith holiness and freedom. Note the ways you subtly make room for these unnecessary things which are hindering you: the computer games, the hidden alcohol or candy, the television, the videos, the magazines, the novels. Note the people that weaken you; the time that is wasted and thrown away.
What are the sins that are tangling you up and making you trip? Maybe it is the need to prove yourself and to be thought of well by others – pride. Maybe it is the need to have something, or many things, in order to be happy – avarice. Perhaps it is food – gluttony. Perhaps it is the desire for sensuality and pleasure and excitement – lust. You know what you are struggling with. Write it down and put it on paper.
When you have made all these notations, pray your way through them. Resolve to dismantle these encumbrances, and resist these sins, and break old habits. And don't rise up and say, "I can't change." It is a lie. Hindrances can be removed. Sins can be laid aside. Go back and read the whole book of Hebrews again and ask God to take all the glorious truth that is here--about the superiority of Christ--and the power of his death and resurrection, and the effectiveness of his intercession for you--and make this truth explosive with life-changing power. Find someone you trust and ask him or her to check in with you and support you. Plan a new training regime and get ready to run again – surrounded by the witnesses, for the joy set before you, with your eyes fixed upon Jesus.
And then go and help others run their race. Be a witness to the children. Paint such a compelling picture of God’s gospel promises that they long to attain them too. Point them to Jesus over and over and over again so that they can run straight and true, and finish their race and win the prize.
If it sounds overwhelming, then we need to look back to Jesus. Never think you have to do this alone. Remember that God is the author and perfecter of your faith. He keeps his promises. I want to close with an illustration of what it is really like for us to run. We think a great deal of ourselves, our efforts, and our strength. We don’t think nearly enough about God.
ILLUSTRATION: TEAM HOYT
When Rick Hoyt was a teenager he received a computer which enabled him to begin to communicate with his family through head movements. When he was in high school, Rick learned about a 5 mile run to raise money for another child with a disability. He asked his dad if he would run the race with him. Now Rick’s father Dick was no runner, and had heart trouble. But how could he say no? And so they ran together – Dick pushing Rick’s wheelchair every step of the way. That night after the race, Dick remembers, "Rick told us he just didn’t feel handicapped when we were competing."
Rick’s realization turned into a whole new set of horizons that opened up for him and his family, as "Team Hoyt" began to compete in more and more events together. Now they compete just about continuously in marathon races. And if they’re not in a marathon they are in a triathlon — a combination of 26.2 miles of running, 112 miles of bicycling, and 2.4 miles of swimming. Together they have climbed mountains, and once trekked 3,735 miles across America. For the past twenty five years Dick, who is 65, has pushed and pulled his son across the country and over hundreds of finish lines. When Dick runs, Rick is in a wheelchair that Dick is pushing. When Dick cycles, Rick is in the seat-pod from his wheelchair, attached to the front of the bike. When Dick swims, Rick is in a small but heavy, firmly stabilized boat being pulled by Dick.
[ Optional: Show you tube video of Team Hoyt set to “My Redeemer Lives” ]
And that image is as close as we can find to what God is doing with and for us. We who think so highly of ourselves are no stronger than Rick in this spiritual race. But we have a Father who loves us, a Savior who died for us, and his Spirit empowering us. Because of them, we can run our race each and every day with confidence and hope. Therefore, run – for the witnesses, for the joy, for Jesus.
Suggested Order of Worship
WE BEGIN OUR WORSHIP
Welcome and Announcements
Call to Worship: 1 Chronicles 16:8-10
Mutual Greeting: “May the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God our Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen”
Opening Hymn: “Fill Thou My Life, O Lord My God” PsH #547
SERVICE OF RECONCILIATION
Silent prayer of Confession
Assurance of Pardon: Psalm 130: 7-8
God’s Will for Our Lives: Romans 12: 9-21
Hymn: “Guide Me, O My Great Redeemer” PsH # 543
Hymn: “Teach Me, O Lord, Your way of Truth” PsH# 276
WE HEAR THE WORD
Prayer for Illumination
Scripture Reading: Hebrews 12:1-3
Sermon: “Fix Your Eyes on Jesus”
Prayer of Application: “Heavenly Father, help us to run our race well. Remove all the sins and habits and distractions which are weighing us down. Encourage us to look back to the witnesses and forward to the joy. But most of all, place Jesus before us. May our eyes be so firmly fixed on Jesus every step of our race that we can run with confidence. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.”
Hymn of Response “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” (or PsH #557 “My Jesus, I Love Thee”)
WE DEPART WITH HIS BLESSING
Benediction: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all. Amen!”
Doxology: “By the Sea of Crystal” PsH# 620