THE RACE (Hebrews 12:1-2 – Part 1)

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. [Hebrews 12:1-2 (NLT)]

peonyIn a recent Pearls Before Swine comic (drawn by Stephen Pastis), Rat asked Pig if he would be getting out of bed that day. Replying no, the sweet little swine explained, “I fear the big bad world and want no part of it.” When Rat told him he couldn’t stay in bed forever, Pig disagreed. “I have a bed, a bathroom, and a food delivery app that I’ve asked to just throw my food through the window.” In the next frame, we see Rat snug in bed with his friend and asking to borrow a pillow. I understand. There certainly are days in this crazy world of ours that we’d all prefer to just snuggle under the covers and never have to get up to face the challenges of the day, especially if DoorDash would deliver bedside. That, however, is not an option.

In Hebrews 12, the writer compares the Christian life to a footrace. Agōna is the Greek word used for race and means contest or struggle. If the word looks familiar, it’s because agōna is the source of our English word agony, meaning torment, intense mental or physical suffering (and even torture). Our race is not meant to be a life spent safe in bed. Rather than a fifty-yard dash, the Christian’s life is more like one of those mud obstacle races in which people roll in muddy pits, wade through ice water, haul heavy sand bags, leap over fire, climb ropes and nets, scale giant walls, and army-crawl under barbed wire. There’s going to be some agony!

Unlike Pig and Rat, we don’t have to drop out of the race because we think it’s too challenging. We know that perseverance in trouble is doable because of the great cloud of witnesses who actually did it: people like Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and David. None of them knew when their severe trials would be over and yet they continued their journeys in faith.

It’s not just in Scripture that we find these witnesses. Serving in India for 41 years without ever taking a furlough, missionary William Carey preached for seven years before he baptized his first Hindu convert. Then, after laboring twenty years translating Scripture into several Indian languages, all of his work went up in flames when a fire tore through his printing plant and warehouse. Yet, Carey faithfully endured as did Corrie ten Boom, who lived through the hell of a Nazi concentration camp but survived to tell her story of unfaltering faith and hope in God. In spite of being a quadriplegic for over 53 years and enduring chronic pain and two bouts of cancer, evangelist, author, and advocate Joni Eareckson Tada continues to run God’s race (only from a wheelchair). The many months of a pandemic, political unrest, and financial challenges seem like a walk in the park compared to what others have undergone before us.

Lord, as this new year begins, guide us so that we look not to the long course or rough track, not to our own strength or to the strength of the enemy, but to only to you and the examples of those who faithfully ran or continue to run the race you set before them. Rather than listening to the discouraging voices of the world around us, let us hear your voice of encouragement and hope. Give us strength to endure the race you’ve given us and the vision to see past our struggles.

 If you look at the world, you’ll be distressed. If you look within, you’ll be depressed. But if you look at Christ, you’ll be at rest. [Corrie ten Boom]

Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. … God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. [James 1:2-4,12 (NLT)]

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ANOTHER SONG OF MOSES

Take to heart all the words of warning I have given you today. Pass them on as a command to your children so they will obey every word of these instructions. These instructions are not empty words—they are your life! By obeying them you will enjoy a long life in the land you will occupy when you cross the Jordan River. [Deuteronomy 32:46-47 (NLT)]

queen anne's laceYesterday I wrote about the Song at the Sea or Song of Moses found in Exodus 15. There is another psalm known as the Song of Moses. Found in Deuteronomy 32, it was sung forty years after that first one, when the Israelites were again preparing to enter Canaan. With Moses’ death imminent, God had appointed Joshua as the nation’s new leader. Knowing that the people would turn their back on Him once in Canaan, the Lord met with Moses and dictated the words to this song. God’s words were ones of warning and Moses was to teach this song to the Israelites as a reminder of the consequences of disobedience.

Starting with praise for their “glorious God…a faithful God who does no wrong” [32:4], it moved into a brief history of the people and God’s faithfulness in bringing them out of bondage. Taking a prophetic turn, it then spoke of Israel’s future ingratitude, idolatry and apostasy, God’s resulting anger that “blazes forth like fire and burns to the depth of the grave,” [32:22] and the judgments of abandonment, disasters, famine, and terror that would be inflicted on Israel by their enemies because of their sin.

