(the "script" for a 20 minute talk I gave for a class. Scripting it was according to various instructions, but I would not script it so closely in the future).
“Sakana matsuri wa doko de arimasu ka?” “Where is the fish festival?”
It was our second week in Japan, and my first time going out alone. I had popped my blonde baby in the carrier and walked down the main drag to the train station, keenly aware that for the first time in my life I was in a place completely foreign: unlike my time in the Middle East, I knew only a few words of the local language, and unlike my time in Europe, I didn’t look anything like those around me.
When I couldn’t find the bus that was supposed to be transport to the fish festival (whatever THAT was), I stood for a few moments eyeing the security guard, rehearsing the proper Japanese words in my mind. Then I decided if I didn’t ask someone for help, my only other option was to go home, so I marched up to him and blurted out my question. I was so pleased I had remembered the correct phrase, but my bubble burst as soon as he replied: because while I’d learned to ask for directions, I had no clue what his answer meant.
The experience most of us have with faith is similar. We can define it by quoting Hebrews 11:1, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” We can list who’s in the Hebrews 11 “faith hall of fame,” and want to be one of those “of whom the world was not worthy.” But we don’t have a clue what that means for our daily struggles with sin, distraction, and weariness. Does faith have anything to do with getting angry at your kids, eating more cake than you should, or wasting time on Facebook? Can it change how exhausting daily life as a Christian can feel? How does a definition intersect with our everyday lives?
Good news! The author of Hebrews doesn’t give us definitions and examples of faith and leave us without application to our own lives.
He’s just spent ten chapters cycling through comparisons of the Old and New Covenants, always concluding that the New is superior, followed by a warning to take God’s Word seriously. He compares and contrasts how God’s word was delivered, the high priest’s ability to intercede and sympathize, the completeness of sabbath rest, and sacrifices. The purpose of these comparisons is to show how the later things are the fullness of what the types were pointing to, and that Christ completes the precursors. Thus, our salvation in Christ is great and complete, which should give us full assurance that we will receive what God has promised.
These promises, but even more our ability to come before God as His beloved children, are the “things hoped for” in the definition of faith found in Hebrews 11:1. Abel, Sarah, Moses, and others witnessed to the worth of what He promised and their confidence that they would receive it changed how they lived. But the author doesn’t want us to read about these people and think “oh, that’s nice for them, what great stories and inspiring people.” Rather, he wants us to have the same faith we see in them. So in Hebrews 12, he begins to tell us how we can obtain faith like them, applying this definition and examples to our lives in verses 1 and 2. He writes:
“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.”
Do you want to have faith like the men and women praised in Hebrews 11? Then lay aside encumbrances and live with focused endurance by looking to Jesus!
I. Lay aside encumbrances
First, we’re supposed to lay aside encumbrances. Olympic runners race with as little weight in their shoes and as little restrictive clothing as possible. Even an ounce of weight can add close to a second to their time, so they remove whatever is unnecessary.
Likewise, we are challenged in Hebrews 12:1 to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely.” Our physical shoes and clothes may not keep us from living by faith, but other things will.
What might these be? Anything that hinders us from the other two commands we are given in this verse: running with endurance the race that is set before us and looking to Jesus. If something in your life not commanded by God tires you out, prevents you from obeying His Word, dulls your spiritual senses, tempts you to desire it more than Jesus, or distracts you from the worship of God – this is a weight that needs to be laid aside.
Sometimes these encumbrances may fall into the category of the specifically stated “sin which clings so closely,” like the bitterness, immorality, or greed mentioned later in Hebrews. But more innocent distractions also hinder us – things that are not bad in and of themselves but become idols when we desire them too much. My Facebook account may be a tool to encourage others, but it at times dulls my spiritual senses or pulls me from the worship of God. Food is a necessary part of life, and yet my appetites need to be held in check lest I start thinking I need certain foods at certain times – or else. Attending another Bible study may seem like a beneficial thing, however there are seasons where it would tire me out so that I cannot follow God in areas I clearly need to. Anything that keeps us from loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength needs to be removed from our lives. Each one of us must examine ourselves to see what encumbrances and sins we should lay aside. It will be different for each individual, and will even vary for each person at different stages of life. What do you need to lay aside right now?
