It's a Marathon to Heaven--Don't Sabatoge Your Ability to Reach the Goal
Heavenly Father, as I consider our world and all the blessings you shower upon us in so many ways, I thank You for your mercy and abundant gifts. I also see how easily we sinners can take Your blessings and despise them or use them for sin. Forgive us! With Your leading and by Your grace, keep us running our race well and prevent us from doing things that will harm ourselves or others in our heavenward journey. In Jesus’ name, I pray, Amen.
The birthright was the special inheritance and honor that the firstborn received in a family (at times the birthright was given to a non-firstborn child). Jacob sinned in his efforts to buy Esau’s birthright (Jacob would later trick his father to also receive the Messianic blessing instead of Esau). Esau also sinned because he despised his birthright rather than regarding it highly. The writer to the Hebrews (sermon text) uses Esau’s attitude toward his birthright as an example to warn us against a "couldn’t care less" attitude toward our blessings from God.
In order to be our Savior and Substitute, it was necessary that Jesus live a life just as our own, except without sinning. After His Baptism, Jesus was tempted by the Devil for 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness. Scripture records the last three temptations and Jesus’ response to them. Each time, Jesus defeated the temptation with God’s Word. We too, face temptations along our way and like Jesus we too can defeat them by using God’s Word.
Text: Hebrews 12:11-17
Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated, but rather be healed. Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled; lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright. For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears.
In Christ Jesus, dear fellow redeemed:
The very first Marathon began with victory and ended in death. The year was 490 B.C. Athens and Persia were battling in a war at Marathon. After the Athenians won, one of the soldiers ran back to Athens to report the good news. Weary from the battle and then about a 26 mile run, the soldier dropped dead after reporting the news. Now marathons are popular runs of about 26 miles in commemoration of that first run.
We are running heavenward. The writer to the Hebrews encourages us to "…run with endurance the race that is set before us…” (Hebrews 12:1). Our run heavenward is the opposite of that first marathon. The first marathon began with victory and ended in death, but our heavenward run begins with death and ends in victory—it begins in the death of sin and ends in the victory of eternal life in heaven. Like a marathon, our race heavenward can be difficult and requires proper preparation.
A marathon is not a sprint. A world-class sprinter won’t do as well in a marathon because he has trained to run with quick powerful bursts of energy for short distances. Many are those who begin to run the "race that is set before us" strength and enthusiasm, but they’re running a sprint so when the way gets long and the strength grows weak, they quit and leave behind the heavenward race.
Jesus has set us on the course, and promises to strengthen us along the way. To run this race with endurance the writer to the Hebrews also says, "…let us look to the author and finisher of our faith…” Although Jesus is running alongside and enabling us to run, we can sabotage our race by what we do. To prevent "self-sabotage" we need to understand first of all that this race is a MARATHON and at times a grueling race, not a quick easy sprint; and also that we ARE able to ruin our race by what we do. Therefore, this morning we consider that IT’S A MARATHON TO HEAVEN, DON’T SABOTAGE YOUR ABILITY TO REACH THE GOAL. I. Run with discipline for strength II. Run with alertness of danger III. Run with one another in peace.
Any race or competition requires training. Training requires discipline—discipline in what we eat, how regularly and how hard we exercise and practice. The discipline and training strengthens the competitor. Good discipline leads to strength. God provides discipline and training for our marathon to heaven by His chastening, namely, the troubles He allows into our lives.
In the verses before our text, the inspired writer is encouraging his readers to look upon the chastening from the Lord as a blessing. “My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; For whom the Lord loves He chastens, And scourges every son whom He receives” (Hebrews 12:5-6).
A blessing to be in trouble!?? Chastening to show love??? YES!!!! The chastening of the Lord is a blessing because those troubles are not haphazard, but rather carefully designed discipline & training from a heavenly Father who wishes to strengthen us for our heavenward run. The difficulties we face in this life are not any more pleasant for us than parental discipline is for our children, but even though the chastening isn’t pleasant at the time the strength it produces is a great blessing. "Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” [v.11] The painful chastening of the troubles in this life strengthen us along the run heavenward so that we can persevere and reach our goal. The peaceable fruit of righteousness is the present-day assurance that we are forgiven and righteous in God’s sight and the confidence that we will for all of eternity live in His presence.
