Centenary of the Maclean Free Presbyterian Church
August 25, 1968.
From Our Banner: October, 1968.
"Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience 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 is set down at the right hand of the throne of God." - Hebrews 12:1-2.
I have been wondering what my subject ought to be tonight. I have been wanting to make it relevant to this occasion, and have sought a word from the Bible which will force us to look into the past, with its "memories which bless and burn" and lead us to "thank God and take courage." The word also must force us to look into the future, to take one long glance down the avenue of the years which are yet to come, and to glimpse, if it be possible, that glorious end, "that one far-off divine event, to which the whole Creation moves." But the word for this hour must also, and particularly, take stock of the present and stir a response to the demands of this day. It must somehow match us to this hour, or else our meeting to mark this centenary will have been in vain.
If we live only in the past, pondering only what has been, or pondering wistfully, perhaps, what might have been, had we known more clearly and acted more wisely; I say, if we live only in the past we shall not use the past for what it is intended, to remind us of the swift rush of time, to seal upon our hearts the lessons wrought for us, to temper our strength by knowledge and experience, and to nerve us for the effort of the coming days. If we live only in the future, we shall be visionaries, day-dreamers, unpractical idealists dazzled by the distant glory, not bracing our selves for the shocks and adversities of the course we run, not facing the tasks which lie to hand. So it is tremendously important that we recognise the present as the link between the past and the future, and realise that here we stand between what has been and what is yet to be.
Do you sometimes wonder at the intensity which marked the life and work of the Apostle Paul? It appears in his great personal utterances: "This one thing I do;" "I press toward the mark;" "I am in a strait" "I am ready." It appears in his great expressed aspirations: "That I might finish my course and the ministry I have received;" "That I might win Christ;" That I might know Him." It appears in his reminders to his fellow Christians: "The time is short;" "It is high time to awake out of sleep;" "Redeem the time." You may ask: What drove Paul, what lay back of such words? It was a deep sense of urgency, a keen appreciation of the present and passing opportunity. It was a critical awareness that in him at this moment met somehow all the trends of the past, and from the experience of this moment would somehow develop the future. Time does not stand still. This moment does not come again. If the past teaches us and the future beckons us, then the present challenges us. Here and now, in this place and at this time, in this unceasing here and now a situation must be faced, a purpose formed, a resolution made, a step taken, an act performed. And it ought to be our prayer that the Lord, from His own Word and by His Holy Spirit, may make clear to us, to every one of us, what He requires of us in this hour.
Our text ought to help us. Here are addressed to us two exhortations, obviously related, calling us to actions which follow in close and necessary sequence, the one action preparatory to the main action. "Let us cast aside every weight . . . and let us run the race . . ." And each exhortation is linked with and enforced by a participial clause of greatest significance: "Seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses" and "Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith."
Can we take this main exhortation as the central exhortation of this entire Epistle "Let us run . . . the race set before us." We see how it takes into account the record of Chapter 11. It derives its force from the history of the nation, and the account of God's dealing with their fathers, and particularly from the examples of noble action and high endeavour in critical situations and often adverse circumstances. For here is a letter written with the express purpose of confirming faith and stimulating action in Hebrew Christians who, in a few short years, would experience a great catastrophe, would see the overthrow of their nation, the death or dispersal of their people, the destruction of their city, the razing of their temple by the Roman legions under Titus, in A.D. 70. Would their Christian faith and resolution be shaken? They must not let slip the things which they had heard. They must not depart from the living God. They must not harden their hearts to the voice which said, Today. They must not cast away their confidence and recompence of reward. They must not be wearied and faint in their minds, or despise the chastening of the Lord. They must run with patience the race set before them. This was the word they needed at that hour.
For them, and for us, this exhortation gains force by a backward look at the examples of faith and noble endeavour, by consideration of the achievements of those who have gone before and into whose inheritance we have entered. It is given additional force by a forward look into the future and the goal set before us, and an upward look to the risen and enthroned Lord and Saviour. It is also a word for us at this hour. We may find past and future strangely linked in this present experience in which we recall the one and anticipate the other. We recall with gratitude to God the faith and devotion, the struggles and triumphs of our forefathers in this place. And we would seek to follow their faith and "consider the end of their conversation, Jesus Christ, the same yesterday and today and forever."
