In 1988 the U.S. started a construction project on the Ohio River. The site is located between Pulaski County, Illinois and Ballard County, Kentucky. Early in the 19th century there was a difference in the water levels because of some rocks. They started a construction project and built a dam and two locks to help the ships to get up and down the Ohio River. Those locks started to have trouble and the U.S. government decided they were going to try to fix those locks. The federal government awarded a grant for $775 million dollars for the construction project called the Olmsted Locks and Dam. As of today, this is the single longest going construction project in U.S. history. For some of you in this room, they started working on this before you were born and they are still working on it today. This past year Congress awarded another $100 million dollars to this project. Up to this year the government has dumped $2.9 billion dollars into the Olmsted Locks and Dam.
There was some crazy legislation when they first started building this project that said that no other work could be done anywhere on the Ohio River until this project was completed. However, no one knows when it will actually be finished. Best guess from all of the experts is that it will be completed around 2020. It may even be later than that. Almost all traffic on the Ohio River has come to a halt because of this construction project which was started in 1988.
Here’s what I want you to understand from this story. It doesn’t matter how fast you start off in life. If being a follower of Jesus is like a race, it doesn’t matter how fast you run when the gun goes off. The only thing that matters is how well you’re running when you get to the finish line. The finish line in the Christian life is when your heart stops beating and you meet your Savior face to face.
For the last several weeks we’ve been studying through the book of Hebrews. Today we are only going to look at three verses. I’ve been blowing through some big, important sections of Hebrews but today we are going to slow down and spend some time in just three verses from Hebrews Chapter 12. I’ve got three points that I want you to think about today. They are all very simple and basic but they are also hard to do.
I. Run smart.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.
If you are going to properly understand this one verse in Hebrews Chapter 12, you need to go back to Hebrews Chapter 11. We spent a couple of weeks looking at this famous passage where it lists off some of the names of the great men and women of faith. It wasn’t that they were great men and women necessarily; or, even that they had great faith. It was a great God who did amazing things through very ordinary people. In the last verse of Hebrews Chapter 11 the writer uses the word “us” when it describes our relationship with God as just as valuable, incredible, and powerful as Abraham, Sarah, Noah, and David.
I want you to picture in your mind for just a second that you are back in ancient Greece during the Olympics. The Greek Olympics started back around the same time as the New Testament was written. The games were held in a coliseum that was located on Mount Olympus. Often the long running races would take place over the Greek countryside and the competitors would enter the arena as they finished the race. Hebrews 12:1 is asking you to imagine yourself as that runner and when you pass into the stadium the crowd erupts with applause. Abraham, Moses, David, Samuel. Eve, Sarah and Rahab are cheering you on. They would tell you to not to lose focus or hope and to keep going by running smart.
Hebrews describes what it looks like to run smart. Hebrews says that there are a couple of ways that can cause you to trip up in this race we call the Christian life. The first is that stuff slows you down. The writer is not talking about sin specifically. He’s talking about other things that grab your attention. Since these other things have your attention you’re no longer focused on the finish line but on something else. Then you start to lose pace and slow down. Then the writer compares that with sin. He says that it is bad enough to be slowed down by the events of life but sin ensnares or ambushes you. The writer of Hebrews is saying that there is no way that you can run this race really well if you’re running with sin.
Has anyone in this room ever tried to run through a patch of Kudzu? Nobody is crazy enough to even try to run through Kudzu because you know what will happen if you tried it. As soon as you run into it the vines from the Kudzu would grab your feet and you would end up falling. That’s what Hebrews says happens to you when you are running with sin. It ensnares you! It entangles you! You end up flat on your face instead of running the race well. Then Hebrews reminds us that the Christian life is a marathon; it’s not a sprint. You have to run the race with endurance. You can take off as fast as you want when the gun goes off. It’s not about how fast you take off because it is an endurance event. It’s about how well you are running when the race is over. He’s challenging all of us to run our own race and run it smart.
Let me tell you about the first marathon that I ever ran. I’ll never forget this race. Dawn and I had been married for about a year when I ran my first marathon in Atlanta on Thanksgiving Day in 1991. (Side note: what kind of sick city does their annual marathon on Thanksgiving Day?!) I had been preparing for months for the marathon. I had a strategy in mind on how I wanted to run the race. I had a goal of when I wanted to finish so when the gun went off I held myself back on purpose. For the first five miles I tried to run intentionally slower then I wanted to so that I would have enough endurance to cross the finish line.
