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“Fixing Our Eyes”

Hebrews 12:1-3
Bob DeGray
April 7, 2002

Key Sentence

The race of faith must have both motion and direction.

Outline

I. The life of faith must have motion (Hebrews 12:1)
II. The life of faith must have direction (Hebrews 12:2)
III. The life of faith must have endurance (Hebrews 12:3)


Message

        Some of you engineers know what the term ‘vector’ means. Early this week I e-mailed Doug Rask to ask if I could use his story about the state vector, and Joanna reported that he said “Once an engineer, always an engineer.” It’s true - I sometimes find in my engineering background an illustration that makes sense in the Christian life.

        So what is a vector? Simply, it is something that has a size and a direction. If you say ‘I’m going thirty miles an hour’ that’s the size of your speed. But it’s not a vector. A vector is when you say “I’m going north at thirty miles an hour.” A vector has magnitude and direction. You may have heard the story of the airline pilot who came on and said “I’m sorry folks, but all our navigational equipment has gone out and we have no idea where we’re going. But the good news is we’re getting there at 600 miles per hour.” Having motion but no direction you can get nowhere fast. In the same way, having direction but no motion will get you nowhere. Think of a ship’s captain, who can see the harbor on the horizon, but refuses to engage the ship’s engines. You’ve got to be in motion to get somewhere.

        So a vector has magnitude and direction, motion and a goal. The Christian life is supposed to be a vector - something that has deliberate movement toward a defined goal. A motorist was driving through eastern Pennsylvania and lost her way. She asked a local how far it was to Phillipsburg, New Jersey. He replied, "Well, the way you’re going it’s 24,995 miles. But if you turn around and get on Route 22 east, it’s about 5 miles." You have to be moving in the right direction.

        One of my favorite vector stories comes from Doug Rask, who witnessed it first hand. Doug, as some of you know, was for many years a flight dynamics officer or FIDO in the mission control center. He often worked the night shift for shuttle flights, and one of his regular tasks was to prepare a new state vector for the shuttle. The state vector tells the shuttle where it is and where it is going - that is, its state - not only its location, but its velocity and rotation. Over time the state vector in the onboard computers drifts a little bit compared to the more precise data calculated on the ground, so mission control sends a new state vector - a new set of numbers telling the shuttle where it is and where it is going.

        This particular night Doug put together the new state vector and checked it and sent it to the flight director to be uploaded to the shuttle. The shuttle computer receives this string of numbers, and to avoid errors it sends the numbers back to be checked against the original. On this occasion, due to static or radio issues, the vector the shuttle received was wrong. But, the flight director didn’t notice the error and sent the command for the shuttle computers to accept the new state vector.

        The next thing they knew, the computers thought they were out past the edge of the solar system and spinning at a furious rate - that’s what these wrong numbers told them. So the shuttle tried to recover from this sudden change of vector, and began to spin itself the other way - but since it wasn’t spinning, it started to! The shuttle would have also tried to maneuver back to the right orbit - billions of miles - but fortunately the maneuvering system was shut down. As the shuttle began to spin it lost most of its radio contact with the ground - and the astronauts were asleep. So mission controllers had to repeatedly send an alarm which finally got through and woke them up so they could correct the by that time wild spinning of their vehicle.

        My point? It’s important to know the right vector - the right speed and the right direction to go where you want to go. We’ll see today in Hebrews 12:1-3 that if we’re going to succeed in this race we call the Christian life, then our life of faith must have both motion and direction. The race of faith must have both motion and direction.

I. The life of faith must have motion (Hebrews 12:1)

        Each of the three verses we’re studying today makes a key point about this truth. Let me read the whole section one more time, and then we’ll start with verse 1, which shows that a life of faith must have motion. Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. 2Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

        The author of Hebrews builds a compelling picture of the race of faith. He first links it back to chapter 11 by saying that the faithful who have lived by faith before us are spectators in a vast arena, gathered to observe and encourage our race of faith. We are surrounded by a cloud of unseen witnesses. The Greek word for witness is martyr: these are the martyrs of the faith. A related word ‘martureo’ is used four times in Hebrews 11 of those who gained approval or were commended by God. In other words the spectators who are watching are not just idlers looking on for entertainment - the are those who have completed their race of faith and to whom God has already given his well done. They are the earlier champions of this race.

