8/18/2013, Call to Perseverence

Isaiah 40, 6-8, 28-31; Hebrews 12:1-4, Luke 12:49-56

Those who were here last Sunday may remember that rather than taking the usual focus on the gospel passage, we considered some verses from chapter 11 of the Epistle to the Hebrews, reflecting on the importance of sustaining faith and hope as we make progress on the spiritual journey.  Today let’s continue that sequence of thought (even though we are left wondering what in the world Jesus could have meant by saying he did not come to bring peace but division, that he came to light a fire on the earth.  That’s a great homily for another day. Keep coming and one day you will hear it!)

The entire eleventh chapter of Hebrews names many ancestors in the Jewish faith who hoped for political liberation and freedom as a nation under their one God. Even though in their lifetimes they did not see the full realization of this hope, they invested their faith in actions obedient to God’s direction, because they believed the promise that some day in a generation to come their hope would be fulfilled.

The first verse in Hebrew 12 follows up this litany of faithful Hebrew people by exhorting all people of faith to take up the work where our ancestors left off.  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside everything that impedes us… and let us run with perseverance the race laid out for us.  Let us not lose sight of Jesus, who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I4e5Xfmc8zQ

Whenever I hear Hebrews 12:1, I can’t help but think of the movie “Chariots of Fire.”  Not everyone knows the inspiring story behind that movie. Eric Lidell was born in China of Scottish missionary parents. He intended to carry on their work there.  But he also saw running as a way of glorifying God.  Eric said that he felt divinely inspired when running. For him, not to run would be to dishonor God.  He declared, "I believe that God made me for a purpose. But God also made me fast, and when I run, I feel God’s pleasure."

After years of training and racing, Liddell was accepted on the Great Britain team for the 1924 Olympics in Paris.  While boarding the boat to Paris for the Olympics, Liddell learned that the heat for his 100 meter race would be on a Sunday. He refused to run the race because his Christian convictions prevented him from running on the Sabbath.

Another teammate offered his place in the 400 meter race on the following Thursday to Liddell, who gratefully agreed even though his talent was in the 100 meter race.  His religious convictions in the face of national athletic pride made headlines around the world. Liddell delivered a sermon at the Paris Church of Scotland that Sunday, quoting from Isaiah 40: “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”

Liddell had small chance of doing well in the 400 meter race. But encouraged by one of the American runners who handed him a note of support for his convictions, Liddell went on to defeat the American favorites and won the gold medal. He returned to China until in 1945 where he died on the mission field in Japanese-occupied China.

If last week’s key words were faith and hope, today the word meant for us is PERSEVERANCE.  Whoever wrote this letter to the Hebrews intended to encourage Jewish Christians to gather up their faith and hope in order to persevere in the face of hardship.

 The dictionary definition of perseverance is to persist in or remain constant to a purpose, an idea, or a task in the face of obstacles or discouragement.  Hang in there!  Like Eric Liddell, when you fall, get up and keep on running. What does it take to develop perseverance?  This 12th chapter of Hebrews mentions two important elements of perseverance.  One is to set aside anything that impedes progress in running the race, and the other is to submit oneself to discipline along the way: discipline that strengthens the body, mind, soul and  spirit.  The author instructs the faithful to endure the drudgeries and difficulties that the race presents.  He also admonishes them to set aside impediments like anxiety, laziness, and love of comfort. The secret is to "not grow weary or lose heart" by staying focused on "Jesus, who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection.”

Hundreds of generations of Christians have passed since that first century experience.  When you think of the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us, who comes to mind?  The apostles?  Joan of Arc?  Francis of Assisi? Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Susan B. Anthony? Martin Luther King? What difficulties and persecutions did they endure in order to sustain and advance the expression of Christian faith we have today? In the first century, the writer to the Hebrews urged Christians to resist the elements of political and religious opposition that kept Jesus’ vision from being fulfilled.  We have seen much progress in the building of the Kin-dom of God that Jesus envisioned, yet the work is not complete. 2000 years later, our generation is still called to invest our faith in ACTIONS.

This investment of faith in action, this running the race to the end, is a challenge the Body of Christ must take on as we continue to press towards the hope for a world of equality, inclusiveness, peace and justice.  We still face the resistance of political and religious institutions who wield power that sustains injustice and prevents the full flowering of love.

And so, brothers and sisters, may we gratefully recognize the inspiration of that great cloud of witnesses who has gone before us.  Following their example, let us lay aside everything that impedes us and let us run with perseverance the race laid out for us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, who leads us in our faith.

By Sandi DeMaster