Even though the song ends on a note of hope, with God promising vengeance on Israel’s enemies and salvation for his people, it’s a grim prophecy and one we know comes true. We know that God’s clear warnings in this song were not heeded any more than His promise of victory in the first song was believed. We know of Israel’s idolatry and alliances with pagan nations, the divided kingdom, the northern kingdom’s defeat and removal to Assyria, and Judah’s fall and exile to Babylon. We know that, when the Jews finally return to Jerusalem, they are ruled by a foreign nation and that the temple will be destroyed and Judah cease to exist in 70 AD. We know that nearly two thousand years will pass before Israel again is a nation.

God is not like a sadistic teacher who springs a final exam on us without warning. Throughout Scripture, like a good parent, He’s warned his children about disobedience and its consequences. Will we heed His words? Will we learn from those who’ve walked before us?

Be careful then, dear brothers and sisters. Make sure that your own hearts are not evil and unbelieving, turning you away from the living God. You must warn each other every day, while it is still “today,” so that none of you will be deceived by sin and hardened against God. For if we are faithful to the end, trusting God just as firmly as when we first believed, we will share in all that belongs to Christ. Remember what it says: “Today when you hear his voice, don’t harden your hearts as Israel did when they rebelled.” [Hebrews 3:12-15 (NLT)]

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THE SONG OF MOSES

I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; he has hurled both horse and rider into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my song; he has given me victory. This is my God, and I will praise him—my father’s God, and I will exalt him! The Lord is a warrior; Yahweh is his name! [Exodus 15:1-3 (NLT)]

Capitol Reef - UtahFollowing the Israelites’ successful passage through the Red Sea and the destruction of Pharaoh’s army, we find Moses and the people singing a song of deliverance and praise in Exodus 15. This beautiful and powerful psalm vividly describes the warrior God Yahweh hurling Pharaoh’s chariots and army into the sea. This is Moses’ song but he doesn’t figure in the account at all. A paean to the supremacy and unrivaled power of Jehovah, all of the glory is given to God.

This psalm, however, doesn’t stop at Israel’s rescue from Egypt; looking ahead, it warns God’s enemies with its prediction of Israel’s successful entrance into the Promised Land. This is a victory song of both past and future divine deliverance with its promise that the Canaanites would “melt away” as terror and fear fell on them. Following this song, Miriam led the women as they danced and sang of God’s triumph. The confident words of their songs were quickly forgotten when, several months later, the fearful people, ignoring God’s promise of victory, rebelled and refused to enter the Promised Land. Walking through the sea on dry ground, witnessing the destruction of Pharaoh’s army, and having sung of God’s power and promised victory in Canaan were but a distant memory.

This psalm may be the oldest recorded song in history. With its expression of faith in God and recognition of Him as both protector and warrior, it could be considered the founding song of Israel. Jews know it as the Song at the Sea or Shirat Hayam. Recited every day at morning prayers, it has become a focal point of Jewish tradition and liturgy.

Many Christians know this psalm as the Song of Moses. It’s found in Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and other Christian liturgies at the Easter vigil when the history of salvation is recounted. Just as the exodus story defines Israel’s history, it also defines ours. Like the Israelites, we have been redeemed from slavery, not to Egypt, but to sin. Like the Israelites, we passed through the water, not of the Red Sea, but the water of baptism. Like the Israelites we have a redeemer who redeemed us in the past and will give us victory in the future. For both Jews and Christians, it is a song sung by people redeemed from slavery to the redeemer about their redemption. The difference is that the Jews are still awaiting the Messiah while we know that He has come!

The Song of Moses is the first song in the Bible and we find reference to it in the last song found in Revelation 15. Moses’ song was sung at the Red Sea and this one is sung in heaven at what appears to be a crystal sea. The first one, the song of Moses, celebrates God’s deliverance of His people from Egypt; the second one, the Song of the Lamb, celebrates God’s deliverance of His people from sin.

