The Commitment of Joy
If you had been reading the July 22, 1776 edition of the Boston Gazette, you would have come across a notice that read:
Deserted from my company, in Col. Craft’s battalion of colony train of artillery, Michael Carrick, 31 years of age, about 5 foot 8 inches high, with a cut over his right eye brow, well set, black hair, and buck skin breeches. He had on a grey out side jacket and striped waist coat, a new cotton shirt, and carried away with him a French musket and bayonet.–Any person who shall stop said deserter and thief, shall have a reward of FOUR DOLLARS... Such notices were by no means uncommon.When soldiers ran away, a designated officer placed an advertisement in the local newspaper describing the deserter in considerable detail and offering a reward for his capture. One expert estimates that 1 out of every 4 soldiers fighting for the Revolution deserted their post, and, in some ways, you couldn’t blame them.
In the close, unsanitary quarters, death from small pox was a real possibility. Lax discipline and a lack of food and clothing discouraged men. Blood on the snow at Valley Forge wasn’t just some dramatic description for the Fourth of July. It really happened because men had no shoes. On top of all this, the soldiers faced the greatest fighting force in the world at that time. They, at least in the early days, lacked confidence and that lack of confidence melted their courage like snow in the warm April sun. And so many deserted.
Now before you judge just know that a lack of confidence can make cowards of us all! Even Christians, or maybe I should say, especially Christians.
Here’s how that works. You’re cruising along in your Christian life, not because you are particularly spiritual but because you are greatly blessed. In the flush of God’s blessing and your ability to see answers to your prayers, you’re very confident and joyful in your Christian life. It’s all you ever heard the Christian life is supposed to be. But then, something happens. A parent dies; a child is taken; a job is lost, or a trusted leader falls and, all of a sudden, your circumstantial courage begins to melt and instead of joy you are despondent. You lose your confidence and hope. It’s predictable. In fact, you can see it right from the definition we gave for joy. Do you remember it? JOY IS THE CURRENT CONFIDENCE THAT FLOWS FROM THE FUTURE HOPE AND PRACTICAL GUIDANCE MADE POSSIBLE THROUGH THE CONSTANT PRESENCE OF GOD. Well if that is joy, then the lack of joy is its opposite. In fact the lack of joy is the current doubt that flows from a loss of hope and a sense that you are on a dead end street of life because you have lost a sense of the constant presence of God. In fact, you see that doubtful lifestyle spoken of in our text today. Hebrews 12:1 says: Hebrews 12:3 (NKJV)
For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.
Did you catch that last phrase? It said lest you become “weary.” That word, in the Greek, draws you a picture. It means to “gradually lose one’s motivation to accomplish some goal.” The second word is “discouraged,” and means to “become loose, weary, or weak.” The idea is that because I have not remained motivated as a believer, I begin to let things slip in my spiritual life. I cut corners. I have a “what’s the point!” attitude.
Anybody here felt like that before? Anybody feeling that way now? I surely have! And here’s what I know about that kind of experience. It is the very definition of a life that lacks Christian joy and it is a very dangerous place to be. That may be you this morning, and if it is, I really encourage you to listen. These first four verses of Hebrews 12 tell us how we can, even in the middle of disappointment, not lose hope, and not lose our motivation in serving Christ. I don’t know about you, but I need that. If the greatest decision of joy is devotion and the greatest prerequisite for joy is perspective, then the greatest danger of joy is discouragement. How do you keep it away? How do you keep your confidence in the middle of great difficulty? Well, first, you
D1: REMOVE THE ROADBLOCKS
That’s right, remove the roadblocks. You find them mentioned in v1. It says, Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, What is pictured here is a race. In Paul’s day, the runners would strip down to their undergarments so that their long flowing robes would not impede them. It could be clothing, weight carried in training or any number of things.
