Pastor Peter Walther / Pentecost 13 / Hebrews 12:1-13 / Aug 14, 2016 / Fixed on Christ
Here is a shameless plug for a bakery: I love Simple Simon’s bakery, which is not the greatest for a diabetic, such as myself. It's also not great that I drive past it on a regular basis. The longer I stare at it, the more I glance at what tasty treat is up there for the week or month, and the slower I drive past the smell that wafts from the front doors, the better chance I’m going to stop the car and walk into that aromatic heaven. Instead of just looking away, and not even bothering, I found myself typing on my insulin pump for more insulin because I wanted a delicious donut or cookie. Our spiritual life is much like us driving on the road trying to avoid the bakery, but we are trying to avoid our sin. We often look at it. We know we shouldn’t. But the longer I stare at my sin, the more I glance at it, the slower I am to avoid it, I find myself back in the sin I was trying to avoid. Satan loves luring us like that and then throwing salt into our wound, grinding down on us with the guilt. “How could God forgive you for the sin you promised God you would avoid?! Is God really supposed to forgive you…again!?” We tell ourselves, “We’ll try harder next time, we’ll do our best to look away.” But you know what happens? You guessed it. The cycle of sin and guilt perpetuates.
Our sinful nature often views sin as liberating, as pleasure, as relief from the everyday burdens of life, or the reminder that I am truly God’s gift to the world. The writer to the Hebrews describes sin as what it really is: as the thing that hinders us and entangles us. It doesn’t free us, but it drags us down. The picture isn’t necessarily in the context, but the Greek word for “hindrance" is where we get the word for oncology. Sin is not liberating, but it is a cancer. Tumors and cancers attack healthy cells in the body. A tumor often is undetected for a while as it slowly kills. For those who have had cancer or known someone with cancer, your first action isn’t to sit around and wait for it to go away like the common cold. Your first action is to do anything possible to get rid of the problem and to remove any trace that would hinder you.
In high school, I never realized that clothes could be a hinderance. Before you jump to some conclusion of me streaking through the quad, my senior year I joined cross country to supplement my training for soccer. Maybe you’ve seen cross country runners or marathon runners in the Olympics, but they don’t wear much. The tank top and short shorts did not make my skinny chicken legs and arms look good. But I couldn’t imagine running in baggy basketball shorts and a t-shirt. I could have run in those clothes, but not that fast. The writer to the Hebrews puts us right at the Olympic games. Imagine watching swimming, and seeing Katie Ledecky or Michael Phelps trying to swim the 4x200 in their warmups and shoes. Everyone in America would be going crazy questioning why they jumped in with their clothes! The ancient Greeks would have removed pretty much all their clothes and would have run naked. They didn’t want anything to slow them down. That is the point of the analogy, that we need to remove the sin that hinders us and slow us down. Our sin and our spiritual baggage is not a light hearted matter. We can’t be under the delusion that we can sin and repent for the purpose of sinning again, because that is not repentance but an unbelieving heart for what God has said.
Sadly, our attempts to stay away from sin, and our attempts to break the cycle of sin and guilt often fail, but Christ broke the cycle. Christ says look to him! See what he endured for your sake. See the blood shed for you. See the nails driven into his flesh for you. If Christ is willing to do all of that for us, so that we might be free from sin and death, I’m ashamed for when I do find joy in that sin. Knowing that Christ removed the filth of sin, why would I want to get back in?
If I continue to glance at the delicacies of the bakery on the side of the road, I will veer off and go in. But if I focus on what is in front me, I won’t. The writer to the Hebrews puts us on the start line of an Olympic marathon. Not to change God’s Word, but I might have to add to the analogy a little and say that with our spiritual attention spans and with our sinful minds, we are more like dogs that are in the dog races and are distracted by squirrels. We need to focus on the little bunny that leads the race. That is why we need Christ as the focus of our every day because without him we would be lost chasing the squirrels of this life. Christ is the only way that I can stop doing the sin that hinders me and drags me down and distracts me in my daily life.