Now, our text assumes, the examples confirm, and many another Scripture explicitly states, that the Christian life is not easy. It is variously represented as a running, a wrestling, a striving, a fighting, an agonising, if we transliterate the Greek word often used to describe it. Our Lord himself referred to a gate which is straight, and a path which is narrow. Peter writes of the righteous being scarcely (or with difficulty) saved. We read exhortations which speak of this life as a warfare, and of Christians as soldiers, of an armour which must be donned and a fierce foe to be encountered "We war not with flesh and blood, but with principalities and powers, and against the rulers of the darkness of this world, and against spiritual wickedness in high places." Paul spoke of himself as a contender in the games, a boxer who had learnt not to beat the air but make every blow count; as an athlete not sparing his body, but keeping it in subjection by rigorous discipline; as a runner who turns not back, but looks ever forward and presses on to the mark for the prize.
It is this last figure, favoured by Paul, which is used here. It is forceful and familiar, even to us; more so to the Hebrew Christians of that distant day. In the great games of ancient Greece the best athletes of the Greek States and other nations competed. By our reading and imagination we can visualise the scene. The vast amphitheatre, the great crowd of spectators seated on benches rising tier on tier, the tribunal of judges - and in the stadium the running figures pressing toward the mark for the prize. Four things we must consider. The Consideration pressing us to race. The Preparation for the race. The Participation in the race. And the Inspiration to race.
1. The Consideration Pressing us to Race
This consideration is introduced in the first participial clause: "Wherefore seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses," "let us rum the race . . ." The force of the words is obvious. They follow the narrative exploits of men of the past, annals of faith. Here is the compelling power of a good example. Perhaps, some people have, at times, read too much from the words, and have assumed that the godly dead are fully aware of all that happens to us here, of our failures and successes, of our defeats and triumphs, of all our strivings and temptations. But would such knowledge be consistent with the blessedness into which they have entered? Would they be happy to see us, their children, as we are striving, suffering, sinning? We may press the figure too far.
Yet, the phrase "seeing we are compassed about" is intended to emphasise the fact that an example of faith and devotion has been set us and presses us to emulate it. History teaches us and we cannot ignore the lesson with impunity. The brave efforts and glorious achievements of the saints of old have been published that we personally may profit thereby. What God wrought in and through them He may yet, by His grace, work in and through us. We ought to live remembering what they did. In what circumstances and with what results did Abraham believe? How did the supplanter, Jacob become Israel, a prince of God? In what way did Moses rise above the temptations of the Egyptian court, make a choice and take action which altered the course of human history and determine for centuries the destinies of two nations? The record enables us to ask and find answer to our problems. How would David have acted in circumstances like mine? What would Daniel have advised, or what course would he have adopted in this situation? Or, we might bring it even closer by applying this principle and on this occasion ask the question: What would our godly parents and friends, who are now within the veil, have said or done on an occasion like this?
This is a very weighty consideration, is it not? "We are compassed about . . ." We cannot escape their example and influence. We are hemmed in by them somehow. Does not their faith put us to shame? Do not their strivings and endurance surpass ours? Do not their achievements in less favourable circumstances surprise and humble us? Let me say, in the light of this and many a Scripture, that we neglect their good example at our peril, to our loss and to the loss of our children in this life, and to our eternal loss hereafter. The context of these words enforce the solemn words of the Lord Jesus who said, "The men of Nineveh shall rise up in judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonas, and a greater than Jonas is here."
The worthies of the past whose exploits are recorded in Chapter 11 of this Epistle, ran their race well. And so did those who, 100 years ago, founded this congregation and erected a witness to Christ here. They sought a better country than either Palestine or Australia could provide, a heavenly. They sought a city not man-made but God-built. They opposed evil and wrought righteousness, held the faith, kept the Word and confessed Christ. They lived in faith and died in hope. They have passed the torch onto us. "We are truly compassed about" by them. The message of this text for us at this hour is: By the faith of your fathers, by the sufferings of the martyrs, by the self-sacrifice of the generations of the godly, I exhort you to run this race.
