This morning one of the daily news telecasts mentioned the New York marathon. I thought of the Boston Marathon and a woman by the name of Ruiz. You might remember her. Several years ago she cheated. At least most people think she cheated. I remember a Boston reporter sticking a microphone in her face and saying, "Ma'am, you're either the fastest runner in the world, or you are a fraud. Can we talk?"
Do you ever feel like a fraud? If you don't, you ought to be a preacher. There are times when I go into the pulpit, and I say, "Oh God, you don't want me to do this. Look at what I've done and thought and the brothers I'm having trouble with right now." I ask his forgiveness, and his grace is always sufficient.
The problem with most of us is that we have an MO (Mode of Operation). We're Christians. That means we go to church and we try to live with integrity. But inside we sometimes feel like a fraud.
I want to talk about how to keep things going when the flame that once burned brightly begins to flicker and you think it's going to die.
Remember how excited you were when you first knew that you could live forever? Remember how wonderful it was to be totally forgiven, to be alive, to have meaning for your life?
I remember getting up in the morning and going to the radio station to hustle a buck so I could pay the mortgage and have a place to sleep, where I could get up in the morning and go to the radio station and hustle another buck. How empty! Camus said the only question modern man must deal with is the question of whether or not he should commit suicide. Well, I understand that. I've been there.
Do you remember where you were when God found you? Are you just as filled with joy as you were then? Do you feel as clean as you felt then? Is he as real to you as he was then? Sometimes, if I'm honest, I have to say, "No, I don't feel as clean as I did then. I don't feel as excited as I did then. Sometimes the joy is not so great."
Did you hear about the man who had a sick mule? He called the veterinarian, and after examining the mule in the bar, the vet said, "You give him one of these white pills. This is an amazing miracle medication. When you give the mule this pill, he will get well. I've seen it happen over and over again. But if that doesn't work, and I'm almost positive it will, I have this little red pill. You give that to him, and that'll cure anything."
Two weeks later the vet saw the farmer and said, "How's your mule?"
The farmer said, "Doc, you wouldn't believe it. I gave him that little white pill, and that mule jumped off the floor and knocked down the barn door. He jumped over three fences, knocked the fourth down, and just took off into the fields. Doc, if I hadn't had the presence of mind to take that little red pill myself, I never would have caught him."
Well, this morning I've got six red pills for you. If you listen carefully, God's Word will prove helpful when the fire burns low.
We can be encouraged by the saints that went before us.
First, note the principle of historical affirmation. Church history is the inspiration for church ministry. Hebrews 12:1a: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses" We need to know that here the writer of Hebrews is using the imagery of an athletic contest.
Throughout Scripture you find imagery that reflects an athletic contest. But here and no other place in Scripture you find something that is quite different. The writer of Hebrews opens the passage by saying, "Therefore" Whenever you see a "therefore" in Scripture, you must go back and find out what happened before the "therefore." Going back to the eleventh chapter of Hebrews you find a roll call of the Old Testament saints. There's a whole list of men and women who stood up and kept on truckin' until they died. That's the "therefore" to which Hebrews 12:1 refers.
Another thing you ought to take note of here is that contrary to most imagery about an athletic contest, the people to whom the writer refers are not on the field. They're in the stands. The imagery at this point is the image of Moses, Amos, Rahab, Jeremiah, and Jacob in the stands saying, "You guys keep on truckin'. We did it; you can do it."
Jacob was a liar, a man you wouldn't put in your business, a man you probably wouldn't want to be your best friend, and a man you would never turn your back on. Jacob is in the stands saying, "I know how guilty you feel. But you keep on truckin'. I did too."
Moses didn't even want to serve God. He said, "God, I'm going to have to go back to your people. I'm going to have to go to the enemy. When I tell them you spoke through a bush, they're going to say, "What are you, some kind of fruitcake?'"
Moses was complaining that nobody would believe him. He had the rod, and when he threw it down, it turned into a snake. God told him to pick it up. Moses said, "You must be kidding. If I pick that thing up by the tail, then the business end is loose, and I'm in trouble." He picked it up, and the rod became the rod of God.
Moses is in those stands. Moses is saying, "I know what it feels like when you want to give up. I know you think you're inadequate for the task. You don't have the words, and you don't have the gasoline. But you keep on truckin'. I'm for you."
And old Rahab, the prostitute, the whore, says, "You think you're a sinner. You should have been in my place. I mean, I was a really bad person. But God saved me and redeemed me. If I was as bad as I was, and you feel as bad, you can keep on truckin' too."
If you're quiet sometimes, you can hear the cheers going on in the stands. It is the principle of historical affirmation. Church history is the inspiration for church ministry.
