Read at beginning of service:
1 Corinthians 15:50-58 (NIV)
50 I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed– 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” 55 “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 58 Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.
This morning I want to start by just asking you a question – if you could have been around for any single event in the life of Jesus, what would you choose? Now I am sure there are some in the room today who would love to have been there on that day in Bethlehem when God became flesh and Jesus was born. There might be some in the room that who would say, “I would love to have been there when Jesus stood outside the tomb of his friend Lazarus and called him forth and Lazarus came back from the dead.” Or maybe someone would say, “I would love to have been there on that early Sunday morning when Jesus Himself, after dying on the cross, raised Himself from the dead.” I know that’s what a lot of us would say. Perhaps there is even someone here today who would say, “I would have liked to have been there when Jesus turned water into wine.”
However, if I could have tagged along with Jesus, there’s another event that I would have chosen. I would have loved to be a part of the day where Peter, James and John accompanied Jesus and hiked up to the top of the mountain. And the Bible says that in Matthew 17, that when they got to the top of the mountain something happened, and the Bible describes it like this: it says that Jesus was transfigured. That word, if we go back to the original language is really the word “metamorphosis.” It means a change in form. And the Bible says that in that moment that He was transfigured, His face shone like the sun and His clothes were light as the light. And for one brief, fleeting moment, the glory of God, which had been contained there by the flesh of Jesus leaked out. What an unbelievable experience. And if that were not enough for Peter to get to witness, the Bible says that out of heaven appeared Elijah and Moses there in that scene. And then, out of the cloud comes a loud voice and God says, “This is my son, whom I love. With Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him.”
Have you ever been in those moments that are so majestic that you just have to soak it in? Well this is one of those moments. Peter has a kind of personality that he just can’t be quiet. He has to say something. And so Peter in all of his profound eloquence says, “It’s good to be here.” No kidding, Peter. Talk about a spiritual high. It doesn’t get any more spectacular than this. And then Peter turns to Jesus and says, “Let’s just stay here. In fact, I’ll go and build kind of a makeshift shelter for the three of you and wouldn’t it be great if we could just stay here?” What a great picture for how some of us are feeling coming out of 40 Days of Purpose. God showed up. And like Peter we say, “It’s good to be here.” And we’ve witnessed something pretty special and something maybe far more eternally significant than we even fully understand. And our natural response is to say, “Let’s stay here.” But the reality is, you don’ t live on the mountaintop. Life is lived down below where people, stress, pressures and jobs are found. It’s great to go to the mountaintop and the experience is wonderful, but the Bible says in this passage after Peter says, “Let’s stay here,” Jesus almost ignores his statement and in the very next verse it just says, “They came down the mountain.”
We’ve had a great mountain experience in our Church, and now we’re coming down. And though we can’t replicate what’s happened in the last two months, we do want to sustain the momentum that has started in many of our lives. But I also want us to know there is a danger about which we need to be honest tonight. Some people’s feelings and commitment only last as long as the emotion of the experience. And for some, when the feelings of a spiritual high begin to fade, so does their interest. And for others, when following gets hard, or when a crisis hits or some unexplained circumstance comes, rather than go on, they will choose to pick a seat on the sidelines.
Now let me see if I can help us get a picture of this in our minds. I want you to imagine every person in the room tonight wearing running shorts. Those little nylon running shorts. Not a pretty picture is it? But imagine all of us standing together at a starting line and the gun goes off and with one big surge, we take off in a sprint. You’re feeling strong, your legs are turning, life is good, the wind is in your face and you’re moving as fast as you can and everybody is going with you. But somewhere along the way, you begin to get exhausted and weary. Fatigue, probably about a hundred yards in for most of us. Your legs get heavy and your side hurts and it’s not as much fun and some people have already dropped out. So do you push through? Do you go on in spite of the strain and the pain, or do you say, “You know, it’s just not worth it.” And you pull out and you quit.
You see, during 40 Days of Purpose a lot of us got off to a fast and wonderful start in the Christian life, but as someone who has now walked with the Lord for about 15 years, I can tell you that the Christian life is not a 100 meter dash. It’s a long journey. And what we want to focus on this weekend is we want to begin to explore what it means to sustain what God started in us over the last 40 Days for the long haul. And to do that, I want to take a look at a group of people who are in a very similar situation that we find ourselves in tonight. We find them in the New Testament and we find them in the book of Hebrews.
