Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Sermon on Hebrews 11:17-31, 12:1-3, for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, "Look to Jesus"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

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, 2 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. 3 Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.

Modern day races are a great example of sportsmanship and athleticism—of fair competition and achievement. We have a high expectation that athletes in any sport, and certainly runners as well, will fairly compete to the best of their ability, without cheating or using performance-enhancing drugs. We expect that “fair play” means that they wouldn’t stoop to tripping or shoving other runners to get ahead, but win by honest effort and hard training. We’re greatly disappointed when we learn that athletes have cheated or “doped up” on steroids or other substances, and we’re outraged when terrorists bombed the spectators and runners at the Boston Marathon. Not only was it a gross violation of life, but an inexplicable act of brutality. It goes without saying that we don’t expect runners in a race to face willful intent to harm them.
As Christians, you are running in a race that is set before you. It’s a race run by faith, and like a marathon, it’s a long haul. Your whole life as a Christian, you run this race by faith. But this race is not so fair as a sportsmen-like marathon. This race is not without weights or burdens that are imposed on us or that we picked up ourselves. Sometimes we carry tremendous burdens of guilt or shame, unwilling or unable to look to God for forgiveness. Or we’ve suffered wrongs at the hands of others, and feel unable to escape the damage. We think our guilt or shame is ours alone to bear, and the only way it could be lifted is if we suffer enough to make up for our wrongs. Or we consider ourselves unworthy of God’s help. Or we value self-reliance so much that we’re too proud to seek God’s help. It would be as though a giant boulder held you pinned to the ground, and you imagined that it was your duty to lift it, or someone shouted to you that if you just “believed in yourself” you could do it. But this would be impossible without the “burden-bearer” Jesus Christ. He is the One to whom we turn our eyes. The One who beckons the weak and heavy-laden to come to Him and find rest.
The good news, or gospel, shows us Jesus Christ in our place, under that burden, that impossible boulder. And He alone bears its weight to death on the cross, but in doing so, lifts it from us. He alone takes away our guilt and shame, and brings us healing from the devastation of sin. Our eyes really must be fixed on Him, to release our burdens, and the sins that stick to us like a spider web.
Though we scorn hecklers in an ordinary race, and it’s hard to believe there are those who would willfully harm those competing in a race; it should not surprise us that the devil would set sin and temptation before us like traps, or that there will be people who will mock your faith in Jesus. Or that some may even face unthinkable persecution for their faith. Were it not for Christ, who forgives your sins, washes you clean, and sets you free from them—sin would be our downfall. As it is, we must be watchful, and by constant repentance throw off that sin that so readily clings to us. The reality is that life isn’t a fair competition, with a level path and only supporters surrounding us. That’s the reason the writer to the Hebrews warns us in advance of the challenge of running by faith.
But that’s not to say it’s all challenges and discouragement. And we do have a “great cloud of witnesses” surrounding us, encouraging us and reminding us that the race can be completed. Those saints of the faith faced vexing situations, insurmountable challenges, fearsome enemies and unseen futures, sin that would entangle them—and many times they failed, were weak, or doubtful. Yet each of them had faith—their eyes also turned to God and Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. They persevered through their trouble, not because they had clever solutions for their dilemmas, or because they could guarantee God’s blessings, but because they trusted in the One who could. They believed for a certainty that God would be faithful in keeping His promises. So does the runner who is approaching the finish line focus his attention on the spectators who cheer him on from the side and the finish? No! The runner focuses ahead, to the goal, the finish line.
In the same way, the focus of Hebrews 11-12 is not to put those “heroes of faith” on a pedestal—but rather to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. Their faith too, was not turned to themselves, but to God, and the promised Savior, Jesus Christ. So our encouragement to each other as Christians, and of true saints in the Bible, should always be “Look to Jesus! Look to Jesus!” For He ran that race before us and won. This competition, this race is not won by our strength or training. It’s not only the healthy, athletic, and strong, or even only the intelligent that are able to compete. Even the frail grandmother who is no longer able to speak or move, but who lives by faith, is running in that race. The strength and endurance to finish the race does not come from within us, but it comes from Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. You could say that Jesus “wrote the book” on the subject of faith.
And since He is the authority on matters of faith, we should confidently take His Word on all matters of faith. So just surveying the Gospels for a moment, what do you think Jesus taught faith believes or trusts? It believes in Him that He can heal, forgive, clothe us, protect us, move mountains, answer prayers, remove our unbelief. It believes that He rose from the dead, faith believes and is baptized for salvation, believes Christ’s Word, in the fulfillment of God’s promises. Faith believes in Jesus’ name, believes in Him for eternal life, believes that He is sent by God the Father, that He is the Holy One of God, it believes that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing has life in His name. And again and again, throughout the Gospel of John, and the other Gospels as well—faith simply believes in Him, in Jesus. It’s a solid trust in the One who is able to do all these things.
