Hebrews 12: 1-3
Psalms 20: 1-9
How many of you recognize the name Gary Player? Those of us who have any exposure to or experience with the game of golf recognize Gary Player as one of the best ever to play the game.
During the 1960’s and 70’s, matches between Player and his archrivals Arnold Palmer and Jack
Nicklaus were legendary. During his long career, Player recorded at least 166 professional victories including nine major championships. While at age 82 no longer active on the seniors’ tour Player spends afternoons in his words, “still chipping around.” Throughout his career, people have often said to him, “I’d give anything to be able to hit the ball like you.”
On one particular day, Player was weary and frustrated when, yet again, he was asked that very question. Player’s usual politeness failed him as he replied sternly to the spectator: “No you wouldn’t. You’d give anything to hit a golf ball like me if it was easy. Do you know what you’d have to do to hit a golf ball like me? You’d have to get up at five in the morning every day, go out on the course, and hit one thousand golf balls. Your hands start bleeding, you walk up to the clubhouse, wash the blood off your hands, slap a bandage on it, and go out and hit another thousand golf balls. That’s what it takes to hit a golf ball like me.”
What Gary Player was saying is that it takes more than wishing to become a great golfer. It takes sacrifice, endurance, and most importantly, it takes perseverance. That’s the “anything” one has to give; not only to be a success in the game of golf, but to be a success at any endeavor or pursuit in life. Gary Player’s so-called “Ten Commandments” were quoted in the April 19, 1978 edition of Sports Illustrated just after he had won the Masters Championship. Player’s commandment number 5 was “Persistence and common sense are more important than raw talent and intelligence.” His commandment number 9 was even more insightful: “The heights of great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but that while their companions slept, they were toiling upward in the night.”
Perseverance is one of those qualities we most admire in people. Webster defines perseverance like this: “to persist in a state, enterprise, or undertaking in spite of counterinfluences, opposition, or discouragement.” That’s a mouthful. Let’s distill it to this: keep on keeping on. We admire people who keep on keeping on. Two names come to mind when I think of perseverance. One is the late Christopher Reeve who, at the height of his success in Hollywood, was left quadriplegic following a horse-riding accident. In spite of this tragedy, Reeve spent the rest of his life continuing to act. But even more importantly, he became a spokesperson and advocate for those suffering spinal cord injuries. Reeve always believed he’d walk again. I myself believe this very day, he does. Then there’s a younger actor who always considered Christopher Reeve his hero. Michael J. Fox had to leave the popular sitcom Spin City as his Parkinson’s Disease progressed. To this day, Fox, like his hero did, continues to act. Beyond that, he has started foundations and support networks for Parkinson’s victims, and is personally funding research which will hopefully, someday, discover a cure.
This morning, we consider the writing of the Apostle Paul about perseverance. In the chapter of Hebrews leading up to the 12th, Paul is recounting stories of persons he calls examples of faith.
There was Abel, whose sacrificial gifts were more acceptable to God than his brother Cain’s.
There was Noah, who constructed a big boat at God’s instruction despite being ridiculed by everyone around him. There were Abram and Sarai who stepped out on God’s promises even when it made no sense to them. There was Moses who stood against the court of Pharaoh to lead God’s people out of captivity, then 40 years getting them across the Sinai Peninsula. Paul opens chapter 12 saying: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses… let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” Paul establishes here a clear connection between faith and perseverance. Faith in God – at its brightest and best – is demonstrated by that admirable human quality which persists…. in spite of counterinfluences, opposition, discouragement. Paul then completes the connection by pointing to Jesus Christ as “the pioneer and perfecter” – the paragon – “of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
So in Paul’s estimation, to be a Christian is not only about believing in God; it’s not only about professing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior; it’s not only about being a faithful church member.
It’s about being a person who perseveres; primarily in looking to Jesus in spite of the world’s frequent opposition to and discouragement of Christ and His gospel.
