Thursday, August 29, 2013

Acts of God

Preached at Community Christian Church
David P. Kautt
Sunday Morning, August 25, 2013

Acts 1:1-8, “The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which He was taken up, after He through the Holy Spirit had given commandments to the apostles whom He had chosen, to whom He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.
The Holy Spirit Promised
And being assembled together with them, He commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father, “which,” He said, “you have heard from Me; for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” And He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

This morning I would like to open up with you a brand new study of the Book of Acts, one of the most exciting, informative and provocative portions of Scripture, and one, I trust, that will be both very timely, and very helpful and instructive for us all.  Before we do, I’d like to do what every teacher does before he or she begins a venture into new material with his or her students, and that is, I want to give to you what teachers call a ‘pre-test’; a preliminary examination and evaluation of you and me, the students, assessing what we do and do not know about this new study material, before we actually begin the study. 

So, class, with your permission, now that I have given you 15 seconds advanced warning, let’s begin the test.  You have your pen and paper handy, right?  You won’t need much ink, or much writing room, seeing that – whew!  Praise God!  The quiz is only one question long.  And here’s the question: what do the following things have in common?  Or, if I may restate the question for you this way:  What is the category into which all of the following things fit? Now, here’s the list of things: 1) a level 4 tornado that rips through central Oklahoma, leaving death and destruction in its wake, 2) Lazarus, Jesus friend, and brother of Mary and Martha, is raised from the dead, 3) the granddaughter of a CCCD couple is hit head-on by a semi-truck, demolishing her vehicle, so much so that the first-responders say to themselves, this is for sure going to be a fatality accident, and yet, the young woman comes out alive, with only a few broken bones, and a punctured lung.  4) Peter, James, John and all the rest, on a Jewish feast day called Pentecost, are able to speak in the languages of all the different ethnic groups gathered in Jerusalem on that day, even though those men, Peter and the rest of them, had never before studied or learned those languages.  And finally, 5) a CCCD member volunteers twice a week at Robert E. Lee elementary school, helping 3rd graders improve their reading and math skills, while at the same time across town, another CCCD member’s life and words are slowly impacting and influencing the mind and heart of the young woman who serves as his housekeeper, so that in the end, the housekeeper and her husband, and 3rd graders from Lee elementary, come to this place, walk these aisles, and confess their faith in the Savior they saw and heard and felt through these His servants, and then, stand in that baptismal pool, to be immersed into Christ.  Five things, all of them unique and different, my fellow students, and yet all of them, all 5 of them, the same, having one common thread, woven through all of them, one common category into which all of them fit.  What is that common thread, that one category? 

Don’t you hate it when teachers do that to you?  They start the class with a ‘Pop Quiz’, hopefully, like today, with only one question on it, but instead of giving you the right answer for the quiz immediately following the quiz, they wait until two minutes before the bell rings to tell you what the right answer is.  Well, class, I’m sorry, but you’re going to hate me, because I’m going to hold you in suspense until right near the end of our study, before I provide the correct answer, that way you can squirm a little in your seats, while you mull it over, right?  We teachers can be so cruel and heartless, can’t we? 

The Book of Acts: we begin this new study today, perhaps with a lot of uncertainty, maybe with a bit of fear and trepidation, but, probably, for most of us, simply with a lot of questions.  Before we move on, let me chime in with you, as your fellow student, I have these same thoughts and questions floating around in my head, too.  And, listen, I know from having studied this lengthy portion of the Bible before, likely, along the way, even more questions will pop up which we will need to ask and answer.  I look forward to that.  I will be challenged by that.  But, listen, with you, my fellow students, I commit to engaging in that, a challenging, thought-provoking, life-changing study of this Book, so that, in the end, this study of this portion of the Bible might have the affect on me that God intends for it to have. 

I mention questions, questions that you and I might have going into a study like this.  What might some of those be?  “Who wrote this Book?”  “When was it written?”  “From where was it written?”  “To whom was it written?”  Etc., etc. 