Somewhere around the five-mile mark, three guys ran past me with military haircuts. By the way they were talking it was obvious they were from 1st Ranger Battalion in Savannah, Ga. I was currently assigned to 3rd Ranger Battalion in Fort Benning. One of them made an offhand comment about me to his buddies and I overheard it. As soon as he said that this competitive nature came out in me. I started to pick the pace up. The three guys started to pick the pace up as well. Then I got faster and they got faster. It got me so angry and I got so competitive that I floored it to see if they could keep up. I buried them! I was so far in front of them that I couldn’t see them when I looked back.
When I reached the twenty-mile mark the clock said 2:20:21. Anyone who’s ever attempted a marathon can tell you what happened next. Within the course of one or two city blocks my entire body shut down. I couldn’t run anymore. I couldn’t even walk forward so I started walking backwards just to try to keep heading towards the finish line. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that an old woman in her 60’s passed me in those last six and a half miles. She looked at me and asked if I was all right. The three guys that I was trying to out run went right by me while I was trying to finish the last few miles. It took me an hour and fifteen minutes to finish the last six and a half miles. When I crossed the finish line I almost completely collapsed with nothing left inside of me.
I want you to listen carefully as to why that story is important. When I started that race I had a plan in mind. I knew my training and I knew what I wanted to accomplish. Somehow, foolishly along the way I started running someone else’s race. Since I was running someone else’s race it totally and completely wiped me out. I almost didn’t make it to the finish line. I thought at one point I was going to have to drop to my hands and knees and crawl across the finish line.
Let me challenge you. The Christian life that Hebrews is describing is an individually tailored race for you and you alone. Hebrews and Jesus are asking you to run your race and to run it smart. Don’t compare yourself with someone else because that may not be the walk that Jesus has laid out for you. He is asking you to run your race and only your race. Don’t look at anyone else, just focus on your Savior Jesus then you’ll run your race smartly. I’m concerned about the number of Christians that I meet that give me the impression that they are trying to run someone else’s Christian race. God is asking you to run your race and to run it well. If you’re going to do this and do it well you have to run smart and stay focused. Don’t take your eyes off of the Finisher of our faith.
II. Stay focused.
We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne.
Olympic champions win the gold medal because they are able to stay focused. They stay focused not just during their Olympic event but also while they train. In reality, the focus during training may be more important than staying focused during the event. The writer of Hebrews clearly states that if you’re looking at someone else and the way that they are running their race then you can’t possibly be looking at Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith. The writer wants you to put your focus on Jesus and keep it there. If you are able to do that then you are focusing on the Champion – the One who defined what a successful Christian life looks like. He is the standard by which everyone should measure their walk with Jesus. Don’t measure yourself against someone else, look to Jesus and focus on him. Jesus is the Champion of our faith but he is also the one who began it and will complete it. He is the beginning and the end and everything in the middle. Our focus is supposed to be on him.
It’s fascinating that Hebrews would describe the joy that was awaiting Jesus that caused him to go to the cross. Notice that the book of Hebrews doesn’t say that Jesus enjoyed the cross. It would be crazy for us to think that he enjoyed the cross! What the writer is saying is that Jesus enjoyed obedience to God the Father. That was what brought him pleasure and motivated him. Even when it cost him his life on the cross, obedience to the Father was what brought Jesus joy. That’s why he was willing to endure even the cross to honor his Father and to bring glory to our God in heaven. Because Jesus is the Champion and ran his own race, we look to him and we run the race that he has laid out for us. If you do that you won’t get off course.
There is this old legend about the Sirens. The Sirens were ancient sea nymphs that had incredible voices. When sailors sailed past the Sirens they would hear their voices and it was so compelling it made them want to turn the ship. In many cases the ship’s captain would steer the ship towards the Sirens and in the process they would crash the ship against the rocks and everyone on board would be killed. Or, in other cases, sailors would jump off the edge of the ship and try to swim to the Sirens and never make it. In Homer’s poem The Odyssey he describes how Ulysses has heard the reports and is about to sail past the Sirens. He instructs the entire crew to put cotton balls in their ears so that they can’t hear the call of the Sirens. He told his crew to tie him up to the mast of the ship and until they reached a point well past the Sirens to not listen to anything he said. The sailors chained him to the mast and went on doing their jobs because they couldn’t hear the Sirens but Ulysses can. Over and over again he demands that the men to release him and steer him towards the Sirens but they refused to listen until they reach their point. The only reason Ulysses and his crew were able to sail successfully past the Sirens is because the rest of the crew couldn’t hear them and Ulysses wouldn’t allow himself to be pulled off course.
