First Mennonite Church
January 4, 2015
The Trouble with Distractions
Text: Hebrews 12: 1-3; Proverbs 17:24
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
A discerning person keeps wisdom in view,
but a fool’s eyes wander to the ends of the earth.
The third year we lived in Indiana, we moved around often, sitting houses until a house became available for us to stay for the rest of that year. We sat the house of a missionary couple for two months, the house of a seminary professor for one month and so on. Emmanuel was only 4 years old then. But at every house we moved in, he would go about exploring each room. He was eager to see what was behind anything with a closed door. The house of the missionaries was a two-story house with a basement. That was Emmanuel’s favorite. He was eager to see what was there behind each closed door.
As we begin the New Year, we also look forward to discovering what it will bring to each of us as individuals, as families and as a congregation. There will be some things that will come whether we do something about it or not. But there are things that will come because we will set ourselves to achieve them. It is possible that as of now we have set our eyes on specific goals we would like to achieve this New Year. These might be personal goals or items we would like to buy, to make or things about us we would like to change. For our family this year we asked each other for a change we would like to see in each of us.
In this spirit of setting our eyes on our goals for this year, I want to invite you to ponder with me on these two passages for today. In chapter eleven of Hebrews we are given a list of spiritual heroes who achieved great things through faith. Chapter eleven of Hebrews tells us of men and women, “who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies… received back their dead, raised to life again….” (Hebrews 11:33-35).
These men and women are the “cloud of witnesses” chapter 12 mentions. These are the men and women who are called, “heroes of faith”. They kept their eyes focused on their calling and committed themselves to one purpose alone —held onto the promise or command God gave them. They pursued, they chased after what God called them to do until they fulfilled their calling. Take for instance Moses: although he did not enter the Promised Land, he led the people to the doorway to Canaan. His call was to lead the God’s people into the land God had promised Abraham. Take for instance Daniel: God gave him honor so that in turn Daniel would honor God in the midst of a pagan nation and royal household. Daniel did honor God and God honored Daniel with great wisdom and grace. However in the process of honoring God, Daniel had a very rough time. He was thrown into the lions’ den and cast alive into a fiery furnace. Take for instance Naomi: she left her household and homeland, but God rewarded her by counting her in the special lineage from which the Messiah would come.
But Hebrews chapter eleven also makes reference to some unsung heroes. These for the most part are nameless people within the history of God’s people, who despite their faithfulness their lives and endeavors did not end well.
There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.
This second group of heroes suffered loss; they were mocked; suffered poverty, flogging, imprisonment and death. Their names were never engraved in stone or on golden plaques. The world was not worthy of them and regardless of the fact that they were commended for their faith they did not receive an immediate reward.
Chapters eleven and twelve of Hebrews is a forceful exhortation to believers of all times that faithfulness is not measured by immediate success nor is that failure a sign of unfaithfulness. Although we are all called to live a life of faithfulness, victory, grandeur, or success will not always be the immediate result. If we were to measure faithfulness on the basis of success when we are experiencing failure, we would certainly get frustrated and disillusioned. If we were to measure faithfulness in the way Joshua conquered Jericho, by only marching around the city and having the walls come down, we would easily get discouraged when the walls we want to conquer do not fall even when we are beating them with a sledgehammer. If faithfulness is to be measured in the way of Joseph who turned from slave to master, we would give up on all faith when our lot seems not to change a bit for better.
Triumph or tragedy, victory or defeat, success or failure is no guarantee that someone is faithful or not. Faith in God leads the believer to obey. Faith does not calculate the result or dangers that will come in the process of obeying the commands of God. That mystery regarding the life of faith was in the mind of the writer of Hebrews when he turned to the following chapter. The writer of Hebrews realized that among those who lived by faith were men and women who changed the course of history. But also among those who lived by faith are some who lost everything including their lives for the sake of obeying God. Having faith is not a guarantee to success, but neither is failure an absolute indication of unfaithfulness.
We are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses
The writer of Hebrews reminds us that while we live our calling today, we have a host of witnesses watching our performance. You and I are on the race track and the heroes of faith—that cloud of witnesses, are not only cheering us up, but are our prime example of those who have run before us. Abel, Moses, Rahab, Naomi, Daniel and all the countless holy men and women are watching how we do on the turf of God’s call for us today.
Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.
This is the first rule if we want to finish the race. Let us remember the words of wise Solomon in Proverbs:
A discerning person keeps wisdom in view,
but a fool’s eyes wander to the ends of the earth.
The day we received Christ as our Savior, the whistle was blown and we began running in this spiritual marathon. I have been running this race since I was 17. Every day, every month, year in and year out for the last 30 some years I have been running this race. There have been obstacles, there have been moments of exhaustion and disappointments. At time I have carried extra loads. Anxiety, doubts, sin, confusion, withholding of forgiveness and other hindrances have come in the way of my race. And these are the hindrances and sin we should be cautious about because they affect the way we run. Hebrews, therefore, reminds us that we should throw away everything that weighs heavy on us. Hebrews reminds us that we should run with perseverance the race God has marked out for us. But that is not all we need to finish this race. Hebrews reminds us of the most important key. And let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.
My dear brothers and sisters, this year above all things we do as Christians let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. Yes, we should keep focused on our personal goals. Yes, we should take care of ourselves. Yes, we should make every effort to do our best in everything. The world needs people who strive to give their best in everything they do. But as a follower of Jesus, let us keep our eyes on Him. As someone who is on the track, let us stay focused on the finish line. As someone who has a cloud of witnesses who know so well what it takes to finish the race and is cheering us and let us fix your eyes on Jesus. He is the trailblazer of the kind of faithfulness Hebrews speaks about. Jesus was faithful yet he suffered. Jesus was superior in faithfulness to any other hero of faith, yet on the final hour he felt the abandonment of the Father, when he died. He cried out, “Father, why have you forsaken me?” There on the cross he endured shame, pain, and suffered death. In his faithfulness to his call, He died to redeem his people from their sins.
Again, if success is indicative of faithfulness, as often is believed, it could be said that Jesus was a complete failure, because he suffered and died. But if faithfulness is pursuing God’s call to its final goal, then Jesus is the model of perfect faithfulness because in his death and resurrection salvation was made possible for all humanity. And that was his mission. He came to save his people from their sins. That is why the writer of Hebrews pleads with us with the following words, “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
My dear friends, each of us is on the track, running a race. Each of us can hear the voices of Abel, Moses, Sara, Naomi and the other holy men and women encouraging and cheering us. Ahead down the track is the finish line. Let us keep running. Let us keep our eyes on Jesus.
This year as we move forward there will be challenges. Let us remember that there will be times in which we might feel like we are going nowhere. There will be times when we feel beaten up, lost, or discouraged. Let us bring to our mind that what matters is that we remain faithful to what God has called us to do. Let us consider Jesus who endured opposition but also that he remained faithful. Let us not grow weary and lose heart.
Farther in the book of Hebrews the writer gives the following instructions:
- Hold fast the confession of our faith.
- Stir one another to love and good works.
- Meet together faithfully.
- Encourage one another.
Let us commit to practice these in this New Year. And may the Lord be our reward. Amen!