Some of you may remember the movie "Dead Poets Society." The movie stars the amazingly talented Robin Williams. Williams plays John Keating, a high school English teacher at an all-boys private academy, who is committed to helping his students take advantage of life's opportunities.
There is a compelling scene in the movie when Keating leads his class out into the foyer of the building where old photographs of graduating classes from decades past cover the walls. As the boys study the portraits of the classes who had graduated generations before them, Keating remarks that the men in those pictures were just like them, full of hope and ambition. Then Keating asks his class, "Did they wait till it was too late to realize their full potential?"
Then he tells the class that if they lean in close they can hear a message from the men in these pictures. So they lean in and Keating whispers, "Carpe Diem. Carpe Diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary."
Whenever I read Hebrews 11, I feel a bit like one of the boys in Keating's class. Except in this case, the writer of Hebrews is my teacher, and he is taking me on a field trip through the "Hall of Faith." I see portraits of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and Samson. I learn about the heroes of the faith and the extraordinary things they did for God. As I take in this inspiring tour, it's as if these heroes are calling out to me, "Carpe Diem! Seize the day. Make your life extraordinary for God!"
Postcard from Heaven
One can't help but be inspired by this text. It is a clarion call for the church to continue to fight the good fight of the gospel. The winning witness of our heroes stirs us to persevere. Their stories remind us that we are not the first ones to run the race of faith. Faithful saints before us have run the same race, fought fatigue, battled discouragement and won! This text reaches out like a postcard from heaven and dares us to run the race to win.
So, how do we run to win? How do we press on to victory? How do we move triumphantly to the finish line of discipleship? The writer of Hebrews is very specific about how we are to run to win. If we are wise, we will follow these directions.
Lay Aside the Weight of Sin
The first thing the writer says is to lay aside the weight of sin. Several years ago the news media reported on a man who was deserted on a small Pacific island. A passing ship was prepared to rescue him, but he refused to go. It seems that while there he had acquired a pet monkey which he was unwilling to leave behind, and the ship's regulations would not permit it on board.
Many of us treat sin in the same way. We've picked up bad habits and sins along the way. We know they weigh us down. We know they are bad for us. We know they complicate things. We know they keep us from running the race of faith swiftly, but we still hang on to them. And it is causing many of us to lose the race of faith. If we would throw it aside, we would run much faster. But too often, we do not take the weight of sin seriously enough to do anything about it, and we continue to run at a loser's pace.
It is not very popular to preach about sin anymore. Several years ago, Karl Meninger wrote a book entitled, Whatever Became of Sin? Right, whatever did become of it? Sin is hardly ever mentioned anymore, but it remains the most dangerous threat to our spiritual lives. We can't win the race of discipleship if we are spiritually dead!
The most concerning sin that threatens the church today is the sin of consumerism. In our post-modern age, many see the church as just another thing to be consumed--a big spiritual buffet where you can grab what you want and leave what you don't without the hassle of commitment or sacrifice. Others see the church as a luxury cruise liner offering free entertainment and programs to meet every need without questioning the validity of those needs. The church is not a cruise liner. The church is more like a battleship battling evil. The church is a supply ship filled with disciples giving aid to the needy and transforming the world with the love of Christ. The church's purpose is to equip and deploy disciples of Christ to spread the gospel of Christ. When did we lose sight of that?
If we want to run the race to win, we must lay aside the weight of sin that is distracting the church from its mission.
Run with Perseverance
The next thing the writer of Hebrews says is that we must run with perseverance. Perseverance--it's what separates followers of Jesus from admirers of Jesus. The first essential lesson to winning a race is that you have to finish the race. It is easy to start the race of discipleship, but the real question is, "Can we finish it?" Remember, it was the tortoise and not the hare that won the race!
Now churches are filled with starters, but in every church there is always a small percentage of finishers--those who get the work done, those who give and serve consistently, those who tithe on a regular basis. And it is the finishers who make the church go, that make the church run. Yes, yes, I know--there will always be 20% of the people who do 80% of the work. The problem is that the 20/80 rule does not apply in the Kingdom of God. So as we reflect on the race we are running, the question we must ask ourselves is, "Am I a starter or am I a finisher?"
The writer of Hebrews does an inspiring job motivating us to persevere, to finish the race of discipleship. Hebrews 12:1 says, "Since we a surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses." The image here is that of a big stadium filled with saints cheering us on as we race. Imagine being at the center of a huge stadium, running feverishly around the track and the whole crowd are saints--thousands of them, and they are all screaming your name. You see Paul holding up a banner with your name on it. You see Abraham and Moses high fiving, chanting your name. I don't know about you, but that motivates me. Let's be finishers!
Look to Jesus
The last thing the writer of Hebrews says is we must look to Jesus. Not only must we finish the race, but we must also cross the right finish line. Now, there are all kinds of people in the world running all kinds of races. Some are running the race of greed, trying to earn as much money as they can. Some are running the race of lust, trying to have as many pleasurable escapades as they can. Some are running the race of power, trying to get the most powerful and prestigious job they can. But at the finish line of these races is death and emptiness. The only race that counts in eternity, the only race that matters after all is said and done, is the race of Christian discipleship.
So what are we as Christians racing towards? What is our goal? What is our finish line? It is Jesus. Jesus. Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. Jesus, the Prince of peace. Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus, the great shepherd. Jesus, the rock of all ages. Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords! Jesus! You see, Jesus is not only our companion and strength as we race. He is our goal. Our goal is to be like Jesus.
Imagine running the big race in the big arena, and all the saints are cheering you on. You get goose bumps hearing their cheers, and you begin to kick it up a notch. But you are not prepared for what you see as you turn the corner. There is Jesus at the finish line with a look of encouragement and intensity. He is motioning you forward, "Come on child, don't stop. You can do it!" You finally stretch across the finish line and you feel a sense of relief and release. Jesus embraces you says in your ear, "Child, well done, I am so proud of you!" Is there anything else worth living for?
Let us pray.
Dear Lord, give us the grace and the strength to lay aside the weight of sin, to run with perseverance, and to look to you, the author and finisher of our faith. Amen.