Like many of you, I find myself a little bit more tired than usual. No, I’m not talking about my trip to Iowa to work on the house there. I am talking about that wonderful event we call the Olympics. Yes, like many of you I find myself staying up until midnight watching the events--thank God we live in Central Time, or we would feel even worse. NBC seems to think that the Olympics are a human interest story interrupted by a couple competitions, but the bigger part of the reason I like to watch them is to watch these fabulous athletes do what they do best on the world’s biggest stage: Phelps and Ledecky dominating in the pool; Bolt on the straightaway; our men’s and women’s basketball teams; our women’s gymnastic teams, to name a few. Those of you who have been here for some time are not surprised. I played football for fourteen years, so there must be a love of sports buried deep within me, right? And those who are new learned that last month as I tried to beat Federer on a bicycle on that homage to the tour on our bikes at the Y – he may not have been racing me, but I nearly killed myself setting personal bests on trails to barely eek out a win over him. I married a wife who made it to the select camp for the Field Hockey Olympic team. If I don’t bring my A game to our contests, she will certainly happily beat me.
That love of competition, of course, makes me think I could do some of those sports on television. Right? I see the nods. Except for the fear of looking really stupid to our friends and neighbors, who here does not think they could race walk? Some among us could sail, right? Anyone here good on horseback? Badminton? Ping Pong . . . er, I mean Table Tennis? Bowling? Archery? Air Rifle? I see some nods. It’s that mistaken belief that I think I could do some of those events that had me laughing at Bill Murray. . . yet again, this week. One of my favorite meme’s on Facebook this week has been Murray’s quote that every event ought to have a regular guy or gal competing, just so we couch potatoes can get an idea how hard these competitions are and how elite each of these athletes are. He’s got a point. There’s nothing like reality to snap us back from fantasy land!
One of the other reasons I like watching the Olympics is watching the effort of those who do not get the headlines. Our athletes are often paid to train. In many of the other countries, though, they work full time jobs and train around their jobs and family obligations. They do not expect to medal. They simply compete for their love of the sport and to test themselves against the best. For example, there is the Greek marathoner who found out by accident that he made the Olympic team for Greece about a month ago. He was reading the paper over lunch at his law firm in Athens and saw his name listed as one of Greece’s Olympians. In the interview I read, he was excited just to be going and racing against the powerful Africans who dominate distance running. He had no illusions about winning. He had no illusions about being on the podium. He did dream of entering the Olympic stadium, though, to the roar of the crowd.
That brings me, of course, back to our Letter to the Hebrews. The author has a lesson for the everyman and everywoman within us. Often times in church, we look upon the heroes of Scripture as if they were superhuman. Sure, what woman among us wants to go through labor as late in life as Sarah, never mind the nursing, diaper changing, and rearing that go with motherhood? Who among us would dare to speak to a leader like Moses? Amos? Hosea? We might claim we want to be with Jesus, but how many of us would be thrilled if He appeared to us the way He did Paul or Mary Magdalene or the other disciples? How would you react if He showed up at your house for dinner with a few of His close friends?
One of the reasons for Scripture, though, is that it reminds us that our spiritual heroes are men and women just like us. I know for some of you I have highlighted the faults or weaknesses of our heroes a bit much in my short tenure here, but that has been intentional. Far too many Adventers have told me they could not possibly do the things that this saint or that saint did. Far too many Adventers have shared with me those sins, those weaknesses, those character defects which make them unsuitable ambassadors for God. So, I have tried to remind us of the faults present in all our heroes. Peter has incredible mountaintop experiences and incredible valleys in His journey with Christ. We talked briefly last week about Abraham’s and Sarah’s. This week, the author of Hebrews gives us a quick laundry list:
Gideon – He argued even more than Moses that he was unsuited to the task that God had given him.
Rahab – we and the author of Hebrews still refer to her as Rahab the Prostitute. She is not “Rahab the woman who protected the spies” or “Rahab of Jericho.” She is still Rahab the Prostitute some three thousand years later! Guess what she did to earn that moniker.
Barak – few of us know his story. He demanded that God send the judge and prophetess Deborah with him to battle. He had the opportunity to win great glory for God and himself, and he doubted God. God still used him, but the glory of victory was given to Jael, the wife of Heber.
Samson – Everyone knows this story, right? Samson was strong until he let Delilah cut off his hair. That’s the Sunday School version. The real version, though, points out that Samson was the right tackle of the football team. There are sharp people in Scripture; Samson is not confused with them. He put the “duh” in dummy. By the end of his story, though, God has gotten through to Samson. Samson is given back his strength one more time in order that God might be glorified in the destruction of the Philistine temple.