Now these first century Christians came from a Jewish background. But they have met Christ and they have gotten off to a great start. In fact, the writer at one point says to these Christians, “Don’t ever forget those early days when you first learned about Christ.” Remember how you remained faithful even though it meant terrific suffering. He says, “Don’t forget.” But now, they were in danger of going back. They were considering walking away. Things had gotten hard. There was pressure from the outside to go back and embrace Judaism and to turn their back on Christ. So the writer of Hebrews pleads with them not to go back. It may be hard for us to really capture the emotion of his urging in Hebrews 12, but I want you to imagine that this is a pastor, a preacher, a prophet who is imploring these people, begging with them, “Please don’t quit.”
Now, go to the passage we want to focus on today in Hebrews 12: 1-2.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows down, especially the sin that so easily hinders our progress, and let us run with endurance the race that God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus on whom our faith depends from start to finish. He was willing to die a shameful death on the cross because of the joy that He knew would be His afterward. Now He is seated in the place of highest honor beside God’s throne in Heaven.”
I think this passage becomes for us a great template for how we can sustain healthy longevity in our walk with Christ over the years.
So let’s look at what we can learn.
HOW DO I SUSTAIN SPIRITUAL MOMENTUM?
1. I WILL FIND STRENGTH FROM THOSE WHO HAVE GONE BEFORE
Number one, if I am to run a good race and finish well, I will find strength from those who have gone before. You know the Bible is not just a history book. It’s not simply meant to be a record of all that has happened in the past. It is not meant to simply be moral teachings that we admire and respect. No, it’s for us. Look at Romans 15:4, “Even if it was written in Scripture long ago, you can be sure it’s written for us.” So these are words for us tonight about how to endure, how to persevere and how to keep going in the race. Now when the writer starts off, he says, “Therefore we are surrounded by this huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith.” Now in order to really grasp what he’s talking about, we have to go back. And he’s pointing us back to chapter 11. And if you would go through chapter 11 in Hebrews, you would find that it’s sort of like the All Star Team of Christianity. It contains a long list of some familiar names and some not so familiar names of people who have one thing in common. They have an unswerving faith and belief in God. They would never quit or walk away from their commitment to follow God. Sometimes they were ridiculed for their beliefs. Sometimes they were mistreated. God called some of them to leave their families and go to a foreign land. Some of them paid ultimately the price of giving their own lives in order to follow God. It says of them, in chapter 11, that all of those who were listed, were still living by faith even when they died. They ran with endurance, and even when they died, they were still clinging to a firm commitment to follow God.
Now for most of these courageous men and women, there was no outward or visible reward for their faith in this life. In fact, just because they followed God, didn’t mean they were going to live a life of comfort or a life of prosperity. In fact, quite the contrary. Their faith often meant sacrifice and hardship. God thinks so highly of these people that He listed in Hebrews 11, that He says of them, “The world was not worthy of them.” They were such another caliber in their faith and commitment and perseverance that He says, “The world was not worthy of them.” And He says all of those listed in Hebrews 11, are this great crowd of witnesses that the life of faith is the only life worth living. They’re witnesses.
I have this picture in my mind of the author of Hebrews addressing these Christians who are considering turning back and if he pleads with them and challenges them he stops and says, “Can I get a witness? Is there anybody here who can testify? Is there anybody in the room that has found the courage to stay faithful, even when it’s hard?” I can picture hands going up all over the room. People who are listed in Hebrews 11 I know would step forward and say when you are tempted to throw in the towel, I endured for 120 years. And it was long and hard, but it was worth it. When you feel yourselves spiritually drifting, read about the passion of David because David could testify it’s worth it. And when you are fearful to obey God, read the story of Abraham and Isaac. They are witnesses to the life of faith and perseverance. You know what? The great people of faith are not just limited to Hebrews 11. You can read the biographies of great men and women of the faith. Well let me take it a step further. If you want to grow in faith and perseverance, hang around men and women who have a passion for God. Now think about this for just a minute. Who do you know that when you’re around them, your faith soars? And your passion for God heats up. Does a name come to mind? Who do you know has a strong will for Christ? You want to stay on fire for God? You want to come out of 40 Days and sustain a passion for following God? Hang around other people who are on fire. Now take your outline and just fill in this question. What person of faith and godliness can strengthen my walk? I want you to write in a name. Maybe it’s your small group Host or somebody in your small group. It’s a friend or somebody that when you’re around them, your faith expands.
I WILL PUT OFF THAT WHICH TRIPS ME UP
Let’s move on to number two. If I am to finish well, I will need to put off that which trips me up. He says, “Let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily hinders our progress.” In virtually every kind of athletic event, excess weight it not good, unless you are a sumo wrestler, then it’s fine. A while back, there was a man in London who participated in the London marathon and history records that it was the slowest marathon ever in history. Lloyd Scott finished in 5 days, 8 hours, 29 minutes and 46 seconds. Unlike other runners who were wearing running shoes, nylon shorts and a tank top. he was wearing a diver’s suit with a full, metal helmet. He did it as a fundraiser. What a great picture of many of us in the race of the Christian life. We’re in the race, but we’re weighted down.
