• “Building a community of disciples of Jesus, with a passion to worship God,
    who care for one another and bring God’s love into a broken world”

The Great Encouragement

Maurits Stevens, June 10, 2018

The end is in sight, the finish line is within reach! 3 services and 2 more sermons to go and then Margot and I will cross the line and end our work within Vineyard Groningen. It is a strange period in our lives and I will share a bit more on that at the end of this sermon. The finish line is within reach…it is a perfect fit with the passage from which I will preach today: Hebrews 12:1-3.

Hebrews 12:1-3

The great encouragement

For those who are new with us today, I have been going through a teaching series through the book of Hebrews. Today is the 9th message in a series of 10 and thus the end is in sight, the finish line is within reach also with this series.

With Hebrews chapter 12 we’ve entered the second part of the epistle, which began with chapter 10. The first part of the Hebrews has quite a dogmatic and teaching focus. The author explains that Jesus Christ is far, far greater than anything or anyone else. He is greater than the angels, greater than Moses. Jesus Christ is greater than any priest who has ever lived and will live. The rest that Jesus offers is greater, His promise is greater, the covenant of Jesus is greater. Ultimately His sacrifice is greater, for Jesus ‘offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, by which you and I are made perfect forever’ [Hebrews 10:11-15]. Jesus Christ is far, far greater than anything or anyone else.

So, the author needed 10 chapters to proof all that and then, in the 3 final chapters it is all about the question; ‘okay, and now what?’. How does it help you in your everyday life that you know that Jesus is greater than anything or anyone else? What difference does that make? Is it going to make your life any better? I mean, it’s great theory and a comforting thought, but tomorrow I need to go back to my work again and face my colleagues who think I am foolish because I go to church and believe in God!

Or to give another example, every day I am facing the same struggles, and even though I know that Jesus is far greater than my struggles, the situation doesn’t really seem to change. How relevant is the Christian faith actually?

The great encouragement of the final chapters is the one of ‘perseverance’. This is the practical consequence that you may draw from the systematic theology in Hebrews: because Jesus Christ is far, far greater than anything or anyone else; persevere, knowing that the time will come that all things will be set right. Or to quote from Hebrews 10:35-36:

‘So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.’

Perseverance thus. Patient endurance. Holding firm. It is good to realize that the author writes this epistle to a group of believers, followers of Jesus, who were persecuted because of their faith. The call to persevere is not a superficial one; not an easy solution. It has been given and is given to those who have lost their lives or lost the lives of loved ones – because of their discipleship to Jesus. It stands in no comparison with the challenges or struggles I personally experience in my relationship with God.

Then, in chapter 11, the great encouragement of perseverance is made more personal with a list  of great men and woman of faith. Some of these men and women experienced outstanding victories, even over the threat of death. Others were severely mistreated, tortured and even killed. But they all had a steadfast faith in God.

Jesus Christ is far, far greater than anything or anyone else. Even greater than the powers of death and hell. Therefore, hold firm to your faith in God for you will receive what He has promised.

With this list of men and women of faith, we’ve come to our passage: Hebrews 12:1-3.

The Great Race

I have been a teacher in physical education in the early beginning of my career and I really like sports. I am quite competitive; from almost everything I do, I make it a training or a race. A competition. My wife and I sometimes go for a swim in our town. And whereas Margot swims pretty relaxed, I’m going crazy thinking that I am in the Olympics. You see, that’s my problem – I can’t take things easy; it’s always 100% J.

Anyway, the language of Hebrews 12 is one of sports. One of a long distance race in which you, as a Christian, are the athlete, running the race of your life. It is not a sprint race, it is more like a marathon and a marathon takes a different approach then a 400m run. It is all about dividing your energy, endurance. While the pain involved with a sprint race can be intense but short, with a long distance race the pain can be nagging and constant.

That may not sound very exciting to some of us – and in fact it isn’t. But the encouragement is that you run this race of life – of serving and following Jesus – surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. And with that the author refers to that list of heroes in the faith in chapter 11. They surround us in the sense that they have gone before us and their lives witness how they served and followed God till the end, till the finish line. These people then are the ones you can look to, to be inspired, encouraged and strengthened in your faith in God.

The Christian life is never meant to be an isolated life. Even though Margot and I will end serving our community, we will not stop going to [a] church. We know and have learned that we need a faith community. They are the present day ‘cloud of witnesses’ who encourage you to keep going, to keep serving and following Jesus, to hold on to your faith in God. You need the stories of the people then, the stories in your bible, and the lives of people now as encouragement in your daily walk with God!