As we begin our trek though these next 28 chapters, which, by the way, don’t worry, we’re not going to cover all in the next 20 minutes, how about if we boil our questions into two questions.  First off, what is the Book of Acts?  And, then, number two, why study the Book of Acts? 

For all you teachers out there, you’ll recognize those questions, the WHAT? question and the WHY? question, as the doorway into both the content, the details pertaining to the content of the Book, and, the doorway into the purpose, the reason for, and the meaning of this Book.  Let’s open up those doorways one at a time, shall we? 

Door number one, what is the Book of Acts?  Take a look again at verses one, two and three with me.  What is the Book of Acts?  Notice how the author begins: He says, “In the former account I made, O Theophilus, [I wrote] of all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day in which He was taken up, after He through the Holy Spirit had given commandments to the apostles whom He had chosen,  to whom He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.  The first thing we should note about the content of the Book of Acts is that it is linked somehow, some way with something else this author wrote to this person Theophilus.  Do we have any idea, any clues, as to what the ‘something else’ might be? 

Hold your place there in Acts chapter one, and go with me to the Gospel of Luke, chapter one, verses 1-4, where we read these words:

Luke 1:1-4, “Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.

So, what is the Book of Acts?  It is the second half of a very unique Bible book combo teachers call, ‘Luke/Acts’.  In other words, it is the second half of the account Luke, as he sought to lay out the life, the words, the death, the burial and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, to his friend Theophilus.  Back to Acts chapter one – what else is the Book of Acts? 

All you history fans, you’re going to love this: it is a history book.  It is an account, a continuation of the previous account Luke had written to Theophilus, detailing all that Jesus began to DO, and to teach.  DOING and TEACHING, what a dynamic duo that is!  The Book of Acts is Luke’s record of the CONTINUING activity of the DOING and TEACHING of the Spirit of Jesus at work in and through Jesus’ earliest followers, the apostles and others.  That, by the way, is why the Book came to be known as the Acts – the activities – of the Apostles. 

Number three, what is the Book of Acts?  Speaking of links and of continuations, the Book of Acts it the link, the written by means of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, LINK between what we call the Great Commission – Jesus famous words in Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:15-16, Luke 24:44-48 and John 20:21, words like: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me, go, ye, therefore and make disciples [not fans, but followers] of all the nations, immersing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit…”  Words like, “Repentance and remission of sins must be preached in My name among all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem, and you are witnesses of these things.  Words like, “As the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you..”  The Book of Acts is the link between Jesus’ Great Commission words, “Go, ye…” and the Holy Spirit-inspired words of Romans, Galatians, 2nd Peter and so on, all of which were written to people who had become Christians, directly or indirectly through Jesus’ witnesses, the apostles and others, all of which were written to Churches, which those servants of Jesus formed or helped to form.  This Book serves as that link, that connection, and how do we know that?  Acts 1:2, Jesus gave commandments through the Holy Spirit, to the apostles.  What were those?  “Go and make disciples, I am sending you…”  How do we know that?  Acts, one, verse 8. 

Acts 1:8, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

What is the Book of Acts?  1) the Second half of the Luke/Acts combo, 2) a history book, with so much more, thank God, than just boring lists of places, events and dates, 3) a link, a vital, crucial continuation of the Great Commission of Jesus, as Paul Harvey would put it, “The rest of the story” of Jesus’ words, “Go, ye…”  Then, number 4) it is both a statement clear, powerful, provocative, as to what the early followers of Jesus believed, what they taught and preached, what they did when they met together, and how they interacted and intersected with the world in which they lived.  It is a statement, a bold declaration of these things, AND, it is an illustration of these things, a pattern, if you will, for future generations of followers of Christ to use as a guide for their beliefs, their teachings and preaching, their gatherings, and their influence in the world.  What is the Book of Acts?  4 things, 4 supremely important things, but, how is all of this so? 