And/But what does it mean to lay them aside? It doesn’t mean we simply suppress our desires for Instagram, coffee, or getting our way. An athlete can’t simply stuff her extra clothes into her shoes and expect them not to bother her any more. She has to trade them for what will help her compete effectively. We must actually let go of what prevents us from fully living with our hopes set on God and His promises. Confess your idolatry to God, receive His forgiveness, and take steps to orient your thoughts and desires on the Only One who can meet your needs. These steps should be a combination of putting off the extra weight and putting on what will increase our focus on God. Decreasing the time spent on social media alone isn’t enough: you must fill those desires by turning to God instead, meditating on His attributes that are the true answers to our longings for approval and pleasure. In Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller writes, “Jesus must become more beautiful to your imagination, more attractive to your heart, than your idol.” Otherwise, the idol will grow back.
How do we do this? As Christina Fox writes in Mom Enough, “We want to dwell, meditate, and saturate our hearts with the truth of God’s love and grace for us through the shed blood of Christ. The more we rest and trust in the gospel, the more our love for Christ grows until it overflows, drowning and washing away the idols in our heart.”
In this way, while laying aside encumbrances helps us grow in faith by casting off what competes with God for our desires, it’s also an evidence of faith, because in doing so you’re living with the conviction that what you have now in Christ and what you’ll receive in the future is better than what you’re laying aside.
So, like Olympic runners, we need to determine what may be wearing us out, slowing us down, and distracting us from the End of our race. We lay aside these encumbrances, in order that we might…. Second, live with focused endurance.
II. Live with focused endurance
Once an athlete has removed hindrances and distractions, there’s still more required of her: she must be sure she’s running HER race. In the recent Winter Olympics, my family and I watched both speed skating and the biathlon. I never saw any speed skaters attempting to skate on snowy hills and shoot at targets, nor were there any biathletes attempting to ski across the ice. Each was focused on the race she’d been assigned.
And so when we’re told to “run with endurance the race that is set before us,” we must be certain that we’re in the right race. This is clarified by Hebrews 10:36, “for you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may received what is promised.” Our race is doing the will of God. This means that we can find the route for our race via the Word of God, discerning the moral, revealed will of God, and also through prayer and counsel to direct our gifts and callings. It also means our daily lives and goals will be different from those of our unbelieving neighbors. We must live as Christians, but also as individuals. Romans 12:6 states that we’ve all been given different gifts. While there are parts of the Christian life that are the same for everyone, we won’t all be doing the exact same things. Are you stewarding the resources He has given you as you run your race doing the will of God? Are you focused on the race course God has put before you, or are you discontent, distracted with the race others are running?
But that’s not all: the women we watched in the Olympics also didn’t give up as soon as they began to feel tired: they pushed on until arriving at the finish line, enduring until the end. This is what it means to endure: to persevere, not turning aside from the goal when we encounter difficulty. This is generally what we mean when we say someone is a faithful spouse or faithful friend: their loyalty endures even when times are tough. Our job as faithful Christians is to continue doing the will of God until the end. Unlike the Olympic athlete who lays aside encumbrances once, we’re called put off sin and distraction continually, wrestling with our sinful flesh. The rest of Hebrews 12 dives into this, talking about Jesus’ endurance on the cross and in hostility and the labor and exhaustion of our struggles with sin and the redemptive discipline of God. Through these struggles, the Father’s discipline, and tools like the spiritual disciplines, we learn to replace our weak flesh with an unwavering soul. So day after day I choose to die to myself and not get upset when my toddlers need my help, or fight the temptation to check social media during my quiet time again and again. The life of faith isn’t a sprint or a check in the box to-do list that’s easily finished: it’s a marathon that requires us to lay aside encumbrances and live with focused endurance.
But by our own strength, we can’t do this. We need to be empowered by something outside of us. This is where the goal and focus of our race is so important, and is why the author tells us to third, look to Jesus.
III. Look to Jesus
Looking to Jesus is how we are able to cast off encumbrances and run with endurance. This is exemplified by Moses in Hebrews 11: 24-26:
“By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, 25 choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.”
Moses cast aside the pleasures of sin and the treasures of Egypt – his encumbrances - because he knew with certainty that what was coming in Christ was worth more than the vast riches and comforts of any earthly kingdom.
We can say no to sin and lay aside distractions when we are looking to Jesus: looking at Him – the “not seen”, not our “seen” circumstances, and seek satisfaction in Him, not our earthly desires. This is faith: living with the conviction that Jesus is worth more than all of the pain we endure and all of the things we leave behind as we live in a way that reflects a desire to please Him because He has saved us.
But why Jesus? Why should He be our focal point and motivation? In verse two, we see that we should look to Jesus because
He’s the founder and perfecter of faith: He establishes our faith; He’s its initiator, He’s the one who makes it possible to have faith. Without His death on the cross atoning for our sin, we are God’s enemies, deserving His judgment, not His help, and look to Him with only hatred, not love and desire. Not only that, unless He makes us spiritually alive in His resurrection, we can’t see beyond what’s right in front of us to the great things He has promised.