Simply because the Christian life is not one without struggle, opposition or even suffering. That’s why perseverance is such a key attitude.

It can be people who make your life very hard. Family, colleagues, people in your street or studies. They’re destroying your life in the way how they reject you, speak to you, look at you or treat you. Hebrews 12:3 gives the example of Jesus: ‘consider him [Jesus] who endured such opposition from sinful men…’ This opposition even lead to suffering as Jesus Christ was crucified on the cross by these men!

Another example is the influence of sin. ‘The sin that so easily entangles’, ‘your struggle against sin’ says Hebrews [vs. 1, 4]. Even though we don’t want to, we all struggle with sin; doing what we don’t want to do.

It is a poison, a demonic power, that runs through our lives, trying to destroy it – and especially trying to destroy our freedom and satisfaction that we receive in our relationship with the living God [1 John 2:15-17].

Hardship or setbacks makes life very hard. Your relationship has ended in a divorce, an unforeseen resignation. Not to be able to receive children. Or going through life as single whereas you desire for relationship. Financial struggles, or sickness. Death. It can be anything. And they all might question you ‘where is God in all this?’. Faith becomes a battle.

Not quite the same and yet related to hardship is ‘discipline’. Hebrews 12 also speaks about God who ‘disciplines those he loves’ [12:6]. Now, discipline is not the same as punishment. God is not punishing the ones he loves. Jesus uses the languages of ‘pruning’ in order to become more fruitful [John 15:1-2]. When I began serving this church back in 2007 I began with one of my hardest seasons in life. The first two years were really hard because that particular season involved a pruning in my attitude, character and leadership. The fruit of all that is that in that time I’ve learned what spiritual and servant leadership actually means in practice and not just from books. It was a difficult time and don’t think I was always treated right or understood correctly, but I believe that God used all this to make me a better person, husband, father and leader.

These are just 4 examples of struggles, opposition or suffering that you might face in your Christian life of serving and following Jesus. This is the nagging pain that is constantly involved in the race that you run.

There are two things you can do: you either quite and give up [but that’s not really an option] or, as Hebrews 12 encourages, ‘run with perseverance the race marked out for us.’

But how do you do that?

Before we move into that point, I would like to show you a nice video: It is a video of the British athlete Derek Redmond at the 400m sprint race during the Olympics in Barcelona in 1992. Derek Redmond was one of the favourites for the gold medal, after a lifetime of hard training and discipline, but his race went utterly different than he would have hoped for. Video: https://youtu.be/nnVPZkzsPWQ

The man from the crowd that ran to Derek was his father, Jim. He said: “You don’t have to do this son”. “Yes I do” Derek replied. “Then we’ll finish this race together” came the response from Derek’s father.

Fix your eyes on Jesus

How do you run the race with perseverance? With eyes fixed on Jesus [Hebrews 12:2]. As Derek Redmond came to finish the race and fixed his eyes on the finish line, so is our finish line Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is your end-goal – in fact, He is the end-goal. Ephesians 1:9-10 [The living Bible] says: ‘God has told us his secret reason for sending Christ, a plan he decided on in mercy long ago; and this was his purpose: that when the time is ripe he will gather us all together from wherever we are—in heaven or on earth—to be with him in Christ forever.’  

Why would you need to fix your eyes on Jesus? Because everything and all things will reach it’s fulfilment and completion in Jesus Christ! This is the gospel! The good news! You will be with God in Christ forever – that’s the plan, that’s the purpose, that’s where all this leads to!

So, Jesus Christ is the purpose and the goal. And yet, Jesus Christ is also the example and our Coach. Because the race that you and I run, is the race that He ran himself:

‘Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith’ [vs. 2].  

Author – meaning: that he has pioneered; Jesus has gone before us, ahead of us. He ran the race himself.

Perfector – meaning; he did not only ran the race, Jesus Christ finished the race triumphantly. In Jesus Christ faith has reached its perfection; his whole life was characterized by unbroken and unquestioning faith in his heavenly Father. ‘Not what I will, but what you will’ [Mark 14:36] said Jesus in Gethsamene.

What does it mean to fix your eyes on Jesus? How do you do that?

Well, in Jesus example you see and learn. On your turn then is to imitate. The whole Christian life is about discipleship: serving and following Jesus. Discipleship is nothing else but imitating the example of your Master.