How is it that this Book is all of this, and much, much more?  You know, don’t you, class?  IT’s because ultimately, fundamentally it is God’s Word!  It is God’s Book!  Which leads, quickly, then into our second preliminary question as we embark on this journey together: remember the question?  WHY study the Book of Acts?  As I said a moment ago, this is the purpose question, the meaning question, the reason for this study question. 

Why study this Book?  Most importantly, as we just stated, because ultimately, fundamentally, it is God’s Book, God is the One who raised up Luke, Dr. Luke, the Beloved Physician friend of the apostle Paul, to write.  And God is the One who guided Luke in his research and in his writing.  We study it, or, ought to study it, first off, because it is God’s Book. 

Secondly, we study it because it is a ‘measuring rod.’  I mentioned a moment ago that Acts is both a declaration statement AND illustration pattern.  It not only tells about the doctrine, the message, the meetings and the influence of the earliest Christians, it also sets before us a pattern.  But not just a pattern to examine, and maybe to learn all the intricate details about, but a pattern to FOLLOW, a guide as to WHAT we believe about Jesus, as to WHAT message we preach and teach about Him and His way of saving men and women and boys and girls.  It is a pattern, like the one supplied in Acts 2:42f, meant to serve as a measuring rod when it comes to what we are doing when we meet, and how we are or are not impacting for Jesus’ sake the community and culture in which we live! 

This Book is a ‘measuring stick..’  It is also a ‘pricking goad’, a sharp-tipped stick that ought to pierce through our hearts and lead us to repentance and greater conformity to God’s will, just like Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost.  Yes, it’s a ‘pricking goad,’ that ought to cause us to cry out, “What must we do…?”  “What does Jesus want me to do in light of who He is and what He says?” 

Thirdly, this Book is a ‘pointing arrow,’ pointing straight and true, and pointing to one ‘target’ and one target only.  Acts 4:12, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved…” than the name, Buddha?  The name, Allah?  The name Joseph Smith?  The name, Mr. President?  My friends, ‘diversity’ may be society’s buzzword, but listen, when it comes to this Book, watch where the arrow is pointing: one name, and one name only: Jesus.  Jesus! 

We study this Book, the Book of Acts, and really, ANY portion of God’s Book, the Bible, because ultimately all of it, like an arrow straight and true, points us to Jesus Christ, our only Savior, our only Hope! 

Well now, here we are class, two minutes left before the bell rings, take out your papers and let’s grade them.  Our one question pre-test over the Book of Acts.  Remember, the question was: what do the following things have in common?  Or, what is the single category into which all of the following things fall?  1) A level 4 tornado ripping through Moore, 2) Lazarus, dead for 4 days, raised from the dead before the eyes of his sisters, 3) the granddaughter of a CCCD couple delivered from certain death in a head-on collision with a semi, 4) Peter, James and John, and the other apostles, speaking in languages that they previously had no known or studied, and the native speakers of those languages hearing it clear as a bell, and one more, 5) a CCCD member volunteering at a Robert E. Lee school, while across town another CCCD member hosts his housekeeper, both of them, influencing their friends toward this place, these aisles, and that baptismal pool.  What do all 5 of these things have in common?  What’s their common category?

How about this: Acts of God.  Acts of God.  Now, what does this have to do with our study of this Book?  Once again, what is the title of this portion of the Bible?  The Acts of the Apostles? 


The more accurate, the most precise and correct title is: The Acts of God.  The Acts of Christ.  The Acts of the Holy Spirit of God and Christ in and through Peter, John, James, Paul and all the rest.  Guess what?  I want to be ‘an Act of God,’ don’t you?  Guess what, I’m praying, and I hope you are, too, that this church will be a place full of people about whom it could be said, “Act of God!  Each one of them is an ‘Act of God…” 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Hebrews 12:1 - Finishing the Race (Part 3)

Preached at Community Christian Church
David P. Kautt
Sunday Morning, August 18, 2013

Hebrews 12:1-3, “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, 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. For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.”