And they were singing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb: “Great and marvelous are your works, O Lord God, the Almighty. Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations. Who will not fear you, Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous deeds have been revealed.” [Revelation 15:3-4 (NLT)]

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THE SHADOW KNOWS

The Lord is watching everywhere, keeping his eye on both the evil and the good. [Proverbs 15:3 (NLT)]

black vultureAfter eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve hid from God in the garden. Did they think God wouldn’t know what they had done and come looking for them? Did they really think trees could hide them or that fig leaves would cover their transgressions? We’re not much different. I remember when my brother used his questionable artistic skills to crudely enhance the illustrations in one of my mother’s favorite art books. Thinking she’d never look for it, he then hid the defaced book at the back of the bookcase. She, of course, did find it; like God, parents have a way of discovering our misdeeds!

While Adam, Eve, and my brother failed at hiding their transgressions, sometimes people appear to be successful at covering theirs. I have a friend with a “lead foot” who brags of talking his way out of numerous speeding tickets with such heart-breaking stories (none of which are true) that policemen are usually comforting him by the end of his tale. We all have ways of trying to conceal our wrongdoings, deny culpability, or avoid punishment. A word of caution: while our methods may work with people, concealment, rationalization, misrepresentation, and deceit will never work with God.

In the introduction to The Shadow, an old-time mystery radio program, this question was asked: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” Said with an ominous laugh, the answer was, ”The Shadow knows!” At the end of each melodramatic episode, the Shadow’s eerie voice reminded listeners that, “The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Crime does not pay…The Shadow knows!” While I have my doubts about the invincible crime fighter knowing what’s in our hearts, I know who does see the evil lurking there: God. We can hide, conceal evidence, lie, and deny responsibility, but we can’t fool God. We must never forget that He sees us all, all of the time.

Father, forgive us our sins and for foolishly thinking we can conceal them from you. Thank you for watching over us, for holding us accountable, and for your beautiful gift of forgiveness.

In failing to confess, Lord, I would only hide You from myself, not myself from You. [Saint Augustine]

O God, you know how foolish I am; my sins cannot be hidden from you. [Psalm 69:5 (NLT)]

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IDLE WORDS

For whatever is in your heart determines what you say. A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. And I tell you this, you must give an account on judgment day for every idle word you speak. The words you say will either acquit you or condemn you. [Matthew 12:34-37 (NLT)]

sanfoin - Onobrychis viciifoliaSince we’ll be held accountable for our words, I wondered how many words that might be. In 1984, Gyles Brandreth claimed that by the time a typical American dies, he (or she) will have uttered more than 860 million words. Since Brandreth is an actor, writer, and Scrabble fanatic rather than a scientist, his number seems questionable. In 2006, Louann Brizendine claimed that women speak an average of 20,000 words per day while men speak a mere 7,000. Based on her numbers, in a lifetime of seventy years, women would have to account for over 511 million words while men would answer for about 179 million. While Brizendine’s qualifications as a neuro-psychiatrist lend credence to her statements, she provided no source for her statistics. Skeptical of her lopsided numbers, psychology professor James Pennebaker conducted a systematic study in 2007 that recorded the daily conversational word output of both men and women. He found that women averaged 16,215 words a day and men 15,669. Based on his numbers, both men and women will speak well over 400 million words in a seventy-year lifetime.

It’s no surprise that the biggest difference between sexes was the way they used their words: women used more pronouns and talked about relationships while men used more numbers and talked about gadgets and sports. Common among both sexes was that most of the words spoken were mundane and seemingly unimportant.

Nevertheless, come Judgment Day, we’ll be held accountable for all of our words simply because they reveal what’s in our hearts. Jesus’ warning wasn’t about blasphemy, a sin well covered elsewhere in Scripture; He specifically spoke of “idle” words. The original Greek phrase is rhema argon meaning unproductive, unprofitable, ineffective, empty, or careless words. Jesus seems to be speaking of the words that spill out: the spur-of-the-moment utterances, the unrehearsed speech, the words that reveal what we’re truly thinking, and the ones said under our breath so no one will hear. He’s speaking of the offhand remarks, insensitive comments, slips of the tongue, little digs, snide asides, thoughtless words, sarcasm, spite, and insult that come from our mouths. Remember—words have tremendous power. After all, God spoke the world into existence!

