Going Deeper 8-19-19

I am going to share a story/reflection I came across based on this morning’s text from Hebrews 12: 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...  Thus far our text.
Persia’s King Darius was upset with the Greeks. Through battlefield conquests, he had come to “own” Asia Minor (now roughly the same territory as the nation of Turkey). However, this region had largely been settled by the Greeks, generations before, and for a variety of reasons, the people of “his” territory still viewed themselves as Greeks rather than loyal Persians. 
Darius was enraged, so he did what tyrants often do: he amassed the largest military force ever conceived, and marched it west. Brutally putting down rebellions in Asia Minor, he then headed for the source of his perceived consternations. He crossed the Bosporus River and challenged the Greeks to a winner-take-all showdown on their own territory.
The Greeks were far from unified, and terrified at this onslaught. Athens and Sparta headed the largest confederations of multiple independent city-states, but the Spartans, even with their fierce training, shied away from this confrontation. So, the Athenians and a few allies stood feebly before the menacing Persian monster. All could see that the Greeks were going down.
But miracles, upsets, and strange twists of history happen every now and again.  The underdog weakling won the against the superior warrior, and Darius limped back to Persia in disgrace.  And from the battlefield near a small town named Marathon, the wondering whisper cascaded: "we have won!" Stunned at their own success, the Athenian forces dispatched a runner to bring the good news home to the worried Senate. While the man’s name has been lost, his heroic run inspired generations. Striding approximately 25 miles from the battlefield near Marathon all the way to Athens, he gasped in exhaustion, and shouted his victory cry… and then dropped dead.
When the Olympic Games were revived in 1896, the original Marathon runner inspired a new event. Set at 25 miles, the marathon race drew endurance athletes from around the world. But when London hosted the games in 1908, planners realized they needed to bring the grueling course to a conclusion at the box of the royal family in the newly constructed White Stadium. The marathon suddenly lengthened to 26.2 miles, and has settled there ever since.
Unlike the original, most marathon runners don’t die at the finish line. Nevertheless, a marathon race is extremely demanding, and requires both adequate preparation and punishing endurance. Starting is fairly easy. A runner simply puts forward a foot and is rapidly carried along by the jostling crowd. The first half-mile, or even the full initial mile, are passed in an instant, vapored away by nervous excitement.
But then the human body’s called upon to function beyond its normal boundaries. While muscles cry for rest, the steel will of the runner demands continued momentum.  So, the plodding and pacing set in. Mile after mile, footfall after footfall, numbed by repetitious movements that take pain to new levels, the mind kicks into autopilot as the body thuds along crying for release. Mile 4 is a miracle. Mile 9 is a blur. Mile 13 may be half-way, but the racer has long ago given up thoughts of sanity about this crushing torture. Mile 18 sees growing crowds along the route, and the rising voice of encouragement. 
While the body seemingly has no more to give, the spirit seems steadied and focused. By Mile 21, hope flutters, speculating nervously that maybe there will be an end to this long run of pain, and perhaps, just beyond the next turn, the stadium and its finish line will appear.
The human fences that guard the race concourse thicken, and their shouts of support rise in rapid decibels. Buoyed by the energy of others, each racer finds quicker steps and renewed focus. Up ahead, the “white noise” of indistinct stadium cheering mounts, filling the air with restless anticipation. Up a hill. Around a corner. Suddenly every other noise is blanked out as each runner charges into the concrete echo chamber channel that connects the world to the coliseum. Thud, thud, thud… Heartbeats and footfalls blend.  
And then a din erupts as the runner emerges from the tunnel’s darkness into light and chaos and the thundering urges cascading down the bleacher mountains surrounding the field. Only a lap to go! One time around the track. His steps spring. His heart sings. His mind feeds on the shouts of encouragement. He thinks to himself, “Dare I glance up at these wonderful people who are investing their time and voices and admirations into me?!”
So he sneak a peek above. “Hey. There are my parents, on their feet and yelling! I’ve never seen them so animated! And all for me!” He almost smiles through his pain, and his steps get lighter and quicker. And then he notices it… Next to his parents are other familiar faces- Uncle George and Aunt Sue. Cousin Cindy! What is she doing here?! Friends from college. And friends from high school?! And members of the church he used to be a part of?!  And then…wait! There is Grandpa and Grandma! But they are dead! And others that he recognizes from pictures in old photo albums! Something strange is going on here!
And as he runs, he becomes more aware of the thousands, and the myriads that are cheering him on.  Yes, the other runners too, but everyone shouts his name, and wishes him well, and calls for him to carry on. Some wear the out-of-date clothes, and look like they have stepped out of other cultures and times. “But all are here for me,” he realizes, “and they all know me by name, and all shout their encouragement.”
And before he can fully process this strange and transformative scene, he rounds the last corner and looks ahead. There’s the finish line. The tapes measure it on both sides. The clock ticks away the seconds. And at the center stands… Jesus! Even though he has never met Him face to face, he somehow knows it is him! And Jesus smiles at him, and he laughs the most glorious laugh of good will! And Jesus beckons him to finish the race, and as he does, the marathon ends with the runner falling into Jesus’ embrace of grace!
This is the message of the final big exhortation of the book of Hebrews.  You can do it!  Others have run this race before you, and others are running with you now.  They are next to you and all around you right now, and from each other you draw strength!  And, more significantly, Jesus ran this race, this marathon, this cruel, crushing torture.  It took all he had, but he gave it his all. And now he is the very one who gives everything to you.  In his strength, and the love of those around you here, you can finish the course. In his encouragement, you can keep the faith. In his love, your heart will find resources that your mind and body have lost too long ago.
No one said that it would be easy. It was not easy for Jesus.  But the outcome is clear and good and overwhelming.  We all need each other to get to the finish line.  Amen.