2. Preparation for the Race
We turn now to the first exhortation: "Let us lay aside every weight and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run . . . the race."
You are familiar with the scene at the beginning of any footrace, either ancient or modern. Heavy clothing is discarded. Shorts, vest and shoes are made of the lightest and loosest materials. I shall never forget the sense of astonishment I felt when, as a child, I first handled a running-shoe, and I thought I had never handled anything so light. Why must weight of clothing be kept to a minimum? Because every ounce counts in this race. Our words "gymnast," "gymnastics," "gymnasium" come from the Greek "gymnos" - stripped, or naked. And look closely at the runners. Generally, they are lean and wiry. Even if stockily built, they are all bone and muscle. Fat makes surplus weight. They shed it in training, because it is a handicap, increasing the load, increasing the strain on muscle, lungs and heart. Thus the figure teaches us. But think of the spiritual reality of "laying aside every weight" the things which hinder and impede - "and the sin which so easily besets us" - the thing which cripples and encumbers.
What are the things which hinder and impede? Natural laziness and love of pleasure, the desire for ease and tendency to procrastinate, the failure to face life seriously. The ambitions which drive us, the possessions which somehow possess us, the activities which absorb too much time. They are things not necessarily wrong in themselves, things which have their place; but which, over-indulged, interfere with and retard our progress in Christian life and service. What hinders your spiritual effort, your movement toward heaven? What hinders your reading of God's Word, your meditation on His mercy and goodness? What interferes with your attendance at church, and your giving to the Lord's cause? What hinders your active helpfulness to others in their need, and your witness to your Lord and Saviour? These are the weights to be cast aside.
You may imagine some of the weights laid aside by the faithful in ancient times. Abraham laid aside the wealth and comfort of a prosperous business and palatial home in the city of Ur to go out at God's call "not knowing whither he went," and to live thereafter in a strange land, a nomad in a tent. Jacob was to lay aside his driving ambition to enrich himself even at the expense of others, and be crippled and humbled in the physical conflict and spiritual crisis of Peniel. Joseph had to suffer the loss of his innate, and perhaps over weening, sense of superiority over his brothers, and experience the bitterness of exile in Egypt, ere he gained the true nobility of spirit and strength of character needed to administer Egypt and to save his family. Moses must lay aside his high position, his brilliant prospects, and Egypt's preferments ere he could assume leadership over Israel and become God's agent to deliver and build up a nation. Study the biographies of Christians through the ages to learn how others have laid aside the things which may have been "lawful" for them but were "not expedient" and would have hindered them in Christian life and service. Consider also as we must today, how our own fathers denied themselves to build the churches we worship in today, and to establish the institutions which ensure that we, their children, should have greater opportunities for education and prosperity than they had. It was their great desire that we should have in richer measure the blessings of the Gospel of Christ.
What is "the sin which so easily besets us," the thing which cripples and encumbers us? Is it sin in general, in its terrible totality, the whole crippling burden in its many forms, the destructive and indestructible Hydra raising its terrible heads, the old man, the "body of death" of which Paul writes? Or is it sin in particular, our private passion, our peculiar weakness, the worm in the fruit of our life? Is it the root of bitterness within a man which touches and taints every motive and thought, every word and deed? Is it the pride of life, the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh of which John writes, the things which are manifest in uncurbed sexual appetite, in over-indulgence in food, in self-gratification, self-satisfaction and even self-glorification, the things which are destructive of the meekness, goodness and humility of the Christian life? Is it the urge to possess, the pursuit of riches, the drive for place and power?
It is the thing in your life which constantly trips you up and renders you unfit for Christian service. You know it and can name it. Lay it aside as you value your soul and the answer of a good conscience and the "Well Done" of Christ in that day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ. You may succeed in the race of life, gain all you want on earth, become the admiration and envy of others with a false sense of values, and yet die not a step nearer heaven, without Christ, far off from God. "What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?"
