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Video of the Divine Service here.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I could never run a marathon. I have brothers who have run marathons, some of them multiple marathons. I could never run a marathon. I don’t mean that in the physical sense. Probably—probably—if I had the right training, and I increased my endurance, and I ate the right things, and I took the tips from the experts, I could probably, eventually, physically run a marathon. I just don’t want to. I have zero desire to run that far, or to do the work to make it happen. Maybe some of you have run marathons. Maybe it’s to show yourself that you can, or to push the limits of what your body can do, or for the sense of accomplishment. It is a great accomplishment. It’s amazing. I just have no desire whatsoever to do that. I don’t see the point.
Maybe that’s how it is sometimes with the Christian life. We may have thought that the Christian life was a sprint, but we find that it’s a physical and spiritual marathon; body and soul, and we’re not finished yet. It began with faith and baptism, and it will end only on the day that we die. I’ve heard—like I said, I have no direct knowledge—that during a marathon there are times when a person has a lot of energy and speed. Other times, from what I’ve heard, it’s like hitting a wall and the only way to finish is simply to keep going, no matter what.
It’s not that we are lacking anything. God has given us Christ, and with Him everything else. He’s given us His sustaining Word, His Spirit, His sacraments. He’s given us His very divine life. There are no physical impediments, such as persecution, to keep us from hearing the Word of God or receiving His gifts. It’s not like the gifts aren’t there.
But sometimes we simply don’t want to. Other things get in the way. We don’t see the point. We’d rather do this or that. When Jesus talks about what happens to the seed of faith that is sown, where it falls on the rocks of hard hearts, or the devil snatches it up like a bird, or the weeds of worldly cares and concerns choke the life out of the new plants, I suspect that at the current time, it’s the last that is the most common. The other things in our life simply crowd out faith and the Christian life. Complacency, weariness, exhaustion; and we find ourselves drifting in distraction and apathy.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews encourages us to keep going in the physical and spiritual marathon of the Christian life. Endure; don’t give up; don’t let roots of bitterness spring up that will bear their bitter fruit. When the Letter says that we have not yet resisted to the shedding of blood, I always took that as persecution. We haven’t resisted the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh to the point of persecution. And it might be that. But it might also be simply that we haven’t finished the race. We haven’t gotten to the end, to our death.
Because we’re not there yet, we have to endure. We have to bear up under the burdens of living in this world. And it is so that we endure that God disciplines us, in order that we might share in His holiness. No discipline is pleasant at the time, whether physical or spiritual. No one likes the discomfort of training. There is pain, and there is also sorrow and grief. Our earthly fathers disciplined us and those that disciplined out of love we respected. They did the best they could, but they were limited in knowledge and ability. But our heavenly Father is not limited in time or knowledge or ability. He sees all things and disciplines us for our benefit and ultimate good. He disciplines us to keep us from falling away from Christ. He disciplines us so that we will share in His holiness in Christ.
That’s the point of it all. That’s the goal: sharing in the holiness of God, without which no one will see the Lord. If you were going to run a physical marathon, and you hired a trainer to get you there, the trainer would give you all sorts of tasks, all sorts of advice, all sorts of things to do to get you to that point. But the trainer can’t run the race for you. It’s 100% up to you whether you follow the instructions and run the race and finish it.
We might get the impression that this is how Jesus is for us, especially since this part of the Letter to the Hebrews holds up Jesus as an example of endurance to the end. The beginning of chapter 12 tells us to fix our eyes on Jesus and to throw off the sin that so easily entangles, because we are surrounded by such a great cloud of faithful witnesses who have gone before us. And verse 3 tells us to consider Jesus, who endured such hostility from sinners, in order that we do not grow weary and give up. Jesus is indeed an example for us of endurance to the end.
But that’s not all He is. It’s not only that Jesus has finished the race ahead of us so that He knows how hard it is, and now He’s cheering us on from the finish line; He did it, now we can do it too. When Jesus says the door is narrow through which we should strive and struggle to enter in, we should realize that that is a door that only He can open. He is teaching and journeying on to Jerusalem, because He is not only going to open up the door, but He is going to become the door. The door is narrow because it consists solely of Jesus, with arms stretched out on the cross. Those who try to enter and who are not able are those who try to find some other door, some other way, some other Lord or Savior.
Jesus has finished that work of salvation, the work of constructing the door out of the wood of the cross. He finished it not only ahead of us, but for us. But we are not finished. And we grow weary. We become exhausted. We hit walls and it seems like we can’t go on and finish the race. The discipline is unpleasant and painful. Look to Christ, Hebrews says! Look to Him, not only as the one who finished the race, but as the one in whom we will be completed. Jesus is not only the beginner of the faith, but also the perfecter, the finisher. It is, finally, only in Christ, that we will finish this at all.
Discipline your flesh, because your flesh will drag you out of the marathon altogether. Rejoice in your sufferings, because suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, which will not put you to shame. Lift up weak hands and legs. And when you’re tired and weary and feel like you can’t go on, rest, eat, and drink. Christ didn’t just put you on this road; He will finish what He started in and for you.
Our flesh will fail. We will come to our end in death. If Christ has not finished this race for us, there is no one who can endure, because we all die. But Christ has run the race all the way, enduring the cross, despising the shame. So we go on, enduring, continuing, believing, because we know that when our flesh and breath and hearts finally give out, He will bring us over the finish line in resurrection. Then the last in death will be first in life, because the First, the beginning, of life made Himself last in death.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 8/24/19