If you hadn’t already figured it out about me, as is evident from the first two sermons I’ve preached as your new minister, I like sports.  Both as an athlete, and as a fan, I have enjoyed watching and playing the games for many, many years.  Lately, however, it seems to me that competitive sports, especially on the professional level, is marked more by show-offs, huge salaries, and even scandals, than it is by genuine skill.  Maybe it’s just me, but, used to professional athletes got to that level of competition because they worked hard, sacrificed greatly, and perhaps had a few good breaks in their favor.  Now, however, it seems that way too many of them get there because of some drug they took to enhance their performance, which, to me, makes it all a big farce. 

The Scriptures, on the other hand, point us in a much different direction, as we who wear the name of Christ engage in a much more strenuous, and certainly in a much more eternally important contest, the race to win the crown of life everlasting.  While temporal, fleeting moments of fame and stardom come to those athletes who are the biggest, the fastest, the meanest and the strongest, in Christ and in this race we call the Christian life, these who finish the race, those who keep the faith, those who endure all the way to the end, are not the ones with the biggest muscles, but those with the BEST EYES.  You remember our outline of this text, don’t you? 

Speaking of the Faith Hall of Famers of Hebrews chapter 11, God’s Spirit, speaking through the writer here in chapter 12 says, first of all, if you want to run, all the way to the end of the race, you must look at the winners! Races as strenuous and demanding as this one is, it’s easy to think you want to quit, easy, as verse 3 puts it, to become weary and discouraged in your souls.  But, don’t do it!  Remember that you and I are surrounded by a whole host of athletes of former times and generations who, though stressed and stretched to the max, didn’t give up or give in.  Use your eyes, they are the most important resource you have.  Use them to take note of the example folks like Abraham and Moses, Joshua and Gideon, Samuel and David set for you.  Yes, use your eyes to see HOW those men and women persevered and finished the race.  Remember how they did so?  It’s the theme of Hebrews chapter 11.  They did so BY FAITH.  Not by means of performance enhancing drugs, but BY FAITH. 

Look at the winners, that great cloud of witnesses surrounding you.  Yes, use your eyes, your open-the-book-read-and-study-what-it-says EYES, to learn from their examples.  Then, what?  Do what they did!  That’s right, all those Sunday School stories about men building big boats to save mankind from a world-wide flood, or about women giving birth to babies when they are decades past their prime, or about children slaying giants with a sling and a stone.  They’re not just cute little stories.  No, because they are a part of this SWORD, they have a point to them!  Read them, study them, ask God to make clear to you what the point is!  Then, do it!  Look at the winners! 

Step two, requirement number two, if you and I want to run this race to win the prize of eternal life: we must use our eyes to look at us, to look at ourselves.  Twenty-first century athletes, it seems to me, use their eyes to look at themselves, alright.  But, the goal of their looking at themselves seems to be more like the fellow who saw his reflection in a pool of water, and was transfixed on his own beauty and body. 

But, the Word of God, once again, comes at all of this from a completely different angle, remember?  Once again, Hebrews 12:1.  Why do we, why are we to look at ourselves.  Is it to become Narcissistic, enamored with us?  No!  We look at ourselves, we do what the Bible calls SELF-examination, why?  So that if there is anything, I mean, ANYTHING, that is like a weight hindering us, or any sin – lying, gossiping, stealing, bitterness, envy, greed, immorality, or whatever that is is entangling us – we must lay it aside, we must PUT IT OFF, so that we can run, and run, and win! 

My fellow runners, use your eyes, to look at the winners, and use your eyes to look at yourselves.  But, all of that, as important as it is, won’t get you to the finish line.  That’s why God’s Spirit led the writer of this passage to cap off this text with this fitting climax.  Look at the winners!  Look at yourselves!  Look at Jesus!  Look at Jesus!  Let’s read it one more time:

Hebrews 12:1-3, “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, 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. For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.”

