Palm Sunday March 24, 2013
162, 725 [TLH alt. 160], 409, 161
Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin. And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons: “My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; For whom the Lord loves He chastens, And scourges every son whom He receives.”
In the name of Jesus Christ, to whom we today sing our hosannas and at whose feet we lay our palm branches, dear fellow-redeemed:
As I’m sure you noticed, the way I addressed you drew some parallels between ourselves—Christians in the 21st century—and the people who lined the streets that first Palm Sunday. They sang hosanna then, we sing hosanna today. They decked the way with palm branches, we deck our church with palm branches.
But I don’t want to draw the parallel too sharply. Why not? Because there are some aspects of that Palm Sunday crowd that I hope are not similar to us. For instance, I don’t think we’d want to emulate their faithfulness because they weren’t very faithful. In fact, it’s a crowning irony of Palm Sunday that many of the same people who shouted Hosanna! that day were, by the following Friday, shouting something completely different: “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” If a person wanted to put it in terms of running a race, I guess you’d say that those Jerusalem crowds were sprinters, not marathoners. They started out of the gate fast, but in less than a week they had run out of steam.
Many things have changed in the 20 centuries that have passed since the time of Christ, but running isn’t one of them. Running is pretty much the same now as it was then. That’s why our text is so easy to understand.
The writer to the Hebrews knew that everyone could identify with what it takes to be a runner. Even those of us who perhaps haven’t run for quite a long time can easily understand that a sprint isn’t the same as a mile, and a mile isn’t the same as a marathon. For a longer course, endurance is needed.
The course our text speaks of today is a marathon called the Christian life. If you’ve been confused or saddened by painful trials in your life recently, if you’ve felt weighed down and encumbered by daily cares and concerns, if you’ve sometimes even felt like calling it quits and giving up your Christian race, then the writer to the Hebrews has some encouragement for you today. Consider with me the theme: THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS AN ENDURANCE RACE. Here are three tips for running it: I. Lose the weight, II. Learn from champions, and III. Don’t quit.
In the previous chapter, the writer to the Hebrews had been talking about some of the great spiritual heroes of the Bible. People like Noah, Abraham, and Moses. People who ran the race and won, who successfully endured great trials and difficulties in the course of their lives as believers, and triumphed in the end. Keeping in mind that great cloud of witnesses, he says: “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” [v.1] Let’s recognize that our Christian life is a marathon, not a sprint, and let’s run it with endurance. The first key to building endurance is obvious: Lose the weight!
Excess weight isn’t just bad for athletes, it’s bad for anybody. Did you know that obesity puts a person at 50% higher risk of cancer? It brings a 70% higher risk of diabetes, and it pretty much doubles the danger of high blood pressure and heart disease.
These are all serious conditions, but do you know what is even more serious? The spiritual risk involved when your Christian life gets weighed down and encumbered by things that don’t belong there. Our text says, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” [v.1]
Lay aside every weight—in other words, don’t let peripheral things detract from and distract you from the main thing. Alexander the Great learned that the hard way. In the 4th century B.C., his army was advancing on Persia. At one critical point, it appeared that his troops might be defeated. The soldiers had taken so much plunder from their previous campaigns that they had become weighed down and were losing their effectiveness in combat. Alexander immediately commanded that all the spoils be thrown into a heap and burned. The men complained bitterly, but they soon came to see the wisdom of the order. One historian wrote, “It was as if wings had been given to them—they walked lightly again, and victory was assured.”
The Christian life is an endurance race. So let me ask you this: “What baggage is weighing you down? What material things are you allowing to encroach on your life as a Christian and distract you from the main thing? Which possessions, which hobbies, which relationships are you allowing to come between you and your Savior? Our text says, “let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us.”
“Ensnares” is an interesting word. It’s a word that means something that cleverly places itself around your feet and entangles you, tripping you up. Do you have sins like that? Pet sins that you have a hard time giving up? Lose the weight! Get rid of those things. It’s not safe to keep them around! John says in his first epistle, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life--is not of the Father but is of the world.And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.” (1 John 2:15-17).
We have to admit that we’ve at times been far too cozy with the sinful ways of the world—much too weighed down with the cares and pleasures of this life. So how do we solve that? Where do we look for the power to change our lives, to slim down spiritually, and run the kind of race God wants us to run? Remember that the Christian life is an endurance race and the second key to running it is: Learn from champions. The writer says, “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame.” [v.2]
Looking unto Jesus. The writer speaks in chapter 11 about all the Old Testament champions of faith—people who ran the race, who often endured great suffering, and emerged triumphant. They are champions—heroes we can look up to and from whom we can draw inspiration. But how did they do what they did? Well, says the writer, they had a Champion, too. They believed in the promise of a Savior. They looked forward, in faith, to Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who would one day arrive to take away the sins of the world. He’s our Champion, too. He’s the one we need to direct our attention to.
