RUNNING THE RACE
APRIL 5, 1998
The voice on the other end of the line said, “Ed, my name is Wayne Long. I help coordinate the Houston Tenneco Marathon and I have an interesting proposition for you.” I said, “Wayne, shoot.” He said, “Since the race begins early Sunday morning, I was wondering if you would consider doing an informal worship service prior to the marathoners taking off.” I thought for a minute and said, “Wayne, that sounds great. I would love to.” Then he casually added, “By the way, not only do I want you to preach before the marathon, I want you to run the marathon.” I said, “Ray, you are talking about 26.2 miles! I am not really a big runner. I have played some basketball, but that is about it.” He said, “No problem. Don’t worry about it, Ed, I have run multiple marathons and I’ll train you. I’ll give you the strategy. It will be a piece of cake.” But, I was saying to myself, “Yeah, I’m going to throw up my cake.”
So, sure enough, he gave me some books and shared some insights with me. I will never forget the strategy that he showed me. He said, “Ed, don’t start the race too fast. Your adrenaline will be pumping, the crowd will be cheering and you will want to take off fast. But run at a controlled pace.” Then he added, “Take water at every station. Don’t look to the right or to the left. Focus on what is ahead of you. And then, Ed, finish the race. Go the distance. Don’t try to set some kind of record. Finish the race.”
So sure enough the day of the race arrives after about three months of training. I preach a short message. I am energized and ready to go. I join thousands and thousands of runners amidst the skyscrapers of Houston and get ready to take off. There were so many runners it took me five minutes, once the gun had sounded, just to break the plane of the starting line.
And so here I go. I am taking off. I go to mile five. I am feeling good. Mile ten, I am feeling really good. At mile fifteen, I begin to feel some fatigue and suddenly a horrible phenomenon begins to unfold all around me. I watch runners wince in pain over cramps. I see some being tended to by paramedics. I see several quit. And I say to myself, “Their strategy didn’t work. But my strategy, Wayne’s strategy works.”
When you walked in today you were handed a number, a race number. Whether you realize it or not, ladies and gentlemen, you are invited to run a marathon. I am not referring to the Houston, White Rock, or Boston Marathon, I am talking about the ultimate marathon, the ultimate race, God’s race that He has laid out for your life and mine.
And if the bold truth were know here, a lot of us are doing life at a marathon-type pace, aren’t we? We are running with our children. We are running with our spouses. We are running, maybe, in a dating relationship. We have been running as a church. We are covering a lot of ground in a lot of areas, but how are we doing? What is going on? Are we really focused, are we really running the race that God wants us to run?
I think that for some of you, the strategy is working. Scores in this place are running well. You are controlled. You are keeping a good pace. On the other hand, for some of you, your strategy is not working well. Some of you feel like you are cramping up. Maybe you feel like you are being tended by the paramedics. Maybe there are several here who have just quit. Over the next few moments, I want to tell you how to run God’s race.
The how-to’s come from the greatest running book ever penned, the Bible. One caveat. The race I am going to talk about is exciting, adventuresome and, at times, overwhelming. But God will always give you the strength and the power to do it.
I think it is kind of funny. Right now a couple hundred thousand people are at the Texas Motor Speedway watching a race. They are watching NASCAR cars go around and around the track. Zoooom. Zoooom. Zoooom. In essence, the cars are going nowhere. Today, we are talking about a race that is going somewhere.
Let’s jump in and talk about the strategy. I want to read some strategy for you that works and that transcends every situation, occupation, and people group. You don’t have to alter it, change it, or jazz it up at all. It is from this running manual. The Apostle Paul penned these words in Philippians 3:13: “I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet, but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead….”
Simply put, we have got to accept His strategy. We have got to come to a point in our lives where we accept God’s strategy for the race—God’s strategy for our marriage, God’s strategy for our parenting skills, God’s strategy for money management. God has a fantastic strategy for everyone. I love what the Apostle Paul says. He says, “I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet.” Paul is saying he has not arrived. And if anyone could have claimed that, Paul could have. We are talking about one of the greatest Christ-followers to have ever graced the planet. Yet Paul said he was not to be measured for angel wings yet, that he hadn’t arrived.
Do you know what? You have not arrived. I have not arrived. This church has not arrived. In God’s timing, we are only about eight minutes into God’s race. We are just getting stretched out. We are just breaking a sweat. We are just getting warmed up.
We have the uncanny ability, don’t we, to compare and to contrast ourselves with other runners? I fall into that trap sometimes and so do you. I will be running along and say to myself that I am running much faster than that other person. We always pick the person who is running a little slower than we are. Yet God comes along and says, “Don’t compare yourself with others.”