As I was studying for this last portion of this sermon, God reminded me of several other passages that, to me, bring light on this part of our study. 

“Looking unto Jesus,” is how the writer state it.  He is the Author of our faith.  But, what does the writer mean?  What is he driving at?  Let me see if we can clarify it for us.  Look at Jesus, look at what He’s done for you, if you are His child.  And what has He done for you?  Well, once again, the text says that Jesus is the AUTHOR of our faith.  In coach’s terms, Jesus is the PLAYMAKER, He is the Point Guard, the Quarterback, if you will.  You see, if it wasn’t for Jesus, the religion of which we are a part, wouldn’t exist!  He is the FOUNDER of our religion, the One the apostles call the Chief Cornerstone, the Rock upon whom the Church is built.  But, listen, it gets even better than that!  Not only is Jesus the Founder of the Christian religion, listen, He is the reason you and I have come to saving faith!  Like the old gospel song puts it, “we were sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore, very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more.”  And, how did we come to be saved?  Did we pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps?  No!  Jesus, the Master of the deep, heard our despairing cries, and from the waters lifted us, now safe are we! 

Looking unto Jesus, He is the AUTHOR of my faith!  Looking unto Jesus, looking at what He has down for me! 

My loved ones, do you?  Do you realize and recognize what Jesus has done for you?  Romans chapter 4, culminating in the final verses of that chapter, verses 24 and 25, says it so powerfully.  Open your Bibles to that chapter with me for just a moment.  Early in the chapter, Paul alludes to the life and experience of King David, the writer of Psalm 32, the passage Paul quotes in about verses 6-8.  And, Paul does so to drive home what Jesus has done for us.  In our former state, before Jesus saved us, what were we?  Lost, sinful, dead!  Our lawless deeds rendered us guilty!  Our sins left us naked and uncovered and ashamed before God’s all-seeing eyes.  Our iniquities put us in a position of being accountable to God for repeated violations of His law, but with no adequate and acceptable means to give an answer to God. 

But, then Jesus came, the Author of our faith, and what did He do for us?  Do you know?  You really should know, Romans 4:25.  Here’s why we look to Jesus, why HE’s the PLAYMAKER of our salvation!  Romans 4:25, He allowed Himself to be handed over to death, delivered up to OUR MAKER, our Judge, and, think of this, to His Father, why?  For our sins!  For the benefit of hopeless, helpless sinners that we would otherwise be! 

Jesus was delivered to death for our sins!  But, that’s only half of it, right?  Look at what else Paul says Jesus did for you and me!  Romans 4:25 – As meaningful, and important as Jesus’ death for sinners certainly is, what significance would it have IF Jesus hadn’t been raised to life again?  Hebrews 12:2 talks about how Jesus, because of the joy that was set before Him endured the cross.  What do you think that joy set before Him really was?  I’m virtually certain that it has something to do with His resurrection.  But, listen, not just with the joy of being alive again ONLY!  No!  Rather, I think that the joy set before Jesus, as He went up Mount Calvary and bled and died on that cruel cross, was the joyful expectation of what both His death AND His resurrection would accomplish for you and me!  Romans 4:25, “He was delivered over to death for our sins, AND, on top of that, Jesus was raised to life for our justification, so that now, God not only does NOT count our sins against us, better than that, God now counts Jesus’ righteousness for us!  Praise God! 

Looking unto Jesus, to the AUTHOR of our faith, the PLAYMAKER of our salvation, looking back to what He has done for you and me!  Isn’t it great to be able to do that?  To be able to do that each Lord’s Day as we gather around the Lord’s Table?

But, listen, as critical as what Jesus HAS done for us, as the AUTHOR of our faith, really is, what good is that for the race we’re trying to run today?  Without sounding like I’m blaspheming, let me ask you to consider this statement since most of us here likely have quite a ways yet to go on this race.  What’s our greatest need, now and in the future, a Jesus who helped back then, in getting us STARTED in the race, or a Jesus who can and will help us now and all the rest of the way? 