“Looking to Jesus…” The Greek verb is quite revealing because it’s a very comprehensive word. It’s the Greek word for ‘tunnel vision,’ really. It doesn’t just mean to look at something. It means ‘intensely focusing on one object to the exclusion of everything else.’ The point is quite clear: The Bible says that as we live our lives we are to focus our main attention on our Champion Jesus Christ and not let all the other things in our lives distract us from that.
Once again, unfortunately, that’s exactly where we fall down. We are all too easily distracted from our Lord Jesus and from our Christian duties. We’re supposed to learn from Christ, but if you’re like me you may sometimes feel like you’re getting older and older but you haven’t learned anything!
You know you ought to spend time each day in prayer, and you intend to pray, but…time passes, the phone rings, things come up and you just don’t do it. You intend to read the Bible, but you never get around to it. There’s that person at work whom you intended to talk to about Jesus, but you got distracted and one thing led to another and before you know it it’s six months later. And the biggest distraction, of course, the one that most interferes with our Christian endurance race the most, is sin. You probably feel like the Apostle Paul was reading your mind when he wrote, “I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice” (Romans 17:18-19). Or as Jesus Himself puts it even more simply: “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41).
The text says to look to Jesus, focus on Jesus; and remember that we focus on Jesus not just as an example to follow, though He is that, but primarily as the Champion who endured incredible suffering for us in order to redeem us from our sins! During this Lenten season we’re reminded again that Jesus went through a lot more suffering than any of us ever will—suffering we can’t even imagine. He is the “author and finisher of our faith.” [v.2] He showed us how to begin the race of faith, how to endure, and how to end in triumph. But how did He do it? Why did He do it? What was the goal that helped Him endure? Our text tells us. It was “for the joy that was set before Him.” [v.2] He could see the glory that waited on the other side of the cross. The thing that kept Him going was the joy of redeeming you from your sins. It was the sheer joy that He must have felt already that first Palm Sunday. The joy of knowing that, if He could make it though this week; if He could endure the betrayal and the mockery, the scourge and the crown of thorns, and the cross; if He could only finish the race then you would be free! You would be free!
And He succeeded. He finished His race in victory! The writer says, “He endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” [v.2]
Lent isn’t over yet. We still have Maundy Thursday and the somber memorial of Good Friday to observe—more sober reflection and repentance. But we know where we’re headed, don’t we? We know what comes in seven days: Easter and the triumph of the open tomb! That empty grave of our Savior is the joy that is set before us. It is the joy that helps us endure for it proves something once and for all—it proves that God the Father accepted His Son’s sacrifice for the payment of our sins. Paul said, “Jesus was delivered for our offences and raised again for our justification” (Romans 4:25). As sure as Jesus rose from the dead, you have been justified, declared not guilty, an heir of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ!
The Christian life is an endurance race. If you want to run the race you need to lose the weight and learn from champions—especially your great Champion, Jesus Christ. But there’s something else that’s so obvious you might overlook it at first and that is: Don’t quit. Don’t quit the race! It’s important to understand the origin of your obstacles and challenges and to let God help you overcome them, rather than allowing them to overcome you.
Our text says, “For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin.” [vv.3-4]
Don’t quit! If you’re tempted to be discouraged by the hostility of the world toward your Christian faith, then consider Jesus. He endured far more hostility than you’ll ever see. By His suffering He has justified you! You are going to make it in the end! Don’t quit!
The Christian life is an endurance race. It is a race that often includes trials and hardships—things that hurt, things that can bewilder and discourage us. The writer to the Hebrews says, don’t be discouraged. Don’t quit! “You have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons: ‘My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; For whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives.’” [vv.5-6]
You parents, ask yourselves: would a loving father or mother ever neglect to discipline their child? Never! It’s an essential part of raising healthy children, and that’s exactly why our heavenly Father allows trials and suffering to come into our lives. It is to discipline us, to draw us closer to His side, to make our faith stronger. It’s a sign, not of God’s disfavor, but of His favor and His love for His children. So don’t be discouraged by trials and suffering—be encouraged! It means God loves you! Don’t quit!
A Christian writer named George Matheson once said that it’s harder to run with patience than it is to sit with patience. He wrote, “To lie down in the time of grief, to be quiet under the stroke of adverse fortune, implies a great strength; but I know of something that implies a strength greater still: it is the power to work under stress; to have a great weight at your heart and still run; to have a deep anguish in your spirit and still perform your daily tasks.”
Once again on this Palm Sunday our God reminds us that our race is not a sprint. The Christian life is an endurance race. So lose the weight, learn from champions and don’t quit. One day, by the grace of God, we will offer our palms and sing our hosannas in the very presence of our Savior Himself. We will be able to say with the Apostle Paul: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me.” (2 Timothy 4:7-8). Amen.
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