I have a bike which is in the middle of the road price range. I didn’t buy it, actually, my brother-in-law, who is an avid biker bought it for me. It cost around $800.00. Now I know you immediately might think, “Well, I can go to Walmart and buy a bike for $49.95 any day of the week . . .” and you probably could. But you would not want to race with that Walmart bike. Why not? It’s too heavy among other things. You see, the more you pay for a racing bike, the less you get. In fact, it is nothing for a professional racer to pay $10,000.00 for a bike. But it’s a very special bike. It’s frame is made of carbon so it’s weight is measured in ounces not pounds. Why? Because in fierce competition, ounces make the difference!
This is the picture here! I am to get rid of the things that keep me from running the race. I’m to dump the weight. He mentions three things:
First, I am to get rid of the habits that hinder me. He says lay aside every weight. In our lives these are the things that are not necessarily sinful, but which slow us down.
Then he says, I am to the sins that sabotage me. Verse one says to lay aside . . . the sin that so easily ensnares me. That word “ensnares” has the idea of trying to run with your shoe laces tied together. You can’t do it because you’re all tangled up. This speaks of those “pet” sins we leave in our lives like bitterness, anger, sexually perverse thoughts, over-eating. You might call them the little idols we worship that are always sabotaging our walk with God and destroying our faith that He will come through when things are going wrong. I am to rid myself of them. I am to lay aside the habits that hinder me and the sins that sabotage me.
Then I am to change the desires that weaken me. The writer mentions two attitudes that keep me from running with endurance. First there is the desire to quit. He says that we are to run “with endurance.” When the Bible speaks of “endurance” it speaks of the capacity to keep going in the middle of difficult circumstances. This race is a marathon, not a sprint.
One runner learned this when he was competing at the Pennsylvania Relays. He was running a relay and was the lead-off man in the second lane. In the first lane was record holder for the 100-meter dash for prep school runners at the time. This guy also held a record for arrogance because when he got to the line, looked over and said, "May the best man win. I'll be waiting for you at the finish line."
The gun sounded. The record holder took off and the rest settled in behind him. They went around the first turn and down the back stretch. About 180 meters into the race, all of a sudden the arrogant record holder was slowing down in front of the first runner, holding his side, bent over, and groaning as he jogged along. Everyone passed him like he was standing still, and because I'm such a gentleman, the first runner said, I waited for him at the finish line.
At the end of the race my coach took me aside and said, "I hope you've learned a lesson today. It makes little difference whether you hold the record for the 100-meter dash if the race is 400-meters long."
The first desire you must get rid of is the desire to quit. Then you must get rid of the desire to control. Notice the verse says that we are to run the race set before us. This is so important. Many of us are prone to rebel against God’s race track. We want to run someone else’s race. If we’re single, we want to be married and insist on it, when that might not be God’s race for us. If we’re married, we may be unhappy and want to switch races with someone who is single. If you’re suffering with some chronic illness, you may want to switch races with someone who is healthy. But listen! God’s race for you is God’s race for you. We don’t get to pick the race track. We must run the race that is set before us.
So how can you get this into your life? How can you overcome a hindering habit, a sabotaging sin, or a weakening desire? Well, let me give you three suggestions. When it comes to removing the roadblocks that keep you from running, first, identify the problem. Name the habit, the sin, or the attitude that has you sidelined and is robbing you of the joy of the race. Maybe it’s a very innocent thing in your mind, but it is a weight. Maybe, for a long time, you’ve been in denial about it. It seems so harmless really, but you know it’s really slowing you down. Name it! Be brutally honest!
Then, once identify the problem, identify the process. Very often an innocent thing leads you into a sinful thing. There is a process that occurs, and until you see the process, you will keep falling to the sin.
Let me give you an example: You have a problem with pornography. You’ve tried to get free of it but you keep going back over and over again. You’re also a night owl. You like to stay up late and watch TV or work on the computer. Your wife and the rest of your family goes to bed. Now, there’s nothing wrong with staying up late. There’s nothing even wrong with staying up after your family goes to bed. But since you have a problem with porn, when you stay up late you put yourself in a vulnerable position. As you are rifling through websites at 12 a.m., you succumb to temptation because you are all alone and vulnerable. That’s the process. It comes because you have a hindering habit that leads you into a besetting sin.