In this verse, he says there are two kinds of things that we may need to let go of what trips us up or slows us down.
Let go of the ungodly
Number one, let go of the ungodly. Let go of sin. One of the things that happens when I read the Bible is that it brings me face to face with my own feelings and shortcomings. It is like a miracle of my soul. And when I read scripture, often, I see the darkness and ugliness that is in me. Sometimes it’s painful, but it is for my own good. He says to let go of those things that you know are wrong. Some of us took significant steps over the last 40 Days; however, some of us have also come under significant conviction. As we read Pastor Rick’s book, or we sat through a small group lesson, or we listened to somebody share, or we came to a weekend service, the gentle nudging of the Holy Spirit pointed out areas in our lives that weren’t pleasing to the Father. In fact, right now, I am convinced there a number of us who are feeling a bit uncomfortable because we know exactly what that area is and the Holy Spirit is bringing it to our mind even now. We know it’s wrong. We know it hinders our growth. But we haven’t let go. Can I ask you this morning, is there some area, right now, that the Holy Spirit is calling your attention? Maybe it’s some addiction, or deceitful practices, or you have a heart that is hard to those in need. Or maybe you’re entertaining a improper flirtatious relationship and you need to let go. Those things will hinder your relationship with God. And the reason He said to let them go, is not to try to hold back from you life’s pleasure, but He knows that those things will destroy you. So, let go of the ungodly.
Let go of the unnecessary
There’s a second kind of weight and that is to let go of the unnecessary. Now this one’s a little more subtle, cause it’s not necessarily sin. It may not be a moral compromise, but it just keeps us weighted-down from our spiritual progress. It could be something as simple as that your life is so full, that there really is no time or energy left to pursue your relationship with Christ. It could be that by having your kids in six different extra-curricular activities, there’s no time for spiritual instruction in their lives. It could be hours wasted in front of the TV unless it’s something spiritually enlightening like Survivor. I can?t believe they voted him off!! But that’s all right. As I emphasized during the campaign – when you live a purpose-driven life, you no longer live for your own agenda, but you now live for God. And part of what it means to persevere over the long haul, is that you are ruthless about getting rid of things in your life that weigh you down and distract you, and steal the passion that you had for Christ. Look at that verse in 2 Timothy 2:3. He says, “Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs – he wants to please his commanding officer.” He gets rid of anything that is unnecessary. All the civilian affairs that distract him from being the kind of soldier that God wants him to be. So to fill in the statement – in order to finish well, I need to let go of what? What is it, right now, that God brings to mind?
3. I WILL CHOOSE TO PERSEVERE UNTIL I CROSS THE FINISH LINE.
Third, to run a good race, I will have to choose to persevere until I cross the finish line. Notice back in the passage of Hebrews 12 he says, “let us run with endurance this race that God has set before us.” Down through the ages, and its no less true in our generation, greatness has often been defined by the ability to persevere and overcome obstacles.
I have several examples just from history. Did you know there was a memo that came from MGM shortly after Fred Astaire took his first screen test? And here is the memo that came out about him. “Can’t act, slightly bald, can dance a little.” Some one said of Vince Lombardi. “He possesses minimal football knowledge.” The parents of Enrico Caruso believed his teacher who said, “He has no voice at all. He just cannot sing.” Walt Disney was once fired by a newspaper for lack of ideas. Thomas Edison’s teachers gave up on him and here was their evaluation: “He is too stupid to accomplish anything.” Henry Ford, before he succeeded, failed and went broke 5 times. Beethoven handled the violin awkwardly and his teacher called him hopeless as a composer. Albert Einstein performed so badly in high school courses, except in mathematics, that his teachers encouraged his parents to pull him out of school. In the race of life, God is far more interested in how we finish than how we begin.
Eugene Peterson has written, “There’s a great market for religious experience in our world, but there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of character and virtue.”
Look at the next verse in your outline, “Therefore my dear brothers stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” Another translation says, “be steadfast, be immovable no matter what the hardship.” So no matter how long the storm lasts, no matter how dark and scary things get, no matter what wave batters against your life, stay with it. Can I get a witness? The apostle Paul says, you bet. Paul says I can testify. In fact he does in 2 Corinthians. He says, “I’ve been in prison. I’ve been flogged. I’ve been exposed to death time and again. Five times I was beaten with 39 lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I’ve been shipwrecked. I’ve had to constantly stay on the move because of being in danger in every city I went to. I’ve been deprived of sleep. I’ve gone without food. I’ve been cold and naked.”
