In 1968, the Olympics were held in Mexico City. The last runner to finish the marathon was a guy from Tanzania. During the race, he had broken a leg. He’d stumbled, he’d been hurt badly, he was bruised, beaten up, and he was bloodied. Long after everybody else had finished the race, and in fact as the stadium quickly emptied – there were only 7,000 people left – around 7:00 in the evening, as it was getting dark, he entered to do his last lap and finish the marathon. The crowd gave him a standing ovation. Later on he was asked, “Why didn’t you quit when you were hurt and bruised, bloody, discouraged Why didn’t you quit?” He gave a classic answer. He said, “My country did not send me 7,000 miles around the world to start the race, but to finish it.”
The Bible teaches very clearly that life is a race. Unfortunately, most people never finish it. Some people don’t know it’s a race. I meet people all the time that don’t know that they have a purpose for living. They think they’re alive so they can take a stroll.
I’ve met others that get waylaid, sidetracked, distracted. They get disqualified. For one reason or another, they die with unfulfilled dreams, with unrealized potential and without ever becoming what God intended their life to become. That is a tragedy.
Here’s how one man put it. “Here is a test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: if you’re alive, it isn’t” (Richard Bach). If you are alive – and most of you look like you are – then God has a purpose for your life. You are in the race. We’re going to look today at how to run the race well; how to finish the race so that God is pleased. We’re going to look at how we can win the race. 1 Corinthians 9:24 says, “You also must run in such a way that you will win.”
This fall, we’ll be continuing a process called Refocusing that will help us as a church discern how we can win the race. But I’ve learned that we can’t win the race collectively if we’re not running the race individually. That’s why today I want to look at some steps that each of us has to take individually.
The goal is that we can say what the apostle Paul said thousands of years ago: “I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me-the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24). At the end of Paul’s life, Paul could say, “The time of my death is near. I have fought a good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful” (1 Timothy 4:7-8).
Are you going to be able to say that about your life? That you’re running the race that God placed you here to run? Do you have the sense that you’re winning the race right now?
Fortunately, the Bible doesn’t just tell us to run the race. The Bible gives us rules of the race that we can follow if we want to win. If we’re going to win the race, it’s going to be because we live out the three rules for training that God has given. How can I win the race in life?
1. GET RID OF DISTRACTIONS
Hebrews 12:1 says, “Let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily hinders our progress.” That’s the first rule for training. Get rid of distractions. Get rid of anything that will slow you down on the race that God has put before you.
What are we to get rid of? The writer mentions “the sin that so easily hinders our progress.” That’s different for all of us. All sorts of sins can keep us from winning the race. That’s the deception of sin. We think that sin is harmless. We even think, “It’s not hurting anyone. It’s just a little problem that I have.” But we don’t realize that it’s weighing us down. It’s keeping us from winning the race that God intends.
I’ve found that focusing on the sin doesn’t really help me to get rid of the sin. It’s like when I go out to for a coffee and see an apple crumble calling my name. The more I think, “I don’t want that apple crumble…I won’t have that apple crumble,” the more that I find myself thinking about that apple crumble. You don’t win over sin by focusing on that sin. You win over sin by focusing on the race – by focusing on the finish line. The sin that keeps getting you down is keeping you from racing the way that God wants you to race. It’s obvious that if we’re going to win the race, we need to deal with the sins that are slowing us down on the race.
But it’s not always sin that slows us down. It’s easy to pick up a lot of extras in the race. A runner wears as little as possible. In the day that this was written, runners took this to an extreme – some of them wore absolutely nothing. And you thought that spandex is bad. I’ve never once seen a runner sprint down the track carrying an Adidas bag, or wearing a backpack. I’ve never seen one pulling a U-Haul down the track. If we’re going to run the race, we need to get rid of the distractions that will slow us down while we’re running the race.
All sorts of distractions can take us away from the race. Opportunities can distract us. Entertainment opportunities, hobby opportunities, career opportunities…all these are good, yet they can take us off course. They can take us from the race without us even knowing it.
