We all knew this would be a long and difficult winter. The COVID-19 global crisis did not end quickly last spring, and so we knew this winter would be challenging. The pandemic is discouraging, the various government lockdowns many of us are living under are draining, and even when we look beyond the health news, the rest of what is going on is not uplifting. As it says in Hebrews 10:26 – “You have need of endurance.”
When I was in school, I enjoyed all of the sports except for cross-country running. It was a miserable experience. It was lonely, it was uncomfortable, and it was disheartening. I could not understand anyone enjoying that weekly run around the perimeter of the school grounds.
Fast forward almost thirty years and I began to find myself enjoying the odd Park Run. I am no runner, by any stretch of the imagination, but the Park Run event was different. This weekly global event resulted in hundreds of people gathering together on a Saturday morning to run the standard 5km in my local park. The community feel meant that everyone encouraged everyone else. And at strategic locations on the course there were the Park Run marshals, smiling volunteers in high-visibility vests that would clap and encourage us to keep going.
In our church, we have said that we want this winter to feel more like a Park Run than my cross-country experience from school days. It will be a difficult season either way, but it need not be miserable, lonely, and disheartening. As believers we have each other, and we need each other, to encourage us to keep pressing on through a difficult season. And as believers we also need the Park Run marshals: strategically placed personal encouragement for the race that is marked out for us. So, each Sunday, our church has heard from a book of the Bible offering that special encouragement to keep on going, like a strategically located Park Run marshal.
Here are three quick encouragements to help us during this difficult time:
- God the Father understands our need for encouragement. In Romans 15:5 he is called the God of endurance and encouragement. Just before that, Paul refers to how God invests in our endurance through the encouragement of Scripture. God is an active participant in the challenges we face and he wants to help us.
- God the Son knows exactly how we feel in tough times. We are not asked to run a race that God has not run already. So, in Hebrews 12:1-2 it says that we have a race marked out for us, but it also says we run it while looking to Jesus, who has already run his race and sat down at the right hand of the Father. Our forerunner, our champion, is Jesus – the one who has first run and suffered for us.
- God the Spirit is given to us – exactly what we need when we are exhausted. In John 14-16, Jesus speaks to his disciples at a time when they are discouraged, drained, fearful, and concerned for the future. Jesus points them to knowing the Father and to their need to remain connected with the Son. What’s more, Jesus makes it clear that they are to receive another Helper, the Holy Spirit, for their difficult days to come. In Romans, when Paul talks about suffering and the need for hope, he then goes on to speak of the help and empowerment of the Spirit (see Romans 5:5; 8:26ff, 15:13, etc.)
The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are all active participants in our lives this winter. The world will tell us to look within and to find in ourselves the resolute fortitude to keep pressing on. This is simply not enough. Maybe the world can give a taste of the mutual support that a community can offer in tough times. But what the world cannot give is the unique reality of fellowship with the Trinity.
Yes, in Romans 5, we are called to persevere in the midst of suffering, knowing that our suffering produces endurance, and character, and hope. But this is not just a passage telling us to dig deeper and hang in there. Immediately, in verse 5, Paul reinforces this endurance by referencing the active participation of the Spirit inside us.
In that upper room, in John 14-16, Jesus urges his disciples to obey him and live for him in the difficult days ahead. But Jesus does not give a team talk that is full of enthusiasm and motivation, but with no practical help. Jesus points them to the participation of the Trinity in their experience, and at the beginning, middle, and end of that section he urges them to do the most logical thing of all in turbulent times: to ask. Ask God for help. Ask God according to his will. Ask God when the world hates you. Ask.
We cannot get through 2021 alone, but God does not ask us to get through it alone. Instead, we are encouraged to get through it together: together with other believers, and together with God.
Maybe 2021 will be a year that stretches some of us in ways we have never been stretched before. Let’s pray that the challenges of 2021 will push us up close against God. May this be a year when we learn to lean on God as never before. May this be a year when we learn to pray to God as never before. And may this be a year when our strength to endure obviously comes not from within us, but from someone who is at work in and through us.
Here is a clip from an interview with Neil Todman, pastor of Headley Park Church in Bristol. See video description for information on how to access the full interview.