Unfortunately though, some people will only view Christ as an example and that is all he is reduced to: that because Christ suffered for what he believed in, we should to. That Christ received glory and we will too. But, to believe that Christ is only an example is a sham. Christ is not merely an example, because what good does a perfect example do for us, who cannot possibly achieve perfection? We don’t just need an example. We need Christ. He is the one who fills us with faith in him and keeps us in the faith. He is the one that reminds us of forgiveness, he encourages us, empowers us, and strengthens us to do God’s will and to live a pleasing life for God, away from the sin that ruins us.
That doesn’t mean that our sinful nature isn’t going to give up without a fight, it doesn’t mean that the world around us is going to be happy that we aren’t indulging in its pleasures, and Satan will definitely not give up in convincing us that we don’t need Christ. With those things against us, being a Christian does not mean that your life is going to be an easy one. In fact, Christ says it will be the exact opposite, more like a marathon with people shooting paintballs at you. And at some point in our lives, who hasn’t yelled out to God “why?” Why does my life have to be so difficult and different as a Christian? Why does it seem like my life is spiraling downward when the world is at least having fun while they go down?
In verse 7, the writer says, “Endure hardship as discipline.” It is for discipline. When God disciplines through hardship, we wonder why. Ironically, parents can tell their children not to question why they discipline, yet we feel as if we can question the wisdom of God. Our limited sinful wisdom is often shortsighted. God doesn’t give us all the answers to the problems of suffering, but he gives to us the encouragement and the motivation to endure.
For all of us who have never been in the Olympics, maybe a more real world and down to earth example would be for anyone who has had to go through some type of physical therapy after an injury or surgery. The first appointments are painful and aggravating. So why go to the appointments if they are painful? Why do physical therapy if it hurts? It hurts my feelings and my body. Why bother? It’s because we know it’s best for down the road to prevent disability. The same with parents. Why discipline your children if you can see the pain in their eyes, or in my case, the pain on my bottom? It hurts! It’s painful and aggravating to be disciplined. It hurst the child’s feelings. So why do it? We discipline because we don’t want childish adults in society, but mature adults. The issue with earthly parenting is that we discipline children according to how we think it best and what seems good to us. Mistakes can be made as parents, credibility can be lost, and we don’t have insight to the future to know what direction to lead our children.
However, when we go through the struggles and hardships in this life, along with the consequences of our sin, the discipline of our God is always because our Father in heaven loves us. With God, there is never a mistake on his part of discipline. Everything that God does is profitable to us and for the well being of his children, even when it may be difficult for us to understand at the time. When he tests and disciplines, he makes us stronger with him. Discipline leads to maturity so as not to be blown around by every teaching or even every sin.
Sometimes he gives to us the difficulties in our life to bring us back to him. Sometimes, he corrects our faults or we have a Christian brother or sister that correct our faults. It’s not that our Christian brothers or sisters are trying to make themselves feel superior for pointing out your sin, God isn’t trying to vent his anger, but he wants to redirect his wayward children. If we don’t listen to when God gives us the law and calls out our sin, if we become indifferent to those who stand up for God’s Word and tell you your sin, you will be missing the warning signs and missing what God wants you to hear. Like an olympic athlete who must learn discipline in order to compete, there is always the goal in mind, to stand on the podium and receive the gold. We have the wonderful goal of heaven that our God is preparing us with discipline and with forgiveness.
As American Christians, I think we have been babied a little because we, like the Hebrews, haven't had to shed any blood for what we believe in. The words to the Hebrews and to us are like the coach of an athlete. Sometimes athletes like Michael Phelps will complain, and they need to hear the words from the coach saying, “Stand up and deal with it! Look at gold that is waiting for you!” Sometimes we become discouraged with life and persecution that we become paralyzed, not knowing what to say or do. We need to remember our encouragement to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us,” and to remember what God has waiting or us. We may see many things that distract us, or cause us pain as we are running the race of life, but Christ is the one that strengthens us as we deal with avoiding the sin that hinders and entangles us. Christ is the one who matures us as we bear life’s burdens. Christ is the one that strengthens us for eternity. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the one who endured the cross for you. Amen.