Our whole lives will come under review on Judgment Day—including those over 400 million spoken words along with the millions of written ones. How have we used our words? Have they wounded or healed, cut down or built up, disparaged or encouraged, cursed or blessed, rebuffed or embraced, insulted or honored? There are consequences to our careless and thoughtless words because our words reveal the true state of our heart! If what comes out of our mouths is faulty, our hearts are equally flawed.

Whether we speak 150 or 15,000 words today, may all of them be worthy of a Christ follower!

His heart cannot be pure whose tongue is not clean. [D.L. Moody]

But no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right! Does a spring of water bubble out with both fresh water and bitter water? Does a fig tree produce olives, or a grapevine produce figs? No, and you can’t draw fresh water from a salty spring. [James 3:8-12 (NLT)]

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IT’S CONTAGIOUS

With his great power the Lord warned me not to follow the road which the people were following. He said, “Do not join in the schemes of the people and do not be afraid of the things that they fear.” [Isaiah 8:11-12 (GNT)]

great blue heronKnowing that God’s people must be fully committed to their cause in battle, Deuteronomy 20 provided several exemptions from combat. An anxious man wouldn’t have his mind on battle and could make blunders that might endanger the entire army. Because men too preoccupied with concerns at home wouldn’t fight wholeheartedly, those who were engaged to be married, had built a house and not yet dedicated it, or planted a vineyard and not harvested it were released from service.  Moreover, anyone who admitted to being afraid was also sent home. This was done to keep their negativity and fear from infecting the entire army’s morale. A small army of faithful men was better than a large army of worried, frightened or fainthearted ones.

While the anxious and fearful soldiers were sent home, it’s not so easy to avoid those kinds of people in our daily lives. We all know people who seem to carry a dark cloud of pessimism over their heads. It doesn’t just rain on their parade—negativity pours down on everyone else’s, as well.

Several years ago, a friend’s husband had a slight cough. By the time she was done fretting about it to family and friends, she was sure it was bronchitis which would lead to pneumonia which would mean hospitalization. This led another family member to be sure the man’s death was imminent and funeral plans needed to be made. The wife’s negativity and fear were far more contagious than the man’s cough which, incidentally, never turned into bronchitis and is now long forgotten.

I’m not Pollyanna and I know that some coughs do lead to pneumonia, not all biopsies come out benign, bad things happen to good people, not everyone recovers from COVID, and not every story has a happy ending. That, however, doesn’t mean I have to put up my umbrella at the first cloud or focus on the storm rather than pray for a rainbow! Whether my glass is half empty or half full, I know that God will make sure I have all that I need in it.

The Old Testament advice is simple: stay away from the faint-hearted, pessimistic and fearful lest they infect you with their lack of faith. While we can be protected from measles, chicken pox, pneumonia, and even coronavirus, there’s no vaccine for panic, negativity or anxiety and they’re far more contagious than any virus! When dealing with a communicable disease, medical experts advise us to wear a mask, wash our hands, keep our distance, avoid crowds, and get vaccinated. Pessimism and fear are as infectious as COVID and, since there’s no vaccination for them, we can avoid exposure by washing our hands of doom scrolling, socially distancing ourselves from the “Debbie Downers“ of life, and avoiding groups of grumblers and faultfinders. Rather than being infected by pessimism, complaint or anger, let us prevent contagion by trusting in the Lord and choosing faith over fear and gratitude over grievance.

Fear is catching. He whose heart fails him makes his brethren’s heart to fail, like his heart. [Matthew Henry]

In conclusion, my friends, fill your minds with those things that are good and that deserve praise: things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and honorable. Put into practice what you learned and received from me, both from my words and from my actions. And the God who gives us peace will be with you. [Philippians 4:8-9 (GNT)]

Do not use harmful words, but only helpful words, the kind that build up and provide what is needed, so that what you say will do good to those who hear you. [Ephesians 4:29 (GNT)]

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