In those days, the princes said to the king: "Jeremiah ought to be put to death; he is demoralizing the soldiers who are left in this city, and all the people, by speaking such things to them; he is not interested in the welfare of our people, but in their ruin." King Zedekiah answered: "He is in your power"; for the king could do nothing with them. And so they took Jeremiah and threw him into the cistern of Prince Malchiah, which was in the quarters of the guard, letting him down with ropes. There was no water in the cistern, only mud, and Jeremiah sank into the mud.
Ebed-melech, a court official, went there from the palace and said to him: "My lord king, these men have been at fault in all they have done to the prophet Jeremiah, casting him into the cistern. He will die of famine on the spot, for there is no more food in the city." Then the king ordered Ebed-melech the Cushite to take three men along with him, and draw the prophet Jeremiah out of the cistern before he should die.(P) The word of the Lord.
I have waited, waited for the Lord, and he stooped toward me. (R)
The Lord heard my cry. He drew me out of the pit of destruction, out of the mud of the swamp; he set my feet upon a crag; he made firm my steps. (R)
And he put a new song into my mouth, a hymn to our God. Many shall look on in awe and trust in the Lord. (R)
Though I am afflicted and poor, yet the Lord thinks of me. You are my help and my deliverer; O my God, hold not back! (R)
Brothers and sisters: Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God. Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lost heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.(P) The word of the Lord.
Jesus said to his disciples: "I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law."(P) The Gospel of the Lord.
Once in a village a horse race was about to be held and the contestants were being lined up. A man came with an ox and asked that it be included in the race. "Have you gone mad? What chance does an ox have against horses?" said the organizers. The man said, "You say that because you do not know anything about my ox. When it was a mere calf it could run almost as fast as a pony. Now that it is older it should be able to run even faster. Don't you think so...?"
In today's second reading we read not about a horse race but a Christian race in which every believer can and must be an active participant to obtain the reward awaiting each of them at the finish line.
Last week, in the letter to the Hebrews, the writer commended the strong faith of their forefathers particularly Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and encouraged the persecuted Hebrews to follow them. The message for us was that our faith must be like that of Abraham, who took God at His Word and in obedience acted on His commands, and who saw himself as a foreigner or a pilgrim on earth and looked forward patiently to his heavenly home, the Promised Land. Today's text is a part of the exhortation and encouragement to the Hebrew Christians who were struggling in their faith and perhaps contemplating to quit.
In the New Testament of the Bible, the writers use many illustrations and figures of speech to help us understand our faith, and in particular many analogies to make us appreciate the richness and fruitfulness of Christian life. For instance, in the gospel of Matthew (10:16) Jesus says, "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves; so be cunning as snakes and yet innocent as doves." Saint Paul compares a Christian to a faithful soldier, a diligent farmer, a member of a great body and so on. All of these analogies and metaphors reflect the different aspects of Christian life. In today's text the writer sees Christian life as running a race which requires inspiration, endurance to overcome obstacles and faith to reach the goal where the reward awaits.
First of all, the goal of Christian life is to conform to the image of Jesus Christ, and to be like Jesus Christ. In other words the goal of a believer in Christ is nothing less than to attain the likeness of Christ. A Christian joins the race to live, proclaim, serve, worship and make sacrifices like Christ. God became human in the person of Jesus so that we all can learn from him.
Second, Christian life is not a onetime event that begins and ends with the sacrament of baptism but a long race; a lifelong endeavor. Therefore a Christian must run the race with steadfastness, perseverance and determination.
Third, Christian life is surrounded and enriched by a "so great cloud of witnesses". A Christian can derive inspiration, courage, hope, encouragement and strength from the testimony and witnesses of many saints who have triumphantly completed the race. Particularly the writer reminds us that a Christian must "look up and ahead to Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith". Jesus stands out as the greatest of all the witnesses in faith. How did he run the race? The writer says that Jesus ran the race by "enduring the cross, despising its shame and shedding blood". There is a big difference between the sacrifice of Christ and that of a Christian struggling to be faithful in a hostile world.
Fourth, Christian life demands self-denial, discipline, tremendous effort and sacrifice. A Christian must run the race without any baggage. The writer urges a Christian to "rid himself of every burden and sin that clings to him". In other words, whatever sin or obstacle keeps a Christian from the goal of becoming like Christ needs to be dealt with and laid aside.
Fifth, Christian life prepares us for eternal blessings and fulfillment. Jesus "for the sake of joy that lay before him" endured suffering and thereafter, "took his seat at the right hand of the throne of God". Jesus looked beyond the pain of the present moment and embraced the joy of the final outcome. Likewise, a follower who fixes his eyes on Jesus and perseveres to the end, will share in his joy.
Friends, all of us run the same race. However our course may appear to be different or more difficult than others, or the course of others may seem more pleasant and easier than ours because of the many circumstances and conditions before us. But certainly following the way of Jesus to the end, and be like Jesus in every step of the way, is not easy for any of us, no matter who we are.
Why do some of us stop running our race? And why do some others continue to run? It all depends on their goal. If their goal is earthly and momentary then they give up easily. If their goal is heavenly and eternal then they will strive to complete the race. Sadly, hundreds of thousands of people who had started off well but found their path too difficult, quit. They are so discouraged and disheartened because they have to run through the narrow lanes and rough paths and the finish line is too far from sight. Some, in fact, the vast majority of Christians, are in the race but perhaps they are taking it lightly. They do bits here and bits there. They can offer forgiveness to some people but refuse the same to others. One day they express so much love for one person and on another day they show so much hatred. They lack enthusiasm and desire to wholeheartedly follow Jesus's command of loving God and neighbor to obtain the reward. Some others are already in the race but perhaps going nowhere as if they have plenty of time to reach the finish line. They are completely indifferent and lukewarm to God and His commands. Saint Paul in his second letter to Timothy (4:3-4) says of such people, "will not accept sound teaching, but their ears will be itching for anything new and they will collect themselves a whole series of teachers according to their own tastes; and they will shut their ears to the truth and will turn to myths." And finally some Christians probably are going backwards. They have lost the faith to follow Jesus or in the reward awaiting them.
As a Christian we must fight against Satan. Satan is not someone outside but someone inside us. In other words, we must fight against the lust of our own flesh and fight what is not good within ourselves. We must fight all the bad habits, evil pleasures, self-indulgences associations which hold us back. We have to fight against adversaries and personal sins. We'll be unable to obtain peace in our families and relationships if we are carrying heavy burdens or sins such as selfishness, envy, greed and impatience.
We are to run the race that God has set before us whatever and however it may be. We are to run the race knowing and believing that we can finish it. When our race becomes difficult, we can and ought to find encouragement and inspiration from the saints who have gone before us. Often we seek the intercessions of the saints for our earthly and material needs. How many of us seek them for spiritual needs or virtues for which they gave their life and for which they were accorded the status of sainthood. The hardships and suffering many of the saints have endured are much worse than what we encounter. However, we can find comfort in the fact that if they can make it then we too can because the same God who worked in them, is the same God who works in us. Let them remind us of the faithfulness and power of God. Let us follow Jesus who serves as the example of how we are to run our race and live our life.(P) Amen.
God Bless You!