        Over 20 years ago, Bill Broadhurst entered the Pepsi Challenge a 10,000_meter road race in Omaha, Nebraska. Years before he had undergone surgery for an aneurysm in his brain which left him partially paralyzed on the left side of his body. So, on a misty July morning in 1981, an impaired Bill Broadhurst stood with 1,200 agile runners at the starting line. The starter's gun sounded, and the crowd surged forward. Bill threw his barely responsive left leg forward, pivoted on it as his right foot hit the pavement, and began his run. By the time he had taken only a few slow steps the rest of the participants were out of sight.

        His slow plop_plop_plop rhythm seemed to mock him. Sweat rolled down his face. Pain pierced his ankle. But he kept moving. Two and a half hours later, Bill Broadhurst reached the finish line. As he crossed it slowly but triumphantly, a man approached from a small group of bystanders still hanging around. Bill recognized him from newspaper photographs as the world_class marathon runner Bill Rodgers. "Here," said Rodgers, as he put his medal for that day's competition around Bill's neck. "You've worked harder for this than I have."

        The Christian race you and I are running is like that. The champions who crossed the line ahead of us are watching the race as encouragers. You’re in a great Olympic arena, crowded with folks like Abraham and Isaac, Moses and Joshua, David and Jonathan, Rahab and Ruth, those who passed the test and lived in faith - and they are encouraging you and I to do the same.

        How do we do it? First, we have to throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. R. Kent Hughes describes the plant called the sundew. A fly lands on a leaf to taste the sweet that nectar appears there. Instantly, three crimson-tipped finger-like hairs bend over and touch the fly’s wings, holding it in a sticky grasp. The fly tries to escape, but the more it struggles the more it is coated with adhesive. Soon the fly relaxes, thinking in its fly-mind “things could be worse” as it feasts on the sundew’s sweetness. When the captive is entirely at the plant’s mercy, the edges of the leaf fold inward, forming a closed fist. Two hours later the fly is an empty sucked skin and the hungry fist unfolds for another easy entanglement.

        This is nature’s allegory to the way sin deals with us - it maliciously entangles and consumes us. Notice that the writer refers to ‘the’ sin which so easily entangles. For many people there is one sin which captures you more easily than any other. I’ve often called this your characteristic sin. Some sins that tempt and degrade others hold little appeal for you. Sexual sin may be the Achilles’ heel for many men, but not all. Someone who has no problem with that sin may regularly fall into financial impropriety. Dishonesty may never tempt the next person, but just cross him and you’ll encounter a deadly temper. And so on. The text encourages us to ‘throw off’ these clinging sins as a runner throws off his warm up clothing at the start of a race.

        The other thing we are to throw off is the weight that hinders. No one ever won a race carrying a large-screen TV or a house or a car or a gourmet restaurant or any of the other things that tend to tie us down. These things are not sin: some can carry them without being hindered - but most have to throw them off. And I’m not just talking about possessions - I’m also talking about the things that hinder us by monopolizing our time: busyness, activities, time-wasters. Do you have some of those? I’m also talking about the things that can overly occupy our minds and imaginations: work, hobbies, political, social or economic concerns. I’m talking about whatever you’ve added on to your life that gets in the way of whole-hearted devotion to Christ.

        We are to throw aside these sins, these hindrances, and then we are to run. This Greek word might be used by a military commander to say ‘Charge!’. It means rush into battle, make progress, make an effort, exert yourself. It’s the opposite of a passive Christian life - intentionally active. Not just surviving what life throws at us, not just coping with circumstances, but pressing on. One of the basic questions we can ask ourselves is: am I moving or am I stagnant as a believer? You’ll never get anywhere if you are not moving. God’s design for you and me is that we grow, that we change. In the Christian life, those sins that so easily entangle you are supposed to be set aside. Those weights that get you down are supposed to be removed so you can run. You and I are supposed to be leaving behind the things that hinder us.

        Paul said this in Philippians: “Not that I’ve already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on to the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

        We need to run. And the race isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. We’re to run with endurance. Someone once said that the Christian life is not a single race, but a series of races one after the other. Sometimes it feels like a series of races all at the same time. The key is endurance - to keep on keeping on despite obstacles, pain and set backs.

