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June 7, 2020

Where to Look When Suffering Is Great (Zuleger)

Dave Zuleger | Hebrews 12:1-2

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter 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.Hebrews 12:1–2 

Introduction: We Have Need of Endurance

Let me tell you about these next two weeks. We paused last week from our series in 1 Peter to lament as we consider the death of George Floyd, and Pastor Jason preached a sermon on “What to say when suffering is great.” It seemed good to us (and we hope the Holy Spirit) to take a couple more weeks to process all the brokenness and suffering around us. This week, I am going to preach on “Where do we look when suffering is great.” Next week, Pastor Kenny Stokes is going to preach on “What do we do when suffering is great.”

Our text today says that we are called to “run the race set before us.” None of us would have chosen this race that 2020 has brought us—but we don’t get to choose. God sets the race before us, and we have to believe that it is for our good as a church. We want to lean into all of the painful circumstances around us and run together.

So, what will we need to run this race together?

For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.—Hebrews 10:36

In the race of 2020—with pandemics, unjust killings, and riots in just the first half of the year—we need to endure so that we can do the will of God and receive the promised reward. We can’t avoid the race. It’s here. It’s before us. We need to run. So, how do we run?

We run as we 1) Look Back at Witnesses, 2) Look Up to Jesus, and 3) Look Inside Ourselves. Let’s take those one at a time. 

Look Back at Witnesses (Hebrews 12:1) 

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses …

Notice the “therefore” in this text. That points us back to chapter 11, where we find what many people call the “Hall of Faith.” We get these pictures of individuals who have run the race before us—these are the cloud of witnesses. They go way back. We could add to our list the early church who was under oppression and persecution, and yet endured. We could go back and learn about the black church which has endured in our own nation through hundreds of years of oppression. We could go to the underground church around the world now.

But, let’s ask two questions of these witnesses: What role do they play? How were they sustained?

I think the role they play is to encourage us that God is faithful to keep his people when times are really hard. As I read through the Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11, I realized the relative ease we’ve had here in the evangelical church in America.

Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.—Hebrews 11:36–38

Ever you ever been flogged for your faith? Ever go to prison for Jesus? Ever had a fellow believer cut in two for his faith here? Ever had to find yourself wandering around deserts and hiding in caves because you trusted in Jesus and were being chased and hunted? Now, that doesn’t mean life is always easy. It’s still broken. Viruses are real. Unjust killings happen. Cities burn. Jobs are lost. Disease and death are still here. But, I think we can have confidence that if God sustained his people through these things, he will certainly sustain us. 

So, what role do these witnesses play? They help us see that God has brought his people through great suffering and tragedy. He’s been near to them. He’s kept them. And so, Bethlehem, God will keep us.

And how did God sustain them? Let me give one example that I think gets the whole point across from Hebrews 11:

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. … But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.—Hebrews 11:13, 16

These people of God knew they were strangers and exiles in this world—but that there was a better country, a holy city being prepared for them forever.

I think it is clear this world is broken. This place cannot be our hope or our home. We can’t buy into the broken systems of this world for our ultimate hope. Our ultimate hope as the blood-bought family of God is the city God is preparing. We learn from the saints of old—and from our minority brothers and sisters now and from the underground church—that this promised future city is enough, even when we don’t feel we belong and treated differently for it. 

These people of God are sustained by doing simple math. Better to suffer for 90 years here for the sake of Christ and to be identified with him and receive his inheritance forever than to have all the comfort and convenience this life can offer now and be separated from God forever. 

How did Moses choose to be associated with the oppressed instead of the privileged in Hebrews 11? He was looking to the reward (cf. 11:24–26). 

As we look back to these witnesses, we see that God sustains his people in the midst of horrible persecution, oppression, and suffering as they look forward to the city to come.

Look Up to Jesus (Hebrews 12:2) 

… Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter 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.

Looking back is helpful, but here is where most of our time looking should be spent: If we want to run with endurance in this race of faith—where should we look? To Jesus— the founder and perfecter of faith! I think these words imply that Jesus led the way in faith and made a way for us. He accomplished a perfect race so that we could rest in him and run with him. 

Jesus perfectly trusted his Father through suffering. Jesus was tempted in every way we are—yet without sin. And Jesus trusted him all the way through the cross and is seated at the right hand of God. Jesus ran the perfect race. He did what we could never do.

