Our mission in Christ is like a long, endurance race (Hebrews 12:1). If you watch the Olympics, you have seen long distance runners race in a pack, gauging the capacity of the other runners until it is time to give it their all on the last leg. Living in the resurrection is like that. If you feel tired, if you resist the demand to race, or if you hate being part of the pack, this post is especially for you.
This past week several of us were talking about how hard it is for the present generation to hear something like “faith is like running a long race.” For one thing, they expect to make the demands, not meet them. Chris uncovered an interesting article by a college professor about how consumerism and identity politics make it impossible for him to teach people who never expect to run hard, stumble, or need to be in a race with others at all — unless that is what they choose to do, of course. He was too demanding. On a similar track, the pastors were talking about the surprising discovery at the last Imaginarium that some people feel a persistent resistance to an irritating “demand” from God and the church.
Do you think a lot of us have become unable to hear the Bible at all? Is it too demanding? Are more and more of us unable to listen to anyone correcting us or calling us to something beyond ourselves? — does that even seem illegal? Did the world effectively do away with sin by making nothing wrong, by making everything one feels their “right?” Maybe. At least I have not heard anyone quoting Hebrews 12 lately. The writer says:
Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed. (Hebrews 12:12-13)
I can hear “Ugh. More demands!” And “Who are you to say what a straight path is — and why should I be on a straight path anyway?” And “Don’t label me ‘lame.’ Who gives you the right to tell me I need to be ‘healed’ instead of accepted as ‘out of joint’?” The generation excels at deconstruction, not at moving toward a preferable end. Is hope too demanding?
The writer to the “Hebrews” is talking to and about people in his or her day who have done their own version of deconstructing the message of Christ and are about ready to drop out of the race. The effects of persecution, theological confusion, relational strife and worldly temptation have taken their toll. Like exhausted runners who lack the energy to make it to the finish line, many seem close to collapsing on the sidelines. The writer draws on Proverbs 4:25-27 where Solomon exhorts his son, “Let your eyes look directly ahead and let your gaze be fixed straight in front of you. Watch the path of your feet and all your ways will be established. Do not turn to the right nor the left; turn your foot from evil.” He goes on to tell them: “Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled” (Hebrews 12:14-15).
I can hear, “Ugh. Personal holiness is a code word for colonialism. The bitterness is already there; I want justice for me and mine, not more demand to conform in order to be at peace. I want peace to be myself and I want the same for others.” I would never defend the various domination systems of the world, but it is ironic how being against them creates another kind of domination (as the professor was lamenting).
The writer of Hebrews is talking to people who have done their own version of delegitimizing the status quo of their church. Granted, they just experienced “status quo” in Christ, not long ago, but already they are entertaining many variations. The writer reminds them that the community Jesus makes runs in a pack. We are not really competing for first; we are all trying to get to the finish line. If one of us stumbles, it is likely we are all going down with them. The writer says, “See to it that no one becomes like Esau, an immoral and godless person, who sold his birthright for a single meal. You know that later, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, even though he sought the blessing with tears” (Hebrews 12:16-17).
The writer of Hebrews comes from a completely different sense of the future. He or she seems to be drawing from Isaiah 35. There Isaiah tells those awaiting Messiah’s arrival to “encourage the exhausted and strengthen the feeble. Say to those with anxious hearts, take courage, fear not. Behold your God will come with vengeance; the recompense of God will come; He will come and save you.” That’s the future! Miraculous transformation will take place when Messiah comes. He will bring “gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” Keep running. Encourage one another. Receive strength from God. The future is amazing, if you remain faithful.
People want the future now. And scientists are valiantly trying to make that happen – even working on how we won’t have to die; we’ll either build new parts with our 3D printers or upload our minds into a machine. Just dealing with the onslaught of info causes people’s arms to droop and knee to fail! The writer’s exhortation to “pursue peace with all….” seems like the biggest demand of all! There is too much fighting and too much to fight! It is tempting to just leave people alone and let the law deal with them instead of having relationships.
Nevertheless, we are racing another way, unless we give up. Let’s focus on not allowing the bitter arguing (or the resolute avoidance of arguing) of this changing era make us stumble. The writer of Hebrews notes some of the issues he or she was confronting. We can only imagine what took place when some claimed that Jesus was not the divine Son of God (Heb. 1:5-14) or that He couldn’t be the Messiah because the true Messiah would never suffer and die (Heb. 2:9-18) or that returning to a Judaism without Jesus was perfectly acceptable to God (Heb. 2:1-4). In order to “pursue peace” the author wasn’t telling believers to passively allow such teachings to go unchallenged, but he didn’t want the debate to expel people from the race, either. We can have conflict kindly; we can be patient when we feel wronged; if we need to correct we can be gentle; and we can even approach perceived opponents with an eye on making peace. We can make love among us, not join the world’s wars.
There may be an “Ugh!” in response to that, too. Not being self-consumed, thinking outside the box of the latest domination system, and getting a heart that moves with Jesus is pretty demanding if you are still negotiating who is Lord. But if you are running with the Jesus followers it often feels like you could run forever.