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Sermon for 10th Sunday after Pentecost

First Reading: Jeremiah 23:16-29

16Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord.” 17They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’” 18For who among them has stood in the council of the Lord to see and to hear his word, or who has paid attention to his word and listened? 19Behold, the storm of the Lord! Wrath has gone forth, a whirling tempest; it will burst upon the head of the wicked. 20The anger of the Lord will not turn back until he has executed and accomplished the intents of his heart. In the latter days you will understand it clearly. 21“I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied. 22But if they had stood in my council, then they would have proclaimed my words to my people, and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their deeds. 23Am I a God at hand, declares the Lord, and not a God far away? 24Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the Lord. 25I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed!’ 26How long shall there be lies in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart, 27who think to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, even as their fathers forgot my name for Baal? 28Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? declares the Lord. 29Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?”

Psalm 119:81-88

81My soul has longed for your salvation; I have put my hope in your word. 82My eyes have failed from watching for your promise, and I say, “When will you comfort me?” 83I have become like a leather flask in the smoke, but I have not forgotten your statutes. 84How much longer must I wait? when will you give judgment against those who persecute me? 85The proud have dug pits for me; they do not keep your law. 86All your commandments are true; help me, for they persecute me with lies. 87They had almost made an end of me on earth, but I have not forsaken your commandments. 88In your lovingkindness, revive me, that I may keep the decrees of your mouth.

Second Reading: Hebrews 11:17-31; 12:1-3

17By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, 18of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 19He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. 20By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau. 21By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff. 22By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones. 23By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. 24By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 25choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. 27By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible. 28By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them. 29By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land, but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned. 30By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. 31By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.

1Therefore, 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 endurance the race that is set before us, 2looking to Jesus, the founder 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. 3Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.

Gospel: Luke 12:49-56

49{Jesus said to his disciples,} “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! 51Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. 52For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. 53They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” 54He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, ‘A shower is coming.’ And so it happens. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat,’ and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

Focus on the Race

During the 1968 Olympics, John Steven Akhwari of Tanzania started the marathon with all the other runners, but he finished alone.  When he finally arrived at the stadium hours later, there were only a few spectators remaining in the stands.  The winner of the marathon had crossed the finish line over an hour earlier.  It was getting dark; his right leg was bandaged and heavily bleeding.  Despite being in great pain, he crossed the finish line suffering from fatigue, leg cramps, dehydration, and disorientation.  A reporter asked him why he didn’t just quit.  He thought for a moment and said, “My country did not send me here to start the race; my country sent me here to finish it.”  As Christians, we too are in a race.  

Starting with the first verse of Hebrews chapter 12 we read, “and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfector 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 word for race is the Greek word agon from which we get the English word agony.  The Christian life calls for the discipline of an athlete, the endurance of a marathon runner, and the determination of a champion.  This message is about a race—our race as faithful followers of Jesus Christ.

There are two things we need to understand up front about the race we’re going to talk about today.  First, our race is a personal race.  The author of Hebrews says, “Let us run the race that is set before us.”  God has given each of us a race to run, in some ways we run it as an individual, but we all run the race together.  However, you cannot run for me, and I cannot run for you.  We each must faithfully run the race before us.

In Baptism we were invited onto the track, and we’re expected to run this race throughout our lives.  Yes, there are those who never really begin the race.  There may be those who walk a few lengths halfheartedly, but when the cares of this world entice them away, they simply wander off on another path.  And yes, there are those who become discouraged along the way and simply quit.  As soon as they’re faced with the difficulties of the race, they choose to take the easy way out.  But for the faithful, for those willing to endure the challenges of the race, they will finish.  Each day God asks us to put on the whole armor of God and run the race to win.  Our Second Reading for today tells us how we’re to run this race.  And the first thing we learn is, we need to lay aside whatever weighs us down.