Faith doesn’t get these things because we can supply them, but because God can. A Christian professor gives the analogy of an antenna, to faith. An antenna doesn’t do anything, it doesn’t produce the signal that makes your TV or radio work, but it simply receives. But you can’t get the signal without an antenna. In the same way, God’s blessings come to us by faith, and we simply receive them—not by our power or strength. And not only that, but God installed that “faith antenna” to begin with, so that everything, even our “reception” is God’s free gift by grace. Faith “tunes in” to the promise and relies on God to supply.
Faith is that sure confidence in what we hope for, and that certainty in what is unseen. Faith looks at what God can do, not at what we can do. And looking to Jesus, we not only have the author of our faith, but also the perfecter of our faith. Jesus who ran the race before us, and by perfect obedience to the Father, secured the whole “prize” for us. It’s not a race we win by moving ourselves by our strength, to the finish line. But it’s a race of dependence on Jesus, won by believing in Him, and following His call. And if ever a race were filled with obstacles, burdens, unfairness, and hostility—it was not our race, but the race Jesus ran. With our sins weighing Him down, with “hecklers” who scorned the faith, assailed Christ’s ways, Jesus was mocked and nailed to a cross. With open hostility and willful intent to harm, Jesus was put to death. But faith sees through that appearance of Christ being a helpless, innocent victim—and hears Christ’s side of the story instead.
And as Scripture tells it, and Jesus tells it—it’s no “pity me” story about how Jesus was an unfair victim. But it’s a story of tremendous sacrifice and great willingness to undergo tremendous personal cost to Himself, out of love for us. It’s the story of Jesus “for the joy set before Him” enduring the cross and despising its shame. It’s a true race of triumph and glory, hidden underneath the shame and infamy of the cross. That Jesus willingly laid down His life for us, and bore the suffering without complaint or bitterness, for the joy of accomplishing the Father’s will, making us righteous—forgiven—by His sacrifice. Though it’s a very pale comparison to what Christ accomplished, we could think of the athletes who played through great pain and injury to lead their team to victory, and barely gave thought to the suffering, for the sake of the ultimate prize. To an infinitely greater degree, Jesus paid the price so He could win us the prize. And it was to His Father’s glory, and to our eternal benefit—not self-glorification. He won His prize for all of us who follow Him and finish the race after. No one who finishes the race in Christ will be left out of His joy and salvation.
Because He is the author and perfecter of our faith, and we can look to Him, we can take courage and be refreshed when we grow weary or fainthearted. We can have faith He will carry us to the finish line. Countless obstacles may lie in our path, to turn us away from God’s plan—if we don’t have faith in Him. Had Abraham disobeyed the test to offer up Isaac, he would’ve demonstrated his faithlessness in God, and wouldn’t have seen how God was going to provide a substitute. Had Moses’ parents not had faith, they would’ve despaired of rescue for their son or cowered in fear at the Pharaoh’s wicked commands. Had Moses not had faith, he would’ve stayed in the safety and luxury of Egypt’s palaces, and scorned the suffering of his people instead. Without faith, the Israelites would not have dared to cross the Red Sea, but instead would’ve resigned themselves to recapture by Egypt. Without faith we could easily surrender ourselves to seemingly impossible circumstances, and think that God can’t save us or deliver us.
But with faith, we look to the One who delivered all these saints of old, and who continues to deliver His people. With faith, we see Jesus run the most challenging and unfair race, and die in the most despairing situation, when all hope seemed beyond lost. But we see that He did it for us, for the forgiveness of our sins. We see that far from being a defeat, this was in fact Christ’s sacrifice and victory for us, to secure us the heavenly prize. We see that by faith, His prize is ours as well. When your way becomes weary, or your heart grows weak—there’s no substitute but to look to Jesus. It is this faith alone, that is well founded and that will carry us through this life to Jesus, our eternal reward. Faith looks to Jesus and receives the promise, in His name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Refer back to Hebrews 11:1 for the definition of faith. Review each of the saints named in Hebrews 11:17ff. What unseen promise or blessings did they each look forward to?
  2. In what ways were those promises at odds with the external situations they found themselves in? Describe in each situation, what they might have done instead, if they had not had faith. How does this demonstrate that faith is the cause and our works are the effect? In this way, the works are the visible proof that faith exist.
  3. Why is faith not turned inward, to ourselves or our heart or our abilities (i.e. “navel-gazing”)? Why is faith not direct at the saints, like Abraham, Joseph, and Moses? Where is the true object of our faith, as well as theirs? Hebrews 12:2.
  4. What hardships and sufferings will faith encounter? Hebrews 11:32-12:4; Matthew 5:10-12. How does faith endure it? By looking to whom?
  5. When faith looks to Jesus, what blessings does it receive? Matthew 6:30; 21:22; Mark 9:23-24; John 1:12; 3:16; 20:31.
  6. Consider the analogy of faith being like an antenna. In what way does this parallel the sending and receiving of God’s promises? Does the antenna produce the signal? Is it necessary to receive “the signal?” Who “installed” the antenna, by which we passively receive God’s works for us? Ephesian 2:8-9; Romans 10:17.
  7. What weights, what entangling sins, what obstacles stand in your way of “running the race set before you?” What promises of God can you rely on to cast off those hindrances?

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