I’m sure you see where I’m going with this: Hebrews 12:1-2, notice that the text DOESN’T say: “Having looked [in the past] to Jesus…”  But rather it says, “Looking unto Jesus…”  Why do you think the Scripture puts it that way?  Because, as I said it a moment ago, when it comes to THIS race, this long and often grueling marathon, we don’t simply need someone to get us started, no!  We need Someone to help us finish!  Looking unto Jesus, and who IS Jesus?  He is the AUTHOR of our faith!  For sure!  But, listen, and praise God with me, He also is the FINISHER of our faith, the one God gave to see to it that all His promises come to fruition! 

Jesus is the finisher of our faith!  I had a very meaningful conversation last week with Mrs. Coach, Mary P., in the home of her daughter Missy and son-in-law Hayden.  And what made it extra special for me was what Mary told me about her husband, Coach Kent, and their son Timothy.  Mary said that when she was expecting Timothy, Kent’s dad passed away.  At Mr. P.s’ funeral, the preacher preached from Mr. P.s’ favorite passage of Scripture, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, where Paul describes how he had fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith.  Mary told me that a few days later Kent told her that if the baby she was about to deliver happened to be a boy, he wanted to name him Timothy because of those Bible verses that were so significant to Kent’s dad.  And that are now greatly cherished by Kent.  I appreciate that, I really do.  But, let me ask you, all of you, to consider one thing with me, about those verses in 2 Timothy 4.  And that is this: what is their context?  What is the backdrop behind them?  Or, to put it another way, what is it, WHO is it, that gives those verses meaning and power?  Let me take you one more verse in 2 Timothy for an answer: the context, the backdrop for Paul’s triumphant declaration and Mr. P.’s assurance as recorded in 2 Timothy 4:6-8, is what Paul writes in 2 Timothy 1:12.  Pick up the reading with me in verse 8:

2 Timothy 1:8-12, “Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began, but has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, to which I was appointed a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles. For this reason I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day.

Two weeks ago, I asked you whether or not you’ve ever been tempted to quit, to drop out of the race.  Some of you have been there, some of you are there, now.  May I urge you and exhort you with these final words?  Don’t do it!  Don’t quit!  Why?  Because of Jesus!  Because of the One who is able to keep what you have committed unto Him against that Day!  Because of the One who, not only is the Author of your faith, but who also is the Finisher, the Fulfiller, the Completer of it as well!  Look to Him, consider Him, so that you will not become weary and discouraged in your souls. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Hebrews 12:1 - Finishing the Race (Part 2)


Preached at Community Christian Church
David P. Kautt
Sunday Morning, August 11, 2013

Hebrews 12:1-3, “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, 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.  For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.

If you were to evaluate where you are spiritually, today, compared to where you were a year ago, how would you rate yourself?  “I’m miles ahead…”  “I’m a few feet farther along…”  “I’m at a standstill…”  Or, “I’m s tuck in reverse gear, and have been so for several months…”  Spiritual progress, spiritual growth, like running a race - not a sprint, by the way, but a marathon – is meant to be just that: growth.  Progress.  Forward movement in the direction of becoming more like Jesus Christ.  Yet, at times, and for a number of different reasons, our progress, our forward movement in spiritual growth may be hampered, if not, out and out, stopped.  But, is that what God desires for us?  Is it?

Spiritual progress,  moving forward along the ‘track’ in the direction of the finish line, that is what was first and foremost on the mind of the writer of this letter when he wrote the words we read just a moment ago.  ‘Don’t quit!  Finish the race!  Don’t quit!  Run to win!’ could very well summarize his message to his first readers and to us.  Remember? 

In our study last Lord’s Day, we heard him say these Holy Spirit-inspired words, “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses… let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…”  ‘Look at the winners,’ he exclaims, ‘Don’t quit!  Finish the race just like they did!  It’s not impossible and it’s certainly MORE than worth it.  So run it, all the way to the end, BY FAITH, trusting in Jesus all the way, even though it gets harder the closer you get to the finish line. 

