I’m all for a good Saturday morning run on a wooded path with a pair of headphones and not another human being in sight, but there’s nothing like running with a crowd.
Last November, I ran my first half-marathon. The start time was 7:30 am and it was freezing cold, but as I stood in the corral waiting for the race to start, I was more awake, more ready, and more excited than I had ever been on any of my training runs at the same time or in the same temperature. The starting gun went off, and I moved with the mass of people around me, shuffling forward first before breaking into full strides.
There is a contagious energy about running with a crowd. I don’t know if it comes from spotting your family and friends in a sea of onlookers at mile six and waving to them as you go by, thinking how lucky you are that these people traveled hundreds of miles to stand in thirty-degree weather and watch you pass them for ten seconds, or from giving an extra energy gel to a stranger who runs with you for a few minutes, or from laughing at spectators wearing silly costumes and dancing as you go by. Whatever it is, something about all these people around you, ahead of you, and behind you makes it easier to take another step. Then you take another, and then another, until suddenly you’ve taken enough steps to make it over the finish line.
Running looks different now than it did in November. Solo Saturday morning runs are not as relaxing when they are the only kind of run available, and every time I run, I remember that sin has made running more dangerous for some of my fellow image-bearers simply because of their skin color. When the run ends, I have two jobs to work and the next year of my life to plan and old friends to miss and so much to learn about grace. I carry these weights, and sin clings oh-so-closely.
Still, I do not run alone. “Therefore,” says the author of Hebrews, “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 ESV).
Hebrews 11—the “hall of faith”—describes that cloud of witnesses. They ran with heavy weights, but Hebrews 11 isn’t about those weights. Nor is it a list of people to gawk at and say, “I wish I had the faith of Noah, Abraham, Moses.” Instead, it impresses upon us that righteousness comes not through works but through faith. It allows us to marvel at the story God is writing. It reminds us that faith isn’t easy, but it is worth it. The stories of this great cloud of witnesses—those who built an ark, left their homes for a land they did not know, let down a scarlet cord, stepped into fiery furnaces, stood up to kings, and faced down giants—teach us about the importance and power of faith. But faith in what?
The answer lies across the finish line.
The faithful in Hebrews 11 never saw the things that God had promised. They lived by faith—and they died, not receiving what was promised. But we have! In the already but not yet, we can run the race looking to Jesus, the Founder and Perfecter of our faith, its beginning and its end.
For the joy set before Him—the throne next to His Father, the eternal kingdom—out of love and obedience, Jesus endured the cross. It was not easy. It was full of shame: He bore the curse of dying on a tree (Galatians 3:13) as the Roman soldiers cast lots for His clothes and chief priests and robbers alike mocked him (Mark 15:24-32). Yet we know the end of the story: He is seated at the right hand of the throne of God, and one day, we will stand before him singing “Worthy is the Lamb” (Revelation 5:12).
The race that is set before us can feel lonely, and our feet might well be getting heavy. During my race, I was freezing and tired and my muscles ached. Yet during no mile did I look back to the starting corral (or even to my warm bed). All of my attention was focused on the finish line and the reception waiting for me beyond it. My fellow racers and I knew what was ahead, and step by step, we ran toward it.
We are not running this race of faith alone. The cloud of witnesses behind and around us cries out “How great is our God!” Beyond the finish line, from the right hand of the Father’s throne, the Founder and Perfecter of our faith calls us to take up our cross as He took up His. And we, in the middle of the race—we lace up our shoes, and we run.