A Marathon Race

The reading from Hebrews 12:29-12:2 continues our journey and exploration of faith.

For those with a strong foundation in the Old Testament, perhaps many of the references seem familiar—like the one about Moses and the parting of the Red Sea–how God’s people had faith and crossed over before the Egyptians tried the same thing but were drowned.  Also familiar may be references to the prophets and judges, people who likewise heard God’s call and responded in leadership roles.  Perhaps less known is the story and detailed mention of a prostitute, Rahab, who hid a couple of Israelite spies from the soldiers at Jericho in the land of Canaan, the promised land, and who, with her family, was spared when the city fell.

And on this very morning of the Olympic marathon race, it seems fitting that we focus our attention on this passage, one that closes with the admonition that we “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

Indeed, whether we’re 22, 44, or 88, we know that the race we call life certainly isn’t a sprint or medium distance run.  Life is a long distance run, a marathon if you will, which at times can be a grueling event requiring patience, endurance, and a mindset that is focused on that One Thing.

Our son Matt was a distance runner during his high school and early college days.  So as the father of a distance runner and someone who himself trained for and thought he was capable of running a marathon (I didn’t finish for reasons left unspoken) I feel slightly qualified to speak about what that’s like and hearken it to our text and application for our own lives today.

Matt ran six miles in a cross country race his freshman year.  But there are other races that might be even more apt for our imagery today.  In some ways, perhaps the steeplechase, for which the women’s time trials began yesterday, men’s tomorrow, and event that continues into this week, might be a more accurate description of what we face in our lives.  A steeplechase race is much shorter than a marathon, but the route could be a good analogy to what life throws our way.  Hurdles, water jumps, water pits—it’s all there time and time again.

For example, the nearly two mile Olympic steeplechase includes 28 hurdle jumps and seven water jumps. The jumps begin after the runners pass the finish line for the first time. There are five jumps in each of the final seven laps, with the water jump as the fourth. The jumps are evenly distributed throughout the track. Each runner must go over or through the water pit and must jump each hurdle.

Does life sometimes seem like a long trek marked by hurdles and water pits, ready to engulf you when you falter or slip?  I know it does and has me at times, sometimes when I least expected it.

I’ll never forget the finish of that six mile race in Brookings, South Dakota, over ten years ago.  Most of the runners had already crossed the line, but standing there at the finish was the team captain, urging on and encouraging his teammates, even our red-shirted, freshman son as he came in near the end.

That finish, and the team captain exhorting his teammates on to complete the race, has stuck in my mind for over ten years.  It reminds me of this passage, and how we too should fix our eyes on Jesus, the perfecter of our faith.  For as the commentators and scripture point out, those Old Testament heroes didn’t all have an easy, downhill frolic or Spassrennen (“fun race” in German).

Indeed many suffered during their lives—torture, persecution, imprisonment, poverty, and death by the sword.  While these prophets, priests, judges, and kings who were “commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”   Their redemption was based on a faith in God, a promise made long ago in the Garden of Eden, for those who trusted in God and that he would not forsake his people.

So we also as members of God’s chosen people, the faithful that run the race, we too can focus on the finish line, looking to Christ, our captain, who waits there for us.

Jesus too urges us on in our daily lives to keep going, focused on the finish and the reward that someday we too will claim.  Because without him, our faith is incomplete.  By ourselves, we aren’t qualified or prepared to meet our maker.  We show up at the finish line having struggled, suffered, come up short so many times, just as we confess, by the things we’ve done and failed to do.

But that isn’t the whole story.

We also know what Jesus did for us on the cross, how he overcame sin and death for us and redeeming our sins, that we too might have eternal life.  Jesus ran the race for us.  Jesus waits for us, cheering us on, even from a distance when we can’t see him.  He’s there for us, members of his flock.  Like he told his disciples in the 14th chapter of John, he has a place prepared for us, and promises us that we will be with him too in his father’s house.

We can’t see it today.  We might not see it tomorrow.

But through faith we know it’s there, waiting for each of us.

May God grant us the strength and confidence to continue to strive, despite life’s hurdles and puddles along the way.