Christian discipleship is a race, says the unknown author of the book of
Hebrews. It's a race of a peculiar
sort, a relay race. Some runners
have run before us; others will run after us.
Those who have run before us haven't disappeared from the course.
Having finished their "leg" of the race they have gathered at
the finish line where they can cheer on those who are still running.
Those who have already finished the race are "the great cloud of
witnesses" of whom Hebrews speaks. We
who are running now are surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses.
They are encouraging us moment by moment, telling us constantly that any
difficulty, all difficulties can be surmounted and must be surmounted if we are
to join them at the finish-line.
Think of the great cloud. Abel,
for instance: he kept running despite lethal harassment from a hostile brother.
Joseph: he kept running despite wicked slander against him and repeated
attempts to seduce him. Moses: he
kept running despite the opposition of neighbours who wouldn't have known God
from a gopher. And of course the
person in the "great cloud of witnesses" is our Lord Jesus Christ
himself. Hebrews speaks of him as
the "pioneer and perfecter of our faith."
We who are running now are to keep our eye on him above all.
He didn't merely run one leg of the relay race; he forged the whole
race ahead of us and now summons us to keep on running with our eyes on him.
We are told not simply to run, but to run with perseverance.
Plainly, nothing must be allowed to inhibit or obstruct our perseverance.
Then what is it to run with perseverance?
-- In the first place we must keep on running regardless of detractors.
My family left Winnipeg in January, 1950.
Three months later the Red River flooded.
Soon the streets of downtown Winnipeg were five feet under water.
(Note: we are not talking here about five feet of water in the basement,
but rather five feet of water above the sidewalk.)
Southern Manitoba has flooded episodically ever since the passing of the
When Mr. Duff Roblin was premier of Manitoba thirty years ago he
legislated the construction of a huge floodway along one side of Winnipeg that
carries off the overflow from the two rivers -- the Red and the Assiniboine --
that rise dangerously every spring. The
floodway cost $58 million. For this
public expenditure Duff Roblin was pilloried in the legislative assembly.
His political opponents "ate him alive", all the while
ridiculing his project as "Duff's Ditch".
It so happens that Duff's Ditch is going to spare Winnipeg from the flood
when the flood inundates everything else around Winnipeg.
It so happens that Duff's Ditch has spared the city of Winnipeg colossal
damage on at least ten occasions. It
so happens that Duff's Ditch has saved the city billions of dollars.
Roblin paid a very high price for his perseverance.
No matter! He stands
In the race of discipleship to run with perseverance means we shall keep
on running regardless of detractors.
the second place to run with perseverance means we shall keep on running
regardless of distractions. We must
run singlemindedly; run with a focus, a concentration, a determination that is
aware only of the matter at hand. We
must run with an intensity that unfailingly announces our steadfastness.
I am gripped whenever I see a singleminded intensity that sheds
distractions. Recently I saw Itzhak
Perlman (reputed to be the world's finest violinist) playing a "pop"
concert. He was playing the music
from the movie, Schindler's List. He
had already played the music when the sound track was made for the film.
Now he was playing it again before a live audience.
The audience was relaxed, comfortable, cool.
Perlman, however; perspiration streamed off him. Playing
music associated with the Holocaust plainly strained the Jewish violinist.
Still, he matched the strain with his own strenuousness and kept on
playing as only he can play, sweat-soaked while spectators coolly enjoyed the
Regardless of what it was costing him Perlman wasn't going to spare
himself; neither was he going to let anything distract him.
In his singleminded concentration he wasn't even aware of would-be
How different it was with the woman in the relay race during a recent
Olympic Games. She was running her
"leg" of the race, baton in hand, when a mean-spirited opponent
elbowed her in the ribs. Jabbed, in
pain now, and momentarily breathless, she "lost it".
Angrily, petulantly -- understandably, to be sure, yet foolishly
nonetheless -- she threw her baton at the woman who had fouled her.
When she threw her baton she threw away the race.
She disqualified herself; she disqualified her entire team.
Instantly she grasped what she had done and stopped running.
In the course of life we do get fouled.
We get jabbed. We get
"clobbered". We get victimized in a thousand different ways.
The one thing we must never do is allow our manifold victimizations to
distract us. We must never allow
them to distract us so that we lose our focus, our singlemindedness, our
intensity, our horizon-filling dedication to the task at hand.
We must never allow our manifold victimizations to move us into that
space where we "throw it all away" with the result that the only thing
left is to stop running.
To run with perseverance is to keep on running regardless of
the third place to run with perseverance means we shall keep on running
patiently. The race of Christian
discipleship isn't a sprint that ends in 9.35 seconds.
It's a long race, a lifelong race. We
must run patiently.
Before the dismantling of the Berlin wall in 1989; before the dissolution
of the Soviet Union; when the USSR was a totalitarian tormenter; in those days
one of the USSR's military heroes was denounced publicly.
Col. Lev Ofsischer had been a flier in the Soviet Air Force in World War
II. He had distinguished himself in
the Battle of Stalingrad, that great turning point in the war.
He was an Air Force hero, and his name and photograph were featured in a
book depicting the Battle of Stalingrad and his place in it.
In a subsequent edition of the book his name and photograph had been
removed. His rank -- colonel -- had
been reduced to private. And his
pension had been cancelled. What had
he done to bring this on himself? In
1967 he had asked the soviet government to permit him to emigrate to Israel.
Permission was denied. Meanwhile
a Baptist Christian had given him a bible. (Ofsischer
had grown up in communist Russia where bibles were illegal, and had grown up
thoroughly secularized.) In 1977,
ten years later, he was still denied permission to emigrate.
For ten years he had read the bible that the Christian missionary had
given him, and in those ten years had learned the history of his people's
frustrations in the biblical era alone.
The KGB (soviet secret police) told him that if he withdrew his
application to emigrate his Air Force pension would be restored.
Ofsischer told the KGB that if he had to choose between pension and
honour there was no choice: he would never besmirch his honour for the sake of a
The KGB told him he might as well give up.
"You've already waited ten years !", they said.
"Wrong!", replied Ofsischer, "I haven't waited ten years.
I have waited 2000 years; and I can wait a few more."
To run with perseverance is always to run patiently.
as it is to run regardless of detractors, run regardless of distractions, run
patiently, it isn't enough: we must also run so as to finish.
Another Olympic Games, this time in Mexico City, 1968.
It was the marathon race: 26 miles, 385 yards.
The first-place runner crossed the finish line, then the second, the
third, and so on. As the last
runner, it would seem, straggled in, the spectators and camera crews noticed an
ambulance with lights flashing several hundred yards up the course. The
flashing lights warned the crowds not to surge onto the track as the race wasn't
yet over. One runner remained on the
This fellow had come from a developing country in the two-thirds world.
His nation had no funds for state-sponsored training programs.
The people had simply sent him off with whatever encouragement they could
press upon him. Now he was running
with men whose economic privilege gave them enormous advantage.
This fellow, ambulance alongside him, would stagger a few feet and fall
on his face, get up and stagger a few more feet and go down again, over and over
until he had traversed the last few hundred yards.
When asked why he had persevered at such a price he replied, "My
people didn't send me here to compete (they knew I couldn't compete);
they didn't even send me here to run; they sent me here to finish."
My final word to those whose race-running we are recognizing this morning
is this: be sure to run so as to finish. It
is only as we finish -- who cares if we get to our goal with scraped
knees and bleeding face? -- it is only as we finish that we find
ourselves admitted to the great cloud of witnesses in the company of our elder
brother, Jesus. And it is only as we
finish that God himself is glorified.
Shepherd May 1997