Guilt can distract us. We can be so consumed by the past – by the mistakes that we’ve made – that we stop running. It’s like somebody who’s stumbled in a race. Some runners stop and think, “It’s over. I’ve stumbled. I may as well give up.” don’t let the past distract you. It’s a brand new day. You have stumbled. You have fallen. You’ve gotten knocked out of the race probably dozens of times, but winners get back up and they get in it and they keep on going. They don’t give up and they don’t allow distractions to bother them. They don’t get distracted by the crowd whether they’re cheering or booing. They’re running for the finish line. They’re focused.
The biggest reason that we go through life distracted can be summarized in one word: UNCERTAINTY. We’re not clear why we’re on this earth. We don’t know what’s a distraction and what is a necessity. It’s like some people I’ve seen packing for a trip. Some people pack in a little carry-on bag. Others travel with about 15 suitcases for an overnight trip. They don’t know what’s necessary and what’s just a distraction. It’s like that in life. You and I may be carrying around all sorts of stuff that we think is central, but it’s not. It’s good, but it’s keeping us from God’s best.
Earlier this year, I had a little side business going. It wasn’t a big deal – it made me a little money for very little work. I mean very little. One day the wheels came off. I had to spend hours getting things back on track. This side thing – no big deal, very easy to carry – became a distraction. Things that seem small can become huge and consume all of our time.
If you’re not clear on your mission – why God has put you on this earth – and your priorities, then you’re struggling with uncertainty. You’re carrying around all kinds of extras, and you’re not sure what’s important and what isn’t. If that’s you, your timing is perfect, because we’re running a course called Personal Refocusing. It’s a process that’s helped me and Pastor Ed and almost twenty people in the church to discover why they’re here on earth; how God has already been at work in their lives; what God intends to do in their future. In fact, pull the yellow page out of your bulletin right now. You’ll see that there are two dates that are listed there. I can’t think of a reason why you wouldn’t want to attend. You need to get clear on your priorities – why God has put you here on this earth.
Peter Drucker is the father of modern management. His life was shaped by a teacher who wants asked, “What do you want to be remembered for?” Drucker was only 13 when he heard this question, and he really didn’t have an answer. “I didn’t expect you to be able to respond,” the teacher continued. “But if you still can’t by the time you’re 50, you will have wasted your life.” I’ll rephrase that question by asking you, “Why has God put you on this earth?” You ma y not be able to answer that question now, but if you don’t figure it out, and begin living out your purpose, completely surrendered to God, then you’re wasting your life.
Before you put that insert away, I want to encourage you to fill it out right now. Pick one of the two dates that we’re offering, and make it a priority in your life. It will help you get rid of distractions, and focus on what’s important. That’s the first training rule to win the race. Get rid of distractions. The second rule is found in the next verse:
2. GET BACK TO THE CROSS
One of the keys to running the race is to stay focused on Jesus, and to follow his example. Hebrews 12:1-2 says, “Let us run with endurance the race that God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus.” One translation says to run this race “with no eyes for any one or anything except Jesus.” If we want to win the race, we have to keep Jesus and what he did central in our lives. We have to keep our eyes on him.
When you run a race, you keep your eyes on the finish line. I’ve never seen anyone win a race who’s looking in the crowd, making peace signs to his family. A runner keeps his eyes on the finish line.
Hebrews 12:2 says, “We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from start to finish.” That’s one reason why we want to keep our eyes on Jesus. He’s the one working on you and me. He’s the one who started us on the path of faith, and he’s the one that’s going to see us through. He won’t give up on us. He’s going to support us every step of the way. Philippians 1:6 says, “And I am sure that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on that day when Christ Jesus comes back again.”
As a pastor, I’ve had to speak to some unfriendly crowds. You’re looking out there, and you have the sense that almost no one’s with you. They’re thinking, “Who is this guy? What is this stuff that he’s teaching?” I have a little trick that I use. I look for a friendly face. Sometimes the only friendly face there is my wife. Other times there’s somebody else nodding, encouraging me. I keep my eyes on them if I’m going to make it through the talk.
