Are You a Tortoise or a Hare?
Vicar Brian Henderson
NOTE: Parishioners have just heard the Tortoise and Hare story in the children’s chat.
Introduction: Beth Anne DeCiantis was a fine athlete; as good as they come some would say. She lived and breathed her sport, which was marathon running. After much encouragement from her friends, family and coaches, she attempted to qualify for the 1992 Olympic Trials marathon. As a female runner she was required to complete the 26-mile, 385-yard race in less than two hours and forty-five minutes.
When the starter’s pistol sounded, Beth started strong and stayed at the front of the pack, but around the 23 mile mark, she began to weaken. When she reached the final straightaway at 2 hours and 43 minutes, she was left with just two minutes to qualify. With just two hundred yards to go before she reached the finish line, she stumbled and fell. Dazed and exhausted, she stayed down for a total of 20 seconds. The crowd began to yell, "Get up!" Soon their individual encouragements turned into an organized chant, “Get Up! Get Up! Get Up!” The clock was ticking -- 2:44, there was now less than a minute to go.
Beth Anne staggered to her feet and began walking. Five yards short of the finish, with ten seconds to go, she fell again. The crown began to cheer her on again, “Don’t Stop! Don’t Stop! Don’t Stop!” She began to crawl, the crowd cheering her on, and she crossed the finish line on her hands and knees. Her time? Two hours, 44 minutes, 57 seconds. (Source: Runner’s World 8/91)
I. Our text this morning reads, “¹Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, ²looking to Jesus, the founder and perfector of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right of the throne of God.”
Like Beth Anne we too are surrounded by a hopeful crowd that cheers us on. Hebrews 12:1 calls them a “great cloud of witnesses.” They are the saints that have gone before us, who have run their race of faith in this life and they eagerly wait for us to complete our race as well. Some of those who make up that great cloud of witnesses are laid out for us in the preceding chapter of Hebrews. They were normal people like you and me, who faced great challenges in their lives but persevered and did not quit believing the promises of God. Men like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, King David, and even a prostitute named Rahab. All of these Old Testament saints along with the Apostles and Disciples from the New Testament, and even recent inductees who have perhaps mentored and helped you learn about Jesus have all left their example so that we too would read God’s Word, be encouraged and know that “He who began a good work (in us) will complete it in the day of Jesus Christ!” (Philippians 1:6)
II. The Book of Hebrews is actually a letter of warning and encouragement from a Pastor to his congregation of Hebrew or Jewish Christians that worshiped somewhere in Italy. The Pastor’s message was meant to bring strength to a congregation that quite frankly was utterly exhausted and in danger of dying. They were tired--tired of serving the world, tired of worshiping differently than their non-Christian friends, tired of learning what it means to be Christian, and tired of being considered strange people and many times discriminated against within their society. They were tired of their constant spiritual struggle, tired of remembering to pray, and God help them, they had even grown tired of Jesus. They were what my friends from the south would call just plain “Dog Tired,” a fatigue so draining that your hands continually hang at your side and your knees become weak (12:12). Each one thought that their situation was unique, but collectively they were effecting the entire congregation. Attendance was quickly dropping at worship (10:25), and they were losing confidence in the promises of God concerning Jesus. The Pastor’s congregation was tired all right, but they were not exactly tired of sin. But to be fair, they weren’t tired of being a Christian either. What they were tired of was the struggle between the two, the fight to remain faithful to their Savior, when everything around them seemed to encourage them to give up. Does this sound familiar?
Perhaps our congregation has more in common with the Hebrew congregation than we care to admit. If we are honest, we must admit that there is a certain weariness that many of us are experiencing. Some of us, like those within the Hebrew congregation, have simply decided to take a break from following Jesus with all of our hearts, and sadly, others have simply just given up. Like the members of the Hebrew congregation, maybe we too have grown tired of fighting the problems that are present within our extremely “un-churched” society, tired of providing Christian love and help to ungrateful people who will undoubtedly only turn away without a word of thanks. Perhaps we’ve grown tired of struggling to keep our church-school going and providing a “Christ-centered” education to families who will most likely never join or even attend one of our worship services (outside of a service where their children play a part). Maybe we have grown tired of making visits to people who are only 'Church Shopping,’ because we know that they will never be excited by our liturgical style of worship. Or maybe we are just tired of battling our own personal addictions or problem sins that we just can’t ever seem to shake. Yes friends, if we’re honest with ourselves, we really are not that different from those Hebrew Christians are we? Maybe, we just need a break. “Let someone else work for a while!” Right?
No friends, this Book of Hebrews, and indeed the entire Bible is a testimony to just the opposite. For us, quitting is not an option! We have been called by God to walk by faith, growing in His Word and giving to Him all of our time, talents and money, and then allow Him to teach us how and when He will use us. Has God been talking to your heart? How have you responded? This truly is a hard race we run!
III. Remember our Children’s Message about the Tortoise and the Hare? What a story of contrasts! As a child I always missed the meaning because it seemed to me that the Hare could never have been that stupid, but in fact he was! He kept resting and taking it easy because he knew the Tortoise; he knew his limitations. But of course at the end of the story we find out that not only did he not really know the tortoise, why he did not even really know himself! How did the Tortoise win? He won because he knew that he was in a race. He won because He did not quit! He won because he finished!