Then I love this part in the passage. It’s like Paul who then says, “And you know, all that’s bad and let me tell you what’s even worse, I had to take care of the churches.” It’s one thing to be beaten and it’s another thing to have to deal with people in the Church. Paul says, “I can testify that I never gave up.” In fact, none of the hardships had the power to make Paul quit. None of it dissuaded him from pressing on. And none of it quenched his passion for following Christ. Paul says you make a decision in advance that you’re going to be steadfast and immovable and you’re going to keep abounding in the work of the Lord, no matter what hardship may come into your life. Make the decision in advance, friend, that you are going to keep showing up and keep serving, and keep proclaiming the gospel and keep going and keep going as long as the Lord gives you breath. Because there will be some hard days. There will be some valleys. There will be some times when God seems distant and there will be some circumstances that you can’t explain and don’t make sense. It is not in those times that you need to decide, “Am I going to follow or not?” Decide now. And the writer said to these Christians, “Do not turn back, keep pressing on.”
So let me ask you this third statement. Fill this out if you would. Coming out of 40 Days of Purpose, I know God wants me to keep on what? Where’s an area that you need to persevere? Where is there an area that you need to keep pressing on?
4. I WILL KEEP A SINGLE-MINDED FOCUS
If I am going to run the race well, I’m going to keep a single-minded focus. He says in the passage we do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from start to finish. Now before we go any further, I want you to notice what he doesn’t say there. What he doesn’t say is that you ought to keep your eyes on your small group. Or on your small group host. Or on your pastor or even on Hanover Pentecostal Church. All of those things and all of those people will eventually let you down and disappoint you along the way. It is only when the Lord Jesus becomes the centerpiece of your focus that you’ll find strength to endure this marathon called the Christian life. If through 40 Days of Purpose you didn’t come to love Jesus more, then we have failed. It was not intended to point you to this Church, or to point you to people, but rather to point you to Jesus Christ.
Now it sounds really spiritual to say keep your eyes on Jesus, but how do you do that? In my every day life, what would that look like? I want to take a few moments and drill down on that question. We’ve just come through this very relaxing season called 40 Days of Purpose, where there was no stress, no pressure on anybody’s life, but we’re about to move into Christmas. And the pace is going to pick up. So how do you find the ability, in supposedly a season dedicated to Jesus, focus on Him? Well this much I know; it won’t happen by accident. In fact, implicit in the word “focus” is the idea of concentration and intention. While life is a race, you cannot develop spiritual intimacy on the run. And the pace of life around us continues to accelerate and we are addicted to speed. We cram everything we can into every hour we have. I think of the little clip from Steven Wright, who said, “I put instant coffee in my microwave and almost went back in time.” You’ll get it in a minute.
We live in that kind of hurry sickness that hinders our focus. Always in a rush. Did you know that when you get on the elevator and you push the door-close button and that in almost all elevators, it really doesn’t do anything. Its only function is to give you the distraction of thinking you’re making progress because 10 seconds is an eternity when you’re standing in the elevator. There’s now a restaurant in Tokyo that doesn’t charge you for food. They only charge you for the amount of time that you’re at your table. We’ve now moved into a generation where we embrace this thing we love called “multi-tasking”. And now, as a result of our commitment to multi-tasking, there are now some homes built with phones right next to the toilet. My friends, is that a room where we really need to multi-task?
We live in a country that moves fast. We live, work and attend a church that moves fast. I confess to you that I’m a hurrier. I wish I had a dollar for every time I said to my kids, “Hurry up.” Or for all the times, walking with my wife, I’ve left her behind. Can I get a witness?
You see, worse than my hurried step, is my hurried spirit. We hate bedtime. We don’t like it when it’s quiet and silent. If you don’t believe that, just ask a question in your small group and let there be 30 seconds of silence. People start squirming and moving. You see, this insatiable need for speed is setting us up for a monumental spiritual struggle. Because speed, hurry and activity drain our souls. But when you study the life of Jesus you discover that He was not in a hurry. He always had time for the Father and time alone. And there were carefully guarded moments where He had dead time just to be alone with His Father. Here’s a truth I don’t want you to miss; if you’re going to keep your focus on Jesus through this Christmas holiday season (or through any day in your life), you will have to make some time to be alone in His presence, to slow down long enough to hear Him. Because God speaks in the margins of life. To hear God and know God, you must create space in your life. You must create margin moments in your day, when you can be alone, undistracted in His presence. Those times will not only help you grow, but they will replenish and nourish your soul.