Because the hardships we face on the earth are part of God’s "training program" for us, we can approach them differently than those who rely on themselves and who despair in their troubles. Because we know that God is using the difficulties for our STRENGTH we will be able to find strength even when things seem the weakest. When the hands and arms are hanging down in exhaustion and the knees are giving-out, God encourages us to strengthen them, “…it yields the fruit of righteousness…THEREFORE(because this is God’s working for us) strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees…” [v.12]
When training gets difficult and exhaustion sets-in there is at least comfort in knowing that as hard as this is, it will help me later…its working out for my strength. God strengthens us with the same encouragement. Hebrews here repeats similar words of Isaiah—words which would have undoubtedly been familiar to the Hebrew readers—and in those words of Isaiah the fullness of the strength and encouragement comes forth: “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are fearful-hearted, "Be strong, do not fear! Behold, your God will come with vengeance…He will come and save you." Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb sing. For waters shall burst forth in the wilderness, And streams in the desert." (Isaiah 35:3-6).
Our weary legs, knees, and arms are encouraged and strengthened by the promise that God will save us! For Israel it was the promise that God would come and deliver them as a nation and then also send the Savior from sin. They were strengthened by looking forward in faith to the time when God would send the Messiah and He would open the eyes of the blind, the ears of the deaf, and bring salvation to all! We now rejoice that God has brought all this to pass and in the rejoicing of our salvation we too will find the means to strengthen the weak hands and firm up the wobbling knees. God offers these further words of strengthening through Isaiah, "He gives power to the weak, And to those who have no might He increases strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, And the young men shall utterly fall, But those who wait on the Lord Shall renew their strength; They shall mount up with wings like eagles, They shall run and not be weary, They shall walk and not faint.“ (Isaiah 40:29-31)
The text continues, “and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated, but rather healed.” [v.13] When a person is physically exhausted, obstacles that otherwise would be easily handled become difficult. A rough and stony path is not hard to walk on if your legs are strong and your energy is high. However, if you are tired and weak that same rough path will probably make it difficult to walk and quite easy to trip and fall.
So too, in our heavenward journey. We are weak sinners and if our path is crooked and littered with obstacles then we are going to be tripping and falling. The crookedness and the obstacles are the sins that we follow and the temptations we put into our path, or allow to come into our path. Another part of God’s strength-training and discipline is correct us and lead us to straighten our path and get rid of the obstacles in our lives, so that we don’t end up tripping all over them in a weakened state. When we make a good, smooth, and solid path for our feet then our "lame" hearts and souls will be strengthened by the Gospel rather than "dislocated" by sin.
Disciplined training helps the runner grow in strength, it helps him run with better mechanics on the path, it helps him do more and more so that with training he can run distances and challenging roads beyond what he ever dreamed he could do. God uses each trouble that comes into our lives so that we are trained and strengthened to get through what He knows lies ahead. God uses each trouble to strengthen us so that we are able to do great things for Him in His kingdom—things we never dreamed we could do.
You say, "I know all this is true, but its awfully hard to remember it when I’m going through the trouble." When its hard to endure, hard to understand how this is "good for me" and hard to remember "God is the One using this for my benefit" then strengthen the hands and knees by turning to His Word. Words such as:
“…we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)
“For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
“In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith—the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:6-9)
The careful runner will always run with an eye on the road he is running as well as what is happening around him. Potholes in the road, vehicles on the road, other runners coming from behind, and many other things can become a danger to the runner who is not alert.
Our marathon to heaven is a run for our lives—eternal lives. The goal is great, but then so the consequence for careless running and disregard of the dangers along the way. For this reason we are cautioned: “…looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled; lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright. For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears.” [vv.15-17]
Esau is an example for us of someone who did NOT run with alertness of the danger. We heard in the Old Testament lesson how Esau despised his birthright. Esau despised and disregarded as unimportant a blessing from God. That disregard for a particular blessing from God was either a "symptom of" or "a step leading to" a disregard for the ways of God altogether. Esau is called a fornicator and profane person. As far as we are told in the Bible, Esau never committed fornication or adultery with a woman, but Scripture also speaks of "spiritual adultery." Spiritual adultery is being unfaithful to God. In his disregard for his birthright and his conduct toward his brother, Esau demonstrated was more mindful of the ways of his own will and desires than of God’s will and desires. Walking down the path of "self" and disregarding the path of God is walking foolishly and into great danger.
Esau later learned a difficult lesson. After Jacob had deceived Isaac into giving him the Messianic blessing instead of Esau, Esau pleaded with Isaac but in Genesis we are told (and reminded in Hebrews) that Esau “found no place for repentance…” "Repentance" means literally, "a change of mind" and here is not referring to lack of repentance of sin on Esau’s part, but rather to the fact that Isaac did not and could not change the blessing he had given Jacob and give it Esau instead.