See, learn and imitate from Jesus how He lives his life in relationship with the Father [UP]. How Jesus prayed, worshipped, used Scripture, gave to the poor and related to people.

See, learn and imitate from Jesus how he build relationship with his disciples [IN]. The community of the saints. How Jesus related to them, invested, encouraged, had fun and relaxed. Do the same today – build relationship in the community of the saints, which is the church.

See, learn and imitate from Jesus how he ministered and related to the world. Despite of the discouragement, opposition, suffering Jesus never flew to an uninhabited island. But he was present, ministering to the sick, the poor, the broken. Standing for what is right and just, extending the kingdom of God.

UP-IN-OUT – the three dimensional relationship and lifestyle of a Christian.

And then, second; persevere. Perseverance is the fundamental attitude of a Christian. To fix our eyes on Jesus is to learn to persevere. ‘Let us fix our eyes on Jesus…who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame…’  Looking at the suffering of Jesus makes what you have to endure a whole different story. Tough, yes. But the suffering of Jesus puts into perspective all our suffering, how hard it may be. This is not to take your suffering less serious. But to look at the suffering of Jesus will give you strength to persevere in your faith when you suffer.

That’s why it is also so powerful to read through the list of witnesses in chapter 11. How they persevered under extreme conditions. By the way; the Greek word for ‘witness’ is ‘marturion’ from which the word ‘martyr’ comes. They witnessed Jesus sometimes even at the cost of their own lives.

Let me close off.

Closing – some words of encouragement

I began this message with the words ‘The end is in sight, the finish line is within reach’. I would like to say a few personal words that involves our journey with this church, especially since we’ve announced that I will lay down my tasks.

These last 6 months have been quite hard in many ways. Since a couple of years Margot and I kind of experienced that God has something new for us. Still not knowing what this exactly is. But we knew that this new thing would also mean that we would need to lay down our tasks in the community we so love. And honestly, it is a step in faith; out of the boat, walking on water, trusting in God. Really out of our comfort zone.

We’ve always given the best of our selves to this community. Not always perfect, but always the best of what we have. We love to serve Jesus and to serve Jesus in the church.

I offered the Board in October to continue to work on a part time basis from January till June which would allow us time to look for succession or to organize ourselves in such a way that we can maintain as church if there is no successor yet. Honestly, I underestimated working part time. Especially, because I always want to give the best of myself to the church. I hardly use a sermon more than once, because when tomorrow I look back at this sermon e.g. I think: oh, this could be much better! I really struggled to serve part time, because it felt as I couldn’t give to the church what I always have done and what I would want to give. It made me feel as if I didn’t take the church serious, it made me feel incompetent, it made me feel not a worthy pastor.

Even the choice to lay down our tasks has brought me in a rollercoaster of thoughts, feelings and even bodily reactions. Also for Margot and even our kids, because as a family we’ve given ourselves to this community. At times I was so confused, even scared for the future. Sometimes I had peace and rest. Most of the times I am stressed J.

We’ve also thought and talked a lot about the question how to continue with Vineyard Groningen. Should we stay members? Should we look for another church? This community is very much our own community in the sense that it is family. Where we feel at home and encouraged. Why leave? Yet, we also know that it is healthy for the church, for the successor and for us as family that we would withdraw. So that we can come to rest and reflection and for the church and successor to make a fresh new start.

And that’s what Margot, I and our children decided to do. On the 24th of June is the last Sunday that we both serve the church together – which we see as our farewell Sunday. On the 1st of July we will formally be de-commissioned by the Menno Helmus of Vineyard Benelux.

And that’s it for us – then the farewell is definitive. A choice that goes against our feelings, but one of which we know that it seems to be the best.

We thought it would be good to communicate it today, so that you’re aware of it.

Today is not our farewell yet, but in closing I would like to return to Hebrews 12. Jesus ran the race in perseverance, because He knew that it was worth it. He endured the cross for the joy set before him. And the joy set before Jesus is the throne of God. To which Jesus is exalted as Lord and King.

The throne of God is the place to which Jesus has gone as his people’s forerunner. And so, the joy set before him, is not something for Jesus himself alone, but something to be shared. To be shared whith those who will triumph in the same race that Jesus ran.

The Christian hope and the greatest encouragement is that we meet each other again at the throne of God, where Jesus Christ is seated. It’s in this hope that we say ‘farewell and goodbye’ and encourage: keep serving and following Jesus – finish the race!