Because of his perfect race, we can follow him. You see, when we look to Jesus the good news is that we see that ultimately that we didn’t start our race in our own strength, and we won’t finish it in our own strength. Jesus went before us to purchase us and unite us to his death and resurrection by faith. And Jesus is the one keeping us, perfecting us, and who will bring our faith to fulfillment at the end of the race. What a resting place it is to know that in the midst of 2020 with a pandemic, racial injustice, and the all the normal suffering of disease and death, we’re going to make it because Jesus started our race and Jesus will be sure we complete it.

How did Jesus run the race and endure the cross? For the joy set before him. What is that joy that helped Jesus obey his Father and endure the cross? What we find is that the joy of Jesus was similar to the joy of the cloud of witnesses. He is looking forward to dwelling in the glory of his Father forever—in the new heavens and new earth, with his blood-bought people. We see it in John 17 when Jesus looks forward to being in glory with his Father and our joy being fulfilled with him. 

In other words, the joy of Jesus—the joy set before him to endure the cross—was the joy of doing the will of his Father so that he could run the perfect race, open the way for others to be saved by his perfect race, and then run with the same joy toward eternity until the day they experienced it in full with him in the presence of his Father. I think we could sum up the joy set before Jesus from Revelation 7:9–10. 

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Jesus has run the perfect race and endured the cross for the joy of a purchased people from every nation, tribe, people, and language—with every color of skin—to stand before his throne in the white-hot joy of worship: A people purchased by his blood who run the race on earth with their eyes fixed on him and who seek to do his will. A people who endure suffering knowing they are secure in the work of Jesus, and a people who endure suffering longing to do the will of God until the day they are in the presence of God. 

Bethlehem, with our eyes on those who have gone before us and with our eyes fixed on Jesus, we can run this wearisome race from a place of rest in the finished race of Jesus—from a place of hope in our future when we finish our race, and therefore with a new resolve to run for his glory in all things now until the day we see him face to face. 

Look Inside Ourselves

As I long for justice on this earth—my ultimate hope is that justice comes through Jesus Christ—he either pays for sin on the cross or comes to judge all sin. As I long for peace to reign, I know it can only ultimately come through the blood of Jesus. When I long for love to flow out among God’s people, I know one day we will dwell in a city of love. When I long for evil to die and death to go away, I know my Savior lives and has paid for sin and conquered death. He is our hope for justice. He is our hope for peace. He is our hope for love. He is our hope for perfect, unending joy with no sin or death. 

If our hope is in Jesus and not this world, and if our hope looks toward the city that is to come, then we will be a different kind of people. We will be a people that look and sound out of step with this world.

We look back to witnesses and are encouraged they made it by looking to the reward. We look up to Jesus and are encouraged that he has run the perfect race on our behalf and empowers us to run with him toward a paradise of all peoples in harmony around the throne. If we will be a people who live for the kingdom now in light of the kingdom to come—we must also look inside ourselves.

Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely.

Let’s deal with the weight idea first. No runner would run with a backpack of rocks. I doubt a backpack of rocks would be against the rules because it offers no competitive advantage—but it would be foolish to run with a backpack of rocks. This weight has the idea of things that aren’t necessarily sinful but keep you from looking to Jesus. Remember when Peter took his eyes off of Jesus to look at the storm, and he sank? We are especially tempted to do this when the storm is raging. There are lots of opportunities to be filling our backpacks with rocks in these days.

Where are you tempted to take your eyes off Jesus? Overanalyzing all of this COVID-19 information? Fixating on it? Or perhaps you’re just so busy on social media with everything going on that you’ve forgotten to run to Jesus because apart from him we can do nothing. 

Or perhaps if you’re a majority culture person, you’ve been feeling guilty lately for your ethnicity and for not understanding the struggle of minority brothers and sisters. Lay down your guilt. That won’t help you love—it will only make us prone toward defensiveness and shame.

Or perhaps as a minority brother or sister in our church, you have wondered for a while if we even care about the painful experiences you live out. I am praying we will do better, but I pray you could lay down the weight of trying to prove your story. Jesus sees you. He loves you. He is with you. He is for you in the pain that we haven’t tried to understand. He knows what it is to be mistreated.

Or perhaps in the midst of all this crazy, you’re just overwhelmed and are trying to numb the pain with TV shows, Facebook cat videos, and food. Lay aside that weight and look to Jesus.

