I like to run races. In any race, it’s a lot easier to run when people are cheering for you. When running in the Pittsburgh Marathon last year, by mile 22 or so I was completely spent and sore all over. But as soon as a complete stranger would yell out my bib number and cheer me on, I was immediately running a bit faster.
The most significant crowd support I’ve ever received in a race, though, happened when I was running the Spirit of Pittsburgh Half Marathon. It came from my friend and co-pastor, Chris. As I approached the finish line, I heard him shout “Go Mike!” and I immediately sprinted to the finish line faster than I have in any other race. It wasn’t that Chris said anything profound. It wasn’t even that the encouragement was coming from a friend as opposed to a stranger. The significance was that the race was a relay, and Chris was my partner. Chris had run the first 6.5 miles of the race, tagged me, and I was running the second half. Knowing that the person who started my race was watching made me want even more to end it well. Because my finish was his finish too.
I recalled this experience this afternoon while reading the lectionary’s New Testament reading – Hebrews 11:32-12:2. Hebrews 11 recounts the faithful people of God we read about throughout the Old Testament – Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, the whole nation of Israel crossing the Red Sea and circling Jericho, and Rahab, and more too many to recall. The writer of Hebrews describes how their faith was embodied in actions – and often times stranger actions. Building an ark. Offering his son to God. Giving up privilege. Harboring spies. And as Hebrews sums up, “conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire…”
The people listed in Hebrews 11 are some of the greatest examples of lived-out faith ever. Yet how does Hebrews 11 conclude? Verse 39 says,
And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised…
As great as their faith was. It was for all of them a faith with out an ending. A race without a finish line. But then comes the real surprise. Verse 40:
…since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.
The story of God’s faithful is continued in us. We are the continuation of their story. Apart from us, the stories of Abraham, Moses and all of the prophets are stories without endings, a race without a finish.
It’s in light of this that we hear the well-known words that open Hebrews 12:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight… and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…
The witnesses that surround us, all of the faithful named in Hebrews 11, aren’t merely spectators that came out to watch a race. They aren’t even faster runners who have already finished and are now watching the other participants. They’re our relay partners, watching the finish of the race we’ve started. They aren’t merely watching with curiosity, but with great interest, wanting to see how the race they’ve started will finish.
For Abraham, Moses and the prophets, the finish line was not in sight. Christ had not been revealed. In Christ, though, we can see the end the story when every knee will bow and every tongue confess. We can see the finish line, and our relay partners who started the race are watching and cheering us on. And so, let us run – no, sprint! – toward the finish line – Jesus himself, the author and perfecter of our faith!