Text: Hebrews 12:1-2
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
Aug. 14, 2016
How many of you have been watching the Olympics? Bonnie and I look forward to both the winter and summer games. We are determined that sometime, before we hang it up, we will make it to one of these events. My favorite summer games are swimming and track and field. As I have confessed to you before, I have never been a good swimmer, but in my day dreams I often fanaticize that I am a Mark Spitz or a Michael Phelps, breaking all the records and winning all the gold. The track and field events bring back memories of my high school and college days when I ran cross country. I was never very fast but I could go the distances.
The origin of the Olympics, as you well know, is a revival of the games that were played every four years in ancient Greece near Mount Olympia. They started in the eight century B.C. and continued for over four hundred years. The Greeks built a huge coliseum at the foot of the mountain where the games were played. The games concluded with the twenty-four-mile marathon. The marathon ended as the runners entered the coliseum. The spectators in the stands would stand and cheer the runners on as they ran around the track and crossed the finish line.
Although the games had died out three hundred years before the New Testament was written, they were still very much alive in the memory of the Hellenistic World of Jesus’ day. In fact, St. Paul and other Christian writers often refer to the games as they make analogies to the Christian life.
We find such a reference in today's epistle. Let me read it to you again: “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 perseverance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the pioneer 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.”
The writer of this letter is addressing a congregation, who having started their faith journey filled with hope and expectation, bubbling up with confidence and joy. But by the time this letter is written, they have grown weary and discouraged. They are not tired from their daily labor nor from the strains of normal life. Rather, theirs is a fatigue of faith. As a consequence, they have begun to show the familiar symptoms recognizable by so many congregations today: irregular attendance at worship and inattention to deeds of Christian mercy.
In one respect, the reasons why the Christians of this little congregation who received this letter were experiencing fatigue in their faith may seem to be entirely beyond our experience in North America today. In our world it is possible to live an entirely personal and private religious life. Whether we are Methodists or Baptists, Lutheran, Catholic or Episcopalian and our neighbors across the street, Jewish and the family down the block, Muslim, and no one really cares. At our neighborhood parties the subject of religion rarely comes up or if it does, only politely.
This kind of religious anonymity was not possible in the ancient world. To become a Christian was a public act, often setting the converts against their own village and families. To accept the teachings of Jesus was to reject time-honored ways, values and customs of the prevailing culture. Many faced economic hardship and suffered physical persecution when they became Christian. After long months and years of trying to live a countercultural Christian life they were finally beginning to wonder, “What’s the use?” They were quietly slipping away from the Christian community. Those who stayed, turned on each other, engaged in backbiting and other behaviors destructive to the community,
Today we don’t face the issues that the early Christians experienced. But serious Christians today can and do face religious fatigue. Those of us who grew up following World War II lived in a culture that encouraged religious practice. We lived in a time when a husband could easily support his family with on a 40-hour week job. It was a time when divorce was rare. Family ate together at least two times a day. Churches were full and denominations were growing
Times have changed. Seeking to be a serious Christian today collides with prevailing culture. It means living as a person who bears one another’s burdens in a time of the “me” generation. It means being a person who “stores up treasures in heaven” in a culture of consumerism. It means being a person who seeks to be a peacemaker in a society ready to resort to torture and war. None of this comes naturally to our true “inner selves.”
Everyone has their own reasons their own motivations for getting up and driving to church each Sunday. When those reasons no longer seem to matter to the congregation addressed by the author of Hebrews those Christians became disheartened, they stopped coming to worship and making the sacrifices of the Christian life. So it is with the church today. In the past two generations millions of Christians have left their beloved churches. Most of them did not leave mad nor did they suddenly become atheists. They were just tired and discouraged and simply slipped away.
What is a pastor to do in such a situation? Should he scold the remaining faithful? and spank them for their lack of vitality? That of course is ultimately self-defeating and in the end will only drive more people away.
Should she put a gloss on church life? Jazz up the worship service, offer energetic programming such as aerobics classes or life enhancement opportunities. Many have tried this and it seems to work for a while. In fact, one mega church in Illinois, Willow Creek, having grown to number in the thousands, made a startling discovery. They had just as many folk going out the back door and were coming in the front door. When interviewing these people, they found that they had grown tired of being “entertained” and were looking for a church where they could grow in the faith.