I don’t know if you ever feel like everyone’s looking at you with their arms crossed and a scowl on their face. Sometimes it feels like that. That’s why it’s important to look to Jesus. He’s with you. He’s a friendly face. He won’t give up on you until he completes the work that he’s started in you.
Then we think about what Jesus did for us. Hebrews 12:2-3 continues:
He was willing to die a shameful death on the cross because of the joy he knew would be his afterward. Now he is seated in the place of highest honor beside God’s throne in heaven. Think about all he endured when sinful people did such terrible things to him, so that you don’t become weary and give up.
If you’ve never heard a medical description of what Jesus endured when he died, it would astound you. We have an English word excruciating. I’ve experienced pain, but I don’t think I’ve ever experienced excruciating pain. The word excruciating has as its root “from the cross.” Excruciating describes the sort of death that Jesus died.
It’s amazing when you think that Jesus chose to die that kind of death for us. “He was willing to die a shameful death on the cross because of the joy he knew would be his afterward.” His suffering was worth it because he knew what it would accomplish. What brought Jesus joy? That he was able to accomplish his mission. That he was able to bring healing and forgiveness to those he loves – to you and to me. Jesus endured the cross because of what it would accomplish in our lives.
If you want to win the race, you need to remember that Jesus loved you so much that he endured the cross for you and for me. You’re worth it to him. You’re worth so much that he willingly gave up all that he had, and died for you.
We’re going to go back to the cross right now. I’m going to invite you to receive the bread and the cup right now, to celebrate the fact that Jesus died a shameful death for your sake, and for my sake.
How do we win the race of life? How do we get to the end of our lives and say, “I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful” (2 Timothy 4:8)? Get rid of distractions. Get back to the cross. There’s one more rule to follow:
3. GET ON WITH THE RACE
Hebrews 12:1 says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily hinders our progress. And let us run with endurance the race that God has set before us.”
Throughout history, there have been countless examples of people who have run – and finished – the race. Hebrews 11 gives some examples. You may be able to think of some people that you’ve known who have finished the race. They may be in heaven now, but they finished well. They ran and won the race.
It’s amazing how few people finish the race well. It’s not very common. I don’t know if it’s true, but I’ve heard that only about 2 out of 10 finish well. I want to be someone that does.
The Bible says that all those who have finished the race are like a huge throng of witnesses. It’s a vast number of people. They’ve finished, and now they’re like the crowd watching us as we run the race. With this great gallery of witnesses around us, it’s important for us to run well. It’s important to run the race and to finish well.
It’s almost like they’ve passed the baton to us. It’s a relay race. They’ve finished, and they’ve passed the baton on to us. Now they’re watching and encouraging their successors.
Last autumn I attended a meeting in which I heard a giant of a man, near the end of his life, speak to a group of young Christian leaders under 40. When he was finished the talk, he held up a baton and told us, “I’m done now. I’ve finished the race. I’ve run it well. And now I’m passing the baton on to you…and to you…and to you.”
I don’t know how you’re running the race right now. But I do know it’s not too late to finish well. I know it’s not too late to get rid of the distractions – to discover and to live out your life’s purpose. It’s not too late to keep your eyes on Jesus. It’s not too late to pick up the baton and get on with the race. Many have finished well, and they’re passing the baton on now to you…and to you…and to you.
You may feel that you’re distracted right now. You need to get rid of the uncertainty that’s clouding your life. You need to discover your purpose, your mission, how God has been at work in your life. I would encourage you to pray now to God and ask him to show you. We have a process that can help you, and I’d like you to sign up. But most of all, I’d like you to say to God, “Yes, Lord. I want to run the race. I don’t want to just run the race, I want to win. I want to get to the end and say, ‘I’ve finished the race. I’ve been faithful. I’m finishing well.'”
Lord, help us to run the race. Help us to keep our eyes on Jesus. Help us never to drop the baton. In Jesus’ name, Amen.