3. Participation in the Race
"Let us run with patience the race which is set before us . . ." Here is the second and main exhortation. It calls for entrance upon the course, for the positive effort which turns our face toward the goal and which gives thrust to our movement heavenwards. And three things are required in the exhortation.
(1) Effort is required. We are active, not passive. The grace God imparts in regeneration must be exercised in sanctification. This goal does not come to us as on a modern conveyor belt. Nor are we carried toward it as on a modern escalator or moving pathway such as one finds today in underground railway stations or at the approaches to the underground Domain parking station.
We recognise that in every walk of life we must run a race. Achievement is by effort. The prize is gained by striving. The student must "scorn delights and live laborious days" if he is to gain the coveted diploma or degree. The artist must practice long to perfect his art. The skill of the craftsman, the ability of the executive the capacity of the workman are not gained without effort.
"The heights by great men gained and keptYou may covet the gifts of the keen Christian - his gracious manner, unruffled calm, unaffected piety, consistent testimony, his essential simplicity and genuine humility. How is it all gained and kept? By effort through God's grace. By regular reading of the Word and prayer to God. By rigorous setting aside time to be with God and thus gaining strength to live with men. By practice of the presence of Christ.
Were not attained by sudden flight
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night."
(2) Consistent effort is needed. The race must be run "with patience." It is a long race, life-long. There is no discharge in this warfare. We are mobilised for life. We compete in a marathon. The pace must be steady as well as strong. There is needed the daily private personal devotions, the weekly corporate worship with others, the regular systematic giving to the Cause of Christ, the constant readiness to help others in need, the unfailing concern for their best interests and spiritual welfare, the refusal to be distracted by lesser things. There must be a making all things subservient to the supreme end of "glorifying God and enjoying Him for ever."
(3) Finally, strenuous effort is needed. We run a race to a goal. Let us run . . . the race set before us . . ."
We live in a leisure-loving age. "Take it easy," is the common counsel of the Australian. It is the age of the five-day, forty-hour week. It is the age of the workless Saturday and sporting Sunday. It is the age of the mechanical aid in the home, on the farm, in industry. It is the age of the carpeted floor, the easy chair, the inner-spring mattress. It is the age of the car which floats on fluid, of the air-conditioned train, and the jet plane. Now, we ought not discard these and return to the rigorous life of our forefathers. We ought to receive and use, with gratitude, what God has given and man has achieved by God-given talents. But let the possession and use of these things rather promote God's glory and others good than our comfort and ease; let them increase our usefulness and spiritual growth rather than lead to self-indulgence. "The world is yours," Paul wrote to the Corinthians. And it is ours to use, not to abuse, to use for the sake of Christ and the good of our fellow men.
4. The Inspiration to Run
We consider now the second participial clause which is linked significantly with this second and main exhortation: "Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith."
You will realise these words are worth a sermon alone. For here is the secret of the entire experience. I have used the word "inspiration." It is a weak and inadequate word, which fails to convey more than a part of the meaning of the phrase. It is given merely as an alliterative aid to remembering.
But the words do remind us that our running, our effort, in this race depends from first to last upon Him who is both the author and finisher of our faith. For it is Christ who gives grace and more grace. "Of His fulness have all we received and grace for grace (grace upon grace)." There is grace to begin, grace to run, grace to reach the goal at last. For He quickens us to spiritual life, calls us to service, sets us upon our course, supports us in the race, assures us we shall never perish, that He will raise us up at the last day to receive the free award of grace - eternal glory.
For there is the prize at last; the simple laurel branch of honour; the "Well done;" the "Come ye blessed;" the "crown of righteousness laid up;" "the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus." Friend, it is to the "uttermost" that Jesus saves. Look, look unto Him, see the race He ran and the crown He won, He who "For the joy which was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God." Hear, hear the word of promise He gives. "To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with Me in My throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in His throne." (Rev. 3:21.)