If you’re to be free, you must identify the problem and the process. But last of all, if you’re to remove the roadblocks to a life of joy, you must identify the power in your life. Simply put, you must know who is ultimately in control of your life. You must come to the place that you fully accept the race God has set before you. Until you do that, you’ll always be distracted by another race track you’re not even running and you’ll get very discouraged.
I know that your life may be discouraging right now. All of us go through those times. The key is that you learn how to keep your joy in the middle of discouragement. How do you do that? You remove the roadblocks, and then, you:
D2: RECALL YOUR LEGACY.
Hebrews 11 has often been called the faith chapter of the Bible. If you were looking for another title for it, I think you could call it the “legacy” chapter. Characters from the Old Testament appear in its verses as examples for us to follow. When you get to the end of the chapter you are met with a conjunction that begins chapter 12. It is “therefore,” only it isn’t a normal occurrence of the word. This “therefore” is a very strong form of the conjunction intended to vitally connect what is said in chapter 11 to what is said in 12. It, in effect, says, “Therefore since . . .
Noah trusted enough to build the boat . . .
Abraham trusted enough to leave, not knowing where he was going . . .
David trusted enough to run from Saul rather than lift His hand against God’s anointed . . .
Jeremiah trusted enough to tell the people of Judah the truth even though they called him a traitor . . .
The Apostles trusted enough to be crucified upside down and beheaded . . .
Martin Luther trusted enough to defy the church and declare a reformation . . .
William Tyndale trusted enough to burn at the stake so that you and I could read the Bible in our own language. . .
Hubmaier trusted enough to immerse converts rather than baptizing infants
William Carey trusted enought to take the gospel to India when all the church told him he was wrong.
Jim Elliot trusted enough to give what he could not keep to gain what he could not loose.
Luby Bradshaw trusted enough to help organize this church from scratch.
And Gordon Sebastian trusted enough to take a tiny congregation and move out here to Tilghman Road with no money
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, LET US RUN!
All of these are given to us as examples to follow, especially when we are discouraged. But, they are not our primary example. They are not our biggest heroes. The truth is, their example is eclipsed by the one given in v2. It says . . .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 has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Jesus, then, becomes our ultimate example. He is our example of COMPLETION. This verse calls him the author, that is the pioneer of our faith. He went through the whole process of believing God just like you and I have to do. He pioneered the faith and then he completed it, or “finished” it. He is the one who gives us the example of endurance and how, when we yield to that endurance, we complete the work that God has sent us here to do.
And then he is the example of ENDURANCE. That is, he showed us how it is we are to keep going in the middle of difficulty. v2 says that he endured the cross. Those words flow from our tongues so easily, but they are not so easy to say when they are reality. Enduring the cross was an unbelievably cruel thing physically alone, to say nothing of the spiritual pain he suffered. And while he was in such physical and spiritual agony, he also, as it says in v 3, had to endure the hostility of all those who mocked him in the middle of his pain.
Now it is interesting what the v 3 tells us to do. It says that we are to consider these things about Christ. To consider here means to think out carefully and reason thoroughly. In other words, the way we are to endure our trials without losing confidence is to thoroughly think carefully about the great legacy we have in the example of Christ. We live in our memory of His great sacrifice; we draw confidence from our memory of His unmatched endurance.
Listen! You and I stand in the succession of an amazing legacy. Saints of old have shown us the way. Christ, Himself has set the example. The key, then, to remaining joyful in the middle of trial is to think about the legacy we have in Christ and in our Cloud of witnesses.
Joey Lee was in the race of his life—the 150-mile Marathon Des Sables, across the Moroccan Sahara Desert. On day four, Lee was still running, though other runners had already been airlifted out after surrendering to the heat or to physical exhaustion.
About 80 miles into the race, the air pockets in the soles of Lee's running shoes blew out, apparently from the heat. Lee was left with almost nothing to protect the soles of his feet as he ran over the sand and jagged rocks. Although he carried a backpack of provisions, it contained no extra shoes. His feet were blistered, his body exhausted from the 100-degree-plus temperatures. His eyes burned from the sand and sweat.