“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight…” (Heb. 12:1a).  The picture painted here is that of a coliseum where the great races were run back in Bible days.  There is a great crowd in the stands.  They’re called “a cloud of witnesses.”  The word “witnesses” used here doesn’t mean “spectators” as though these are people watching us from heaven.  The word witness literally means “someone who bears witness to a truth.”  The witnesses the author is talking about are those runners who have already crossed the finish line and are now at rest, awaiting the return of Jesus.  He’s referring to all the great heroes of faith that we talked about last week; our spiritual forefathers, who have run the same race that we’re running now. 

These Biblical predecessors encourage us because they’ve faithfully finished their race and we can say to ourselves that since they were able to endure, so can we.  God chose these ordinary, sometimes sinful, people to remind us that it’s not about us, but about God who calls and equips us.  It’s good for us to study the saints of the Bible, especially the Old Testament; they can teach us some of the greatest lessons of the faithful living.  As St. Paul reminds us in Rom. 15:4, “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we, through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures, might have hope.”

The stories of the people in the Bible were written to encourage us and to be our examples.  Anytime we get discouraged and consider quitting the race, we can think of saints like Job who can say, “I’ve been there.  I know what it is to lose everything.  Remember, God is faithful—hang in to the end.”  Or someone might be thinking, I should quit because life hasn’t been fair.  I’ve been treated unjustly.  Joseph would tell us, I know what it’s like to be treated unfairly.  I know what it’s like when family turns against you.  I was thrown into a pit by my brothers, sold into slavery and then imprisoned for something I didn’t do.  But I learned that God is faithful even when life is not—hang in there.

You may be saying, “I’m so discouraged.  I feel like quitting.  I’m facing the biggest problem in my life; I see no way to overcome this.  King David would say, “I’ve been there.  I faced the biggest giant who ever lived, and by the power of God he was felled with a single stone.  Yes, we can be encouraged by those who have gone before us, and they can teach us spiritual lessons on how to run the race.  We first must “lay aside every weight…” (12:1b)

If we’re to successfully run the race of discipleship, we must shed the things that weigh us down.  We must unload anything that will hold us back, slow us down, hinder us from being at our best.  No one runs a race in an overcoat and rain boots with a suitcase in each hand.  When you run a race, you get as light as you can.  If we plan and prepare to win, we’ve got to literally “lighten up.”

I heard about a guy that was trying to lose weight, so he gets a new scale to weigh himself.  He calls a buddy over and said, “I’m very discouraged.  I started this diet the other day, but the scale says I am heavier than when I started.”  He said to his friend, “Here, I’ll show you, hold my jacket.”  He weighed again and said, “I don’t understand it.  It still says I’m heavier.”  He said, “Here, John, hold my shoes.”  He weighs again and said, “I can’t believe it, I’m still heavier than when I started.”  Finally, he reached in his pocket and said, “Here, John, hold my twinkies.”  If we’re going to run to win, we’ve got to lay aside everything that weighs us down, that holds us back.  A weight is anything that keeps us from becoming everything that God would have us to be.  

If you think about this, the weight being addressed here could be seen as a First Commandment issue.  The 1st Commandment God gave through Moses says, “you shall have no other gods before Me.”  A weight can be something that, in and of itself, is harmless and a good thing.  However, if that weight comes between us and God, then we’ve made an idol out of that weight.  When discussing the 1st Commandment, I ask my confirmands, what are the things that can become an idol in our lives.  The answers I get are amazing.  An idol is anything that comes between us and our commitment to God.

I read an amazing example of this very thing the other day.  One individual said, I like to fish.  “The reason 2/3 of the earth is water, and 1/3 is land is because the Lord expects us to fish about 2/3 of the time.”  Now there’s nothing wrong with fishing, but if fishing keeps us from church, if fishing keeps us from spending time with our family, if fishing keeps us from doing what God expects us to do, it’s a weight, it’s become an idol.

