Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. (Hebrews 12:1–3 ESV)
My son-in-law’s football team didn’t win yesterday and his comment was that the opposition was always going to be tough to beat at home. The home ground advantage in sport is well known. To have people cheer you on simply does something to you – inspiring, energising, focusing, pain diminishing, tiredness dissipating – are stories well known and we possibly have had our own experiences as well – even if it was only Mum or Dad cheering from the sideline. To have barrackers means we are not alone and people care for us. We are not alone in our struggle, exertion, effort – that’s the point, the going is tough, it is taking something from us to keep going, that’s what people see – the effort, the sacrifice, of course it is hard – that’s precisely why the barrackers are supporting. And I’m only talking sports here. This truth can be – and should be – expanded to include all of living. We live well when we are supported by others, secure in our home ground, as we face the marathon, the trials and hurdles of life.
It is this image of the race and the crowds that the writer to the Hebrews picks up to encourage Christians who are going through tough times to endure. The writer has talked about faith as the defining quality of the Christian – see chapter 11 which we’ve heard last Sunday and today – and has brought to mind former runners of this race and how they lived by faith to focus us, inspire us, challenge us, correct us and these names whirl around in the grandstand of our minds as we look for the One who helped them and who is helping us – Jesus. Where he is, we are home, even as we live in a foreign land. Because the race for the writer to the Hebrews is living as a disciple of Jesus in this foreign land as we head for home.
This image, metaphor, or description presents us with the two sides of Christian art that have come to us today. There are denominations that surround themselves with art and sculpture of those who have gone before in the Faith – biblical and historical characters – all meant to cheer us on, encourage, and be an example to us. And there are denominations that have focused on what is hidden, not so much on the visible art, bare walls so to speak, so that the words can create the pictures in the mind. Both want to focus on the spiritual truth that Jesus – the Word made flesh and thus visible – who is the foundation for Christian art in a way that Jewish or Islamic art could never be – is the founder and perfecter of our faith.
The non picture Christians can say that pictures get in the way of Jesus and he is lost in the crowd. The picture Christians can say that words can flit and float and often don’t settle as our ears hear but don’t hear but can be helped by a focus, a concentration, that visual art provides.
In our selfie world, in our social media tribes, we are surrounded by our self image – and how are we pressured to always look good or at least make sure our brand and image looks good – and how much do people feel destroyed when there are not enough likes or when the cyber criticism comes. There is increasing pressure, it seems, on people in terms of anxiety, lack of self worth, search for meaning and purpose because people are hungering for words that mean something, relate to something reliable and not a fad, and aren’t just ourselves saying the same thing over and over again in the hope that one day it might be true.
Christians can feel this pressure too. We, after all, live in this world with its social landscape and walk or run along the political and economic terrain like everyone else but we have always done so saying that this world isn’t our home, that our treasure and therefore our heart is actually somewhere else – or rather with someone else, this Jesus of Nazareth, whom we say is Lord and God who suffered the cross for us, forgave us our sins, and gives us his life to live in this world. And this world – well, here at least – is changing its settings, so to speak, which previously seemed more aligned to Christian ways of seeing and doing things but is more and more going in a way that makes the Christian way of seeing and doing things out of step. The race has entered into rough terrain and seems to have become more orienteering where we have to find the path as well.
How to go forward? The writer to the Hebrews’ message hasn’t changed – look to Jesus. Endure.
In this world where the goal seems to be happiness, to say ‘endure’ seems dour, miserable, joyless, unnecessarily austere. Yet the search for happiness and its implied ‘easy street’ and no problems (especially suffering) doesn’t deal with the problems people face, the sins they commit, the apparent meaninglessness of young deaths or the corrupt of this world seeming to get away with things.
Endure or endurance has as its basic idea to remain, to abide. When Jesus talks about his Father’s house having many … rooms (we know it as), the idea is that it has many remainings, safe places. In the Greek world to endure means to hold out or onto presumable this safe place and as it became a virtue to hold out against evil – even to resist. This endurance was more than patience.
In the Old Testament endurance had two directions. One was to wait on God, cleave to God, remain with God which produced a hope and a confidence as one looked at not just today, or yesterday but the past year, the past decade, the past century, and past generations – and seeing again and again, how God is faithful. The other direction was enduring in the world – standing fast, remaining in the safe place of God’s relationship with them and not following the world in philosophy, teaching, or behaviour. The Old Testament character often cited here is Job.
In the New Testament endure and endurance has three directions. There is expecting and waiting on God with heart and mind, body and soul. It is a focus on the name and nature of our God and his faithfulness to his people inspires, generates, and creates this endurance and waiting on the Lord.
There is endurance in the world – standing fast or firm, persevering – because the landscape is rough and Christians have the insight that they live in bodies that sin, that age, decay, and die – receiving the wages of sin – and this struggle, endurance in and at times against the world is our expression of faith. Why believe this and bother? Because the cross of Jesus and the story leading to it and the empty tomb of Jesus and the story leading from it has captured us with a perspective – a life – that God’s grace and Jesus’ actions make me – us – so loved that this love has changed everything. And each Christian daily says, ‘Starting with me’.
The third direction regarding endurance is looking to the future, to the end of the race, to the victor’s crown, to the cheers and celebrations. And again the mystery arises, that it is not our effort or toughness that has produced this endurance but Jesus himself who gives us his endurance one day at a time, through words, water, bread and wine, to endure.
For many people Jesus is primarily a teacher, profound and good, and his lessons can be taken up or not. But this firmly leaves endurance as our work, totally up to us, and gives us no real hope when we fall or fail – even the crowd cheering won’t help. But if Jesus is Lord, who has won the race for us, forgiven us our sins as the Lamb of God and as the Great High Priest; if this Jesus is God – God’s Son we say to get our heads around the Trinity – then Jesus gives to us what he asks of us – and the prize is guaranteed and the race can be run – always focusing on Jesus in faith who has helped that great cloud of witnesses before us. He helped them, will he not help us?
Of course he will and he does!
And this message comforts us to struggle on – to endure – battle sins, not be afraid for today and deal with tomorrow tomorrow – and to encourage and help each other – this world isn’t our home but with Jesus I am home, I have a home ground advantage, knowing that God in Jesus Christ is good.
- Hebrews 12:1 - 3