Sermon in part borrowed from: https://www.lifeway.com/en/articles/sermon-run-the-race-faith-hebrews-12
Who here’s a runner? (oh brother, our ancient ancestors are rolling in their graves that this abysmal show of hands)! While some of us may now run for pleasure or fitness, scientists tell us human beings have evolved the way they have because of endurance running. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors clocked in on average 8-20 miles a day to outfox those hyenas and other competitors for that antelope or ostrich dinner. Over a couple of million years, humans developed a body structure with 26 traits unique to the human body due to running. So, endurance running, and eventually long-distance walking, is hardwired into our very bodies. We are built to run, to be a people on the go.
Life is a race — a race against the clock and a race against others. It's a race to achieve goals. A race to build a future. A race to be our very best selves. It's a race to find love, a race to find purpose, and a race to find ourselves. Hebrews exhorts us today: “let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” As believers in Jesus Christ, we run a spiritual race. It, too, is the race of a lifetime.
This is no ordinary race. The Greek word for race is agon from which we get our word agony. That gives us a clue that the race we are on isn’t always pleasant, easy or fun. The race reveals an internal struggle of the soul. Our natural bent is toward sinfulness and laziness. Furthermore, the race we are called to is full of obstacles, barriers, and hurdles. Winning this race will require great endurance, perseverance, patience, and resolve. Victory necessitates that we run with steadfast endurance until we arrive at the finish line victorious.
Do you realize the number of hours an Olympian trains? The average Olympian trains four hours per day, 310 days per year, for six years before succeeding. That translates into more than 7,000 hours of training for an event that may last less than sixty seconds.
This need for training is not only for athletes; it is mandatory for any significant challenge in life - including becoming a spiritual champion. Runners do many things for optimum effort. Stretching and warming up, Exercises for cooling down. Learning to pace the race. Knowing when to run fast or run slow. Cross training. Getting adequate rest and nutrition. A lot of factors go into running well.
Races are not always won by the fastest. But rather by the one that keeps hanging on, who refuses to give up. Those who persist prevail. the great need for spiritual races is persistence. Time and time again The Scripture exhort us to persist and endure. The apostle Paul prayed for the Colossians "May you be strengthened with all power . . . for all endurance and patience" (Col. 1:11). In addition to persistence, the races we run, spiritually or physically call us to train wisely. The apostle Paul encouraged his young protégé Timothy to "train yourself in godliness" (1 Tim. 4:7). So, to win our spiritual race we act with persistence, not giving up when the going gets tough; and train wisely.
Training wisely means we develop habits that help us gain power and strength to become more like Jesus each day, to live a life as Jesus taught and modeled. Paul reminds us that “everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training” (1 Cor. 9:25a). Consider it all: the activities of prayer, reflection, meditation and self-examination; Bible Study, worship, service, developing the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit, stewardship, observing sabbaths, tithing and giving of our time, talents and treasurers creates a spiritual body able to endure the ups and downs of the race. If we want to win the prize, the imperishable crown, there are no two ways about it: we must train spiritually as strenuously as we would train for a marathon, invest as much time as we do to further our careers, put in the effort to deepen our relationships with loved ones. We cannot expect something for nothing. If we want love we must go after it sacrificially. If we want a work position, we must vigorously put ourselves forward. If we want to be Christians, we must step in the master’s shoes. To do any less than this means we have become content to be pseudo-Christians, superficially spiritual. Pius on the outside, empty on the inside.
In even training regime, in every race, eventually comes a plateau. We’ve done well. We have made some accomplishments. We’ve conquered the mountains; we have slogged through the valleys. Then we find ourselves spinning our wheels. Hitting a wall. Not progressing. We experience plateaus in diets. The scale won’t budge an ounce, no matter how faithful you’ve been. It’s physiological - Our body is bound and determined to maintain a homeostasis: a balance – it clings to the weight it has gotten accustomed to.
We experience plateaus in relationships. The crush of the daily grind has taken the spark out of the relationship with a friend loved one or a spouse. We end up taking each other for granted. We start to bicker with each other.
We hit plateaus in our careers. We aren’t progressing anymore; we fail to delight in learning new skills. We don’t keep up with continuing education.
We hit plateaus in our spiritual lives. The passion for the Lord has cooled. We go through the motions but our hearts have cooled. Spiritual habits fall away or disappear on our daily to do list. We make excuses for ourselves. We fail to confess sin, we are unrepentant, or worse we think we are just fine and become blind to the errors of our ways. The bible tells us “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (1 John 1:8).” Without realizing it, we can stay stuck in a plateau. The danger in this if we don’t intervene to change our ways is that we slowly, imperceptivity, decline.
The people of Israel were stuck in the wilderness 40 years because of sin and disbelief. The same is seen in the life of the church, we are running in place; we have become content with plateau living. It’s comfortable. At times we become slightly uncomfortable, but not enough to make a change. The truth of the matter is that churches everywhere have plateaued. We’ve accomplished a lot but now we’re stuck. It mirrors our individual plateaus. Our choices are stark: we can begin to decline. We stay comfortable where we are and refuse to budge an ounce. Or we come to the awareness that action is needed to continue the race. Drastic action. Painful action. Action that takes us out of complacency and moves us forward to our next best place. We need action like taking stock of our situations; like repentance. The only way to change is to confess where we are at, and be willing to get uncomfortable, even hurt, to jolt us out of the plateau.
What will it take to get back on track? Back in the race? Is it the threat that our church may die? Our relationships fizzle and distant? We gain back all the weight we lost and then some? Our values become sinfully compromised? Hebrews gives us example of plateaus overcome; not by human effort, but by God intervening and when people in faith obeyed. Hear again what Hebrews tells us:
It was by faith that the people crossed the Red Sea as if it were dry land. God intervened and got the people out of the plateau of living in slavery, even while they clamored for their fleshpots in Egypt.
It was by faith that Rahab, the prostitute, welcomed the spies and was not killed with those who refused to obey God. God intervened again and saved the lives of the scouts to help them gain a foothold in the Promised Land.
It was by faith that the walls of Jericho fell after the people had marched around them for seven days. God intervened and got the people of Israel out of the desert and into the Promised Land.
God intervened through Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets. When the people were content to live in a plateau of sin, cultural accommodations to pagan ways, God intervened to help them remember who they are, children of God, and because of this, to push them forward.
Only God can get us through the plateau. God wants us to move forward, God wants our very best, more than we want it for ourselves. God does these through extraordinary, unconventional means. Through a prostitute named Rahab. Not by traditional warfare, but just circling Jericho seven times with the ark of the covenant. God will do the same for us. What unconventional, extraordinary ways, what opportunity in the guise of a crisis, is God going to work in our lives to move us beyond the plateau?
As we get ready for a new church season, as seek to be a vital congregation, we need to get uncomfortable with plateaus. We need to yearn for better, hope for more, be willing to sacrifice to improve. Whatever race we are in, are we willing to get uncomfortable to continue the race? Are we willing to switch things up like a runner would? Or embark on a new plan like someone committed to a healthier lifestyle? Or put in the time and effort that it takes to save or improve a relationship? Can we have the painful and awkward conversations that are necessary to clear the air and create space for change?
Let us commit to leave behind the plateau. Can we agree to help each other, to work together to do this? That’s how we succeed in running this race, by turning our eyes to the prize, our heart set on the crown that Jesus promises those who complete the marathon ahead of us. Let us ask God to intervene and be prepared for the unexpected to happen to open the space, clear the way, remove all that hinders. Through the mercy of God, we can crush the plateau, cross the finish line, and say along with Paul: I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith (2 Timothy 4:7).