08/18/2019: Faith to Endure

Faith to Endure

Hebrews 12: 1-2
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
August 18, 2019

Today I want to raise the topic of endurance. After all, we are watching a political endurance race that will culminate in the 2020 election. Those among us who are taking a cholesterol lowering medication daily are focused on cardiovascular endurance. We are all engaged in some kind of endurance. Somewhere I read that courage doesn’t always roar: sometimes courage is that little voice at the end of the day that says, “I’ll try again tomorrow.” Let’s spend a few minutes this morning thinking about the faith to endure.

I

When I think back over the years of ministry, I am somewhat amused when I remember the very first sermon I ever preached. I was 18 years old, and in those days we had so many youth that on Youth Sunday we elected young people to serve in different capacities. We elected a Pastor, a Minister of Music, and Minister of Education, Sunday School Superintendent, all the officers of the church. I was elected Pastor for that Sunday, which meant that I had to preach.

How I chose the text for that sermon is beyond me. But for some reason I turned to II Timothy 4: 7. The Apostle Paul is purported to be writing to a younger minister named Timothy, and here is what he says: I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day….

Why in the world I would have chosen that text is beyond me. Here I was, a kid of 18 years old, turning to a text about enduring a long ministry! Paul was talking about finishing the race, and I was just beginning the race. He was talking about fighting the good fight, and I hadn’t even begun! Paul was talking about keeping the faith, and I was just trying to figure out the faith! Yet there I was on that youth Sunday in the spring of 1965 preaching my very first sermon, and it was about enduring to the end! Go figure!

It has been 54 years since I preached that sermon. I have struggled with many a subject and many a text in many a pulpit since that day. But I don’t think there is a topic more important than the one I started out with at the age of 18. Somehow at that tender age I think I sensed the significance of faith to endure. I did not want my faith to be a quick flare up of flame that would die down. I wanted it to be a steady flame that would endure, persevere, not fail when discouraged. I longed for a faith that would withstand whatever trials and troubles life would bring.

There was something about Paul’s statement that he had fought the good fight, finished his course, and kept the faith that inspired me. It was what I longed to be able to say one day. Over the years I have been inspired by many people in the churches I have served. I have been thrilled by youth whose enthusiasm for Christ has caught fire. I have been moved by the love and sacrifice I have seen in parents as they raised their children. I have been energized by the words of wise mentors and stirred by the faithfulness of friends and loved ones. But nothing has inspired me more than the deep and profound faith of those who have lived long, fought the good fight and kept the faith.

II

When Jesus was a precocious 12-year-old, he said to Mary and Joseph, I must be about my Father’s business. That is an admirable goal, a worthy intention for life. I must be about my Father’s business. But what lay before him would not be easy. He would draw a crowd for sure, and in the midst of that crowd he would form a nucleus of 12 people as his core disciples. They would grow close, and he would teach them. They would witness amazing things together; they would learn together and grow together. But in the end, one would betray him, another would deny him, and most of the rest would desert him. Yet when everyone seemed to desert him, he did not quit; he did not give up; he still tended to his Father’s business!

Only at the very end, when he was nailed to a cross and life was quickly ebbing away, could he say, “It is finished.” The challenge for us all is to have the kind of faith that endures to the end!

The writer of the book of Hebrews is anonymous. We do not know who wrote this book. It seems to be an extended sermon. Whoever it was, he (or she) was a sensitive soul, the kind of person who sensed the presence of faithful people of the past. He was like those who go to church and can see in their mind’s eye those who sat in certain pews who influenced us in years past.

So this writer says, Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith….

III

My mother grew up not far from Tuskegee, Alabama. She was a young adult in 1941. She was aware of the Tuskegee Airmen training to be fighter pilots just a few miles from her childhood home. She was aware that most people in the country thought it was silly to train young black men to fly those planes. The whole country seemed to be against them! But they endured! They persevered! Now we know that their motto was, “To the last plane, the last bullet, the last man, the last minute, we fight!” When no one thought they could do it, the Tuskegee Airmen pressed on; they endured! They fought the good fight no matter who was against them and how long it would take!

Our calling as Christians is not just to get a good start, but to endure. Why? For what reason are we to endure? Paul, in that text that I preached on for my first sermon, gave the reason. I like the old King James translation for this text: it says, Henceforth…. There are certain words in the KJV that just sound better. I want the baby Jesus to be in swaddling clothes, not bands of cloth! I want the shepherds to sore afraid. I feel that way about this word henceforth. The NRSV says, From now on…. The NIV says, So…. I much prefer henceforth. It suggests something on the other side of this life, something wonderful.

I know we are sophisticated group of well-educated people. I know that what awaits us on the other side of death is a mystery and will always be a mystery. But my soul can’t help but stand up and sing when I read the words of the Apostle Paul: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day; and not to me only, but to all who have longed for his appearing.

IV

We may not all have absolute confidence in life after death, but I expect we all long for it. I am absolutely convinced that we do not die into nothingness, but that we die into the arms of a loving God. And if it be true that we die into a reunion with our loved ones and all the faithful who have gone before us, let us be renewed to run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.