"Finishing the Race"

 A Sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Brad R. Braxton, Wake Forest Divinity School
on Sunday, February 22, 2004.

Text: Hebrew 12:1-2

Years ago, I came across two short sentences in a book that have radically impacted my life.  These two sentences have kept my soul running when there seemed to be only fumes in the tank.  These two sentences have kept me hoping for the best, even after hope had gone on holiday.  These two sentences have compelled me to get off the ground when getting up was the last thing on my mind. 

Here are the two sentences: “Many have a good beginning.  Few have a good ending.”   Did you catch it?  “Many have a good beginning.  Few have a good ending.” 

This guiding maxim is not wrapped in theoretical prose.  Nevertheless, in its simple packaging are found pearls of wisdom.  When all is said and done, it is not how good you look in the starting blocks.  Instead, the deciding factor is whether you make it across the finish line. 

It is tragic when people start out well, but they do not finish well.  When the lunar eclipse of unfulfilled potential overshadows the brightness of possibility, it is unfortunate, indeed.  “Many have a good beginning.  Few have a good ending.”

As important as it is to start the race, what ultimately counts is that we finish the race.  Very few ribbons, medals, trophies, and advertising contracts are given to athletes with good starts.  Athletes do not appear on boxes of Wheaties because they are good starters.  You win the high privilege of being honored on breakfast tables around the world because you are a good finisher.

My hope is that you will finish well.  But this is not just my desire.  This is also the desire of the writer of the book of Hebrews.

In Hebrews 12:1-2, the author senses that this congregation is on the verge of abandoning its spiritual heritage.  This author writes to people who have started the race, but the author is not sure that they are going to finish the race. 

Thus, in the twelfth chapter, he persuades his listeners to finish what they had started.  In these two short verses, this writer, like a dedicated coach, gives four sound pieces of advice concerning how to finish the race.  If we want to finish the race:
1) Remember who is around us.  2) Remove what is on us.  3) Rely on what is in us, and 4) realize who is before us.  Allow me to explore more fully the coach's tips on finishing the race. 

In Hebrews 12, the coach exhorts us to remember who is around us.  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.”  Employing the word “surrounded” and the imagery of a race, the writer wants us to envision ourselves as athletes in the arena.  The writer envisions a coliseum, like the one in Rome, where the field is in the center, and around the field are seats. 

As we run the race, we are surrounded by a host of persons.  Our race is actually run in an invisible but real coliseum, and every seat in the coliseum is filled.  Who are the people in the seats?  Hebrews 11 lists the names of some of those who fill the seats in this invisible coliseum.

Hebrews 11 provides a catalog of people who have demonstrated overcoming faith—faith that survived in the crucible of existence; faith that flourished under fire; faith that knew how to hold on and hold out.  Hebrews 11 calls to mind such notables as Abel, Noah, Abraham, and Rahab. 

These inductees into “Faith’s Hall of Fame” now occupy the seats in the coliseum, which surrounds the track on which we are currently running the race of life.  The author of Hebrews says to all current runners, “In order to finish the race, remember a great cloud of witnesses surrounds you.”  There are persons in the coliseum seats who are invisible to the naked eye, but visible to the spiritual eye. 

Those who surround us are witnesses, not just spectators.  There is a profound difference between a spectator and a witness.  A spectator is someone who watches you go through something.  A witness, in the biblical sense, is someone who has gone through something herself. 

We can finish the race because in the stands we have some witnesses, not spectators—witnesses who dashed through danger and dilemma and lived to tell about it.  When in the midst of struggle, there is nothing like the testimony from someone who survived a struggle to bolster our faith and courage. 

Witnesses are those who have been through trials and turmoil and have found out that the Lord will make a way somehow.  We can finish the race; we can hold on; we can resist the temptation, if we remember who is around us cheering for us.  As we run, the witnesses listed in Hebrews 11 exhort us, but these are not the only witnesses.

There are other heroes and heroines of holiness who have walked the earth since Hebrews was written.  As I gaze at the seats around the coliseum, I see so many others.  There are Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas, Sojourner Truth and Malcolm X, Martin King and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Marian Anderson and Count Basie, Phyllis Wheatley and Langston Hughes, Benjamin Mays and Mary McLeod Bethune.

There are my maternal and paternal grandparents, Nat and Louise Sledd and Allison and Bell Braxton, and Mariah Taylor, the sainted “mother” of my home church who taught me the hymns of the church in prayer meetings when I was a boy.  These and many other witnesses are rooting for me. 

Surely, you have your list of witnesses who are cheering for you.  If you silence the noise of your world, you may actually hear the witnesses in the stands cheering for you.  To have heaven cheering for us gives new meaning to the term “home field advantage.”

Yet, if we want to finish the race, we must not only remember who is around us, but we must also remove what is on us.  “Let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely.”  If we want to finish the race, we must remove the excess baggage that is on us.

I have never seen track stars run with heavy coats on their backs and weights in their shoes.  One does not need a Ph.D. in aero-dynamics to understand that running with baggage will slow you down. 

The New Revised Standard Version translates this portion of Hebrews 12:1, “Let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely.”  One might also render this phrase, “Let us lay aside every weight and the sin that entangles.” 