Jephthah – He won a great victory for Israel over the Ammonites, I think it was, but he made a stupid vow to God that ultimately cost him his daughter.
David – Let’s forget Bathsheba for this time and focus on God’s pastor. When God gives David the choice of his family being punished or the people being punished for David’s sin of taking a census, what does the great shepherd of God’s people choose? That’s right. He asks that the punishment fall on the flock.
Samuel – I enjoy Samuel. First he does not want Saul king, then he grieves for Saul. At first he feels slighted that Israel wants a king, then God reminds him who really was slighted, and then seems to like the idea of king better than he should.
The author goes on to list the deaths and torture of nameless saints, those who were stoned, those who were sawn in two, those who were imprisoned, those who were beaten, those who lost everything they had. And the author declares to us and to the first readers and hearers of this letter that the world was not worthy of any of them! These common folk, whose names have been lost to us in many cases, are praised by the author as being not worthy of this world. Why?
The whole section of Hebrews has been concerned with faith. Last week, we looked at Abraham and Sarah and how their faith was blessed with an incredible covenant by God. This week, the letter continues with some of the individuals whose faith stands out in Scripture and in life. And in this week when we are in the midst of Olympic celebration, of the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, the author reminds you and me that faith is not subject to the rules of this earth. Faith is not something that can be measured, weighed, calculated like world and Olympic records. Faith is simply that belief that what God promises will come to be, sometimes despite the circumstances in which we find ourselves. His only demand is that we get into the race. His only expectation is that we endure.
The Olympians have their battle cry higher, stronger, faster! You and I are told only that we need to endure! It is a tough thing to endure. Life is hard. The world constantly testifies against the wisdom of its creator. The Enemy of God seeks to convince us that we have to do enough to be worthy of God. Yet God reminds us and commends to Scripture to the stories of those who simply endured. And do not think yourself immune to the need for endurance. How many of us face diseases such as cancer in our lives? How many of us face privation in our lives? How many of us face broken relationships in our lives? How many of us are wounded by our brothers and sisters and pastors in our churches? And we are all bombarded each and every moment of our lives with “wisdom” that claims supremacy over God’s. It is no wonder that so many fall away over the course of their lives. It is no small wonder that the author of Hebrews reminds us that we need to endure.
In a few moments, Penny will speak to us about the work and ministry of St. Luke’s. The picture that she will paint is a grim one, because the world around us is grim and dark. And in the midst of that incredible need, she will explain how St. Luke’s needs money, and talents, and time of those called by God to help fight evil, to be candles in the darkness. And make no mistake, the evil that she will describe, the need and marginalization to which she speaks as an expert in our midst, is overwhelming. By worldly standards, you and I, individually and collectively, can really do nothing to combat it. Adventers like Stewart may bring 500 lbs of food this year, but, like the little boy with a few loaves and a few fish, what is that among so many? By worldly standards, the monetary resources necessary are simply too great for us to expect to ever conquer the need, but Adventers like Ron and Janice and Jerry and others head down week after week to work at This and That, to raise monetary support for the work of St. Luke’s. I could go on, but I will let her share that thunder.
In many ways, you and I are like the Greek marathoner. When we enter into ministry, we have no real expectation of being another Abraham or Mary or Ruth or Daniel or whoever we admire. We have no expectation, when we lend our meager resources or talents to the fight against evil, that we will be victorious. The need is simply too great. But we fight on. We run through those walls that appear. We grit our teeth and put one foot in front of the next. And that, brothers and sisters, is all that God asks of us. He asks us to endure. He values our endurance. Our labor might go unnoticed by the world which is not worthy of us, but it noticed by our Lord and Savior. It is often noticed by those around us. And to each of them, you and I have the opportunity and responsibility of becoming every bit the ambassador of Christ as did Abraham & Sarah, Deborah, Moses, Priscilla, Samson, David, Barak, and countless others. Our God promises that nothing He purposes is in vain, and our Lord promises that He knows and loves each one of us like a first born son or daughter. More amazingly, simply by enduring, you and I are promised a crown or garland or medal of victory. At some point in the future, after we finish this marathon we call life, after we have run over the mountains and through the valleys, through scorching heat and freezing rain, you and I are promised a celebration that will dwarf the experience of our marathon runners. We will enter the stadium of God’s people to the roars and acclamations of a job well done, if we simply endure. The higher, stronger, and faster has already been accomplished by our Lord Christ. We need only to follow in His footsteps and trust that He will make our endurance meaningful, and that, in the end, He will share the glory, His glory, with us and with all who endured in faith to the end of this race we call life.