“Running the Race”

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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.

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    30By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days.31

 

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By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient,* because she had received the spies in peace.

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32 And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson,

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Jephthah, of David

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and Samuel

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and the prophets—33who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions,

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34quenched raging fire,

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escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35Women received their dead by resurrection.

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Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. 36Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 

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37They were stoned to death, 

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they were sawn in two,* they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— 

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38of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains,

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and in caves and holes in the ground.

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39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made perfect.

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12Therefore, 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, 

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2looking 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,

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and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

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3 Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.”

***

I am happy to be back with you today! The recovery from my surgery 2 weeks ago has been challenging. Your kindness has helped me so much!

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Thank you for your prayers, cards and pictures,

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for the books you shared with me,

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for your meals, flowers and other gifts,

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for your many expressions of love! This is one of the shawls from Heavenly Handmade.

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They say that laughter is the best medicine. I was blessed with some laughter during that first week, when I really needed it! I received funny notes from folks in our congregation. One member wrote to tell me, among other things, that he had “three surgeries of consequence and the happy news is that two of them turned out well…. We are glad you are safely home and under a mosquito net.”

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I have had help from a few non-humans, too!

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Nurse Melvyn demonstrated a “wholistic” approach to my healthcare. He walked up and down my whole body when I came home from the hospital and was resting in bed. He clowned around to make me laugh–rolling from side to side and lying on his back, paws sticking up in the air.

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He demonstrated healthy recovery habits, including many hours of sleeping.

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What’s been hard is not just the pain, but the limitations on my usual activities, including my ministry activities. I missed the joy of leading worship with you these past 2 Sundays and being with my church family. I was sad not to able to be there to help our staff last week and to welcome Cheryl Carson on her first day. I didn’t like not being able to visit members who were sick.

I did experience blessing, though, through all this. I enjoyed precious time with my family. I discovered our couch is really comfy! I hadn’t noticed before–probably because I haven’t spent much time on it–or relaxing at home. Jim and I watched “My Fair Lady,” “The Sound of Music,”

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and the Olympics,

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with modern day heroes who inspire us to try harder, to keep on going, and always do our best. My favorite part of the Olympics was watching the USA women’s gymnastics team. Tears sprang to my eyes when Simone and Aly won gold and silver.

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I had heard of their very human struggles–had watched some of them play out during the games. Their moment of victory follows many years of preparation, practice, pain and sacrifice. Both have had no time for “a social life” growing up. No football games or proms. Simone, 19, adopted by her grandparents, was homeschooled and began gymnastics when she was 6 after a daycare field trip to a gym inspired her. Here’s some of what Simone can do now.

 

It’s hard to believe that in 2013, she did so poorly that she feared her gymnastics career was over. Now, people are calling her one of the best gymnasts ever!

This is beautiful Aly, 22, who has been doing gymnastics since she was a toddler.

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I almost couldn’t bear to watch her struggle through one of the events at Rio–earning her coach’s scolding while the cameras rolled. She looked shaken, but she didn’t give up. She went on to perform her best floor exercise routine to date, with the audience cheering her on, sharing their joy in her triumph. She waited anxiously for her score. Then the tears came.

She had won!

She had never been alone, though she may have felt that way when she was struggling–just as we sometimes do. Along with millions of witnesses around the globe, she and Aly have had the support of their coaches, teammates, friends and families, without which, they never would have made it to the Olympics!

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***

I thought of the Olympics when I read our passage in Hebrews this week. The first Olympics were held in 776 BC in honor of the god Zeus and were staged on the ancient plains of Olympia, a sanctuary of ancient Greece on the Peloponnese peninsula.

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The games continued every 4 years until Emperor Theodosius decreed in 393 A.D. that all such “pagan cults” be banned and were not revived until the 19th century. The author of Hebrews is thinking about an Olympic event when he continues his teaching on faith to a 1st century Jewish/Christian Greek-speaking audience. He elaborates on how faith isn’t just believing in what we cannot see and hoping for the best, but enduring trials with courage, believing in the joy of the Lord that will come. With the “great cloud of witnesses” passage, he compares our lives of faith and our struggles with sin as a faith community to running a long distance relay race. He is referring to the “stadion,” a sprint event of about 180 meters that was the first and only event for the Olympics from 776 BC to 728 BC.

