This week finds us between sermon series. We just finished one last week and will start a new one next week (on how to study the Bible, so don’t miss that!). That means this week was a freebie. Well, given that last week was Easter, and given our great tendency to settle back into our old ruts after we make it past a major spiritual milestone like that, this week we’re talking about what to do when Easter has come and gone. With the help of the author of Hebrews, we are talking about pressing on when things get long. Come for the encouragement, stay for the challenges at the end which although specific to my church, can probably be adapted and applied to every church. Thanks for reading and sharing.
Do we have any runners in here? Do we have anyone who used to be a runner? How about anyone who once entertained the notion of being a runner (just before settling in for another doughnut while laughing hysterically at the idea)? Although I dare not claim that title any longer, there was a time when I was a runner. I was okay; not great. But I did enjoy it. I think what I enjoyed most was not the actual team cross country practices, but the weeks I spent running on my own after school once the season ended—especially when it was cold. Those were the days I felt like I could run forever without getting tired. I remember the summer I put in 500 miles so I could get a patch on my letterman jacket. Eight miles was typically about the most I ever ran. I did a few longer runs of eleven miles, but that was about it.
Have any of our actual or former runners attempted a marathon? I can’t claim any part of that. I don’t think I ever even really gave the idea much serious thought. But from the running I did do, and from talking with folks who have run them, the challenge of running a marathon is not only a physical one—although it’s certainly not less than that. You can train to the point that you are physically capable of meeting the challenge. At some point along the way, though, even though your body can more than handle the stress you are putting on it, your mind begins to go to war against your body. It starts gently, but gets more and more insistent from there. “You know, we’ve run a long way. We should probably take a few minutes to rest.” “Look, I know we’re not all the way there just yet, but who’s really counting all these miles anyway? I mean, the judges, sure, but do we really care about what they think? Is all of this really worth putting ourselves through just to get a piece of metal?” “That soreness in our legs and back and ankles isn’t going to get any better. In fact, if we don’t back off some—maybe just take a slightly slower pace for a little while—we’re really going to pay for that tomorrow…and the next day…and the day after that too.” “We can’t do this. We tried hard, but we just can’t.” “I’m going to give you about another 50 paces and then I’m shutting off all the motor-skill neurons. If you won’t stop on your own, I’m going to just have to take matters into my own hands.” This is where the real battle is taking place. And nobody sees it. Nobody can see it. But unless you manage to overcome this particular set of hurdles, you’re never going to finish the race. You may have hit some great milestones along the way, but unless you win this secret battle and press on forward, there won’t be any more milestones to celebrate.
Last week was Easter. Wasn’t that a great morning? It was good to be gathered together on this Super Bowl of Sundays (and for the first time in three years, no less). I don’t know about you, but I worshiped the Lord that day. As we belted out “Because He Lives,” I could feel the Spirit moving in our midst. And now…we’re in the week after Easter. That just doesn’t have the same ring to it. It’s like the day after winning a big game like the college basketball March Madness tournament (too soon?). You score a great victory and then…you have to wait until November to get started again. Yuck! It’s easy to be pondering on a day like today on a pretty important question: What’s next? This morning, I want to talk about that together.
Now, in terms of figuring out where to go in the Scriptures on the Sunday after Easter, there are several places to choose from. We could simply continue telling the story and move smoothly into Acts to talk about how until the Holy Spirit came, the disciples committed themselves to seeking God in prayer and doing the next right thing. We could have even featured the great song from Frozen 2 to preach that message. But we’re not. Given that the focus of Easter is on our salvation, we could spend the day shifting gears to sanctification. We could have used Paul’s description of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5 to have a lively discussion about the various spiritual disciplines that are going to manifest themselves in our lives when we have given our hearts to Jesus as the evidence of our decision. But that’s too narrowly focused for what I think we need this morning. No, what I think we all need this morning is something much simpler than that. We’ve made it past a huge milestone together. That’s a great and good thing. But our tendency in a moment like this one is to let off the gas a bit and relax. After all, look at what we just accomplished together. I’d say we deserve a bit of a break. And yet this isn’t the time for taking a break. The season we are in is for pressing on in endurance toward the great things our God has in store for us in the days ahead.