Look at the winners, at those who persevered, all the way to the end, and follow their example!  That’s the first step in the direction of spiritual progress which the Hebrew writer sets out for us.  And, what an important, and really, very encouraging step that step is.  Look at the winners. 

But, then there is step number two.  Look at us!  Look at us.  You know, kind of like Coach Red and Coach Kent, teams walking up and down the hallways past the trophy cases, examining and admiring each and every memento of previous teams’ power and prowess, there is some kind of positive impact that such a stroll down memory lane supplies.  It encourages us, or should encourage us to see that others finished the race – thank God for that great cloud of witnesses cheering us on.  But, then what?  Then we have to come down from the clouds, back down to earth where we are in our own process of spiritual growth, and we’re forced to ask ourselves: “Where am I in reference to the finish line?”  And, “How long have I been in this place?”

Spiritual growth, spiritual progress, this is by far the more difficult, the more painful part of this study, isn’t it?  And why is that?  It’s because it requires self-examination.  None of us really like that, do we?  Yet, if we are to steer clear of quitting, and to aim diligently in the direction of winning, we must examine ourselves regularly! 

“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…” 

Weights, lifting weights, or, as my coaches used to call it ‘weight training’.  Such a rigorous regiment was beneficial when it came to Mondays and Wednesdays or Tuesdays and Thursdays.  However, when Friday night came around, when it was game time, what did we do?  We left the weights in the weight room!  Why?  You know why!  Because they would hamper us, because they would impede us.  To put it bluntly, because those weights would get in the way!  Look at us, step two in this God-given formula for spiritual growth.  Look at us, examine yourself and ask, ‘What is getting in my way, hampering me, hindering me, from progressing spiritually?  What is it that keeps me from being a more fully committed follower of Jesus Christ? 

Time for a gut-check, right?  What is it that IS getting in our way as we want to grow spiritually?  For Saul of Tarsus, it was his spiritual pedigree, his thought that somehow he had attained to his own righteous standing before God - he didn’t need a Savior - that prevented him from spiritual transformation.  (Philippians 3:1ff)

For the thorny soil person, the individual whose heart Jesus says is plenty fertile, but unfortunately, that fertility is mainly in the direction of weeds not wheat, the list of what is getting in the way includes such things as worldly worries, deceitful riches, self-centered desires and passing pleasures (Matthew 13; Mark 4; Luke 8). 

For the Christians at Corinth, the problem was unholy friendships, the binding together of someone whose desire is to walk toward Jesus, with someone whose heart moves him AWAY from Jesus.  Like light mingled with darkness, like Christ married to Belial, like the temple of the true and living God being decorated with images to false gods.  Such unwise, unequal yoking slows the spiritual progress of a believer to a virtual standstill! 

Are any of these things what is hindering you?  What are you going to do about it?  What does the Word of God instruct you to do about it?  Lay it aside!!  Does the word ‘encumbrance’ mean anything to you?  I suppose if you’re a real estate agent, you’ve heard the word and know what it means.  In real estate transactions, if you’re about to purchase a piece of property, you want it to be without encumbrances, you want it to be without any added and unnecessary financial burdens beyond the actual cost of the property. 

Added, unnecessary burdens.  Spiritual encumbrances.  Listen, my loved ones, the spiritual growth grade is STEEP enough without any extra weight.  Lay them aside!  We must lighten the load by laying those things aside! 

