Graduation Day Sermon

President Treptow’s sermon, “Got This?” was based on Hebrews 12:1–3, the graduating class passage.

Got this? I’m not talking about you being able to come up the stairs, receive a diploma, and walk back to your seat without face-planting, though I will confess some concern about that with some of you. I’m rather thinking about what happened yesterday. President Schroeder announced that you are to serve in the public ministry of the gospel in a place the Lord has chosen for you. You’re no longer a seminarian; you’re a pastor. Got this?

There are several pieces of evidence someone could cite as proof that you’re ready. First this: you’ve received thorough training at Martin Luther College and here at the seminary. True, you haven’t learned everything there is to know about being a pastor, but you’ve been trained in how to assess a situation, how to evaluate it from Scripture, and how to speak God’s Word to others. Secondly, you successfully completed your vicar year. You not only saw gospel ministry up close, you did the work of a pastor. In addition, the seminary faculty recommended you for service as a pastor in Christ’s church. They’re convinced that you meet the Lord’s qualifications for public ministry.

That’s not to say that serving as a pastor will be easy. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion. He’s not going to say, after seeing your business card, “Oh, you’re a pastor? I shall never bother you again.” Exactly the opposite. The unbelieving world will not, upon hearing of your ordination, suddenly hold you in the highest regard because of your important work. Jesus never promised that those who serve as pastors will go from one success to the next. Instead, he says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” There is no God-pleasing ministry without bearing the cross.

You know that. You know it because you’ve read the Scriptures. You know it also from stories you’ve heard from those who have gone before you. You may even know it by experience from your service as a vicar. By selecting the opening words of Hebrews 12 as your class verse, you demonstrate that you expect to bear the cross. Let’s consider the counsel the writer to the Hebrews offers you as you leave the seminary to take up the work to which the Lord has graciously called you and the cross that accompanies it.

The writer to the Hebrews pictures the life of a Christian as a race. As something physically, emotionally, and spiritually challenging. A marathon. The people who received this letter had more than a passing acquaintance with the daunting nature of the race marked out for them as followers of Christ. They were being persecuted for their Christian faith. They were at the end of their rope, not sure that they could take even one more step in the race—or, for that matter, that they even wanted to. The Liar was there with his analysis of the situation: “If you really had God’s favor, you wouldn’t experience difficulty.” The devil suggested a simple solution: Set aside the cross. Drop out of the race. Return to their roots in Judaism, a protected religion.

The idea that suffering wouldn’t come to those in whom God delights is the devil’s revisionist history. At the end of Hebrews 11, sometimes referred to as the great heroes of faith chapter of Scripture, the writer to the Hebrews speaks about what God’s people experienced as the consequence of faith. Turns out that their lives weren’t all sunshine and rainbows. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.” Wow! Somehow they persevered, even when they suffered unjustly. Somehow they remained believers, even when it seemed that the Lord wasn’t keeping his promises. Somehow they continued to run the race set out before them. Somehow.

What was the “somehow”? What secret had they found? What they all had in common was this: the same Lord. The Lord who formed faith in their hearts by his promise of forgiveness also sustained them. He equipped them, moment after moment, to trust his unshakeable promises—to live by faith, not by sight. What they couldn’t do on their own, he gave them the strength to do. While Hebrews 11 can certainly be described as the “heroes of faith” chapter, the Lord is the real hero of every one of the stories of his people persevering, like the account of Stephen we heard earlier.

That’s exactly what the writer to the Hebrews has in mind in the first verse of chapter 12: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.” The great cloud of witnesses consists of those who remained in faith, through persecution and trial, all because the Lord empowered them to do so. In short, the writer to the Hebrews is saying to those who are thinking about dropping out of the race, “Look at what the Lord did for those who’ve gone before you. He gave them strength they didn’t have on their own. What did for them, he can and will do for you.” So the writer to the Hebrews isn’t saying, “I have confidence in you. You can do it.” It’s rather, “The Lord can do it. Nothing’s too hard for him.”

Since that’s the case, that the Lord empowers his people to run the race marked out for them, his people ought to run like they mean it. No one serious about running in a race would wear a long, flowing robe or put on a backpack loaded down with weights. He’d instead get rid of anything that might trip him up or slow him down. In the same way, the writer to the Hebrews says, those running the race that is the Christian life need to put aside every hindrance by daily repentance. They need to cast off their doubts and fears and pay no attention to the enticements of the world.

All of that sets the stage for the word of exhortation at the center of the verses before us: “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Notice that the writer to the Hebrews doesn’t speak down to his listeners, as if they were foolish and weak and he alone wise and strong. He includes himself in the exhortation because he knew the weakness of his sinful flesh. “Let us run,” or better, “let us keep on running the race marked out for us.” The race marked out for the child of God is a life of clinging to the Lord’s promises. Through faith in those promises Christians are set free to live for the glory of God and the benefit of others, in all their callings, wherever the Lord has placed them. The writer to the Hebrews doesn’t suggest that life will be only easy all the time. The word translated “race” suggests that exertion will be necessary and effort required. The same idea is clear from the writer’s call for perseverance. Perseverance isn’t something passive, but active. It means actively focusing on the promises of God and striving to carry out the callings the individual has received from God.