Paul wasn’t doing that. Paul was comparing himself to God. Paul says that we have got to realize that we have not arrived. Then he said that we have got to forget what lies behind and reach forward to what lies ahead. We are to forget, the Bible says. A lot of people read that and ask if it means totally forget. Does it mean that God gives us some supersonic spiritual amnesia, that we go through all sorts of spiritual and psychological gymnastics and forget everything that we have done wrong? No, that is not it. I remember things that I have done wrong. I remember when I have blown it. I remember when I have messed up. So do you. Yet, the Bible says that if we become focused on the future, on what lies ahead of us, the power of the future can break the power of the past. We have got to forget what lies behind.
Oftentimes, we remember what we should forget and forget what we should remember. And here is what happens. We are running along, running the race, and the evil one runs up along side of us. He says, “Hey, what are you doing in this race? You don’t deserve this. Do you realize what you did last week, last month, or last year? Get out of the race. You can’t run.” But the good news is that God specializes in using runners who are cramped up, runners who are being tended by the paramedics, and runners who have quit. The strategy is simple. It is profound. We are to forget what lies behind and reach forward to what lies ahead.
The first message I ever preached at The Fellowship Church was January 14, 1990, to about a couple of hundred people in a small office complex. When I shared with the church what God was sharing with me, I entitled the message “Running The Race.” That was my title eight years ago. It is my title today. And I want to play for you, if we can, a brief excerpt from that message.
[Short excerpt played]
A lot has changed since then—my accent and the growth of this church. But I say the same thing to you today. God has a phenomenal strategy for our lives individually and collectively. And I think that the next eight years are going to be the greatest years for The Fellowship Church. I had no clue or concept concerning the magnitude of what I said years ago, yet God has done and is doing some wonderful things.
Remember the purpose for which He has placed us here. We are running the race individually, but also collectively. We are saying that we have not arrived. We are reaching forward, and as we are reaching forward, we are reaching upward. We are expressing love to God. We are reaching out, communicating Christ with others. We are reaching in, developing fully devoted followers of the Lord. Accept His strategy.
Now, I want to read Hebrews 12:1a. We continue with this theme of the race. Scripture writers love this theme. It is one of the most used illustrations in the Bible regarding our spiritual pilgrimage. “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us….” After we accept the strategy, this text tells us we are to connect with His synergy, God’s synergy. You hear the word “synergy” tossed out all the time these days. Synergy this. Synergy that. Connect with that synergy.
I have some great news for you today. Our God is the author of synergy. He thought it up. He invented it. There is synergy going on right now in heaven. There is synergy going on in this church. And we are to connect with God’s synergy.
What a comforting verse. This text tells us that we are not solo runners. We are not by ourselves. We have, if we are in God’s race, a great cloud of witnesses watching us, cheering us on. Take the loudest cheering you have ever heard at Texas stadium. I mean during the Cowboy’s heyday. Think about it acoustically and numerically, and then multiply that exponentially, and it pales in comparison to the cheerleading going on for your life and my life.
For example, as I am running the race, I can see Abel standing up saying, “Ed, go for it. Remember me. Nothing but the blood.” I can see Samson standing up and saying to you, “Hey, don’t just rely on your own strength. Rely on God’s strength.” I can see Rahab saying, “I don’t care what you have done, how many sins you have committed, God will cleanse you and forgive you.” I can hear Moses saying, “Step out there and be a difference-maker. Lead.” I can hear David cheering, “You can take that giant on. Just rely on the spirit of God.” We have the matriarchs and patriarchs cheering us on. We also have others, and that is why we have the church. We are to connect with the synergy. We are to motivate each other to run the race.
Speaking of synergy. I will never forget what happened years ago when I traveled to the Far East with four professional baseball players. I did some speaking, and they would put on some baseball demonstrations. They were great Christian guys and we had a wonderful time together. The last day we were there, though, we traveled to the DMZ, the demilitarized zone. That was a little tract of land separating North and South Korea. We visited a Marine base.
Now the Marines at this base were bad to the bone. We are talking about animals, fighting machines. We talked to them and shared what God had done in our lives. Then they challenged us to a softball game. It was nine of them against five of us (really four, because I am a horrible softball player.) I said to myself, “Oh, no! I have got to play on the same team as professional baseball players. I can’t play softball that well.” Then I looked at my friends, who, though they were great Christians, had a total change of countenance when they got into the competition thing. They had had looks of compassion, now they seemed to be saying, “OK, let’s get them.” Again, these are tough athletes. I am talking about Skol-dipping, homerun-ripping, uniform-wearing baseball players.
They looked at me and said, “Reverend, you are leading off.” I will never forget walking to the plate, taking a couple of practice swings, looking at the muscular Marine pitcher. I was scared. I was shaking. I looked back at my four friends, and I began to connect with their synergy. They began to build confidence in me. They said, “Go for it. Come on. You can hit it. You can do it. Come on. We can take them.” I don’t know what came over me that day, but I played a little bit like Ken Griffey, Jr., and we beat those guys. We really did. Connect with the synergy.
