The sermon text for this Commemoration of the Festival of All Saints is from the Epistle to the Hebrews, chapter 12, verses one and two as it is printed in your bulletin. Let’s read it together:
“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 endurance the race that is set before us, looking 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.”
5ks, 10ks, half marathons and marathons have become a pretty popular form of enjoyment and recreation for a lot of people these days. For those who take running in these events seriously, there’s lots of training and preparation that goes into participating in one of these races. Some compete against others with the goal to win. Others compete against themselves, and the goal is to beat their previous best time. For still others, the goal is simply to finish the darn thing and get the T-shirt.
Whether you like running in races or not, whether you’re someone who feels that the only good reason to run is if you’re being chased by a bear, the author of our text compares the life of faith in Jesus Christ to running a race. “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…”
This ‘race’ is not about speed or distance. It’s about “endurance,” “perseverance,” “patience.” The goal of running this race is not to beat other runners to the finish line, and ‘best times’ are totally irrelevant. The goal of running this race is simply to keep running and not stop running until you cross the finish line – which for this race, is your death.
In a day when we see church attendance at an all-time low and lots of people tell us that they’ve dropped out of the race for one reason or another, these inspired words are good for us to hear today. “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…”
If you’ve ever run one of these 5k, 10k, or marathon runs, you know that it’s not simply a matter of running the proscribed distance. There’s a course that has been laid out and runners must follow the course. If you deviate from the course, if you take a shortcut or, order a taxi to drop you off at the finish line, you’ll be disqualified.
It’s like that for us. We don’t choose the course we are to run, the “race has been set before us.” The One who set the course, that is, the “author” of this course, is the one, true and triune God.
In the beginning, God set the course to run right through a garden where the running was easy and pure joy. As the man and the woman ran the course “set before them,” they ran alongside their God who created them. And as they ran, they would “look to Him” and He would smile at them. And His smile put such a spring in their step that they ran like deer. And with that breath He breathed into them, they breathed easy and never ‘lost their breath’ or grew weary. And every day the ‘runners high’ got higher and higher.
But then one day, as they were running, a voice called to them from the midst of the garden and it said, “Excuse me, but I couldn’t help but notice that you’re not eating the right food for the kind of running you’re doing. Which frankly, I don’t understand why He makes you run like this all the time as though this were some kind of ‘boot camp.’ How weary and tired you must be. (Which they really weren’t.) I’m a bit surprised He hasn’t given you the right food to eat so that you can keep your strength. Here, take and eat. Take and drink.” And they did.
And suddenly their legs felt heavy. And they became tired. And for the first time they began to sweat. And the ground under their feet got hard as rock. And their knees began screaming in pain and their legs started to cramp and a shooting pain stabbed their chest from the inside out. And they hit that ‘wall’ that runners hit when there’s nothing left inside and they just can’t go anymore and they STOPPED RUNNING.
And the really terrible thing in all of this is this, rather than being sorry and repenting, they resented God for making them run this race at all. “What a drill sergeant He is,” they said. And they swore, “from now on, we’re going to run our own race and set the course ourselves.”
And ever since, it’s not that men and women have stopped running. It’s just that they run a different race than the one “set before them.” In this race, everyone is always behind and we are never able to CATCH UP to whatever it is to WHATEVER it is we’re trying to CATCH. This is a race in which runners are always talking about how ‘behind’ they are and how ‘tired’ they are. It’s a race in which there is much frustration and weariness and little JOY in the running. There’s a name we have for this kind of race and for those who run it. It’s a ‘rat race’ and we’re the rats who run it.
The “race” that our text is calling us to “run” is not a ‘rat race’ at all. It is the ‘race’ that our Lord, Jesus Christ has run AHEAD OF US and who runs WITH US. He is the “author” of this race.
- He set the course to run from the “throne of God” in heaven, through the womb of the virgin Mary from which He runs with the same legs and lungs and breath as ours.
- The course ran through the Jordan River where He was “heavy laden” with the weight of your sin and my sin and the sin of the whole world.
- And bearing this weight, He ran through a desert, where the same spectator that cause the man and woman to fall – tempted Him – but He refused to be tempted and kept running.
- He ran throughout the region of Galilee and Judea telling everyone that He was running this race for them and for their children and their children’s children.