Look at that next verse in Philippians 3. He says, “What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake, I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.” Paul says that nothing, nothing is more important than pursuing a relationship with Christ.
Here’s what I?d love for you to do. Tonight, go home, or maybe the last few minutes of this service, would you mark off a day, an evening, a Saturday afternoon and just say, I am dedicating that time right now just to be with my Father. Maybe you need to mark off some time with your family, just to slow down long enough so you can with intention and concentration focus on Jesus.
5. I WILL ENDURE THE SUFFERING TO SEE THE SMILE.
Well let me give you this last one very quickly. I will endure the suffering to see the smile. In Hebrews 12 we read, “He was willing to die a shameful death on the cross because of the joy He knew would be His afterwards.” The writer of Hebrews uses Jesus as an example of some one who kept an eternal perspective. He looked past the suffering of the cross to the joy that would be His when some day He would be united with those that He’d redeemed and He would be in the presence of His Father. And the author seems to be saying that on the other side of the finish line is the smiling, heavenly Father. And in this race called life, we need to regularly look up, lift our heads and look ahead to the finish line. When life gets hard and when the race gets tiring, look up and you will see your heavenly Father cheering you on. When you are committed to living a purpose-driven life, you can endure difficulty and pain because you know this life is not all there is. You know that you were created for God’s pleasure.
Would you look with me at this verse, where Paul writes, “These little troubles are getting us ready for an eternal glory that will make all our troubles seem like nothing.” Sometimes that’s hard to believe. Some of you are now going through a difficult time and you wonder where’s God in all this? Don’t give up. Keep going. Keep one eye on heaven. The writer says, “Look past the obstacle to the finish line and the joy that will be yours.” Paul says in Philippians 3, “I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which God through Christ Jesus, is calling us to heaven.” Maybe you should fill in that next statement. I am able to endure the present because I know some day what? The pain will be gone. The relationship will be restored. I’ll be with my Father. What will it be?
Well, as I conclude today, I want to leave you with this final thought. In the sixth chapter of the Book of John, we read of a miracle that is recorded in all four of the gospels and you are probably familiar with the story. It’s the story of Jesus feeding the multitudes. In fact the Bible says there were 5,000 men there, not counting women and children. And on that day, Jesus took a little boy’s lunch of 5 small barley loaves and two small fish. Jesus took it, blessed it and they began to pass it out. And the Bible says everyone ate until they were completely full. Well the Bible says the next day the crowds tracked Jesus down again and they said, “Do another miracle for us.” And Jesus, knowing what was in their hearts said to them, “The only reason you’re seeking me is because yesterday I fed you.” He goes on to tell them that life is just more than food and physical provision and blessings. He then goes on and teaches them about life. When He was done, a lot of those gathered around Him concluded and said, “This is a hard teaching.” And then in verse 66, there are some tragic words because listen to what it says in verse 66: “From this time, many of His disciples turned back and no longer followed Him.” And as these people turn and walk away and go back to living for the here and now, Jesus looks at the twelve disciples that He has called and He looks at these guys and with wonder in His voice he says to them, “Are you guys going to leave Me, too?” I love Peter’s response. Peter looks at Jesus and says to Him, “Where else would we go? You alone have the words to eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
I believe that for all followers of Christ, there comes a day and a point of life where every person who follows Christ needs to drive a stake down in the ground. Because people will walk away and you will be let down in life and sometimes, life will become overwhelming. But at some point, you have to step up and say, I am casting my lot. I have made my choice. With this one and only life, I am following Jesus Christ. And I’ll stay at it until I reach the finish line. I’m not following because of the blessings. I’m not following because He fed us. I’m not following because I think it’s the formula for the good life. I follow Jesus because He is who He says He is. And where else would we go? He alone has the words of life. And like Peter we would say, “I believe and know that you are the Holy One of God. Where else would we go?”
I hope that you walk away today having decided that no matter what comes, you come down from that spiritual high, that you have made up your mind that you will follow. He gives us this one more reminder in Hebrew 12:30, “Keep your mind on Jesus, who put up with many insults from sinners. Then you won’t get discouraged and give up.”
Let’s pray together.
Lord I pray for every person who is in this room today. Help us not to give up. Help us to do what it takes to stay close to you. When the feelings fade and the emotions go, Lord let us stand firm on our commitment. It’s worth it. We want to persevere to the finish line. We know that’s what you want. We know that’s what makes you happy and we live for that day when we will be with You and You will say to us, well done, good and faithful servant. May that be true of us. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.