Facing another 30 miles to run that day and 40 more miles over the next three days, Lee refused to quit. The only sight ahead of him was the miles of desert, and the massive dunes he would have to overcome, but he pressed on. Three days later, Lee finished the race in the middle of the pack of 600 other runners.
Joey Lee was running for a reason. His young wife, Allison, had died almost a year and a half earlier after a long battle with cancer. Lee was running in memory of his wife and to raise money for the American Cancer Society.
Ignoring the mental and physical obstacles he faced, he finished the race. Afterward, when asked what kept him going, he replied, "I just thought about Allison a lot. This is nothing compared to what she went through."
Hey Christian, its so easy for us to forget our legacy, isn’t it? I would venture to say that so many believers have no idea what our legacy even is. Most of the Old Testament Characters are nothing more than strange sounding names they hear occasionally in Sunday School. Our apathy towards our faith is exceeded only by our apathy towards our history. We are largely ignorant of where we came from.
That’s why I challenge you this morning if you are Christian here: If you are to remember your legacy, YOU HAVE TO KNOW IT. That’s why I want to challenge you to read your Bible through. For some of you it would be a first. There’s a lot you’re missing if you never read through the Old Testament.
And then read biographies, or listen to them. You can download lots of books, many for free, on the internet. Take some of the biographies of missionaries and read or listen to them. They will challenge your walk. I would suggest beginning with William Carey or Hudson Taylor. God intended that their examples inspire you when you’re going through difficulty. They’re your “cloud,” if you will, of witnesses. Their lives can give you inspiration.
There are so many good ones. Lottie Moon was a Southern Baptist missionary in the late 1800's and early 1900's. When she returned to China as a missionary after her second furlough in 1904, her area of China was impoverished and undergoing a famine. She begged for more money to help, but the mission board sent none. Without anyone knowing it, Lottie took from her own food and money and gave to those around her. In the process she personally starved. This went on for 8 years until, in 1912 she was discovered by fellow missionaries to weigh only 50 pounds and they sent her home. She died before she ever arrived. She died enroute.
Her life inspires me! What do I have to feel down about? Lottie Moon is in that cloud of witnesses saying, “You can do it! Don’t get discouraged! It’s worth it!”
You see, you can remain confident in the middle of trouble when you recall your legacy and you remove your roadblocks. But, last of all, you can remain confident when you
D3: RENEW YOUR COMMITMENT
V4 gives a sobering conclusion to this paragraph. After the writer reminds us that we are to remove the roadblocks to and remember the heroes of our faith in order to maintain our confidence he tells us that . . .You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin. Now you need to remember the context here. This book was written to Jewish believers who were being enticed to return to the Jewish temple to worship through animal sacrifice, because such a compromise would allow them to live in peace. Probably, at this point, the persecution coming against those who refused may have been nothing more than social pressure, but the day was coming when social pressure would turn into legal sanction and perhaps even capital punishment. The writer acknowledges all of this and says, almost matter-of-factly. You’ve not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood in order to strive against sin.
What is being said is this: Your commitment is all or nothing. You must be willing to die for this faith you profess, for only that commitment matches the one of those who went ahead of you and the one Who died for you. Yours is not a devotion of convenience. It is a devotion until death.
You know, we tend to forget that. In fact, the current crop of preachers tries to deny it in many ways. We hear a gospel of blessing, not in the sweet by-and-by, but in the syrupy now-and-now. We don’t give because there’s a need and we’re only stewards, we give so that we can get more. We don’t go to church so that we can encourage others and serve God, we go to church so that our marriages can get better, our kids can be perfect, and our business contacts can develop. In that kind of environment, resisting unto bloodshed seems weird at best.
But that’s exactly why we lack joy in our Christian lives. Me-centered faith depresses you because it ultimately fails. There, however, is a God-given joy that comes to the one who is willing to take God up on this all-out commitment.
