Almost every meeting of our 7th-8th grade camp started off the same way. Two of our interns, Kenneth and Sarah, would stand up and start running in place. Melissa would start talking, almost as if they weren’t running in the middle of the group. Then, one by one, someone would start to encourage them. One of the guys or girls would shout out a sentence like, “You’re doing great!” They would run a little faster…As our week went on, others would also get up and run alongside them, sharing in their race.
The last day of camp was our Hopetown Christmas celebration. On that last morning, as Sarah and Kenneth started to run once again, Melissa looked at the kids and said, “How is a race like the Christian life?”
The answers varied from, “It’s hard sometimes.” “We get tired and discouraged.” “It’s long and we need encouragement.” “We need to focus on a goal to get through it.”
“Exactly,” she said. “This race is the reason we have Christmas…because of the very thing we’re talking about this morning.”
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” Hebrews 12:1-2
“In this Christian life, we’re running constantly. But we’ve been called to fix our eyes on Jesus. I don’t know if you all have ever have trouble fixing your eyes, but I do every time I run—and do just about any other sport.
When I used to roller blade a lot, I’d be going along fine, I’d see a tree. And all of a sudden, I’d run into the tree. I’d get distracted by something my eyes would see, and then head straight into it.
It carried over into other sports. I love to ride my bicycle. The same thing happened. I’d be riding along out at the farm, having a great conversation, like you all did on your bike ride. I’d lose my focus, and all of a sudden, I’d ride right over into the cornfield.
Even snow skiing, I do it. I can be skiing along. And, honestly, it doesn’t even matter what the distraction is. If someone tries to encourage me, I look over and BAM! I’m down. Basically, wherever my eyes go, I go.
Hebrews tells us we’re to fix our eyes on Jesus. It’s as if Jesus is standing there, at the finish line saying, ‘I ran this race before you. I know what you’re going through. You can do it. I’m with you. Take your time.’ And then he picks us up when we fall down.
In 1992, there was an Olympic swimmer named Janet Evans. She already had several gold medals and was favored to win the 400m freestyle. Right up until the end of the race, she was in the lead. The crowd and press were sure she was going to win the gold. But, just at the last second—.4 of a second to be exact—she ended up with the silver medal (which is still an amazing feat). The crowd was astonished, however, as was she. But, when the films were scanned after to see what could have cost her the gold, she was seen glancing up at the clock in the last few seconds of the race.
Janet Evans’ story is used often as an example of how we’re supposed to maintain our focus. I differ on that. I believe we’re all like Janet Evans. We can be running along and something distracts us. You are going to be distracted… but it’s not going to lose you the race. It’s not if you get distracted, but when you do. It’s that there is One whose name is Jesus, and He is standing at the finish line saying, ‘I love you. You’re chosen and forgiven and you’re going to fall flat on your face in this race I’ve marked out for you.’
As Hebrews says, you’re running the race marked out for you…the one you’ve been chosen for with your gifts, your heart, and your personality. What you give and offer is like no one else. God has said, ‘Cole, this way. Jesus was born to die on the cross for you and your race.’ ‘Katherine, you’re the one. God has called you and has already run the race ahead of you, so you don’t have to run it perfectly.’ That’s what this day—our Christmas is about. That’s what this camp is about. We can let go of the hindrances and throw off the entanglements we have because Jesus has already run the race. I hope that our Christmas celebration will be even richer because we’ve thrown those things off.
What entanglements do you want to get rid of?” (The kids answered from a list that we created from Galatians 5:19, which says “It’s obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time”…and then our version of options particularly geared toward 7th-8th graders: demanding/grabbing for happiness, self-absorption, cut-throat competition, all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants, a brutal temper, possessiveness rather than love, manipulation, a vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival, talking behind each other’s backs, entitledness.).
“What do you want more of? Perseverance? What’s been weighing on you?” (Here their answers ranged from their parents’ divorce, being bullied, losing someone they love, worry, anxiety, depression.)
“Jesus says, ‘Give those things to me. Put your burden there.’ We want to lay those things at the foot of the cross, and we’re going to do that quite literally. I want each of you to write your burdens on a tag that we’re going to hang our a cross here at Hopetown.
And then, we’re going to throw those entanglements into the depths of the sea…or lake at Hopetown (Micah 7:19). I want you to write the entanglements you struggle with the most on a rock, and then toss that rock into the lake. I want you to experience what freedom feels like, ‘There goes my temper,’ when you toss your rock. ‘Thank you for your forgiveness.’
That cross where we hang our burdens, and the freedom that comes with it is why we celebrate Christmas today. God has sent his son to die on a cross for our burdens…for yours and mine. Because of that, you can run the race he’s marked out especially for you. You can know that, when you get distracted, he’s there to help you up and cheer you on. You can fix your eyes because of his grace. Some day, you’re going to finish the race. On that day, just as you’ve had your eyes on him, you’ll see him face to face and experience fully his perfect love. But, for now, he and we’re here to encourage you as you run. We’re your cloud of witnesses. And you’ve been chosen.
“You didn’t choose me, remember I chose you, and put you in the world to bear fruit…remember the root command: love one another.” John 15:16-17, MSG