Then, what?  There is another aspect to this second step toward greater spiritual growth.  It also is difficult and even painful.  What is it?  We might not like to think about it this way, but the fact of the matter is that we HAVE to think about it this way, if we have any hope at all of growing spiritually.  What am I talking about?  Hebrews 12, verse one.  The writer whom God’s Holy Spirit uses to instruct us about spiritual growth says, first of all, ‘Lighten the load.’  “Let us lay aside every weight…”  Then, he adds these powerful words, “Let us lay aside every weight AND the sin that so easily ensnares us…”  Sin??  A danger to us?  Sin?  A trap, a snare, a set of chains for us?  Does that sound like something you’ll hear on the nightly news?  Does that sound like something our favorite country and western musicians will sing about?  Does that sound like something the latest Hollywood hit will warn you about?  Of course not, right?!  That’s because those sources of information and insight are not coming at this subject from a basis of absolute truth.  But this Book, because of WHOSE Book it is and because of WHO this Book’s Ultimate Author is, this Book comes at the subject of sin from the standpoint of the truth.  The pure, unadulterated, unchanging, absolute truth. 

And what does this Book say about sin and its relationship to a Christian’s challenge and responsibility to grow spiritually?  Number one, it says that sin is DANGEROUS!  No, it didn’t say that it is something that should be soft-pedaled.  And, it didn’t say that sin is something that should be redefined.  And, it didn’t say – God’s word didn’t say - that sin is something that should be covered up, swept under the rug or explained away!   Rather, God’s Word makes it clear, even right here in Hebrews 12, that sin is dangerous.  Like a runner whose Nike® shoelaces are tied together, so that the first stride he tries to make out of the blocks, puts him flat on his face, so sin is dangerous because it can trip us up and cause us to come crashing down! 

Yes, sin is dangerous.  So, what must we do about it?  We must ask God to help us loosen its grip on us, so we can lay it aside also!  By the way, did you know that the Word of God teaches us that if we are in Christ, if we have died with Him, been in essence, crucified with Him, and buried in that watery grave of Christian baptism with Him, and raised to walk in newness of life, then we have, in fact, been freed from the PENALTY of sin, eternal death, eternal punishment in hell. 

Furthermore, did you know that, if you are in Christ, if you truly are His child by grace through faith, then you are in the process, God’s Holy Spirit is at work in you to move you more and more in the direction of being free from the POWER of sin at work in your life.  That’s what this verse in Hebrews 12 is talking about!  Then, one more, did you know that, if you are in Christ, ultimately, on that day when you see Jesus fact to face, He will free you once and for all from the PRESENCE of sin your life!  Hallelujah! 

What is it that is getting in my way, getting in your way, in our attempts to grow spiritually?  What is it that makes us want to quit?  Is it the encumbrances, the added, unnecessary weight of unholy friendships, worldly cares, deceitful riches and so forth?  Lay those things aside!  Lighten the load so you can run!  And, what about sin?  Have you listened so much to the news, the music and the movies of this age that you actually think that sin can’t really be that bad?  Listen up, my friends, sin is dangerous.  Don’t let anyone fool you!  It’s way is wide, and its gate is broad; but its end is destruction and its payoff is death!  So, ask God to help you break free from its hold on you!  Ask Him to help you live in light of the freedom and victory He’s given you in Christ!  Ask Him to help you grow in Christ, in spiritual strength and fruitfulness like you never have before! 

Lighten the load, loosen the chains.  Then, one more, deepen the love.  Deepen the love.  Spiritual growth, spiritual progress, this race we’re talking about here, this race that others have run and won before us – why do we do it?  To make it to heaven?  Sure!  To attain to that crown of life?  Sure!  But is that the only reason we run, the only reason we lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us? 

No!  The ultimate reason, the most important reason we do all of this striving and struggling in the direction of spiritual growth is because of Him whose face we will see when we get there!  2 Timothy 4:6-8, listen to the words of the apostle Paul about the deep, deep love for Jesus Christ that spurred him on, all the way to the finish line: 

2 Timothy 4:6-8, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.

Why do you and I look to the winners, so as to follow their example, and why must we look at ourselves, so as to lighten the load and loosen the chains?  Here’s why: because we love, we long for the day when we will see the One who loved us first and best! 

We run, we grow, we persevere all the way to the end because He loved us, and we, through the help of His Spirit, love Him!