In the fifth century, a monk named Telemachus wanted to live his life in pursuit of God, so he lived alone in the desert praying, fasting, and meditating. That was the custom, of his day. Truly spiritual people went out to be totally alone in the desert so that they could give themselves fully to God. One day as he prayed, he realized his life was based on a very selfish love of God .If he were to serve God, he must serve men. He decided to return to the city where there was sin and need.
Telemachus headed for Rome. He arrived at a time when the Roman general, Stilicho, had won a great victory over the Goths. Since Rome was officially Christian, triumph brought people pouring into the churches. But one pagan practice still lingered in Christian Rome—the gladiator games. While Christians were not thrown to the lions, prisoners of war were cast into the arena to fight and kill each other. Spectators roared with blood lust as the gladiators battled.
Telemachus arrived on the day of the games. Following the noise, he made his way to the arena where 80,000 people had gathered to celebrate. (Sound kind of like the superbowl doesn’t it?) The fights began and Telemachus stood there, watching in horror. Men for whom Christ had died were about to kill each other to amuse people who called themselves Christians.
He became so horrified that he jumped into the arena and stood between the two gladiators, imploring them to stop. The crowd was angry. They had come to see blood and this little preacher was interrupting their "entertainment." After several shouts and threats, the crowd lost it. They stoned the monk to death. The rest of the contests were cancelled that day. Three days later, Honorius (the Roman Emperor), so moved by this believer who resisted to the point of bloodshed, declared Telemachus a martyr and ended the gladiatorial games forever.
When considering the impact of this little monk, historian Edward Gibbon said ofTelemachus: "His death was more useful to mankind than his life." What he meant was this. In his life Telemachus was safely praying in the desert, alone. It took an all out commitment and event he loss of his life to really impact his world.
You might say, “Well, that’s great, Rusty, but how does that bring me joy. The guy died! That doesn’t sound very joyful to me!” I guess it all depends on what you’re after in this life. If you’re here to survive, I don’t suppose that death is very appealing. But, guess what? If you’re happiness is all about your survival, you’re going to eventually be unhappy! That’s right . . . because you and I and everyone else you know is going to die. The key to joy is not survival at any cost! The key to joy is commitment no matter the cost. It comes by fixing your eyes on Christ, removing the road blocks, recalling your legacy and renewing your commitment.
So, are you torn? Are you afraid to really make that kind of a commitment. When you think about living this kind of all-or-nothing life, are you frightened? I want to get you, if you are willing to really think about this. If you are really a believer this morning, this is what I know about you: There is a part of your heart that genuinely wants this kind of relationship. I don’t think you can really know Christ if this desire is not in your heart. So here’s my question: If the desire is there, what is keeping you from selling out?
Is it the fear of failure? Maybe you think, “If I really sell out in my relationship with Christ, I will get to a certain point and then fail, because I won’t be able to sustain that depth of commitment, or, even more, I’ll be asked by God to do something I just will not be able to do.” If that’s you, I want to challenge you to just remember what Jesus said: These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” God will never take you where His grace can’t keep you. Don’t let the fear of failure stop you.
Others fear suffering. They think that this whole thing of being willing to shed your blood will call you to a place of suffering that they will not be able to bear. But Jesus told us: But when they deliver you up, do not worry about how or what you should speak. For it will be given to you in that hour what you should speak; 20 for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you. Don’t expect to be able to look into your heart today and find the courage to undergo persecution. It probably will not be there. That Spirit-inspired, supernatural, courage will be given to you in the moment when you need it. Go forward in faith. If the suffering comes, God will help you.
And ultimately we all shrink back from death. That is the ultimate “persecution.” And yet we know that on the other side of the grave is a glorious resurrection. Paul said,“Death is swallowed up in victory.” 55 “O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?” 56 The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Our joy, our confidence in God, then doesn’t depend on our success, our comfort, or even our survival. It is present because He is present, because Joy is the current confidence that flows from the future hope and practical guidance made possible because of the constant presence of God. Do you have that joy?