We are encouraged to be alert to the danger of disregarding the blessings and will of God, and with that to also be on guard against any threat to our faith that the sinful world, our flesh or the Devil might place in our path. The writer to the Hebrews a specific warning for a specific danger: BITTERNESS. "…lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled; [v.15]
Bitterness grows like cancer. It may be bitterness toward God—"Why God!!??!? Why are you allowing this to happen?? It may be bitterness toward one another—"I’ll NEVER forgive him for what he did to me!!!!! I’ll get EVEN!!!" Esau grew bitter with Jacob after Jacob received the blessing and bitterness grew into a plot to kill Jacob. Cain was bitter with God and with Abel when God received Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s. Cain’s bitterness grew into murder. In all the times when the Children of Israel complained against God, Moses, and Aaron in the wilderness it certainly didn’t all start at once. Rather, a person or group of persons grew bitter and spread their ill-will and pretty soon the whole camp was in an uproar.
Bitterness grows and festers and consumes inside the one who is bitter, and it spreads to others. In both cases, bitterness and the harboring of ill-will is destructive. God commanded in Deuteronomy, “ …so that there may not be among you man or woman or family or tribe, whose heart turns away today from the Lord our God, to go and serve the gods of these nations, and that there may not be among you a root bearing bitterness or wormwood ” (Deuteronomy 29:18).
There are many dangers of which the Christian runner needs to be aware and over which he must guard. However, it is the emotions and discontent that grows and simmers in the heart waiting for a chance to explode that are often times the greatest dangers. These dangers are great because they are able to go undetected until the become huge and all-consuming. Sadly, there are many in the world for whom life becomes a bitter pill. They live in anger and bitterness and are miserable because they are forsaking the comfort of the Gospel. As a way to be alert to the danger of bitterness and to avoid it, Paul wrote the Ephesians: “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31-32).
As we run with alertness to the dangers of sin and temptation around us, we need to be alert of one another “looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God.” [v.15] If as we run with our fellow Christians someone is lagging behind, becoming weakened along the way, turning the wrong way, or pursuing any type of run that would put their goal in jeopardy—then the alert strong runners need to drop back and encourage the ones who are falling behind. Paul expressed this to the Galatians in this way, “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted” (Galatians 6:1).
The run is hard and long. The danger is great. The joy and gift of having fellow runners striving for the same goal is also great. Just as bitterness is a danger, similarly "peace" is an aid toward the goal. “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.”
In order for any sinner to reach the goal of eternal life and "see the Lord" he must be holy in God’s eyes. We know full well that we can’t find such holiness in ourselves. It is exchange that God makes that clothes us in Christ’s righteousness. God put all our sins on Jesus and gave us His righteousness (cf: 2 Corinthians 5:19ff). We have received holiness in God’s eyes through faith in Christ Jesus. We pursue that holiness when we pursue a path that preserves us in the faith.
One of the great blessings God has given us to preserve us in the faith is the encouragement and Gospel-guidance given to one another among believers. However, the fellowship and encouragement of believers doesn’t occur and mutual Gospel-aid isn’t exchanged where there is no peace among the people.
Jesus gives us the connection between our peace with God and peace with one another, “Salt is good, but if the salt loses its flavor, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace with one another” (Mark 9:50). We are "salty salt" when the Word of Christ dwells in us richly. We are "salty salt" when the joy of our salvation and the good news of the Gospel so fills our hearts and lives that it directs everything we do. We are "salty salt" when we reflect Christ’s love to one another and forgive even as He has forgiven us. When we have the "salt" of God’s Word in ourselves we will seek peace with one another.
Peace among Christian brothers and sisters is the most important and greatest blessing. It is also, in many ways, the easiest kind of peace to achieve because within a Christian "family" everyone is seeking to follow and serve their Savior and is turning to the same Word of God for light. However, Satan works hard on destroying peace among Christians so it is of the utmost importance that we stand firm on Christ and pursue peace, not letting the Devil get a foothold to destroy that peace and unity.
We are encouraged, however, not to only pursue peace with our fellow Christians but ALL people. This can become a problem because even if we are pursuing peace, the worldly people around us might not be. We can’t control what other people do, but we can be careful of how we are running in our lives. While we can’t create peace with someone who doesn’t want to pursue peace, by pursuing peace in our own lives we can influence others as well. Paul gives direction for us in this matter when he writes to the Romans, “Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay," says the Lord. Therefore "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17-21).
Christ has won the goal toward which we run. Eternal life is prepared and waiting for us. It is a long difficult race of endurance to get there, with many dangers along the way, but Jesus our Savior promises to get us there safely. As our Lord leads us in our race heavenward we want to take care that we don’t sabotage it either by running foolishly into danger or by disregarding the blessings God gives to help us along the way. Run with endurance! Run with Christ! Watch and pray! – Pray as did Peter for the Christians to whom he was writing: “May the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you (1 Peter 5:10). Amen!
—Pastor Wayne C. Eichstadt