In some ways, we are like the Tortoise. Like the Tortoise, we run because we have been told that we are in a race and like the Tortoise our race isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon that is completed one step at a time. Again, we are much like the Tortoise because we are also by worldly standards mismatched. The world would tell us that our opponent the devil is much stronger than us and it is his wish that we would feel completely mismatched! He will throw every distraction and evil force against us so that we will become intimidated and discouraged, and simply quit running. Our opponent will begin to point out how weak we are, and how sinful we have become. He will even begin to compare us to other Christians who really seem to be running their race so much better! “Look at Mr. and Mrs. Jones; they certainly don’t have the same problems with their children as you have. You are a disgrace to your faith!” He will also begin to point out our problem sins that perhaps we have successfully kept hidden from everyone else. All of this just to make us quit the race. But why, if he is so much powerful than us does he want us to quit? The answer is that the devil does not want you to know the truth! You see, unlike the tortoise, we are not competing against anyone; not against our neighbor and certainly not against the devil. The devil’s biggest fear is that we will come to know that Christ has already assured us of our victory by enduring the cross and despising its shame, simply for the joy of assuring us of our salvation! The truth is friends, we are guaranteed to win this race simply by refusing to quit. But how can we receive this “strength to continue?” By keeping our eyes on Jesus!
Hebrews 12:2 says “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus.” The only way to be assured of finishing the race is to make sure that we fix our eyes on the finish line. When runners or swimmers train, they are taught to look straight ahead. The reason is that if they divert their eyes to the left or to the right, they may become penalized for straying into their opponent’s lane. Like those competitors we must learn to fix our eyes on our Savior! See him in the wilderness being tempted and overcome with hunger and exhaustion. He does not quit. See Him being overcome with the burdens and concerns of a world that wanted Him to satisfy their needs (liberation from the Romans). Watch Him on His painful Good Friday walk, and obediently taking His place, our place, upon the cross, and He does not quit. He continues through the passion and with His final breath he declares “It is finished.” On Easter morning He rises from the dead and enters the winner’s circle, and as odd as it seems, He still does not quit!
You see He is still working to ensure that you and I will enter that same winner’s circle with Him. It is within that winners circle that we will finally understand that He was right there beside us the entire time, running step by step! But now is not the time to celebrate, because we have not yet arrived at the end. So we must continue our race step by step.
Step 1 Baptism, Step two Bible Study, Step 3 Confirmation, Step 4 the continuous invitation to partake of our Lord’s Holy Supper, Step 5, Worship services where we hear His word declared. Step 6, we pray for wisdom and a right relationship with Him and our fellowman, Step 7, we give our witness to the un-churched and our time, talents and money to His Church, Step 7, we mentor or teach younger Christians how to follow our Savior one step at a time. Step by step we continue our race until by God’s grace and through the endurance and strength provided by the One who never left our side, we shall enter His winners circle, which will then also become our winner’s circle; and what do we win? Our prize is the very joy of Jesus as he tells us “Well done my good and faithful servant, come and to sit with me at the right hand of the throne of God! It is there we shall praise Him as one of the many faces within the great cloud of witnesses, knowing that He has fulfilled His promise which says: “He who began a good work in you will complete it in the day of Jesus Christ!”
Conclusion: When times get rough, and they will, never forget that Jesus is all around you ensuring that all things will work together for your good, because you have been called according to His purpose. He is here with you in His Word and Sacraments and he is with you amongst these people we call Christians. But, even better news is that not only is He here working with us, but in fact, He's in Heaven working for you by talking to the Father about you right now! Let this story illustrate this truth for you and give you some hope:
ILLUSTRATION: A Union soldier in the Civil War lost a father and two brothers. At harvest time, his mother was the only one left at home. The soldier wanted to be discharged so he could go home to help with the harvest. He talked with the captain of his unit, and the captain gave him a furlough to go to Washington to ask the President of the United States for that discharge. The young man went to Washington. On the steps of the White House, he met a guard. He told the guard that he needed to talk to the President. The guard said, "Are you crazy? He's busy with other matters. Tell me your problem." After the soldier explained, the guard said, "Son, go back and fight the Rebs. We're in a war. You don't get everything you want."
The soldier was absolutely devastated. He walked the streets of Washington, tears streaming down his face. A little boy saw him and said, "Mister, what's wrong?" He didn't see anybody else around, and he needed to talk, so he just poured his heart out to this little boy. The little boy said, "Mister, I think I can help. Take my hand."
They made their way back through he streets of Washington, up the steps of the White House, past the guard, and into the Oval Office, where President Abraham Lincoln said, "Yes, Todd, what is it you want?" When Todd told his father about the young soldier's problems the President granted the soldier's request.
The incarnation made it possible for Jesus to go into the throne room on your behalf. There he can say, "Mary's really hurting, Father. Would you help her? Sam isn't going to make it if you don't intervene with your grace. Susie’s children are breaking her heart, she needs you. Thomas is dying. Would you intervene?"
And the Father says, "For your sake, I will."
May we look to Jesus the author and perfector of our faith to finish what He has begun!
In Jesus name….AMEN!