In order to help us get our hearts and minds around all of this, I want to take you to the New Testament letter of Hebrews. Hebrews is one of the most incredible documents in the New Testament. It is theologically rich and pastorally challenging. It exalts Jesus as the greatest there is and offers warning after warning to remain faithful in light of His greatness. The whole thing is written to a group of Jewish background believers who were struggling with getting their hearts and minds fully around who Jesus is and were suffering for their efforts to remain faithful to Him. They had been through a lot in their journey after Jesus, but they needed to know what to do next—kind of like we, and followers of Jesus all over the world do today. What the author wanted to encourage them to do was keep pressing forward. After offering up a series of examples from their own history of individuals who remained faithful to God in spite of the challenges they faced for doing so, the author lands in chapter 12 on a powerful “therefore.”
Let’s walkthrough what he says here together starting in Hebrews 12:1: “Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us…” Now, this is a reference to Hebrews 11 and its famous “Hall of Faith Heroes.” The author mentions by name 17 different faithful men and women. Their stories are meant to inspire and they are indeed inspiring. The stories of faith heroes of the past should propel us on to great faithfulness of our own.
But the author says something else here that only makes sense in light of Easter—which is why this is such a good place to start as we figure out what to do next. He says that we have this large cloud of witnesses—and our cloud is even larger than theirs was—surrounding us. Now, what does that sound like to you? It sounds to me like he’s describing the spectators at a sporting event. Running on that idea for a minute, can you be surrounded by a large cloud of witnesses if those witnesses are all dead? Of course not. They’re dead. You can’t witness something if you are dead. Well, the author is just speaking metaphorically here. He doesn’t really mean we are surrounded by these witnesses in the sense that they are watching us. Their stories are simply meant to inspire us. And I’ve taken that line before. But the more I think about it, I don’t think it’s right. In fact, in light of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, I know it isn’t right. In Revelation 6, when the fifth seal is opened, the apostle John sees this image of martyrs from across history who were under God’s throne and crying out to Him for justice, asking how long they would have to wait for Him to avenge their blood. Do dead people cry out for justice? No, because they’re dead. What I’m getting at is this: When the author here talks about this large cloud of witnesses, he’s talking about people who are alive. They may be temporarily separated from their bodies, but because they died in faith, they didn’t really die at all. And these people who are still living are not simply waiting on us to catch up so we can be together again. They are actively cheering us on in our efforts to follow the path of faithfulness they blazed for us.
Do you know what helps when you’re in a long race and are having one of those moments when the war your mind is waging against your body isn’t going so well? Being cheered on by someone on the sidelines. It’s even better if that person is someone who has already finished the race. When they shout, “I’ve done it, and I know you can do it too,” we start to believe them and run harder. The faithful folks who came before us are not dead and gone. They are cheering us on. And I don’t mean this in some weird, mystical, New-Agey sort of way. I mean that in Christ they are alive, and they are rooting for us to continue in their path of faithfulness so we can experience the same rewards they are now enjoying.
Because we have that, the author says, “let us lay aside every hindrance and the sin that so easily ensnares us.” Do you know what doesn’t make any sense? Running a race with extra weight in tow. When you are running a race, you go with as little baggage as you can get away with carrying. I mean, have you seen running shorts? Too often, we do life like we’re on some sort of an arctic quest. We carry so much baggage it’s a wonder we can even move. We want to pursue the path of Christ, but we bring along connections to a path other than Jesus’ because we want a backup plan just in case Jesus’ path doesn’t pan out for us. We bring along artifacts from our past—memories and relationships and habits—that we just can’t part with even though they slow us down in our journey. We bring along sin that we don’t want to let go of. All of these things slow us down. They make our race harder. The race is hard enough by itself. If we don’t let go of our extra baggage, we’ll never find the kind of success we want to experience.
Instead of getting bogged down by baggage, “let us run with endurance the race that lies before us.” The life spent in pursuit of Christ is not a sprint. From the moment you say, “Yes,” to Him and begin following Him instead of whatever or whoever else you were following before, the journey will stretch on for the rest of your life here on earth. Then, when this life comes to an end, we will have all of eternity to enjoy His presence as we were always designed to enjoy it. Between here and there, though, are many hills to climb and obstacles to navigate. We must run, but we must also endure. The point here is not that we need to pace ourselves by somehow not growing in Christ too fast. It is to keep on running toward Him even when things get hard and we get tired. We keep running too when things get stale and we get bored. That’s the other side of the challenge here we don’t often consider. Sometimes, our biggest faith fails come not when we are under attack, but when we are bored. It’s hard to do one thing for a long time without ceasing. Our mind starts to wander and we start looking for distractions that will generate a bit of interest. Like Peter walking on the water, though, when we take our eyes off of Jesus, even for a moment, we will begin to sink under the waves. We must endure. We must reach further. When the race gets long, we keep pressing forward. When the race gets long, keep pressing forward.