If you are trying to run a solo race, if you are not connected to a local church—here or at another church—you are setting yourself up for failure. What is going to happen when you get the phone call in the middle of the night? What is going to happen when your world caves in? What is going to happen when your corporation is downsizing and you are left without work? If you are not involved in the body of Christ, if you are not connecting with the synergy from heaven and the church, good luck. Accept His strategy. Connect with His synergy.
There is another aspect of this race. We are also to tap into His energy. Hebrews 12:1b-2a, “…let us also lay aside every encumbrance….” If you do very much running, you do not want to wear any type of clothing that binds or chaffs or hinders you. “…let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and the perfector of our faith.” A lot of times we will say, “God, I want to run your race. I want to get in on what you have for me. I am ready to jump on the track. Yet we can’t get very far because we have not laid aside anything that encumbers us or entangles us. We have got to deal with sin.
Remember, God specializes in using cramped up, paramedic-treated people, but we have got to join God in this race and deal with our mess- ups. We have got to deal with greed. We have got to deal with lust. We have got to deal with envy. We have got to throw it off. We don’t want to run in something that would weight us down, tire us out.
Have you seen all the high tech running gear from Adidas, Nike and New Balance? It hardly weighs a thing. You wouldn’t think of some great track star running in an overcoat and combat boots, would you? We have got to lay that aside. We have got to get rid of it. The Bible says we should lay aside all of this sin, not just once or twice, Christmas Eve and Easter, but continually. When we do this, we can tap into an energy like we have never had before.
The energy comes from who we are watching. You see, there is someone who is standing at the finish line with outstretched, nail-pierced hands. We are locking eyes with the Lord, with Captain Endurance. You see, Jesus endured the cross for you and for me. He did it and we don’t deserve it. There is nothing I can do or say, no race I could win, no medal I could receive, no trophy I could get that would merit me getting into the race. It is the race of grace. And the grace was made possible because of who is standing at the finish line.
Jesus is saying, “Come on. Look at Me. Come on. Look at Me. I endured the cross for you.” And, remember, our Lord had a chance to quit. Right before His redemptive work, I know that all hell was screaming in His ear, “Quit, it’s not worth it. You are cramping up. Jump down off the cross.” Jesus, though, went the distance. Jesus, though, finished the race.
You know the wonderful thing about the Christian life. The wonderful thing about the Christian life is that we are all different. We are running the same race, yet we are different. When I went to that marathon years ago, I remember seeing strong, sleek bodies and round, rotund bodies. I saw people in wheelchairs. I saw all types of individuals. They were in the race. Some were running faster than others. Some were just pushing themselves along. Yet everyone was in the race. I don’t care what kind of style or stride or pace you run. Get in the race.
But I am afraid that there are some of you who are duped into thinking that you are in the race. I am afraid some of you are thinking you have the race number, have your running gear on, and so you must be in the race. You think that because you grew up in a Christian home, are a member of a certain denomination, or are doing great good for humanity that you are in the race. All of that is fine and dandy. But you get in the race by making a personal decision, by breaking the plane of the starting line.
The first step we take to enter into the Christian race is the step of saying, “Jesus, I have fallen short. I have tried to run my own race. But I know and I believe that You endured the cross. You died on Calvary for all of my sins and rose again. And I want to take this step of faith. I want to trust You. I want to receive what You did for me and the moment we do that, we are in the race. But you are not in the race until you take the first step. I had my runner’s packet. I had paid my fee. I had my number. I had the whole outfit on, but I was not officially a part of the race until I broke the plane of the starting line. Don’t leave this place until you have settled that issue in your life.
I want you to take out your race number for a second. I want to give you just a little bit of homework as we wind down our time here. I want you to take this race number and place it in a prominent place in your apartment, in your office, or in your home. After you place it somewhere, I want you to think about God’s strategy, His synergy, and His energy. It is our prayer that this number would motivate you to run the race every day, to run the race at church, to run the race in every aspect and slice of your life. That is our prayer.
Now I am sure that some of you are wondering if I finished the race. I kind of stopped the story at mile 15. Did I finish the race? Well, I will tell you what happened. When I hit mile 15, I began to get fatigued and all that. Because I followed Wayne’s strategy and began to see and feel the crowd the last couple of miles, I played off their synergy and connected with it. I had a burst of energy and I was able to run the last six miles at a great pace, for me. Did I finish in record time? No. It took me about four hours, but I finished the race. I went the distance.
I want you to pin this race number on and I want to challenge you from God’s word to go the distance, to finish strong, to run the race with The Fellowship Church. It will be the greatest race of your life.