“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, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the eleventh and twelfth chapters of the book of Hebrews. Dear friends in Christ: the Christian life is a race. Not a race against other people—we are not in competition—but a race toward the finish line. And the object isn’t to get to the finish line before others, but quite simply to make it to the finish line at all. That doesn’t sound so hard—you are only called on to finish the race. But that’s where the trouble comes; there are opponents out there, those who don’t want you to finish, who are willing to do anything to stop you.
Jesus spoke about these opponents in our Gospel lesson: “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Because you belong to Christ, because Christ loves you, because you are running the race of the Christian life, the world will hate you. And it will stop at nothing to keep you from the finish line. Christ’s love means the world’s hatred. You will be beaten down by opposition and persecution, discouraged by suffering and disease, you will be threatened by death. This world wants you to give up the race, to find it too hard, to stop anywhere short of the finish. These opponents harass you, they poke at you, they try to trip you up. But as you run, you quickly find that something else is holding you back. The author to the Hebrews calls it “the sin which clings so closely.” Your own sin is a heavy burden, holding you back, weighing you down. Your sinful nature, like the world, wants you to have nothing to do with the finish line. It distracts you with temptation, it weighs you down with guilt. Running with sin is like running with a parachute, or running with someone else on your back—eventually your legs are going to get too tired and you’re going to give up, you’re going to bow out of the race.
So cast off that burden! Throw off those weights! “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.” Run the race in repentance! Only repentance and forgiveness, confession and absolution can eliminate the overwhelming burden of sin. Only the gifts that you receive here, from Jesus Christ Himself, can remove that heavy load, freeing your legs to run the race with endurance. Repent! Examine your life, see your sin, confess it to your God, and receive the freeing gift of forgiveness! Through daily repentance in a return to your baptism, through regular confession and absolution, you will learn how to run without a weight on your back, without chains wrapped around your legs. You will be set free by the blood of Christ to run with joy the race that is set before you.
But the attacks will still come. Disease will strike at your ankles, persecution will aim for your gut, fear will hold your back. Your enemies don’t give up when you unload the burden of your sin; if anything, their attacks intensify. How can they be conquered, how can you fight them off? The author to the Hebrews gives one answer: by faith. You heard it, over and over again: by faith Abraham, by faith Jacob, by faith Moses. Faith is how the saints of old ran the race in the midst of adversity; faith is what carried them to the finish line. Christians love to speak about faith; we praise it, we encourage it, we call on others to have it. The trouble is, by itself faith never saved anyone. In fact, many people with faith, who believe in something, will be knocked out of the race, and to be perfectly frank, many with a strong, powerful faith are simply running the wrong race. Fellow runners, faith doesn’t save you; you are saved by who your faith is in. Faith is only as good as its object. And the only object of faith which brings us through our enemies to the finish line is the man who was also God, Jesus Christ.
“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, 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.”
In the midst of death, fix your eyes on Jesus. Fix your eyes on the One who raises the dead. By faith, Abraham trusted in the resurrection as he lifted the knife to sacrifice his son. “He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.” Abraham trusted in the God who raises the dead; He believed in life even in the midst of death, and his son did pass from death to life. By faith, Abraham believed in the God who would one day destroy death forever through the sacrifice of Christ. By faith, Abraham believed in the God who would open Christ’s tomb to reveal it as empty and Jesus as risen. In the midst of death, God provided life. By faith, we trust that Christ’s resurrection is our own, that even though death threatens us and will one day take us, it doesn’t have the victory. Its power over us is fleeting and temporary, it is now simply the gateway to life eternal. By faith, we trust that those we love who have died in the Lord now dwell with Jesus, and we will see them again. On the Last Day they will be raised up to live in the new heavens and the new earth with us and with all the saints. Run the race in faith, faith in the resurrection, with eyes fixed on Jesus, who has conquered death with His death and victorious resurrection.
In the midst of suffering, fix your eyes on Jesus. Fix your eyes on the One who reveals the invisible God. By faith, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph trusted that God held the future. They blessed their sons and spoke of what was to come. “By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones.” Four hundred years before deliverance came, Joseph trusted the God who keeps His promises. By faith, Moses trusted in the invisible God rather than the visible sufferings. “By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible.” He didn’t see God, but he trusted him—more than the visible power and might of Pharaoh. In the midst of suffering, God provided for Moses and even appointed him to go back to Egypt and be the Lord’s instrument of deliverance. By faith, we trust in God’s promises more than what our eyes see. By faith, we trust that the invisible God has been made visible in Christ. We look to the cross, to Jesus, not to our sufferings, to know what God thinks of us. By faith, we endure all that this world throws at us, disease and persecution, even the hostility of friends and family, for we know that no suffering is worth comparing to the glories of heaven. Run the race in faith, faith in Christ’s victory over the powers of this world, with eyes fixed on Jesus, who has promised that He will never leave us nor forsake us.
In the midst of weakness, fix your eyes on Jesus. Fix your eyes on the One who made Himself weak for you. By faith, Moses trusted in God rather than in the riches and treasures of this world. He knew that He already had an eternal inheritance. “He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.” He exchanged the treasures of Egypt—the glory and honor that were rightfully his as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter—for service of God and the reproach of the world. By faith, we too endure weakness and deprivation, trusting in the God who emptied Himself for us. “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 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.” Christ set aside His eternal glory, the joy that was rightfully His, in order to suffer the cross for you and for me. He made Himself weak to save those who were weak; He became man to save man. By faith, we face this world’s reproaches, knowing that we are only following the pattern of Christ, as Moses did. Run the race in faith, faith in the eternal reward that Christ has promised you, with eyes fixed on Jesus, who emptied Himself to deliver you from all your enemies.
Run the race with eyes fixed on Jesus. Your faith cannot save you unless its focus, its object, is Jesus. Only Jesus can save you, and He has, with His suffering, death, and resurrection. He is the founder and perfecter of your faith. He created faith within you through the power of His Word, and He will bring that faith to completion as He carries you across the finish line. Your faith is not your own; it is a creation of Christ, and He that created it nourishes it through His Word, through His Body and Blood. You have much in common with the great cloud of witnesses. None of them endured their many afflictions on their own, but only through the object of their faith—the true God, invisible but revealed in Jesus Christ. They all had faith, and the object of that faith was the same as yours: Jesus Christ. And they ran the race with eyes fixed on Jesus, whom they knew only in promise, but you know as the One who has come, who emptied Himself for you, and redeemed the entire world through His death and resurrection. Your sins cannot burden you: they have been atoned for by the blood of Christ, washed away in Baptism, forgiven in the Absolution. Your enemies cannot hinder you: despite all appearances, they have been defeated; they cannot threaten your eternal inheritance. For some of you, the finish line is closer than others, but for all of us, it is still ahead, and standing there is Jesus Himself, surrounded by all the saints, that great cloud of witnesses, to welcome you to your eternal inheritance. It is yours—by faith, faith in Jesus. In His name, Amen.