In a race, though, having folks cheering you on helps, but it’s not enough by itself. We must also know where we are going. We must have a clear goal toward which we are aiming. Well, as the author of Hebrews makes clear, Easter gives us that goal. Look at v. 2 now. We “run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Jesus, our risen Savior, is the goal. He defines the path. He sets the parameters for the race. He’s where we start. And He’s the end. It’s all Jesus from start to finish. If we want any hope of finding any success in the venture, it will only come when we are fully abandoned to Him. If we will keep our eyes on Jesus we will find what we need to keep pressing forward no matter how long the race winds on. When the race gets long, we keep pressing forward.
As we turn from Easter to what comes next, then, there are days it’s going to feel like the race is getting long. After all, we’ve just cleared a major milestone. Can’t we just relax? Well, that depends. Into what do you relax? Do you relax into good habits, or bad ones? Let’s get more specific. Do you relax into righteousness or into sin of some kind? Do you relax into disciplines and patterns that make you more reflective of the image of Christ, or some artifice of your past that while familiar, is actually pulling you away from Him? Answer that question carefully. It is frighteningly easy to deceive ourselves here. If your understanding of relaxing pulls you away from the church and away from prayer and away from engaging with the Scriptures, then relaxing is about the worst possible thing you can do when you’ve passed a milestone and are tired from the effort of getting there. You need to keep pressing forward so that your mountaintop doesn’t merely become a mountain drop. When you finally reach the point in your journey after Jesus that you relax into pursuing the image of Christ, then relax away. If you’re not quite there yet, keep pressing forward. When the race gets long, we keep pressing forward.
Okay, but what does that look like for us as a church? What do we keep pressing forward toward? Let me set before you three things that need to be on our horizon together as a church; challenges that will take endurance and a focus relentlessly settled on Christ in order to get where He’s leading us to go. Along the way, the race is going to get long at times. But we keep pressing forward because the plans of our God are good beyond reckoning if we will stick to the path and keep our trust in Him.
The first thing to keep us pressing forward is that there is more work to be done here. We’ve seen God accomplish a whole lot of fun things in and through us in the last couple of years. It’s been really exciting to watch things pick up speed as we’ve gone forward together. But this is not a moment we can sit back on our heels and relax. The idea of having “done my time” needs to be banished from our minds entirely and forever. There is more work to be done. Let me set a couple of things before you in particular. We need to reestablish our preschool group. This goes for Sunday school and Wednesday evenings. The reason: we are coming into a season in which we have and will soon begin to have even more preschoolers around here. I don’t know about you, but that fact by itself is really exciting to me. The energy and excitement of preschoolers is infectious for a church in the best way possible. Sure, they are loud and messy and get into everything, but man are they good to hear and see, to love and be loved by. Not only do we have more preschoolers around here than we have in quite some time, but as Oakboro continues to grow, many of those families moving to town either already have preschoolers or will soon have them. There’s something about having preschoolers that gets parents thinking about the kind of upbringing they want to give their young ones. Guess where they’re going to look to help them have that upbringing when they hear about the church with the rocking preschool program in the center of town? But we can’t do that without you. We have wonderful youth volunteers and wonderful elementary student volunteers who are doing amazing work in those areas that is growing quickly as well, but they are youth and elementary volunteers, not preschool volunteers. This ministry will be one that isn’t always easy—it is preschool ministry—but when the race gets long, we keep pressing forward. God’s kingdom is waiting to be expanded into the hearts and minds of ones such as these, and He’s waiting to use us to accomplish that in some really powerful ways.
One more point of work to be done. It is time to reopen The Gathering Place. We’ve been moving slowly on this—in part because the last two times we’ve planned to do it a huge Covid wave hit the country—but we’re ready to start taking some intentional steps forward. It’s not going to look quite the same. Covid is more in the rearview mirror than it has been for quite a while, but we can’t be unwise. And food costs are off the charts right now. But that opportunity for agenda-less fellowship is something we just can’t afford to miss any longer. Starting next Wednesday, then, we’re going to be back together for dinner. Between now and Fall we’ll meet on each first Wednesday of the month (or the next available Wednesday if we’re closed that week), and then as school starts, we’ll bust the whole thing wide open. And, if you signed up to help last time, be on the lookout for a fresh contact. It’ll take all of us to make this happen.
