Mount Everest. Earth’s highest mountain. Rising 29,029 feet above sea level. First conquered by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953, it now attracts hundreds of climbers every year—but many others still want a connection to Everest.
“Everesting” has now become a term synonymous with challenging tasks that involve repeatedly running or biking up any given large hill, the number of times it would take to achieve having reached 29,029 feet. Only there are no basecamp stops for days on end. You do this “everesting” in a single activity. There is no time limit, but there is also no sleep.
Then there is “the Mount Everest of ultramarathons”, which is a race run each summer. Called the “Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race,” it is the longest certified footrace in the world, and is held in Queens, New York.
The event challenges athletes to run 3,100 miles in 52 days. The runners begin at 6 a.m. every day and run for extended periods, taking breaks when needed. To meet the goal of 3,100 miles, they must run an average of 59.6 miles per day. Throughout this long and rigorous race, they try to set records and gain spiritual insights. A documentary called “3,100: Run and Become” examines the philosophical side of long-distance running. One athlete in the film says, “Running is a prayer and a teacher and a celebration of life.”
The apostle Paul would certainly agree. After all, he asks the Corinthians, “Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.” (1 Corinthians 9:24)
And to Timothy, Paul says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7)
Running language is found in the letter to the Hebrews as well. Chapter 12 begins with the words, “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.”
Sports is a language spoken by people around the world. It was certainly a familiar subject to Roman citizens in the first century because athletes were iconic figures of the ancient world. Drawing on this popularity, New Testament writers chose to convey important aspects of faith through athletic metaphors—which is among the reasons why we read these running and racing metaphors in many parts of the Bible. “Run in such a way that you may win it.” “Finish the race and keep the faith.” “Run with perseverance the race that is set before you.”
Through them all, not just our text for today, we learn that running the race of faith, as the saying goes, is a marathon, not a sprint.
Shortly after sunrise on June 14, 2015, a Finnish man named Ashprihanal Aalto stood on Eighty-fourth Avenue in Queens. At 6 a.m. he began running around the block. He passed a playground, some townhouses, a technical high school, some small businesses.
After a little more than a half mile, he returned to his starting point. Then he did another lap. Then another. Then another. Forty days later, he’d run that lap 5,649 times, for a total of 3,100 miles.
Aalto was one of 12 runners attempting the “Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race,” the world’s longest certified footrace—only 12 are selected from a larger field of applicants
Eight of the runners finished the race within the 52-day time limit.
Aalto finished the fastest, and broke the world record by almost a full day.
He says, “The training for this race has become a meditation for me, an opportunity to think, dream, pray and solve problems. Besides enjoying the fabled endorphin rush, I’ve been amazed by the clarity of mind I experience. I’ve come to appreciate how exercise cuts through the clutter of life and gives me the gift of simplicity. In a career dominated by phone calls, emails, and meetings, it’s calming to spend time focused only on the path ahead.”
Running really is a prayer and a teacher and a celebration of life.
Now, not all of us are runners, of course. And I don’t know if any of us have plans to summit Mount Everest, or run up and down a hill enough times to say we have “everested.” I think living in Summit County is about the only “summiting” most of us will do.
But whether we run or walk, or chalk-up our endurance racing to sitting through Sunday sermons, all of us can grow in faith by joining the race laid out in the letter to the Hebrews, and by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”
But like I said, the faith race is a marathon not a sprint.
So how can we train ourselves for the long run?
The Hebrews writer tells us, “By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.” (11:29-31).
In the face of each of these enormous challenges, the people of God had faith. They did not overcome obstacles with their intelligence or technology or physical strength, but rather with their faith.
They trusted and believed God was at work for good in their lives, in every time and place and situation—and even when life was at its worst, God was present, and God was at work to make things good.
That is what faith is. It is a willingness to lean on God and believe God will lead us through the difficulties of life so we will be able to join the apostle Paul in saying, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7)
The primary challenge of the Christian life marathon is, quite simply, have faith. But having faith is very, very difficult sometimes, isn’t’ it?
According to Hebrews, faith is difficult because it does not lead immediately to an easy or comfortable life, saying in our text for today how people of faith, “suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented … They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”
Christian life would be much easier if our faith freed us from all pain and suffering. But it doesn’t.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, said, “We all experience sadness, we all come at times to despair, and we all lose hope that the suffering in our lives and in our world will never end. But sadness and suffering are never the end.”
Tutu had faith that suffering could be transformed, and he said, “God is an expert at dealing with chaos, with brokenness, with all the worst that we can imagine. God created order out of disorder, cosmos out of chaos, and God can do so always, can do so now.”
Faith is difficult because it involves pain—more pain and suffering than the anguish of a 3,100 mile race. But God brings order out of disorder, in our personal lives and in our communal lives as well. God leads us toward the finish line which is described in Hebrews chapter 12, “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem … a kingdom that cannot be shaken.”
So how can we run better this faith marathon? How can we grow stronger in our faith?
The writer of Hebrews says, “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, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
We can learn a lot from our role models and coaches in the great “cloud of witnesses,” men and women who have run the race of faith through enormous challenges and difficulties.
We can go a lot farther when we “run with perseverance the race that is set before us,” not giving up when we feel pain or suffering or sadness.
We run better with others, instead of going alone, because others will encourage us to keep going when we want to stop, others will pick us up when we fall.
And we run the very best when we look to Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” because Jesus endured the agony and the shame of the cross— the Mount Everest of pain— and he did it to bring us forgiveness of sin, as well as to help us “not grow weary or lose heart.”
Running is a repeated metaphor throughout the Bible because running—physically and spiritually— is becoming. Running—physically and spiritually— is a celebration of life, a prayer and a teacher.
So may we run the race of faith, and in doing so, become the people God wants us to be.
May we run the race of faith remembering God is always working for good in our lives, in every time and place and situation.
May we run the race of faith while holding fast to the truth that God is an expert at dealing with chaos and brokenness.
And may we run the race of faith believing Jesus is running ahead of us, showing us how to get through the pain and cross the finish line into the city of our living God. Amen.