In 1531 a man named Thomas Bilney was burned at the stake because he was convinces that every person should read the Scriptures. Watching in the crowd was a man named Hugh Latimer. Latimer looked at Bilney and decided he wanted to find out about something a man would die for. Hugh Latimer ended up being a Christian and eventually become the archbishop.
Then Bloody Mary came to the throne, and many more were martyred. (I wish I had the time to tell you of your great heritage.) When they wrote the Westminster Confession of Faith, people came up with cropped ears and missing arms and on crutches because they'd stood and were counted.
Hugh Latimer was one of those, as was his fellow Archbishop Ridley. As they were being burned at the stake, Latimer looked at Ridley and said, "Be of good cheer, Master Ridley. Today we shall light a flame in England that no one will be able to put out."
Where do you think Hugh Latimer got that kind of courage? Let me tell you. He got it because every time he closed his eyes he saw Bilney burning at the stake and praising God.
They're all over the place: Chrysostom, Paul and Peter, Mary and Martha, Lazarus, John Knox, Martin Luther, John Wesley, and Billy Sunday. Sunday said, "A sinner can repent, but stupid is forever." D.L. Moody and C.S. Lewis are there in the stands. Don't forget the past. You will be surprised at what it will do for you in the future.
Struggling with disobedience makes us stronger.
Second, I want you to note the principle of pedagogical disobedience. Pedagogical means teaching or learning having to do with education. God will use your disobedience to train you and draw you.
Look at Hebrews 12:1. "Let us lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us." Remember that the writer of Hebrews is using athletic imagery. In this athletic imagery, he's talking about weights like runners use or the medicine ball that basketball players use. When you warm up with the big medicine ball, it's very heavy. Then when you get the real ball, it's as light as a feather. If you're a runner, you run the 440 or the 880 in track shoes that are weighted. When the weights go off, you run like the wind.
When I was a teenager, a group of us decided to sneak a swim in a hotel pool at three o'clock in the morning. All the lights were out, and we thought we would have a wonderful time. We were having a good time until my friend, Sammy, got on a diving board, sat on an inner tube, and jumped off the board. When the inner tube hit the water, it sounded like a shotgun echoing back and forth against the hotel walls. The lights started going on, and the guards came out. We were over the fence and into our cars before I realized that Sammy wasn't with us.
I climbed up the bank and looked over the fence. There's Sammy with an inner tube stuck to his posterior trying to get over the fence. I said, "Sammy, get rid of the inner tube or you're going to be in real trouble."
Ask God to reveal to you those areas that play like the medicine ball or the weights on your running shoes. Ask him, by his grace, to allow you to drop them off. You'll fly like the wind.
We always have a choice in our behavior.
Now we come to the third principle. I want you to note if you will, the principle of volitional choice. Volition is the prerequisite for perseverance. In Hebrews 12 we read "Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus"
Let me give you a minilesson in Greek. The word that's used in this text for "looking" doesn't mean just glancing at something. There are a number of Greek words that could have been used here. But the word that the writer of Hebrews uses is a word that means you're aware of all the other distractions, but you choose to look intensely at something in particular. The writer of Hebrews is saying we choose to look at Jesus.
I don't know what it is in our culture that has made us irresponsible. A young man came into my office not too long ago and said, "Reverend, I need some help with a drug problem. I can't help it."
I said, "Do you mean your friends tie you down and make you smoke pot?"
"Well no, not exactly."
"You mean they put a gun to your head and take you out to buy crack, and then you use it?"
"No, not exactly."
"I've got a suggestion for you. Why don't you stop?"
"Nobody ever told me that before."
"Since they're not forcing you to do it, just stop."
He came in the next week and said, "You know, I'm clean. I don't have to take drugs any more."
Did you hear about the man who was sitting on a tack, and everybody was trying to help him? His pastor said, "If you'd pray more and read the Scriptures, you wouldn't hurt so much."
The Freudian psychologist came along and said, "You were potty trained horribly, and that emotional trauma when you were little causes you to hurt so much."
A little boy comes along and says, "Why don't you get off the tack?"
I have learned that people are what they have decided to be. I'm not talking about the stuff that you can't prevent. In many instances, though, if you're depressed, you've decided to be depressed. When the payback of depression becomes less than the pain of depression, then you'll choose change. The writer of Hebrews is saying choosing to look at Jesus is a volitional act.
I'm not talking about pathological depression. I'm talking about the kind that most of us go through. We are what we choose to be. When you get up in the morning, you can choose to say, "Good morning, Lord," or to say, "Good Lord, it's morning!" You can get up in the morning and say, "This is the day that the Lord has made. I am going through some bad stuff today, but it's his world. I'm his servant, and I choose to follow him." That's the principle of volitional choice.
We can draw encouragement from a God who has suffered through what we suffer.
My fourth principle is the principle of divine precedent. In the incarnation, God has done all he will ever ask you to do. Hebrews 12: 12: "Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the author (that means pioneer and trailblazer in the Greek) of our faith, who for the job that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame." Jesus did it before you did it.