The writer to the Hebrews identifies the key to running the race with perseverance: “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” The devil is the master of diverting attention. He wants people to fixate on the difficulties they must endure, until they feel they cannot continue. He wants them to focus so completely on their problems that they can no longer see Jesus. And because they cannot see Jesus, the one who reveals the Father’s love for sinners, there is only one remaining option. Quit. Resign from the race in exhaustion and despair. That’s why the writer to the Hebrews pleads with his readers to do what the Holy Spirit had trained them to do: to fix their eyes on Jesus. Jesus is the pioneer of faith, the one whose perfect work made him the perfect Savior and the only legitimate object of faith, the only way to life with God. He is also the perfecter of faith, the one who brings faith to completion, who preserves people in faith to the end. In other words, the writer is saying, what you cannot do—save yourself or create faith in your heart or sustain that faith through trial—Jesus does.

“For the joy set before him,” the writer says, “he endured the cross, scorning its shame and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Jesus knows all about the cross. The race marked out for him was to humble himself, to set aside his rights and forego the full and constant use of his divine attributes as a man. It was to endure the injustice of being condemned to death by sinful human beings and to suffer the infinite wrath of God for the sins of the world, for the sake of fulfilling the Father’s saving will. Though the devil repeatedly tempted him to resign from the calling he had received, Jesus stayed the course. He ran the race. Perfectly. Proof is found in this: he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven after providing purification for sins.

Now seated at the right hand of God, Jesus continues to serve as the great high priest. He has already offered the perfect sacrifice, once for all. But he is continually interceding for his brothers and sisters, asking the Lord to forgive their sins because of his perfect sacrifice. As you take up the calling you have received, and the cross that accompanies it, fix your eyes on Jesus your high priest seated at the Father’s right hand. It’s too easy, as a pastor, to fix your eyes on your performance. Occasionally you’ll see things go exactly as you planned. You’ll feel that your efforts reached their goal. Perhaps more often you’ll see your shortcomings. You’ll become painfully aware of your unkind thoughts and the selfishness that shows itself entirely too frequently. And the Liar will say, “You should probably quit. The Lord should have someone better than you serving as a pastor.” While it’s good for a pastor to see and acknowledge his sins, it is not good when the pastor can no longer see Jesus at the Father’s right hand. Fix your eyes on Jesus, your high priest. The sacrifice has been offered. The price has been paid. God has forgiven all your sins. Jesus’ perfect running of the race has been credited to you. When you see Jesus as he is, as your perfect substitute, you’ll see yourself properly: as God himself sees you. And then you will be free to serve.

As you run the race marked out for you as a pastor, fix your eyes on Jesus, seated at the right hand of God, reigning as King. He is ruling in hearts through the gospel and is ruling over everything for the benefit of those who trust in him. It may occasionally seem, as you consider the challenges you face in ministry, that Jesus isn’t ruling over much. The enemies of the church appear to be winning. But appearances can be deceiving. We walk by faith, not by sight. The one who loved you to death knows the exact crosses you will carry and the blessings he intends to give you through them. Never will he abandon you. Through his gospel he will give you strength to run with perseverance the race marked out for you.

As you take up the calling you have received, fix your eyes on Jesus the prophet, seated at the right hand of God. Jesus himself is sending you out in his name, to proclaim his gospel. Keep in mind that he wants everyone to be saved. He is therefore highly motivated to speak through you for the benefit of all. You may think, as you face challenging situations, “I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to say to the husband who just lost his 34-year-old wife in a car accident. I don’t know what to say to the straying sheep who isn’t much concerned about eternity. I don’t know what to say to unbelievers to get them interested in God’s Word.” You will of course want to grow in your ability to express God’s truth. But there comes a time when you must stop looking at yourself and fix your eyes on Jesus. He promises to speak through you and give you the words to say. Fix your eyes on Jesus and you will free yourself from unneeded pressure and stress.

The writer to the Hebrews then points you to Jesus as the perfect example of running with perseverance, when he says in verse 3: “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” Focusing on the cross you have to carry will invariably lead to fatigue, to a weariness of heart, to a letter of resignation. Instead, the writer says, “Do what Jesus did. He focused on the joy set before him at the conclusion of the race. For him it was to be the Savior of the world. That allowed him to stay the course, even as sinners rejected him and condemned him to death, even as his Father forsook him at Golgotha.”

The joy set before you as a child of God is to hear the Savior say of you on the Last Day, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” No matter how heavy the cross you are asked to carry, the glory to be revealed on the Last Day will make those crosses seem like mere slivers. The joy set before you as a pastor is to hear the Savior say to you, after years of service in proclaiming his law and gospel, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” You will shine like the stars forever and ever. Let your heart rest on the promises God makes regarding the joy that will be yours. By those promises he will empower you to run the race marked out for you.

Do you remember one of the first Christian songs you learned as a three-year-old? I’m not thinking of “A Mighty Fortress,” though I imagine you were a precocious child and could probably sing it with gusto. I’m thinking of “Jesus loves me, this I know.” It’s a simple song, but there is a line that has always stuck with me, that to this day I think about often. “Little ones to him belong, they are weak, but he is strong.” So simple, so true. I am weak, you are weak, but he is strong. And that’s what matters as you take up the work to which you have been called. That’s what matters as you run with perseverance the race marked out for you, with your eyes fixed on your Savior. Got this? You can rightly say, “Jesus has got this! Because his story is my story, and because he will give me strength, I got this!”

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