Those of you who are football fans can no doubt tell me who won the last three college football national championships (or BCS championships, which is NOT the same thing). You can probably also name the past three Super Bowl champions (don’t read on until you name them: going backwards, Patriots, Seahawks, Ravens). Can you, though, in any of the six games I just named, tell me the score at the end of the first quarter? You can’t. In fact, if you can, you just crossed over from “impressive knowledge of the game!” or “good memory!” to “weird, and probably still living in your mom’s basement,” or “not dateable.” Why? Because no one cares about that. No one cares how you begin, how strong you look at the start. The Titanic looked really impressive steaming out of New York harbor. History is filled with auspicious beginnings and ignominious endings.
Athletic analogies to life are overplayed, but there’s a reason there are so many—they’re tremendously effective and vivid. The writer of Hebrews knew this, and gave us such an image at the beginning of chapter 12. He encouraged Jewish Christians to keep persisting in their faith in the face of persecution, difficulties of a type that most of us will never know, by using the image of life as a race. Think of yourself, finishing the school year, a job that you know you’ll be leaving, a project that you’ve been working on for some time, your career at GCS, enduring a trial with a friend, a disease or illness, a conflict. You have run the full marathon, and you are entering the Olympic stadium for those final laps. As you enter, you look around. In the stands, you are surrounded by all of those dedicated followers of Christ who have gone before you, including those in the famous Hebrews 11 “hall of faith.” They are cheering you on.
Some of these faithful followers did great things for the Lord, things we’d like to emulate. They were great leaders, resisted powerful rulers, performed amazing miracles, and led many people to Christ. Others just endured. Their ministry, equally or more powerful, was to suffer and die, to teach us how to suffer well, to teach us that this life is hard, but that the first three seconds of eternity with Jesus will make it all worth it. These are the ones whose cheers inspire us most now, as we struggle toward the finish line, struggle to finish well.
Even more inspiring is Christ: standing there, urging us on, running alongside us, even carrying us toward the finish line, not only promising a reward beyond this life, but serving as the “author and perfecter of our faith”- telling us that every staggering step makes us stronger, more powerful in our faith, and brings us closer to Him.
I tell the kids that finishing strong means that all of the really great stuff in life is on the far end of the pool—you have to swim over to get it. Patience, joy, grace, wisdom, love and contentment- it’s all a gift, but it all comes ultimately through brokenness and humility, slogging through that pool. Finishing strong is hard work sometimes, but it always brings fruit.
In the school context, finishing strong looks like not “mailing it in,” bringing God your very best right up until the end, all as an act of worship of Him. We may have so much going on that our very best doesn’t always look like our very best when we have time to kill, but it’s always our best with the time and resources at our disposal.
Finishing strong means avoiding the impulse to engage in what Seinfeld used to call the “traditional, annual airing of the grievances.” If you didn’t handle issues biblically and well at the time they actually arose during the year, now is the time to seek reconciliation and forgiveness for that, not to let whomever you’ve improperly held a grudge against hear what’s been on your mind all of these months. If you can’t overlook conflict, resolve it—better to heal than to continue to harbor bitterness. But, remember that by delaying and carrying a grudge, in most cases you’ve now become the offender, as well as the offended. I’m as bad about this one as anyone. So, let’s tread humbly here.
Finally, finishing strong looks like taking the time to tell people- friends, teachers, mentors, family- how much you appreciate them, how your life was made richer because of their intervention in it this year. Someone poured into you this year, spent hours assessing your work to make you stronger and smarter, stayed after school to help you, made the split second decision not to do something fun they were going to do so that they could help you with your issue in that moment, cooked a great dinner when what they really just wanted to do was take a shower and go to bed, or cried out to the Lord on your behalf; maybe did all of these things, maybe all in one day. Have you thought about that? Have you thanked them for that? Told them what that meant to you? Don’t wait until you’re 45 and they’re dead to wish you had. Finishing strong means seizing the moment to be grateful.
Hebrews 12:2 tells us that we have a Lord who understands the race, who ran it before us. When Jesus was running that race, nearing the finish line by enduring the cross, He did so “for the joy that was set before Him.” Do you know what that joy was? You. You gave Him joy. As He was tempted to quit because of the pain, the shame, because it would have been easier not to finish strong, He envisioned you. Needing for Him to finish strong; your life depended on it. And, He did. Identified with Christ, we have a chance at a similar joy, a similar opportunity. Do you hear the crowd roaring as we enter the stadium? Let’s finish well.