Then having founded our faith, Jesus perfects it, taking it from a weak initial faith to complete dependence on and satisfaction in Him.
Second, the text says we should look to Jesus as our example. He’s completed His “race” – His actions are past tense. He successfully endured and can show us what it means to “run in faith.”
Like a runner pushing through the “hump” with her mind focused on the finish line, Jesus looked not to the pain around Him and His own wants, but to the joy set before Him. He looked ahead to His reunification with the Father, just as we can look ahead to the day we will see and know Him fully and receive the fullness of what has been promised. The woman in childbirth can endure the pain when her goal is not comfort, but Jesus. The mother entertaining children on a trans-oceanic flight with long delays can be patient when her hope is in Christ, not the end of the journey. The wife in a difficult marriage can remain faithful when her joy is in her Savior, not her husband.
This is the direction of our faith, the goal of our race: the Jesus put forward by the rest of the book of Hebrews: the One who delivers God’s word to us, intercedes for and sympathizes with us, is a sufficient sacrifice for our full salvation, endured suffering and struggles with sin – the Jesus put forward by the rest of the book of Hebrews. Everyone puts their faith in something – is this Jesus the object of yours?
I did eventually find my way to the fish festival in Japan. Not by acquiring more knowledge, but by following three elderly Japanese ladies who asked the same police officer the same question I had, but understood his answer. And while there are vast differences between language barriers and living by faith, as we seek to lay aside encumbrances, live with focused endurance, and look to Jesus, we can find application by following those who have gone before us. Faith, for them, wasn’t an abstract definition exemplified by others – it affected their everyday lives.
Noah built an ark when rain was unheard of because he laid aside the opinions of men and relied on the Word of God.
Abraham left his homeland for the unknown, trusting that what God had promised was better.
The persecuted church – and missionaries fleeing war-torn countries with only their hand luggage, or heading to a tiny apartment in France - can be joyful in the seizure or leaving behind of their property, knowing that they have a better and lasting possession – Hebrews 10:34-35. It is a privilege to know such people.
Missionary Darlene Deibler endured suffering in a Japanese prison camp by focusing not on the filth and pain around her, but on the surety of her citizenship in the city of the living God.
The penny-pinching student can lay aside discontentment, looking at what she has in a God who will never forsake her – Hebrews 13:5
The teenager whose eating habits are out of control can say no to another piece of cake because she knows it’s not going to satisfy her, but that God can – or perhaps she can accept it with thanksgiving, setting her hope on what her Heavenly Father thinks of her, not what the mirror reflects.
The social media addict can put down her phone, close out of Facebook, and ignore the notifications when she’s not seeking the approval of men because she is secure in Christ.
The angry mom can stop losing her temper every time her kids squash her desires if she wants to please God more than she wants her way.
The career woman caught up in the corporate rat race can find peace, focusing her vision not on temporal successes just out of reach but on a full, complete salvation purchased for her by the work of Christ.
Are there encumbrances and sins you need to lay aside? Are you running with focused endurance, or are you distracted from what really matters? Are you looking to Jesus, or are your eyes on the trials in front of you?
Live by faith, with the conviction that what you will receive in the Unseen Jesus is greater than anything you could possess on this earth. He is the Son of God, worshipped by Angels, righteous ruler of a forever kingdom, partaking of flesh and blood to sympathize with our weaknesses, dying to free us from death, judgment, and slavery to sin, completely satisfying the wrath of God so there is nothing left for us, and giving us full access to God our Father.
How would your life change if instead of chasing after earthly desires, you lay aside encumbrances, live with focused endurance, and look to Jesus?
Merciful Father, we confess a disconnect between the faith we profess and our daily lives. We do not lay aside every weight and sin, but cling to our idols. We do not live with focused endurance, but instead allow cheap substitutes to distract us from the One who has made and saved us. We do not look to Jesus, but prefer to seek satisfaction in vain pleasures that leave us emptier than before.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. Forgive our sin by the perfect sacrifice of Your Son, that we may draw near to You with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith.
Re-orient our hearts to be fixated on You and Your Son, making use of Your Word and prayer to behold our God. Allow us to “perceive the unseen glories of God” and “embrace them.” Help us to “more clearly… discern the sinful distortions and the hollow promises of sin” in order that we may lay aside what weighs us down, and live with focused endurance, looking to Jesus.