- And then the “race set before Him,” ran through a garden. And He couldn’t catch his breath. And He sweat profusely, even drops of blood.
- And then He ran to a little hill called Golgotha where there was a cross. And “the race set before Him” ran right to it. And He felt the stabbing pain. And He lost His breath and breathed His last.
- But this was not the end. From the grave, He ran His course back to heaven where He “is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Jesus Christ is both the “founder” and “perfecter” of this race. He ran with the “endurance” that only the Holy Spirit can give – given to Him in His baptism when the Spirit, like a dove, rested on Him.
Jesus ran with His eyes firmly fixed on the goal, which WAS AND IS AND ALWAYS WILL be the renewal of His creation, the victory over the devil, and your salvation. This was, is, and always will be the “joy that was set before Him” for which He endured the cross, scorning its shame…”
As He runs the “race set before Him” from the Upper Room to the Garden of Gethsemane, He reveals the deepest desire of His heart to His apostles, and through them to us, saying, “these things I have said to you so that MY JOY MAY BE IN YOU, and YOUR JOY MAY BE COMPLETE.” (John 15:11).
The JOY OF JESUS is your joy – NOT just for that day in the future when you finally exit this ‘rat race’ in death – but even now, in the present.
Granted, as long as we run this course set for us on this side of death, our JOY is never going to be COMPLETE. As long as we are on this side of the finish line, we are simultaneously saint and rat. The “race set before us” goes through our Lord’s cross which we have the ‘joy’ of participating in.
Yet we run “with endurance” that doesn’t come from within us but from the same Holy Spirit who rested on us in our baptism just as with our Lord.
The picture that our text paints is that of running in a cloud – a cloud that is not made up of moisture but “witnesses” – “a great cloud of witnesses.”
Three of Jesus’ disciples ran with Him up a mountain and entered into a cloud in which they met two of those ‘witnesses,’ Moses and Elijah, speaking with Jesus. These were two of the uncountable multitude of saints for whom Jesus “endured the cross, scorning its shame,” and whose JOY IS NOW COMPLETE.
In your baptism, you entered into this “cloud of witnesses.” You are numbered with those 12,000 times 12,000 – the “great multitude that no one could number…” “The one, holy, Christian church,” “the communion of saints,” some of whom are still running the race set before them, and some of whom have finished the race and whose JOY IS NOW COMPLETE.
To be clear, on “All Saints Sunday,” we are not commending the dead for their faithfulness or their ‘example.’ In fact, if we can be honest here, chances are, some of those whom we have named and whom you have listed in the bulletin, may not have been good examples of how this race is to be run at all.
On “All Saints Sunday” we are not commending the dead for their faithfulness or their example. We are commending our Lord for bringing them through to the end, carrying them “as on eagle’s wings.” They were the “joy that was set before Him,” for whom He endured the cross, scorning its shame.”
The Holy Spirit works “endurance” in us as we run this race by telling us to “lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely” as we run this race.
The ancient Greeks were famous for their marathons. Marathon runners would “lay aside” their clothes and run in the nude. (A picture that we intend to paint no more than that!).
Early Christians entered the baptismal pool in the nude, signaling that in holy baptism, they were stripped of “every weight and sin which clings so closely.”
It’s the same for us, whether we were baptized with or without clothes. You were ‘stripped’ of “the weight and sin.” NOW, DON’T PUT IT BACK ON AGAIN.
But when you do, “lay it aside.” You “lay it aside” by ‘confessing it’ right into the baptismal font where it belongs. And you hear the ‘Absolution’ from the pastor as from the Lord Himself, “I forgive you all of your sins.” And continue running the race with a spring in your step and fresh joy in your heart.
We run this race “looking to Jesus.” We don’t look ‘inside ourselves.’ We don’t look at others. We don’t look at our ‘situation’ or our ‘circumstances.’ We “look to Jesus – the author and perfecter or our faith.”
You “look to Him,” who runs right beside you. And you hear Him say, “You can’t run this race “with endurance” unless you eat the right food. Here, ‘take and eat – this is my body.’ Here, ‘take and drink – this is my blood.’
And for the JOY that is set before us, we run with the JOY that is now in us.