In the magazine Prairie Overcomer, there was a little article which illustrates the point. “Many people have heard of the outstanding exploits of Blondin the tightrope walker. Blondin amused and amazed thousands of people as he made his way over Niagara Falls on a slender rope stretched from the Canadian to American border. He never faltered or failed. But Blondin had a secret. As he made his way over the rope, assaulted by wind and water, he would keep his eyes fixed on a large silver star which he had erected on the far end. The star was the center of his attention, and guided him safely to the other side.” The article goes on, “In running the heavenly race, the believer must look to his star, the bright and morning star, the Lord Jesus. He has run the race of life, and now bids His followers to run the race, keeping their eyes fixed on Himself as the goal and the prize.”
That’s the essence of what Paul is instructing. Perseverance in the course of life which is set before us, as we often walk the slender rope of uncertainty, always staying focused on the object of our hope. Near the end of his earthly life, Paul writes of his own course in a letter to his dear friend and associate in ministry Timothy: “As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearance.” To all who have persevered.
I stated earlier that being a Christian is about being a person of perseverance, primarily in looking to Jesus in spite of the counterinfluences, opposition, and discouragement. But I believe being a Christian is also about being a person of perseverance in all areas of life.
Some years ago, I was listening to a radio sermon by Presbyterian minister D. James Kennedy in which he proposed that way too many Christians live their daily lives in a town he called “Quittersville.” As folks look at our Christian lives, something to be admired in our lifestyle is our effort to persist in the face of discouragement; be it in our careers; our educational journeys; our home and family lives; our health situations; our work in the church; in all we do. But Kennedy pointed out that voices of opposition – some from outside us, even more from within us – threaten to throw us off course; or worse yet, cause us to drop out of the race entirely. How many Christians, Kennedy asks, start, but don’t finish? Start a career or vocational track, but find the sacrifice too great, and beg out. Start an educational journey, but at the first sign that the final grade won’t always be an A or a B, fall away. Things get rough in marriage or other relationships, and rather than persist in working things out, they flee. Committed themselves to particular work or ministry of the church, but as soon as somebody looks at them the wrong way, or is perceived as a threat to their power, they’re gone.
These offer a Christian witness all right; not of perseverance, but of a lack of perseverance.
Let’s be honest. There will always be voices discouraging us; telling us to just give up and take a walk on the easy streets of Quittersville. They’ll say things like: You’re not sharp enough to learn that job, so go look for something less demanding. You’re not smart enough to cut it in this class or in that major, so save your time and money. You’ll never learn to play that instrument as well as her, so put it in the case for the next yard sale. You’ll never throw or catch or hit the ball as well as him, so gather up your ball and glove and go home. That relationship isn’t worth the hassle, so just get out of it. Your loved one’s gone, so you may as well lie down and die yourself. Well, if you’re going to be treated like that, they don’t need your help. And again, these voices most often rise up from within us; from places of hurt, and fear, and previous failure; from a history of folks -even and especially those closest to us - telling us we can’t.
I wonder if Christopher Reeve had ever heard a voice say, “Chris, you’ll never get out off that ventilator or out of that chair, so just resign yourself”? Does Michael J. Fox ever hear a voice which says, “You can’t go back to the future Mike, so count yourself washed up”? I wonder if the Apostle
Paul ever heard a voice say, “Come on Paul. You’ve been chased, blinded, beaten, shipwrecked, imprisoned. Why not just forget this Jesus stuff, and go back to the way it was before”?
I think a lesson from God’s word as recorded by Paul is to resist those voices of opposition and discouragement – all those counterinfluences – for they’re not of God. Whether the voice is of a co-worker, or teacher, or family member, or doctor (well-intended they may be), or more often than not, a troubling voice speaking from deep inside, reply by saying, “This Christian isn’t living in
Quittersville.” Or perhaps we can commit to memory and recall another of Paul’s wisdom nuggets when he once wrote to the Philippian Church: “I can do all things through him (i.e. Christ) who strengthens me.” I believe Paul teaches that in all areas of the Christian life, lay aside those voices of the enemy which assail us daily. Run with perseverance whatever race is set before us. Like
Blondin and his silver star, let’s keep focused always on “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”
For in and through Him, all things are possible, and all races are able to be completed. Let’s not make our finish line in Quittersville.