And more than that, let’s lay aside sin that clings so closely and would trip us as we run. When we see injustice and when we see pandemics, they take away the veneer that everything is OK, and we see the ugly underbelly of brokenness and sin in a thousand ways. It would be good if in this moment we paused to reflect and search ourselves for our own sin.

Do you have places in your heart where frustration is boiling over into bitterness and malice? Do you have places in your heart where you are prone to distance or dislike those who don’t look like you or act like you? Do you have places in your heart where fear is boiling over into a lack of trust in God? Are you seeing how much you hoped in your comforts and conveniences more than you hoped in God? Do you have inconsistencies in your heart about which image-bearers of God you are more eager to protect and speak up for that show sinful tendencies in your heart? Do you have places in your heart that show that you’re too proud to listen? 

If there is sin in our hearts, let’s not push it deep inside or numb it with Netflix. Let’s not try to hide it or justify it with news articles that support our views. Let’s remember Jesus ran the perfect race for us—let’s bring it to his throne and lay it at his feet and ask him for help to run the race, sharing in his joy of looking for eternal glory where every tribe, tongue, and nation gathers around his throne as a blood-bought family to worship together forever. Let’s ask the Lord to show us our sin and then lay it aside. 

Don’t you want to be free? Don’t you want to fix your eyes on Jesus and run? This should feel like freedom not a burden. The blood has already paid for your sins—you’re not earning anything or proving anything. You just get the freedom to run!

Application: A Race of Enduring Love

So, we look back to witnesses. We look up to Jesus. We look inside ourselves. And then what? Then, we need to run together. We can’t do this on our own. The final picture is a picture of a blood-bought, united people around the throne of the King. And we pray that his kingdom would come and that his will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. How can we do that? Well, what did Jesus do? He endured through the cross. The joy set before him drove him to self-giving love! And so it is with us. 

We love each other. How? We start with listening. We do not move beyond these things too quickly. This is what families do. We listen long and hard. We pray as we listen. We ask God to show us our blind spots as we listen and we lament sin. We don’t listen to prove our points. We listen to learn and love.

Then, as we learn, we seek to lament the brokenness of this world—wherever it is found—together. We pause and we weep with those who weep, and we lament the brokenness of this world that manifests itself in pandemics, cancer, unjust murders of people of color, and our city burning. 

I’ll just admit that I’ve not always done this as well as I should. It’s been a journey. I’m trying to listen and learn better. By listening with love, I want to help my minority brothers and sisters lay down the weight of wondering if we even care. I want to learn about how our city got the way it did and listen to the pain that my brothers and sisters have endured. I want to listen and learn and lament the brokenness, and then look to Jesus for ultimate justice and peace together.

I want to listen to my brothers and sisters who see things differently with COVID than I do. I want to help them lay aside the weight of feeling bad for being afraid or feeling bad for feeling frustrated, and instead listen, learn, lament the brokenness, and look to Jesus for our ultimate hope of healing together. 

I want to listen better to every brother or sister who is struggling. I want to see the brokenness. Learn. Lament. And then look to Jesus together and lay aside every sin and weight together.

Bethlehem, these are moments where we could divide in our pride. Or this is a moment where we could unite in love. I don’t claim to have lots of answers. But, I know Jesus does. I know he is the one who has set this race before us. And I know he’s doing it for our good as we look to him, lay aside every weight and sin, and learn to lament and run this race together in such a way that the world will see our love and know we are his disciples.

I really believe that in this moment Jesus is going to show us our sin and lead us back to him in a powerful way. And I really believe that God is going to do a new work to show off the good news of the gospel in these cities. I am praying for the kind of wake-up call that would cause us to look to Jesus, link arms, and run the race of enduring love set before us together as a blood-bought family—like we will be around the throne.

Sermon Discussion Questions


Introduction: We Have Need of Endurance
1. Look Back at Witnesses
2. Look Up to Jesus 
3. Look Inside Ourselves
Application: A Race of Enduring Love

Discussion Questions

  1. What do the witnesses show us? How did they endure?
  2. What has Jesus done for us? How did he endure?
  3. What is the difference between a weight and sin? How can we lay them aside? 
  4. If God has ordained this race before us, then what does that mean about what he hopes to accomplish in us? 
  5. What is one way you can love someone else who has a different perspective than you this week?
  6. What is one sin or weight you can lay aside with God’s help?