As Christians, we have a unique problem.  Our problem isn’t generally choosing between good and bad; we all know how to do that.  Our problem is choosing between what’s good and what’s best.  You see, there are lots of things that are good, but they’re not necessarily the best things, and good things can become bad, when they keep us from the best things.  Take television for example.

There’s nothing wrong, in and of itself, with television.  But there are so many people who get up in the morning and watch TV all day until their brains are as small as peas and their eyes are as big as coconuts, and they never crack open their Bible, they never spend time in prayer.  What could have been a good thing becomes a bad thing.  A few years ago, the Christian Medical Society said: “The primary danger of television lies not so much in the behavior it produces, as in the behavior it prevents.”

Let me ask four questions that might help in determining whether or not something is a weight that needs to be laid aside.  1) Does it build me up spiritually?  Is what I’m doing, what I’m watching, or what I’m listening to increasing and enhancing my spiritual walk with the Lord, bringing me closer to God or moving me further away?  2) Does it bring me under its power?  It could be excess food.  It could be alcohol or tobacco or television.  It could be what we do for recreation.  3) Does it burden my conscience?  If whatever I’m doing, for whatever the reason, causes me to feel guilt and I feel like I cannot do it and honor God, then I should lay it aside.  4) Could it be a stumbling block for someone else?  Simply put, is this activity possibly an obstacle for someone else who doesn’t know Jesus Christ.  That’s the “weight test”, and if anything we’re doing weighs us down, we must lay it aside.  The second thing we learn from the greats of the Bible is, leave behind whatever tires you out.

We’re also to “lay aside the sin which so easily ensnares us…” (12:1c).  It’s one thing to be slowed down, but it’s disastrous to be either tripped up or tired out.  It’s one thing to run with a suitcase in each hand, but imagine running with chains around your ankles.  That’s exactly what sin does.  First, sin trips you up, then it can ensnare you.  The word for “ensnare” here is a word that refers to a vine that wraps itself around a tree.  Picture kudzu.  That’s exactly what sin will do.  It’ll trip you up and then make you fall flat on your face.  It can choke the very life out of you.

Years ago, there was an Olympic runner named Mary Deckers.  She was poised to win her first gold medal, and some say that she was the greatest female runner never to win a gold medal.  Just as she was about to pass the runner in front of her and take the lead and win the gold, she stepped on her heel and tripped and was forced out of the race.  At the news conference Mary Decker said, “I was right where I wanted to be in the race until I tripped.”  Satan has a threefold strategy to knock us out of the race.  First, he will try to tempt you to quit running or get off the track.  Then if you fall for his temptation, he will try to trip you and make you fall flat on your face.  Finally, he will try to ensnare you where you can’t get up and run anymore.  And there’s something else to see about this sin.  Sin doesn’t necessarily refer just to wickedness; it can refer to weariness.

That’s why the author of Hebrews goes on to say in verse 3: “For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.”  The greatest enemy to a marathon runner is fatigue.  Sin will not only trip you up, it will tire you out.  It will sap your spiritual strength and energy.  Therefore, it’s only good advice that anytime you see sin crawling across the racetrack, don’t step on it, jump over it, or run around it, get away from it.  Never pity sin, never laugh at sin, and never become familiar with sin.  We need to treat sin like sin would treat us.  Sin will have no mercy, so stay away from whatever trips you up or tires you out.  The third lesson we can learn from our Biblical forefathers is, focus on the One who picks us up.

The author of Hebrews goes on to say, “…let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (12:1b).  The word endurance used here literally means determination.  We must run our race with determination.  The Christian life isn’t a 100-yard dash; it’s a life-long marathon.  Dr. Kenneth Cooper, the founder of the Cooper Clinic, once said: Passive fitness, the mere absence of any illness is a losing battle.  Without activity, the body begins to deteriorate and appears to become more vulnerable to certain chronic illnesses and diseases.  

