"Since we are surrounded . . ."

My wife competed in her very first triathlon last weekend. It was a great event. To see 2500 women of various body sizes and ages wandering the landscape with multi-colored rubber hats on their heads was an intriguing sight. I was so proud of my wife. She looked just like the veterans (well, like the younger veterans).

It was a beautiful morning. The sun was barely breaking over the clouds when the event began. Her group was one of the last to begin. When she got into her group of purple-headed women to wade into the water, we all awaited for the announcer to commence the count-down. I teared-up several times: that was my wife; she was a bit scared; would she be safe? "Ready women?! 5 . . . 4 . . . 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . Go!" Off she went like a minnow into the murky lake.

I cheered her on as she came out of the water, video camera in hand. “Yeah Elaine! You did it! You just swam over a half-mile! Wow! Keep going! Don’t stop!” I still fought back the tears. Up the hill she went to the bikes. One third of the event was over. As she and the other athletes ran up the hill, they stripped off their goggles and rubber hats.

Around forty-five minutes later, I recorded her as she came up the final hill, beet-red from hustling up and down several daunting hills on that bike. “Yeah Elaine! You did it! Don’t stop now! You just biked twelve miles! Keep it up!” The crowd around me cheered as well. Strangers were cheering on everyone, not just their favorite(s).

Then she was off to run over three miles. She put down her bike in her allotted spot and immediately began running. She was tired. Her gait wasn’t too fast, but it was steady. But this was the last leg. I prayed for her. And yes, I even teared-up for her again. I was so proud. I watched her in the distance as she disappeared into the arboreous running path. The next time I’d see her, she’d be running for the finish line.

I went to the finish line where a huge crowd had already gathered. People were running through the final gate and cheering, crying, panting. The crowd’s polyphonic cacophony was deafening. The announcer was broadcasting the finishers names as they crossed the finish line. Loud music was blasting over the speakers. Families and friends were standing almost in the way of the track as the runners would approach the finish line. Everyone was clapping and exhorting.

“Yeah!!! Come on Susan! Jane, don’t give up!! You can do it! You’re almost there! Don’t give up! Come on; just a little more! Don’t stop; don’t quit!”

At last, my wife came running around the corner to the last bit of track. She could hear the voices; she could hear the cheers from the huge crowd. Her pace sped up. I had my video camera ready. I came up to her in the last 100 feet, running beside her.

“Go honey!!! You can do it!”

I ran ahead of her through the finish line so that I could turn around and video her. She ran over the finish line and threw her arms in the air.

She exclaimed, “Yeah!!! I did it!!” The crowd continued to cheer. I gave her a big, long hug. And yes, I cried a little. For eight months, she trained. She had done it. And hundreds of people witnessed it. They were cheering her on too.

The author of Hebrews said it like this: “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, . . .” (12:1; ESV).

We’re being watched, says the anonymous author of Hebrews. We’re being watched and exhorted. Anyone in the ancient world would have immediately gotten the image: an ancient sporting event. Ancient Greek athletes competed in the nude (all males, of course). Here, the author of Hebrews uses such practice metaphorically: just like they cast off their clothes to run unhindered, we too, should cast off sinful habits.

And run. Run like’s there’s no tomorrow. No holding back; no stopping now. Why? Because we’re being watched. We’re not alone. There are cheerleaders. There are those who actually want us to finish the race well.

The respected professor and author Ben Witherington, III, tells a story (which I adapted a bit from http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2009/04/bart-interrupted-detailed-analysis-of_16.html):
Some time ago I was pastoring in Coleridge N.C. and had gone to Charlotte with my wife for a few days to visit my folks. One of our most stalwart church members, Bertha Albright, suddenly and unexpectedly became ill on a Saturday and was dead by the time we returned. This was in an age before cell phones, and when I arrived back in Coleridge my neighbor, Roger Whitehead, was frantic and asking me to come to his house. He was worried his mother had gone bonkers. You see, Mrs. Whitehead had been Bertha Albright’s best friend, and about 4 or so that afternoon she had received a phone call from Bertha, which her son Roger had overheard. The phone rang, they talked for a while, and then Mrs. Whitehead hung up. She had been talking to Bertha. The problem is, Bertha was already dead some hours!
When I came across the street and was told all of this, because of course now Mrs. Whitehead had learned Bertha was dead and was distraught, I tried to calm her down and ask her some questions. I asked her was she sure it was Bertha? Oh yes, she had known this person for many many years. How did Bertha sound? “She sounded far away.”
I remember saying “I guess so, it was truly a long distance call.” But when I asked her what Bertha said, one of her remarks struck home: “She asked if Ben would be back to preach on Sunday, and to tell him not to be discouraged but to keep giving those good sermons and doing the ministerial work.” I was a pastor of four churches, and it was difficult. And indeed I was discouraged, and wondered whether I belonged in the pastoral ministry. And that message was precisely the word of hope and help I needed on that weekend.

Cheerleaders. They actually want us to finish.

When my wife was running down the final stretch, the sun blazing, the crowd cheering, the music playing, and my heart racing, time slowed down. For a brief moment, colors blurred, voices faded off in the distance, and all I could focus on was my wife’s smiling face looking at me. She was proud. She was happy. She was joyful. Her time was fulfilled; it was complete. And she was soaking it in.

And for a brief moment—ever so brief—when time slowed down, I could have sworn that I saw something else. I can’t prove it; I can’t even explain it well. But, it’s almost as if I saw a huge crowd of people smiling and cheering around us all, or better still, through us all. I saw a glimpse into another world where we were being watched and applauded. And for a brief moment, I could see us at the end of time.

I can still hear those voices in the distance . . . “Don’t stop! Don’t quit! You’re almost done! You’re almost home!”

And it makes me smile.