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The stadion was named for the building in which it took place. The word became stadium in Latin later became incorporated into English.

In Hebrews 12, the runners are watched by multitudes from generations past that have already handed the baton of faith and are waiting as invisible spectators to encourage those who run last. The word translated “race” or “contest”–agon–implies struggle, and is the origin of the English word, “agonize.”

The author of Hebrews writes for those who know Hebrew Scripture well. He jogs their memory of Bible heroes such as Gideon, Samson and David without saying anything but their names and the rhetorical device, “What more am I to say?” He doesn’t need to go into detail when he mentions the Red Sea; of course he is talking about Moses and the freeing of the Israelite captives. When he speaks of the drowning of the Egyptians, they know he means Pharaoh’s soldiers who pursue the Israelites and attempts to kill the former slaves. They know of Joshua and the battle of Jericho. The list of heroes includes men and women–none of which are perfect in their obedience to the Lord (recall the sins, for example, of David). The list includes Rahab, whose occupation (prostitute) is emphasized, perhaps to encourage us all that God can and will use every believer for God’s purposes. Rahab welcomes Joshua and his men, embraces the God of the Israelites before they capture her city, hides the spies and lies to save them from her own king’s men.

While more can be said of the heroes on or missing from the list in chapter 11, the beginning of chapter 12 intrigues me more. First, the allusion to lay aside every weight brings to mind the ancient practice of removing one’s clothing before running a race, such as the Olympics, which was only open to men in ancient times.

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Competing without clothing required a certain confidence in oneself and willingness to be more vulnerable. Does that speak to our need to be more confident as we follow Christ and allow ourselves to be vulnerable to one another as we run this race?

Second, this race is not of our choosing; it’s God ordained– set before us–every one of us– and it has been run by others, including our Savior, the first to complete it. He is not only the greatest example of faith, he is the pioneer, the source of our faith, which he has perfected for us through his work on the cross.

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Third, what is the joy that lay before Jesus that allowed him to endure? It is the joy of knowing he is obedient to God and will be with His Father in Heaven, seated at the right hand of the throne of God, as we read in 12:2. It is the joy of knowing that His suffering is the cost of God’s redemption of a world God so loves. And it’s the same Spirit of joy that Christ gives his disciples on Pentecost, a joy that only comes from the Lord that will be our strength, as the prophet tells us in Nehemiah 8:10.

And finally, what is the “sin” that “readily clings” to this 1st century Christian community, a marginalized minority suffering persecution that isn’t to the point of bloodshed, but is shameful and humiliating, all the same? We often think of sin as malicious or selfish deeds against God and neighbor. But that isn’t the “sin” Hebrews is talking about. This is anything that hinders their courageous, enduring faith and their continuing on in the example of Jesus, who, as Paul tells us in Philippians 2:7 was God who emptied himself of divinity to become human– slave of all. This sin is despair or discouragement–giving up hope.

The word this early Christian community needed to hear–and the word our own faith community needs today is spoken in 12:3: Don’t grow weary. Don’t lose heart. Don’t lose sight of your goal–following Christ. You aren’t alone! We have each other–the Church in every time and place! The great cloud of witnesses!

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And we have Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith. In times of suffering and times of trial, remember that it is He who longs to give you His joy that will be your strength for every day!

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Let us pray.

Holy One, we thank you for your Word that inspires us to keep running the race to enduring, courageous faith, a race that you have set before us. We open our hearts and minds now to receive and embrace your joy that is and always will be our strength. Thank you that we are not alone in this race and our trials–that Jesus our Savior has run the race to completion, has suffered died and risen again for our sakes, and is with us now, though we may struggle, stumble and fall. Forgive us for our sins. Help us, Lord, to persevere and not grow weary. Never lose heart! Help us to keep our eyes focused on our goal–following Jesus Christ. In his name we pray. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

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