Muscular fitness is of some value but it, too, is limited.  It concentrates on only one system in the body; one of the least important ones and has limited beneficial effect on the essential organs or overall health.  It’s like putting a lovely new coat of paint on an automobile that really needs an engine overall.  Endurance fitness should be your goal.  It will ensure all the benefits of the training effect improving not just your muscles, but your lungs, your heart, and your blood vessels.  It’s the foundation on which all forms of fitness should be built.

Jesus isn’t timing us with a stopwatch; He’s measuring us with a yardstick.  It isn’t important how fast we run, it’s how far we run that really counts with the Lord.  We must run with determination.  However, we can’t be solely focused on the finish, we’re to also be focused on Jesus.  That’s why we continue to read, “…looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).  In any race, it’s important to keep our eyes fixed on the goal, focused on the finish.  The word “looking unto” in the Greek language is a word that literally means “to look away from.”  That is, we’re to take our eyes off of everything except Jesus and the task ahead of us.

Years ago, I remember a race between Roger Bannister, the man who first ran a sub-four-minute mile, and an Australian.  They were running a challenge race.  The Australian was leading the entire race.  They were coming up on the last 100 yards of the race, and just as Roger Bannister made his move to go around the Australian, the Australian took his eyes off the finish line and looked over his left shoulder to see where Bannister was.  As he was looking over his left shoulder, Bannister passed him on his right side and beat him in the race.  The Australian only made one mistake; he took his eyes off the goal.

We must not only run our race with determination, we must also run it with concentration.  We’ve got to fix our focus on Jesus and the finish.  We’ve got to put on spiritual blinders.  We’ve got to take our eyes off others, take ours eyes off ourselves, and keep your eyes on Jesus.  Corrie ten Boom, once said: Look within and be depressed; Look without and be distressed; Look at Jesus and be at rest.  We’re to keep our focus on Jesus because He is “the author and finisher of our faith.” 

But what does the author of Hebrews mean when he says, [Jesus] is the author of our faith.  He means two things: first, Jesus is the One that puts us into the race.  And second, He is also the finisher of our faith; He is the One who is waiting for on us at the end.  That’s exactly what St. Paul means in Phil. 1:6, “He who began a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.”  And the most exciting part of this race is that at the finish line we won’t find a tape, we’ll find Jesus Himself.  He’s watching us, He’s strengthening us, encouraging us, and He’s waiting for us at the finish line.

Consider this, have you ever thought about the fact that not every race allows the competitors to see the finish line?  If you’ve ever watched sculling in the Olympics, you’ve seen those long sleek row boats and the athletes who are synchronized in their rowing as they pull those long oars through the water propelling that boat in the race.  Think about it.  Those rowers have their backs to the finish line.  So how do they finish so strong?  How do they pace themselves?  How do they know when they’ve hit the tape?  The answer is, they focus on the coxswain.  

The coxswain is the person with the megaphone sitting at the back of the boat facing the crew.  They’re the only one who knows where the finish line is.  So the rowers look to them, listen to them, obey their commands and count on them to coach them to the finish.  They trust them completely to get them across the finish line in the strongest possible way.  You see, the way we win the race isn’t by just focusing on the finish line, we may not be able to see finish line, the finish line is our goal.  The way we run the race of faith each day and the way we get to the finish, is by focusing on Jesus. 

God’s grace that we receive in baptism, in confession, and in the Bread and Wine, isn’t a reward we get at the end of the race.  God’s grace is the free gift that puts us into the race.  In this race of faith, we’re called to get rid of the weight that weighs us down, to lay aside the sin that ensnares us, and finally we’re called to look to the One who strengthens us, encourages us, picks us up when we stumble and is the One waiting for us at the finish line.  Jesus has everything we need to run the race of faith, so we can run this race with determination and endurance.  We’re called to run the race faith for the glory of God, always keeping our eyes on Jesus who will be with us during the race and at the finish line to great us as a winner. Amen

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