Shortly after the turn of the century, Japan invaded, conquered, and occupied Korea. They overwhelmed the Koreans with a brutality that would sicken the strongest of stomachs. One group singled out for concentrated oppression was the Christians. When the Japanese army overpowered Korea one of the first things they did was board up the evangelical churches and eject most foreign missionaries. Then they refused to allow churches to meet and jailed many key believers.
One pastor persistently entreated his local Japanese police chief for permission to meet for services. His nagging was finally accommodated, and the police chief offered to unlock his church…for one meeting. It didn’t take long for word to travel. Committed Christians starving for an opportunity for unhindered worship quickly made their plans. Long before dawn on that promised Sunday, Korean families throughout a wide area made their way to the church. They passed the staring eyes of their Japanese captors, but nothing was going to steal their joy. As they closed the doors behind them they shut out the cares of oppression and shut in a burning spirit anxious to glorify their Lord.
The Korean church has always had a reputation as a singing church. It was during a stanza of “Nearer My God to Thee” that the Japanese police chief waiting outside gave the orders. The people toward the back of the church could hear them when they barricaded the doors, but no one realized that they had doused the church with kerosene until they smelled the smoke. There was an immediate rush for the windows. But momentary hope recoiled in horror as the men climbing out the windows came crashing back in—their bodies ripped by a hail of bullets.
The good pastor knew it was the end. With a calm that comes from confidence, he led his congregation in a hymn whose words served as a fitting farewell to earth and a loving salutation to heaven. Their song became a serenade to the horrified and helpless witnesses outside. Their words also tugged at the hearts of the cruel men who oversaw this flaming execution of the innocent.
Alas! and did my Savior bleed?
did my Sovereign die?
Would he devote that sacred head
for such a worm as I?
Just before the roof collapsed they sang the last verse, their words an eternal testimony to their faith.
But drops of grief can ne’er repay
the debt of love I owe:
Here, Lord, I give myself away
‘Tis all that I can do!
At the cross, at the cross
Where I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart rolled away —
It was there by faith I received my sight,
And now I am happy all the day.
After the war, in 1972, a group of Japanese pastors traveling through Korea came the site of this tragedy where a memorial had been erected. When they read the details of the tragedy and the names of the spiritual brothers and sisters who had perished, they were overcome with shame. They returned to Japan committed to right a wrong. There was an immediate outpouring of love from their fellow believers. They raised ten million yen ($25,000). The money was transferred through proper channels and a beautiful white church building was erected on the sight of the tragedy.
When the dedication service for the new building was held, a delegation from Japan joined the relatives and special guests. Although their generosity was acknowledged and their attempts at making peace appreciated, the memories were still there.
The speeches were made, the details of the tragedy recalled, and the names of the dead honored. It was time to bring the service to a close. Someone in charge of the agenda thought it would be appropriate to conclude with the same two songs that were sung the day the church was burned.
The song leader began the words to “Nearer My God to Thee.” But something remarkable happened as the voices mingled on the familiar melody. As the memories of the past mixed with the truth of the song, resistance started to melt. The inspiration that gave hope to a doomed collection of churchgoers in a past generation gave hope once more.
The song leader closed the service with the hymn “At the Cross.”
The normally stoic Japanese could not contain themselves. The tears that began to fill their eyes during the song suddenly gushed from deep inside. They turned to their Korean spiritual relatives and begged them to forgive. The guarded, callused hearts of the Koreans were not quick to surrender. But the love of the Japanese believers—unintimidated by decades of hatred—tore at the Koreans’ emotions.
At the cross,
At the cross,
Where I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart rolled away…
One Korean turned toward a Japanese brother. Then another. And then the floodgates holding back a wave of emotion let go. The Koreans met their new Japanese friends in the middle. They clung to each other and wept.
In each case the key to perseverance and, ultimately joy was the same thing. When the Koreans were massacred for their faith it was turning their eyes on Christ that allowed them to endure. When, in that memorial service that came much later, the Japanese were forgiven, it was turning their eyes on Christ and His cross that gave them to grace to forgive. If you and I are to stand firm in the middle of difficulty, in short, if we are to have joy, we must remove our roadblocks, recall our legacy, and renew our commitment.