This kind of Gospel momentum is exciting. When a church begins to experience something like this, folks take notice. Unfortunately, one of the individuals included among those folks is someone who has a vested interest in seeing it thwarted. As followers of Jesus in this world, we have an enemy in the Devil. He absolutely hates seeing churches come alive and expand the Gospel. As a result, he will do anything he can to put a stop to any forward movement they are experiencing. I’m going to be really honest with you this morning: We are under attack. These attacks are not coming from the world. We don’t have any antagonists in our community. These attacks are coming from our enemy. And they are mostly taking the form of physical ailments of various sorts. There have also been some more personal spiritual attacks as well. I was just talking about the wonderful momentum in our student ministries. Over the past few months, we have seen a great many of our youth and kids volunteers hit by a physical ailment or family tragedy or even something more personal. The goal of these attacks is nothing short of the total destruction of our student ministries. I’ve got to tell you: In our immediate area, there is not a church with a more vibrant student ministry than we have. And word is getting out about that. As this momentum continues forward, there are families who are going to connect with the Gospel because of it. The Devil absolutely opposes all of that, and so he’s trying to take it down. We can’t let him.
The weapons of our warfare here are by no means conventional. This is a spiritual battle, and so fighting it will take a primarily spiritual form. The first and most important thing we can be doing together and you can each be doing individually is to pray. Pray for protection from the enemy’s attacks. Pray they will fail in their aims. Pray for the encouragement of our volunteers. In fact, take that prayerful spirit and put it into further action by writing them a quick note of thanks for their ministry. Pray for their boldness in the face of the challenges they are facing. Yet while prayer is our first and best weapon, you can still do more. If you aren’t already volunteering to serve in this crucial aspect of our ministry, prayerfully consider whether God is calling you to it, you’ve been resisting for too long, and you need to just set aside all of your objections and say yes to Him. Sometimes doing ministry feels like we’re running uphill and against the wind. The race gets long. But when the race gets long, we keep pressing forward. There’s a kingdom waiting to be expanded.
One last thing. It is just nearly a cliche to observe that we are living in divided and partisan times. Cliche or not, though, that doesn’t change the fact that we are. Now, historically speaking, we’re probably not more divided along partisan lines than we’ve ever been, but the increasingly post-Christian cultural environment we are living in today means the higher ideals that used to generally unite us in spite of our ideological disagreements aren’t there anymore. That combined with the cultural rot that is so much of our social media today means that partisan divides are often uglier and more personal than they used to be. And unfortunately, the church is not immune to this.
I recently saw a Facebook post in which a denominationally prominent pastor wrote that if a member of his staff had publicly expressed a certain political viewpoint he would have fired them on the spot for doing it. Now, whether this was his intent or not (it probably was not given his very public commitments to evangelism), what he accomplished by that post was to send a signal to any unbelievers in his area who happen to share that political opinion whose holding he deemed a fireable offense that they are not welcome in his church. Well, given the sheer number of unbelievers in his area who probably hold that opinion in some part by virtue of their being unbelievers, he effectively told a whole bunch of the very people he ostensibly wants to engage with the Gospel that they aren’t welcome in his church. Now, his political opinion may well be shared by a great majority of the people who already believe like he does and are already in a church (if not his church), but if our goal is to share the Gospel with the unevangelized…that’s probably not the best way to go about it. If we’re thinking about ministry as a race, this pastor has tied a lead weight around his church’s waist while they’re running. That makes it hard to keep pressing forward.
Our goal as a church is to be a people with whom anyone can connect regardless of their views on just about anything. That’s the kind of person Jesus was. In these hyper-partisan times, being that kind of a community is tough. There’s a fair chance we’ll eventually take some criticism from folks on both sides of the divide. We will face great pressure to abandon genuine, Gospel positions on various cultural issues because they aren’t popular. There will be great pressure and temptation to stake out firm positions that are rooted more deeply in the culture than the Gospel because those are the positions Christians are “supposed” to hold by virtue of their supposed political preference. Sometimes that will be messy, but our standard is the Gospel, not the culture. Our kingdom is decidedly not of this world which means we’re going to stick out no matter where we go if we’re getting things right. That gets tough after a while. Yet when the race gets long, we keep pressing forward.
We keep pressing forward knowing that we’re not alone. We have a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us, urging us on toward the kingdom in spite of the challenges we face. We have Jesus before us who endured a cross, looking with scorn on the associated shame because the goal of that shame was to get Him to stop His pursuit of the kingdom in favor of worldly relief. And with those two encouragements, how can we not throw off all the sin that might otherwise slow us down and run with great endurance the race that lies before us? When the race gets long, we keep pressing forward. Easter may have come and gone, but our race is not done. There’s a kingdom to be advanced. And we have the privilege of joining our King in doing just that.