        At 7 P.M. on October 20, 1968, a few thousand spectators remained in the Mexico City Olympic Stadium. It was cool and dark. The last of the marathon runners, each exhausted, were being carried off to first_aid stations. As the remaining spectators prepared to leave, those near the marathon gates suddenly heard the sound of sirens and police whistles. All eyes turned to the gate. A lone figure wearing the colors of Tanzania entered the stadium. His name was John Stephen Akhwari. His leg bloodied and bandaged, severely injured in a fall, he grimaced with each step. He hobbled around the 400_meter track. The spectators rose and applauded him as if he were the winner. After crossing the finish line, Akhwari slowly walked off the field. In view of his injury and having no chance of winning a medal, someone asked him why he had not quit. He replied, "My country did not send me 7,000 miles to start the race. They sent me 7,000 miles to finish it."

        That’s the way of the Christian life. We are left here not to start the race, but to finish it – and to finish it well. We are to run with perseverance the race marked out for us. The Greek word translated race is ‘agona’ from which we get our word agony. Marathon runners will tell you that the race is often an agony. The life of faith is often painful and difficult. But those who have gone before us, who have gone through far more pain and more difficulty than we will, they encourage us to keep on, to press on, to forget what lies behind and run.

II. The life of faith must have direction (Hebrews 12:2)

        But our running must have direction. You cannot endure the difficulties of the race if you don’t know where you’re going. The race of faith must have motion and direction, motion toward a clear goal. Verse 2. Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

        We find our direction when we fix our eyes on Jesus and follow hard after him. ‘Fixing our eyes’ means not looking at anything else, deliberately looking at one thing. The classic illustration is Peter, who got out of the boat and walked on the water toward Jesus, but faltered when he took his eyes off Jesus to look at the wind and waves. Gail’s brother is thinking of getting a license plate that says WKG ON H2O, walking on water, to remind him what is possible if his focus remains on Christ.

        In any race it is critically important to keep your eyes on the goal rather than looking to the right or the left. In 1954 Roger Bannister broke the four minute barrier for the mile. 46 days later John Landy of Australia lowered the mark to 3:58.9. That set up a match race between the two at the British Empire Games in Vancouver, a race Bannister considers more significant than the first four_minute mile. "It was a head_to_head race" Bannister said. "Whoever would win could reasonably be called the world's fastest man. When the race came, Landy led. “He really left me at the half_mile. I didn’t get close until the last bend. Then he looked over his shoulder to see where I was and I overtook him.” Bannister won in 3:58.8 and Landy was timed in 3:59.6. Why? Because one took his eyes off the goal, and the other didn’t.

        Jesus is the goal on which we fix our eyes because Jesus is the author and perfecter of our faith. You could translate this ‘the pioneer and perfecter’ or ‘the forerunner and finisher’. He is the one who has gone before us to blaze or pioneer the trail, and he has completed the task perfectly on our behalf. He is the one who did the things we believe in - the objective truths of the faith. He is also the one who gives us the faith to believe these things: the heart response to these truths. On top of that he is the one who was perfectly faithful and thus provides the perfect model of our faith. Our goal is to become like him. So if you want to run with endurance you look to Jesus because of what he has done in dying on the cross and rising from the dead, you look to Jesus because he is the one who strengthens your faith so it can endure, and you look to Jesus because he is the one who sets the example of endurance.

        It’s this last that the author expands on. He says that for the joy set before him, Jesus endured the cross, despising its shame. He endured because he knew it would result in joy: the joy of redeeming many, the joy of fulfilling his father’s will, the joy of an eternal love relationship with those he saved. This joy was ‘set before him’, the same word we saw in the previous verse about the race set before us. He faced what he was to endure with joy, because he knew the outcome. We can look at the race we endure with joy because we also know the outcome of our endurance.

        This is what Paul teaches in 2 Corinthians 4. “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

        For the sake of this joy, and for the sake of our souls, and as an example to us, Jesus endured the cross. Peter describes it this way: “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” His redemption achieved it’s goal. Jesus paid the price of our sins.

        But now he has been raised from death and has sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on High. The verses we looked at last week in Zechariah presumed the resurrection because they pictured his reign on the throne. These verses do the same. Having been raised, he has how taken his rightful place as high priest standing before the altar, as victorious king sitting on the throne, submissive only to the Father at whose right hand he sits. This is the place of joy he looked ahead to while enduring - and it is the place of joy we anticipate while we persevere in our life of faith.