The word “entangles” more clearly depicts what happens to many of us.  We harbor attitudes and engage in behaviors that wrap around our feet, causing us to stumble rather than to sprint.  The writer exhorts us to remove these hindrances. 

I wonder: What kind of weight did each of us bring to the race today?  An unforgiving spirit, an unhealthy preoccupation, a grudge that is so old that we have forgotten what we were mad about in the first place?  Today is a good time to remove what is on us in order that we might run more swiftly.

We need to remember who is around us, and remove what is on us, but we must also rely on what is in us.  The text says that we have to run with perseverance the race that is set before us.  In this race, when the road is rough, and the going gets tough, and the hills are hard to climb, we must tap into our spiritual resources. 

In Hebrews 12:1, the word that is translated “perseverance” can also be rendered “patient endurance.”  If we are going to finish the race, we need to rely on patient endurance.  I want to place an accent mark on the word patient.

Some people know how to endure, but every minute that they endure they want you to know about it.  That’s not patient endurance; that’s grumbling and complaining and trying to gain sympathy because you can’t change your circumstances. 

This text instructs us on the necessity of patient endurance—
singing even in the darkest midnight; praying fervently until the blessing comes; shouting, “Hallelujah,” even when heartache is on the horizon; handling our grief with grace; smiling in the midst of our sickness; staying calm even as you wait for financial aid to kick in—that’s patient endurance.

In order to finish the race, we must remember who is around us, remove what is on us, and rely on what is in us.  The fourth and final piece of advice is to realize who is before us. 

Hebrews 12:2 instructs us to look to “Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame and who has taken his seat at the right hand of God.” We can and will finish the race if we look to Jesus.  Jesus has gone before us and waits for us at the finish line. 

Jesus himself realized the value of looking ahead.  Jesus knew that there was one primary difference between a winner and loser.  A loser focuses on what she is going through, but a winner focuses on where she is going to.  During his ministry, Jesus kept his eyes on the prize, and God rewarded that faithfulness with a resurrection victory.  Having won his race, Jesus stands at the finish line cheering for us.  More than that, Jesus wants us to affix our eyes on him. 

Good track coaches will teach their athletes not to look to the right, to the left, and, by all means, certainly not behind.  When you run without focusing straight ahead, there is a tendency to become distracted and trip.  If we keep our eyes fixed on the finish line, this singular focus will prevent us from losing our momentum and our stride.  Hebrews 12 tells us that Jesus is at the finish line, and if we need a point of reference, we can keep our eyes on him.

The importance of keeping one’s eyes ahead when running was powerfully illustrated for me years ago when I was attending a track meet.  The most highly anticipated race of that track meet was the 440-relay.  There were four teams competing, and two teams in particular had excellent beginnings.  The runners for these teams blasted out of the blocks, and both teams received solid performances from their second and third runners. 

As the two leading teams turned the corner for the home stretch, they were neck and neck.  The deciding factor for the race would be the performance of each team’s anchorman.  The anchorman for one of the teams, in the heat of the moment, looked back, consequently messing up the timing of the third runner who was handing him the baton, and there was a fumbled exchange. 

The anchorman for the other team, however, kept his eyes straight ahead and began slowly building momentum.  Approaching the anchorman, the runner of the third leg hollered, “Stick,” which is the exclamation that occurs during the exchange of the baton.  When the third runner yelled, “Stick,” this was the signal to the fourth runner, not to look back, but simply to stick his hand back and receive the baton.  The exchange of the baton was flawless, and that team won the race.  The key to their victory lay in the anchorman’s ability to keep his eyes on what was before him.

Men and women of great faith have run before us in the previous legs of this 440-relay, and they are about to hand the baton to us.  You and I have been charged with running the anchor leg.  When we hear the exclamation, “Stick,” we cannot afford to look back, lest we fumble the baton and lose the race.  As we leave this worship service today, let’s keep our eyes on Jesus who awaits us at the finish line. 

We must run with perseverance that race that is now ours to run.  Will we finish the race?  Will we have a strong finish?  The third runner is rounding the corner, and she is hollering to each one of us, “Stick.”  Fundamentally, Christianity is not so concerned with how we start as much as it is concerned with how we finish. 

It’s not how you start out; it’s how you finish up.  Abraham started out as a liar, but he ended up as the father of the faithful.  It’s not how you start out; it’s how you finish upSarah started out as barren, but she ended up as the only senior citizen in the maternity ward. 

It’s not how you start out; it’s how you finish up.  Rahab started out as a prostitute, but she ended up in the family tree of the Prince of Peace.  Mary Magdalene started out consumed by evil spirits, but she ended up as one of the first witnesses to the resurrection. 

It’s not how you start out; it’s how you finish up.  Paul started out as a violent persecutor, but he ended up as a gospel globetrotter.  It’s not how you start out; it’s how you finish up.  I started out as a sinner, but now I am a sinner saved by grace, and through that grace, I am on my way to the finish line. 

In the words of that old African American gospel song, “Lord, I’m running trying to make 100.  99˝ won’t do.  On my knees every day; Lord, please hear me when I pray.  Lord, I’m running trying to make 100.  99˝ won’t do!”  I will keep running for Jesus until the race is won, until the prize is mine, until Jesus says well done!

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Web Comments: orl@princeton.edu, Last Updated: October 5, 2004