All of today’s major sports miss the spiritual point — In baseball, you run 90 feet at a time. In basketball, you run back and forth on a 75′ court. In football, you may be pushed for 100 yards.
We are stirred by the moment … by the spectacular demonstration of an instance of athleticism. A dunk or a block in basketball, an acrobatic catch in football, a hard hit in hockey, and an amazing catch or long home run in baseball.
Quadrennially, the summer Olympics is spotlighted by the track and field events. The largest attention is given in America to the shortest races – the 100 meter and the 110 meter hurdles. It seems that as the distances increase, the interest in the race by the American media decreases proportionately. Historically, that was not always true.
In the 5th century B.C., the Persians invaded Greece, landing at Marathon, a small town about 26 miles from the city of Athens. The Athenian army was seriously outnumbered by the Persian army, so the Athenians sent messengers to cities all over Greece asking for help.
The traditional origin of the marathon comes from the story how a herald named Phidippides ran the 26 miles from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory and died on the spot. Phidippides was sent by the Athenians to Sparta to ask for help; a man named Eukles announced the victory to the Athenians and then died. Later sources confused the story of Phidippides, also called “Philippides,” with that of Eukles. Although most ancient authors do not support this legend, the story has persisted and is the basis for the modern-day marathon.
It is this kind of marathon that is in the mind of the writer of Hebrews when he pens: “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Hebrews 12:1. Or later, as he add: “Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees” (12:12).
The Christian life is more like the Boston Marathon, than a 40-yard sprint. Annually, thousands leave the starting line exhilarated at having begun the race, but as the miles added up the course would take its toll. Just as these runners would begin hitting the wall at the 20.5 mile mark, they would face their most menacing challenge, Heartbreak Hill. The next half mile, an incline that would be hard enough to run on its own, but after 20 miles is a battle. They would either determine that they would keep moving forward, or the hill would win. Many a runner has found themselves quitting, defeated by the Hill.
While some Christians may act as if the Christian life is a leisurely walk in the park. It is not a even 40-yard sprint. It is a grinding marathon that tests the endurance of our faith. As he continues on with the chapter he draws out the implications of the perseverance that must be necessary to complete such a race. It is a race fraught with challenge, pain and suffering.
Jesus is elevated as the model for our running. He pioneered the faith trail that we run, and ran it to completion. What does that mean? He never quit. When he reached his Heartbreak Hill it was called by another name, the hill of Golgotha. Even when reaching the finish line meant running through the most demeaning form of execution of his time, his pace never flagged. He continued to pick them up and put them down.
But we can find it easy to shift our focus off of Jesus, and onto other believers. We exchange the excellence of Jesus completed race for settling for beating out others, or even worse, just aspiring to run with the pack. I can come out looking pretty good, if I compare my spiritual fitness to those around me. But in comparison to Jesus, I am reminded of the training that I still need to complete.
That is why the author wrote, “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (12:3). Here he is talking about “hitting the wall.”
I have never run a marathon. The most I ever worked up to was 6 miles when I was a freshman in college. But I remember as I was beginning to stretch it out, I would hit the first wall at 3 miles. My legs would begin to ache, and my breathing would get labored. The thought would hit me, “Just stop”. But I would keep on running. At about 5 miles I would be confronted with wall number 2, my legs would begin feeling like jelly, and my steps would be a bit less sure. I was feeling the Hebrews writers “weak knees.” Again, I would hear that voice whisper, “You’ve gone far enough. Walk the rest of the way.” But I would keeping pushing on. And the more I ran, the softer the whisper became, until it was completely hushed.
Some of us have run through our Christian life as if it were a series of sprints. We run for a bit. Get off the track. Grab something to drink. Catch our breath. Work out the aches, or let them have time to heal … and if we get around to it we might take another jog around the track.
The Christian life is about perseverance. It is about pushing past “the wall.” It is about continuing to step forward in faith when every voice around us is screaming, “Just give up.”
Our “walls” are different. Our walls may be the emotional pain of a past that haunts us. They can be the opposition that we receive to our faith by our family. It may be the ridicule heaped on by fellow students or co-workers. It may be the struggle to leave behind some sins that have dug themselves deeply into our soul. It may be trusting God is faithful when circumstances don’t seem to give you any evidence that he can be trusted.
What is your wall? When you seem to be running well, what is it that pops up in your way … that presents a challenge that drains you and batters your faith leaving you fighting for the energy to take one more step? What is it that pulls you off course, and out of the race?
You can run the course. You can finish the race. It will not be easy. It will take hard work. Sometimes you will feel like quitting, or wonder whether it is worth it. But keep on going … no hill can defeat you if you chose to persevere.