The Race is On!

Reading: Hebrews 11.27-12.2
Have you ever begun a project and, a little down the track, concluded that "I'm just not in the race?" Mostly it has been a race against ourselves. Perhaps some personal deadline has beaten us. Perhaps we just don't have the energy we had a few years ago.

It brings back memories… I recall the Inter-School Sports day in Warwick when I won the 440 yards race. The time-keepers told me it was the third-fastest time! It's good to have those memories, but - over forty years later I'm not at all sure I could make that distance running, let alone win the race!

What about you? How many former athletes do we have in the congregation this morning? Are you still in the race?

In 1968, the country of Tanzania selected John Stephen Akhwari to represent it in the Mexico City Olympics.

Along the racecourse for the marathon, Akhwari stumbled and fell, severely injuring both his knee and ankle. By 7 pm, a runner from Ethiopia had won the race, and all the other competitors had finished and been cared for. Just a few thousand spectators were left in the huge stadium when a police siren at the gate caught their attention.

Limping through the gate came number 36, Akhwari, leg wrapped in a blood-stained bandage. Those present began to cheer as the courageous man completed the final lap of the race.

Later, a reporter asked Akhwari the question on everyone's mind: "Why did you continue the race after you were so badly injured?"

He replied: "My country did not send me 7,000 miles to begin a race; they sent me to finish the race."

The Race is on!

The race is on!

The Sydney 2000 Olympic Games are drawing closer. We are impressed by the commitment, self-denial and hard workouts that are essential for all who aspire to represent their country. Their focus is not simply to achieve a better time or score than they have ever done before. Their focus is on gold. Each contest will normally have only one winner, but at the very least every athlete must "finish the race" honourably.

The race is on!

The race of life isn't practice. It is for real. Paul could write to young Timothy, "I have done my best in the race, I have run the full distance, and I have kept the faith. And now there is waiting for me the victory prize of being put right with God, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on that Day - and not only to me, but to all those who wait with love for him to appear" (2 Timothy 4.7-8).

The race is on!

Already there are many who have completed the course and received the prize - people like Abraham, Moses, Samson, David… people like Peter, Paul, Mary, Lydia… people like Luther, Wesley, Mother Teresa… Unlike the Olympics, the prize is available to all. Listen to what Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "Surely you know that many runners take part in a race, but only one of them wins the prize. Run, then, in such a way as to win the prize. Every athlete in training submits to strict discipline, in order to be crowned with a wreath that will not last; but we do it for one that will last for ever. That is why I run straight for the finishing line; that is why I am like a boxer who does not waste his punches. I harden my body with blows and bring it under complete control, to keep myself from being disqualified after having called others to the contest" (1 Cor. 9.24-27).

The race is still on! It's a marathon, not a sprint! Keep heading straight to the finishing line!

Paul writes to Timothy, "Run your best in the race of faith, and win eternal life for yourself; for it was to this life that God called you when you firmly professed your faith before many witnesses" (1 Tim. 6.12). Eternal life - that's the prize - freely offered to you.

To Timothy again, "An athlete who runs in a race cannot win the prize unless he obeys the rules" (2 Tim. 2.5). Notice how it is put in Hebrews 12, "So then, let us rid ourselves of everything that gets in the way, and of the sin which holds on to us so tightly, and let us run with determination the race that lies before us" (v. 1b).

The race is on now! What are the habits, attitudes, priorities, and plain sins… that might trip us up and rob us of the prize? Don't look to deal with them next year, next week, tomorrow… The race is on right now - are you in it?

Looking away to Jesus

It is a race of faith. Last week's message ended with the words, "…our calling is to live by faith. Trust God - he's trustworthy! Be patient - his promises are true (here and hereafter)! Move into action! You can count on God - he's also counting on you!" We can only enter the race by the grace of God. We can only run the race by the grace of God. And the prize too flows from his grace. But you have to step out, depending on God. To quote last week's message again, "Faith has to do with action. Faith assumes 'belief'. But belief becomes faith when we depend on what we believe in - when we 'exercise faith'."

So Hebrews tells us, "Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from beginning to end" (11.2a).

In the original, "keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus" is a curious expression which literally means "looking away to Jesus". It suggests our need to get away from our pre-occupation with ourselves, our inabilities, our difficulties, the circumstances we face… Our focus needs to be on Jesus, "on whom our faith depends from beginning to end." He is the leader, the originator, the pioneer, the author. He is the one who has made it possible for us to be in the race - it is because of his saving, redemptive work that we are in the race at all. He has gone on ahead. He, above all others, has completed the course. He encourages us and calls us on. But, as he promised, he is with us always. His grace enables us day by day. He is the "perfecter" of our faith. We look to him, not only as the one who has gone ahead, but as the one alongside and within us through the Holy Spirit, cleansing, renewing, empowering, guiding…

Consider his example - "He did not give up because of the cross! On the contrary, because of the joy that was waiting for him, he thought nothing of the disgrace of dying on the cross, and he is now seated at the right-hand side of God's throne" (v. 2b).

The recipients of this letter were most likely Jewish Christians. Under the pressure of persecution they were being pressed to revert to Judaism. The introduction to the chapter on faith comes at the end of chapter 10. "Remember how it was with you in the past. In those days, after God's light had shone on you, you suffered many things, yet were not defeated by the struggle. You were at times publicly insulted and ill-treated, and at other times you were ready to join those who were being treated in this way. You shared the sufferings of prisoners, and when all your belongings were seized, you endured your loss gladly, because you knew that you still possessed something much better, which would last for ever. Do not lose your courage, then, because it brings with it a great reward… We are not people who turn back and are lost. Instead, we have faith and are saved" (10.32-35,39).

Pressing on

In 1841 David Livingstone began his missionary work with Robert Moffat at Kuruman in South Africa. But soon he was moving further into the interior in search of peoples unreached by the missionaries. In 1843 he said, "I am ready to go anywhere, provided it be forward."

Anywhere, provided it be forward… That sounds like a good motto for every Christian. They are the words of someone who is in the race - keeping on towards the finishing-line.

Paul wrote to the Philippians, "I do not claim that I have already succeeded or have already become perfect. I keep striving to win the prize for which Christ Jesus has already won me to himself. Of course, my brothers and sisters, I really do not think that I have already won it; the one thing I do, however, is to forget what is behind me and do my best to reach what is ahead. So I run straight towards the goal in order to win the prize, which is God's call through Christ Jesus to the life above" (Phil. 3.12-14).

Press on! Spend time daily in the Word and in prayer! Press on! Live out your faith in all that you do! Press on! Don't lose courage! Don't turn back! The Lord calls you! His Spirit indwells you! The prize awaits you! Then you too will join the great crowd of witnesses in praise of the God of grace who is the Lord of the race.

© Peter J. Blackburn, Buderim Uniting Church, 16 August 1998
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, © American Bible Society, 1992.

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