This is the first in a three part series on living according to the principles God expects for His people. It was originally presented on May 26, 2013, during the Memorial Day worship service at New River Fellowship in Franklin, TN.
Running with the Marines
Long-distance running has been one of my favorite activities. I am not too old to try a marathon one day, but so far I must remain content with completing several half marathons. My favorite race is the Marine Corps Historic Half in Fredericksburg, Virginia. It truly is a community event. The race starts at the exposition center high up on the ridge west of Fredericksburg, and for about eight miles runs gently downhill through the historic city and past Mary Washington University until it reaches the Rappahannock River. All along the way there are bands playing, choirs singing, school and church groups handing out water, a children’s drum chorus from a local school, and of course Marines everywhere. They mark the course, direct the runners, provide first aid when necessary, and cheer on everyone just by their presence. There is something very special about a Marine, and even in a long race like a half marathon the sight of that uniform brings encouragement and confidence. And the runners do need it, particularly as the miles add up. Once the course reaches Sophia St. next to the river, it runs level for about two and a half miles, and the cheering crowds begin to thin out. About the time the runners pass the VFW post, the only people there to offer encouragement are a couple of representatives from the Rappahannock Nation, beating drums to remind everyone that long ago all the land was theirs.
It is at about that point that the runners realize they have just run about 9 miles downhill, that there are more than four miles left in the race, and that they have to get back to the top of the ridge before they are done. Let me say that one more time. The runners have descended about 300 feet from the start of the race, and they have done it over the space of about 9 miles. Somehow they have to regain that altitude in the remaining 4 miles, when they have already been in motion for about 90 minutes and are feeling tired. Now it gets really interesting. Marines always seek out a challenge, and in my experience they do not settle for the average definition of success. If something is too easy for them, they will find a way to make it harder. And so it is with the Marine Corps Historic Half. They could have spread that altitude gain over the whole four miles, BUT NO! They found a way to let everyone experience Marine culture by having them climb the hills over a distance of less than a mile.
It is called Hospital Hill, and it’s at mile 10½. Once you turn the corner onto Mary Washington Blvd you know what’s coming. There is one last water point, and you had best take advantage of it. You will regret it if you don’t. No sooner have you taken that last sip and thrown away the cup then you see it: a fancy modern hospital next to an asphalt ribbon that goes three quarters of a mile due up.
I don’t know why they decided to put the hardest part of that race next to a hospital. It must do something to the runners because some of them just stop right there and stare for a while. Others get winded just from thinking about it and decide to walk up the hill. A few can sprint up it. We have a name for such people. They are called Ethiopians. (There is something to be said for seeing an African runner in action. When you’re 10 miles into a race and one of them blows by you, it’s best just to admire them. They aren’t even breathing hard and have barely broken a sweat, and you’re doing all you can just to stay on your feet!) Most of the people who attempt Hospital Hill will run up it as best they can – some faster, some slower, and some only half way before they start walking. However they do it, they do it. And once they reach the top, they find another water point and a crusty old Gunnery Sergeant there to cheer them on to the last leg.
Somehow those last two miles are easier than the previous 10. The course is relatively level, and the crowds grow in size and enthusiasm the closer you get to the finish line. When you see the finish you know you can throw in your last store of energy and sprint across. But you don’t stop there. A man dressed as George Washington comes up to shake your hand and congratulate you on a job well done. Then a Marine hangs a medal around your neck as proof to the world that you have finished the race. Next are the tables filled with good things to eat and drink – fruit and muffins and water to revive the weary. They even have free beer for those so inclined. Just beyond that is a nice lady with a notepad who will tell you how fast you ran the race. And finally, there’s a free massage to take the cramps out of the legs and ease the pain from a worn body. And by the time that’s over, the heat and the distance and the dirt and the hurt and the shortness of breath are but a memory, because you have done something few people ever try to do.
But let’s suppose I had a different concept of how to run the Marine Corps Historic Half. Imagine that I pick up my race packet, pin my number to my shiny new Under Armour running shirt, lace up my fancy new ultralight shoes, and edge my way up to the front of the pack just before the start of the race. Then, when the gun goes off, I step over the start line, set up my lawn chair, plop down on it, and start sipping a big cold glass of iced tea. What would happen then? At best people would give me strange looks. More likely, since it’s crowded at the start of a race, a lot of runners would fall all over me. Worse yet, some of them may look at me and think I know something they don’t. They may follow my example and pull out their own lawn chairs, thinking they’ve probably run enough. If many of them do that, then before long we would block the whole course and impede all the serious runners. And then what do you suppose would happen? Would George Washington come up and shake my hand? Maybe, but it wouldn’t be in congratulation; he would take my hand and pull me off the course. Then if I go on to the Marines handing out the medals, the only thing they would say to me is that I don’t deserve one because I never made any progress. And at the food tables they will turn me away because that stuff is only for the real racers. If I go to the nice lady to ask about my race time, she’ll tell me she has no record that I ever finished, and if I try to get a massage they’ll tell me there are no cramps to work out because the muscles haven’t been exercised.
Does that sound ridiculous? It should. But the tragic truth is that it’s far more common than we care to admit. I am talking about this Body of Christ, which is supposed to be working itself up into fighting trim to finish the race set before us. Have you heard anything like that before? Let me refresh your memory:
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified. (I Corinthians 9:24-27, NKVJ)
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. (Hebrews 12:1-2, NKJV)
The sad truth is that many Christians go through their lives thinking that just because they have salvation, they have reached the end of the race. On the contrary, salvation is the beginning of the race. We do not enter into our rest until the end of this age, and before that we have a lot to do. Jesus’ Blood avails to save us, but His Blood does not relieve us of responsibility to live in the way He wants us to live. We are saved so we can do good works, not so we can sit around waiting for Jesus to come back and take us to some ill-defined Neverland where we live in peace and comfort forever and ever. Do you realize that this life is a training ground for the next one? The whole reason God went to all this trouble to rescue, redeem, and restore us is so we could reign with Him! That means in the age to come, and for all eternity, we have cosmic responsibilities! If you are not sure I got that right, let me remind you what the Word of God says:
But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:4-10, NKJV, emphasis added)
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13, NKJV, emphasis added)
But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. (James 2:18-24, NKJV, emphasis added)
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. (Romans 8:18, NKJV)
For this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power, for all patience and longsuffering with joy;giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light. (Colossians 1:9-12, NKJV, emphasis added)
You are witnesses, and God also, how devoutly and justly and blamelessly we behaved ourselves among you who believe; as you know how we exhorted, and comforted, and charged every one of you, as a father does his own children, that you would walk worthy of God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory. (I Thessalonians 2:10-12, NKJV, emphasis added)
What these passages tell us is that there is much more to following Jesus than simply proclaiming trust in Him for galactic fire insurance. Most certainly we gain eternal life, but we also gain responsibility for living the way according to the purposes for which our Creator designed us.