III. The life of faith must have endurance (Hebrews 12:3)

        So faith must have both motion and direction. The motion is to run with endurance along the path the Lord sets before us, but the direction is to run always toward Jesus. We do that because he is the object of our faith. We do it because he strengthens our faith. We do it because we are to be like him, and follow his example. This is also the point of Verse 3: Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

        The words “consider him” have mathematical overtones, and imply deliberate calculation. The readers are exhorted to weigh up the endurance of Christ, to focus on, assess and evaluate his sufferings and his shame as they encounter their own hardships. Philip Yancey uses an incident from Nazi Germany to help in this calcuation: “In a memoir of the years before World War II, Pierre Van Paassen tells of an act of humiliation by Nazi storm troopers who had seized an elderly Jewish rabbi and dragged him to headquarters. In the far end of the same room, two colleagues were beating another Jew to death, but the captors of the rabbi decided to have some fun. They stripped him naked and commanded that he give the sermon he had prepared for the synagogue. The rabbi asked if he could wear his yarmulke, and the Nazis, grinning, agreed. The trembling rabbi proceeded to deliver in a raspy voice his sermon on what it means to walk humbly before God, while being poked and prodded by the hooting Nazis and hearing the last cries of his dying neighbor.”

        Yancey says “When I read the gospel accounts of the imprisonment, torture, and execution of Jesus, I think of that naked rabbi standing humiliated in a police station. Even after watching scores of movies, and reading the Gospels over and over, I still cannot fathom the indignity, the shame endured by God's Son on earth, stripped naked, flogged, spat on, struck in the face, garlanded with thorns.”

        That’s the kind of contrast that puts our endurance and hardships in the right perspective. If we will take our focus off ourselves and consider him, we’ll run this race of faith with more endurance. We will not grow weary and lose heart. When we don’t endure it is almost always because we get discouraged and give up. We sit down by the side of the road and let the race pass us by. And while we sit there the sin that so easily entangles us entangles us, and the weight that weighs us down weighs us down. We’ve got to keep moving, with a vector that always points to Jesus.

        How can we do this? Let me suggest a very small daily discipline. Do these three things every day: First, ask ‘what sin or weight needs to be set aside today so that I can wholeheartedly follow Jesus?’ Second, ask ‘What opportunity is there today to serve Christ, by serving others, or to represent him well in difficult circumstances?’ Third, remind yourself what Christ has done for you and remember what a great salvation and what an example of love and endurance he gave. So: set aside sin, look for opportunities to serve and remember his example of love and endurance.

        I opened with a couple of vector stories to illustrate that the life of faith must have both motion and direction. Let me close with a couple of airplane stories illustrating the need for Christlike endurance. On a commuter flight from Portland, Maine, to Boston, Henry Dempsey, the pilot, heard an unusual noise near the rear of the small plane. He turned the controls over to his co_pilot and went to check it out. As he reached the tail, the plane hit an air pocket, and Dempsey was tossed against the rear door, which had not been properly latched. It flew open and sucked him out.

        The co_pilot, seeing the red light that indicated an open door, radioed for an emergency landing. He reported that the pilot had fallen and requested a search of the ocean. After the plane landed, they found Henry Dempsey – holding onto the plane’s ladder. Somehow he had caught the ladder, held on for ten minutes as the plane flew 200 mph at an altitude of 4,000 feet, and then, during landing, kept his head from hitting the runway, only twelve inches away. It took medics several minutes to pry Dempsey's fingers from the ladder. That’s endurance.

        In February 1979, a small plane crashed in the San Gabriel Mountains. The passengers were a young woman and an attorney with his eleven_year_old son. The pilot and the attorney were killed in the crash. The boy and the young woman huddled in the snow near the plane for seven hours, hoping for rescue. Finally they decided they must attempt the treacherous descent of the mountain or freeze to death.

        Shortly after they began, the woman fell 350 feet to her death. The boy, all 75 pounds of him, was lost and alone on a mountain in the freezing cold. Bloody and bruised, broken bones in both hands, his father lying dead _ what was he to do? He didn’t give up. He slid most of the way down on the seat of his pants, clutching a stick in his fractured hands. When he began to slide too fast, he stuck the stick in the snow as a brake. About 5 p.m. he was found near a town at the foot of the mountain and rushed to a hospital. Wet, bloody, and exhausted, he was still very much alive.

        Before his release from the hospital there was a news conference. The boy encountered a barrage of questions about his ordeal. How did he find the courage to go on? Didn't he feel like quitting? He answered simply, "I'm alive today because my dad taught me never to give up." Like that boy our father has taught us - through his son - to run with perseverance the race marked out for us - the race that has Jesus as it’s example and it’s goal. Your Christian life and mine must have motion, must have that direction, and must have endurance.