Listen to Hebrews 4:1516: "For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need."
Jamie Clark is on the board of KeyLife. He's the manager and part owner of KFIA in Sacramento, California. Jamie and Cynthia, his wife, were in the San Francisco earthquake. The hotel where they were staying started shaking, and they both fell to the floor. Cynthia crawled across the floor to Jamie and just climbed into his lap like a little child. Jamie was patting her on the back and saying, "It's going to be all right, Cynthia. It's going to be all right." She said she felt better until she thought, This is an earthquake. He doesn't know any more about earthquakes than I do. It may not be all right!
Let me tell you something, friend. Every time you go before Jesus and say, "I'm really afraid. I'm going to die."
He says, "I know."
Jesus came not just to keep you from being lonely but to be lonely as you are lonely, not just to keep you from being afraid but to be afraid as you are afraid, not just to keep you from dying but to die as you must die.
The late Carl L. Marney, a Baptist pastor from Charlotte, North Carolina, would tell how on the wet plaster of an unfinished men's room someone had written the words, "God has cancer." Folks, God has had cancer for a long time. That's what the Incarnation is all about. He entered time and space on the silent planet, as C.S. Lewis describes it, so that he might walk our dirty roads just as we must, die as we must, be lonely as we must, be tempted as we must. There is a principle there and if you remember it, it will help.
God is aggressively working out our perfection.
Fifth, I want you to see the principle of aggressive perfection. What God has begun in you will become a reality, and the fact of its beginning is the promise of its completion.
Look at the second verse: "looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher (or perfecter) of our faith." The Greek means the one who takes our faith, perfects it, and makes Philippians 1:6 a fact: "He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ."
Early in my ministry, I decided I couldn't hide the way I really was (God knows I tried to hide my sin and pretend that I had it together) or speak as an outsider of the human race from the pulpit. God just destroyed me until I finally decided that I would always, though not in detail, be honest with the people I teach. Sometimes that hurts. Sometimes it's hard to tell you the truth about me, but you have never met a man who wants to serve God more than I do.
You've never met a man who in his heart desires to please God more than I do. You've never met a man who wants to keep on truckin' more than I do. I know about me. Do you know what he said about me? "It does not appear what Steve Brown shall be, but when he appears, Steve Brown will be just like him." How about the sports fans? "He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ."
This is a fallen world and things may be bad in your life right now. The joy and the light and the reality of where we are right now, not matter how bad it hurts, is the recognition that he promised that we're going to get better. Some day we'll be well.
We have the added comfort of a Son interceding for us to the Father.
I have one more principle. I want you to see the principle of royal privilege. The king's bounty is bestowed on the king's family. Look at Hebrews 12: 12: " looking to Jesus, the author (pioneer, trailblazer, perfecter) of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame and (here it comes) sat down at the right hand of the throne of God."
I don't want you to forget three salient facts: (1) Jesus is sitting at the right hand of God. (That's a metaphor for all of the authority in the universe). (2) Jesus is your elder brother. (3) The reason he's sitting there is to talk to the Father about you.
Jesus has an extensive prayer list that would absolutely blow you away, and it's in Hebrews 7:25: "Therefore, he is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through him (here it comes) since he always lives to make intercession for them." You're on the prayer list of Jesus.
Did you ever think that Jesus has your picture in his billfold? Jesus is sitting at the right hand of the Father, and he's talking to the Father about you.
A Union soldier in the Civil War lost a father and two brothers. At harvest time, his mother was the only one left at home. The soldier wanted to be discharged so he could go home to help with the harvest. He talked with the captain of his unit, and the captain gave him a furlough to go to Washington to ask the President of the United States for that discharge. The young man went to Washington. On the steps of the White House, he met a guard. He told the guard that he needed to talk to the President.
The guard said, "Are you crazy? He's busy with other matters. Tell me your problem." After the soldier explained, the guard said, "Son, go back and fight the Rebs. We're in a war. You don't get everything you want."
The soldier was absolutely devastated. He walked the streets of Washington, tears streaming down his face. A little boy saw him and said, "Mister, what's wrong?"
He didn't see anybody else around, and he needed to talk, so he just poured his heart out to this little boy. The little boy said, "Mister, I think I can help. Take my hand."
They made their way back through he streets of Washington, up the steps of the White House, past the guard, and into the Oval Office, where President Abraham Lincoln said, "Yes, Todd, what is it you want?" When Todd told his father about the young soldier's problems the President granted the soldier's request.
The incarnation made it possible for Jesus to go into the throne room on your behalf. There he can say, "Mary's really hurting, Father. Would you help her? Sam isn't going to make it if you don't intervene with your grace. Steve Brown is preaching and dying. Would you intervene?"