The Endurance Test Called Life

13th Sunday after Pentecost
Hebrews 12:1-15                       
18 August 2013
Elizabeth M. Deibert                   

Last week we read Hebrews 11, the litany of those who lived by faith, who lived according to the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  We remembered Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Leah, Jacob, and Rachel, the twelve tribes of Israel and many more.   We remembered all those who have gone before us – that great cloud of witnesses who cheer us on when the race of life is difficult.   

Now in chapter 12 comes the encouragement to endure faithfully as our forbearers did.   We are challenged to look to Christ’s example and find in him our source of strength to persevere through hardship, to face life’s discipline with courage and hope, knowing that Christ perfect/completes our faith.  He fills in the gaps, where we are weak.
Hebrews 12:1-15
Therefore, 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, 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, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
3 Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. 4In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children—
‘My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him;
6 for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.’
7Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? 8If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children. 9Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. 11Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
12 Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed. 14 Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 15See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled.
(New Revised Standard Version)

We Deiberts have had a difficult week, as we’ve lost two close friends in Alabama from the same circle of companions, two men in their fifties.   One committed suicide and the other had an aortic tear – both died with suddenly.   Both couples had recently suffered through divorce, and now death came too early or so it seems to those of us who loved them.   

I have been grateful this week for this family of faith –for the freedom I feel to be authentic, to share my own personal pain.   I have a pastor-friend who recently told me he had something very challenging going on in his family, but he was not comfortable talking to anyone in his congregation about it.   I am grateful for the safety I feel in being real with you, sharing honestly, when my heart is drooping and my knees are weak.   Thank you for carrying my burdens.   The load is lighter when shared with true friends in Christ.
None of us can run this race very easily without help.   We need the support of faithful friends.   Our friend Jim’s load got too heavy.   He could not endure the deep and dark valleys in this race of life because of the pain of isolation and the guilt of sin.   Hebrews 12:1 tells us to lay aside every weight and the sin which clings so closely.   I believe Jesus is even now perfecting the faith of dear Jim, who in life could never lay his burdens down.    Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.   So he blazes the path, and then comes along and helps us get to the finish line of holiness.   

Sanctification is the five dollar word for holiness.   Without holiness no one will see the Lord, so I certainly am glad for the grace of God in Christ making me more holy.   There’s always this tension between faith as a gift, and faith as the thing for which we strive.   I have always appreciated the way A Declaration of Faith speak about this tension:  The Spirit makes us aware of our sinfulness and need, moves us to abandon our old way of life, persuades us to trust in Christ and adopt his way. In all these things we are responsible for our decisions. But after we have trusted and repented we recognize that the Spirit enabled us to hear and act. It is not our faith but God’s grace in Jesus Christ that justifies us and reconciles us to God. Yet it is only by faith that we accept God’s grace and live by it.

Hebrews 12 also reminds us that hardships can be a means of God’s parental discipline to help us grow in holiness.   As parents raise children, they often make decisions and impose negative consequences for certain behaviors that do not please the child, but when the child looks back with a mature perspective, the child sees that it was helpful.   Discipline yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

How does a runner train for a race?   By running often and to the point of pain and exhaustion.   Why do we think the race of the Christian life should be so comfortable and easy?   No, we are called to throw off the baggage (too much stuff can get in the way of faith) and we are supposed to sling off sin, as runner would remove a bulky sweatshirt or heavy backpack.   
The backpack we have filled with regrets, bitterness, and shame needs to be set down or shared with someone else who can shoulder the load, so can can keep on keeping on.

Do you remember when you were little and needed help with something and a parent or older sibling would come along and fix it for you?  Or a teacher would guide you to the right answer on the page or a friend would point out something that you did not see.  Jesus fixes, he perfects, he guides, and renews our weak faith, our broken faith.   All we have to do is look to him.   This life is a endurance test.   Sometimes in this marathon, the hills are steep, the road is curvy, and the terrain rough.   Sometimes we get distracted.   We wander on side roads, wrong paths, and eventually admit to God and ourselves that we have lost our way.   Sometimes we get tired and weak, especially if we are trying to go it alone, not sharing our struggles with our Christian brothers and sisters, nor even with God through prayer.   At such times it seems like we will never muster the faith to go on.   
Look to Jesus, remember his suffering.  If you fix your eyes on Jesus, you will have strength to walk on, though the road is steep.  So walk on, my friends, following Jesus your pioneer and perfecter.   Walk on, remembering the saints, living and dead, who are cheering you on, and offering you guidance.   Walk on, no matter how hard.   We walk with God, my brothers and sisters.  Keep pressing on.  If you are struggling with chronic pain, chronic doubt, chronic anxiety, or chronic depression, know that you will make it by the grace of God.   Walk on.  Press on with your walker.  Walk on with your own two feet.   Ride on in your motorized wheelchair, or be carried up the trail by some devoted saint, knowing that you will make it.   Yes, you will make it to the finish line.   And make sure you are always ready to say to the Lord of your life, “I have fought the good fight.   I have finished the race.   I kept the faith.”  And God, who is waiting eagerly and lovingly for you, God as Jesus Christ who came to earth to save you, will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”