Two of the most awe-inspiring places I've ever visited, as an American, were thousands of miles apart, but their impact comes from the same source. Those two locations were Arlington National Cemetery and Normandy American Cemetery.
I remember my first visit to Arlington National Cemetery just outside Washington, DC. Observing the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown soldier was a moving experience. The solemn silence of that ceremony, with the precision performance of the guards, punctuate the purpose of the place...to honor all of those who have fallen in battle, who's bodies are lost or who were unable to be identified. Taking that into consideration, as I stood and gazed across the rolling hills lined with more than 14,000 white grave markers, I was struck by the reality of the sacrifice and investment made by millions of people over the history of our nation.
Fast-forward two decades and 3,749 miles, I find myself standing on the grounds of the Normandy American Cemetery. There, as in Arlington, I saw the perfect lines of white makers, identifying the graves of over 9,000 troops who died in Europe during World War II. These were individuals who gave the ultimate sacrifice to insure freedom for millions who were being persecuted, oppressed and murdered by the advancement of tyranny and dictatorial evil intent on taking over the world. As I stood that day, looking out over Omaha Beach, where allied troops landed to make headway in driving back the advancement of tyranny, a Frenchman stood next to me. Knowing that I am an American, he looked at me and said, "Thank you for what your country did here for the people of France."
On this Memorial Day, we must continue to be reminded of the value of those who have served our nation well as members of the armed forces. Most importantly, we remember the great price paid by many who have given the most...by giving their lives. Their sacrifice has helped to preserve freedom for Americans and others around the world. When we stand in places like Arlington National Cemetery, there is a sense that those who have sacrificed for our freedom, stand in the stadium of the heavens looking on, cheering us on, to continue to fight for liberty and defend against the evils of those who are intent upon destroying life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all in this world who cherish freedom.
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 trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.
We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne.
The writer of the book of Hebrews also spoke of a "stadium" of onlookers who cheer for those who are in the fray of the daily pursuit of our life of faith. In this visual that the Hebrews writer gives us, the context is that of an athletic race of endurance. This race of the life of faith is from salvation to our eternal destination. As we run this race, were are being cheered on by this huge crowd of witnesses who have gone before us...they have completed the race. Now, they cheer for us to complete it as well.
Others Have Pioneered the Way
One of the things that Memorial Day does for Americans is to remind us that others have paved the way for us to enjoy the freedoms we have today. In some ways, we realize that we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. This inspires us to continue to stand strong for freedom and strength as a nation. In the visual of Hebrews 12, the same thing is provided. We are reminded that we have this legacy of faith because many have gone before us to lay the foundation. We are inspired to follow in their path of the race that has been laid out before us. They surround us. They encourage us with their faithful race. They remind us that we do not run in vain. Our hearts are inspired. Our faith in spurred on to strengthen our race.
They Remind Us What is Required
No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer (2 Timothy 2:4). Those who serve our nation in the military, do so with a commitment and lifestyle that sacrifices the things that civilians take for granted. They volunteer to place themselves under the direction of a commander who expects their complete loyalty to the cause...to the mission to which they have been assigned. In this race of faith...this warfare that we fight...the cloud of witnesses reminds us that we are called to make the choices to live a disciplined and dedicated life of faith.
So, let's stick with one metaphor here. The Hebrews passage is using the metaphor of running a race. He tells us that there are two things we must do in order to run this race well...running with endurance. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules (2 Timothy 2:5). Let's consider the "rules" given here in Hebrews 12:
1. Lay aside every weight
No runner, wanting to finish the race of endurance well, wants to carry extra weight. Rather, a runner makes sure that they have nothing to hinder their performance. For the follower of Christ, running the race of faith, the same is true. We are encouraged to lay aside anything that will slow us down in our race. The Apostle Paul wrote about this principle, "Everything is permissible for me," but not everything is helpful. "Everything is permissible for me," but I will not be brought under the control of anything (1 Corinthians 6:12). To run well means that we sometimes we make decisions about what is best, not just what is right. So, think of what areas of life that may hold issues for you here. Are there things that distract you from priorities? Are there activities that prevent you from focusing on what is really important? Are there involvements that become addictive? These aren't sin in themselves, but they are weights that slow you down in running the race well. These are the things that need to be laid aside.
2. Lay aside every sin
This is a little more clear...usually. As a follower of Christ, we accept the Word of God as our guide for faith and life. It is the truth that instructs us concerning right and wrong...the absolutes and the laws that lay out for us how to live a life of holiness that benefits us and fulfills our calling. As Ephesians 4:1 reminds us, "I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called..." Through confession and repentance, we can lay aside the sins that, don't just slow us down, but which entangle us...presenting the danger of causing us to fall. We cannot hope to run our race of faith without giving attention to this process. The promise we are given, when we commit ourselves to holiness, is forgiveness. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous (1 John 1:9-2:1). So, you see, laying aside the sin that entangles us is a matter or confession and the forgiveness of God. It is as simple as that.
We Have the Perfect Champion
This is all about focus. The soldier on the battlefield is attentive to the orders of the commander. The athlete on the field must be focused on the instructions of the coach. In our race of faith, we have the perfect "coach." He has "initiated" and "perfected" our faith. Jesus is not a "religious leader" who just demands and orders his followers to blindly do things that keep them under his control. Instead, Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice to initiate and complete the faith that we have acquired. Therefore, we can run our race with our eyes fixed upon Him...we listen to His voice...we watch for His hand at work in our lives. It is His work in us, and His power in us, that enables us to finish the race successfully. He is in the place of power and status, at the right hand of the Father. The good news is, we are seated there with Him. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ--by grace you have been saved--and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus... (Ephesians 2:4-6). Being seated with Christ at the Father's right hand means we have access to all the power, covering, wisdom, grace and sustenance that we need to run well and to finish well.
What an amazing visual to imagine, that all the saints of the ages past are gathered around us in the heavenly realm, cheering us on to victory as we run our race of faith with endurance. That race is possible because of the One who's Spirit lives in us. We can finish the race well...we can fulfill our purpose for which God designed us. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up (Galatians 6:8-9). We will not grow weary in living our purpose as long as we allow His Spirit to fill us daily.
Who are the specific people who have gone before you to pave the way of faith? What have you laid aside that has helped you to run more effectively? Comment, like and share this post to get the conversation going!
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With over forty years of ministry experience, Randy Kinnick continues to live a life of pursuing the purpose for which he was created. Whether teaching God's Word to adults, coaching youth and young adults in finding their purpose, or caring for the hurting and abused in Southeast Asia, the adventure has taken him around the world in ways he could have never dreamed. The adventure continues!