This precisely was the approach of the author of Hebrews. He determined what his people needed was not shame or gimmicks. What they needed was to be reminded of what brought them to faith in the first place.
So (s)he [the authorship of this letter has been lost. Although historically it has been attributed to St. Paul, virtually no biblical scholar believes this today. A variety of authors have been suggested, one of these is Priscilla, a co-worker of St. Paul] set out on a bold mission to deepen their understanding of the meaning of the work of Jesus. At the outset (s)he acknowledged that the congregation was quite correct in their perception that there is little hardcore visible evidence for the truthfulness of the Christian faith. When the Hebrew congregation looked around all they could see was suffering – namely theirs. But, (s)he reminds them, that is exactly what people saw when they looked at the life of Jesus. If we look at the visible evidence what we see is Jesus hanging on a cross defeated by the powers of this world.
But what if the Christian story is not only a matter of what we can see but also of what we can hear? What if the suffering portion of the Christian life is visible and touchable, but the victory takes place out of sight? Then, what is heard by the ear becomes more important than what is seen by the eye.
Imagine for example, that you were a prisoner of war held in a Nazi prison camp during World War II. One day as you were marched by the guard house you overheard a radio announcing that the war is over, the enemy has surrendered and the captors are defeated. You would look around and see nothing but suffering and despair. But what you had heard was life changing, the word of a yet unseen victory has radically changed everything about your understanding of reality.
This, says the author to this little Hebrew congregation, is the heart of the gospel. The word which comes to our ear generates faith in our hearts, a faith that is “the assurance of things hoped for, the convictions of things yet not seen.”
Just what is this message, the spoken word about Jesus that can be heard but not seen? Just this: from the very beginning of this letter, the author announces that Jesus is the divine son, the reflection of God’s glory and the exact image of God’s very being, who left the heavenly realm and traveled down into the muck and mire of human history in order to rescue lost humanity. He traveled the same stony path as any other human being and “in every respect was tested as we are, blazing a trail upwards into the very presence of God, where he “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.”
In telling this story, only the bottom portion of the U shaped path that protrudes into human history is visible. We cannot see the preexistent Son in heaven, and we cannot see the victorious Christ seated in glory at the right hand of God. We can only see the path of suffering, the Jesus who “for a little was made lower than the angels.”
Jesus traveled the path of suffering, not for his own sake, but for ours. This path which is now set before us is like an Olympic long distance marathon. We cannot run it by ordinary sight; it is too strewn with discouragement, hardship and suffering. If we rely merely on what we can see we will simply do what the author’s congregation has done, what many in the contemporary church have done, lose heart and drift away.
The path must be traveled by faith, which anchors its hope in the unseen victory ahead. We are not the first ones to travel this path. Last week we read about the heroes of the faith who have gone before and focused mainly on Abraham. But the author lists many others. Let’s look at some of them.
Noah is there. He got drunk after God spared him from the flood. Jacob is there. He deceived his brother Esau to gain the greater inheritance. Moses is there. He got so angry that he made his people drink water mixed with the ground gold from the golden calf. Rahab the harlot is there. And David, the man who not only committed adultery but made sure the woman's husband was killed in battle.
Far from perfect, they none-the-less believed in God and they kept on keeping on. That should offer us some encouragement!
The race the author describes is based on a mixed metaphor. On the one hand is the individual long-distance marathon that each of us must run. On the other hand, it is a relay race. All those who ran before us ran a portion of the race well. But they didn’t finish. They “did not receive what was promised.” Instead they passed the baton to us, and they have taken their place in the great coliseum in the heavenlies where, like in the Olympic marathon, they stand to cheer as the runners enter to the colosseum as we cross the finish line.
These runners are a cloud in two ways: First, there are a lot of them, but they are not “clouds,” they have a unity of purpose, they are focused on one task, they are watching to see whether we will pick up our feet and continue the race. But they are also called “witnesses” which conveys that while they are now indeed spectators to the race, they have also bourn testimony, they have been attested. They kept their feet moving even through hardship and struggle.
Now the baton is in our hands. Many in the history of this congregation have gone before us. The stadium is filled with those also, cheering their encouragement. We may feel weary, our knees may be weak, but we cannot let that bother us now. We are to keep our eyes on the prize, our eyes on Jesus, the one who runs ahead and who has already finished the race. We are to press forward until we too break the tape at the finish line. Amen.