I want to give you a challenge to do for the rest of this week. I want you to evaluate everything in your life that’s calling for your attention. We live in a society where the television, radio and the Internet are screaming for your attention. I want you to look at everything in your life that demands your attention and I want you to evaluate it by one measure only: Does it point my focus towards Jesus or is it pulling my attention away? It is really, really hard in our society to keep your focus on Jesus when everything is screaming for your attention and most of it, if you’re not careful, will pull you away.
Hebrews tells us we have to run smart to run this Christian race. We also have to stay focused. But, let me honest with you, every Olympic champion – doesn’t matter what time period or event – has one thing in common and that one thing is that they never quit. The last challenge from Hebrews 12:3, is that no matter how bad it gets don’t give up.
III. Don’t quit.
Think of all the hostility he endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up.
The famous American author and artist Elbert Hubbard once said, “Victory is a matter of staying power.” It is just simply the guy or gal who hangs in there and doesn’t give up. I promise you the person who gives up is never the champion and never wins the gold medal.
Hebrews tells us not to put our focus on other people but to only focus on Jesus. The implication here is that it is tough to live the Christian life. When it starts to get hard and you feel like giving up continue to remember what Jesus did. I’ll give you a hint about next week, the writer will challenge you about the fight against sin and he will assure us that we haven’t gone as far as Jesus because it cost him his life. The fact that you are listening to me means you haven’t given your life up in the fight against sin. Don’t stop fighting! Don’t give up! When you get weary; don’t lose heart. Here’s how it all fits together. The way that you run your race with endurance is by running smart, staying focused and never quitting, even when you want to. Remain faithful to Christ and trust him and not yourself to keep going.
You’ve probably never heard the name Katerina Neumannova before. Neumannova was from the Czech Republic and compete in the 2006 Olympics. She was a long distance cross-country skier. Neumannova wanted to have a family. Everyone told her that she couldn’t be a successful cross-country skier and have a family at the same time. She refused to believe it. In 2004 she had a baby, Lucie. For the next two years everywhere that Neumannova went she took Lucie with her. Neumannova trained twice as hard so that she could be both a mother and a great cross country skier.
During the cross-country event in the Olympics for more than an hour those women are skiing through the woods. Neumannova completed this event in 1:22:25.4. That doesn’t mean anything to you unless you know that for the entire race Neumannova was behind the two fastest women in the world, a lady from Poland and a lady from Russia. Commentators and spectators were saying even during the race that she couldn’t be both a mother and a great cross-country skier. Neumannova proved them wrong. In the last hundred yards, she shocked the world. When the skiers in the front of the pack entered the stadium it erupted in applause. Neumannova was in third place. In the last few yards of the race Neumannova kicked into a gear the other two ladies didn’t have and collapsed across the finish line in the closest race in the history of the women’s 30km cross-country ski event. She won by 1.4 seconds. As soon as she crossed the finish line her two-year-old daughter Lucie ran out to greet her. She was able to beat the two most successful women skiers in the world and she became a national hero. Katerina Neumannova won the first gold medal that her country received in the 2006 Olympics.
I have a challenge for you today. My challenge for you is that you run smart, stay focused and don’t quit when it gets tough. Then you will have the joy of seeing your Savior face to face in heaven. You will also have the joy of hearing, “Well done my good and faithful servant. I laid a course out for you to run and you ran your course very, very well.”
- Have you recorded your story yet? When do you plan to record and share it?
- If you could have one superpower what would it be? Why?
- Do you ever wish you could live someone else’s life? (Why or why not?)
- Who are the people that have been a great example to you in the faith? (Who are your great cloud of witnesses?)
- Read Philippians 3:12-16. What is the goal that you are working toward? How hard are you working toward it? (Scale of 1-10)
- How have you fixed your eyes on Jesus this week?
- Pray for each other this week that we would not grow weary and give up when our race gets tough.