Saturday, August 17, 2013

A Great Cloud of Witnesses

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-19
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.  This is what the ancients were commended for.  By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.  By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.  By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.  For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.  By faith Abraham, even though he was past age-- and Sarah herself was barren-- was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise.  And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore. All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth.  People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return.  Instead, they were longing for a better country-- a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.  By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned."  Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.

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,

Several years ago, I was invited to join in a charity event.  You signed up to either walk or run in this event, and I signed up for the walk.  I was with several other members of my church and we all agreed that we were not interested in competing, we were just there to pay our entry fee, support the charity and enjoy a leisurely walk on a beautiful day.
These wonderful church members lied to me.  They were the most competitive people and they left me at the starting line standing in their dust.
Well, that didn’t bother me – it was still a beautiful day and I walked very slowly and meditatively.  I had a pocket recorder with me and occasionally I would take it out and dictate some notes about a project I was working on.
Finally, I turned a corner in the path, and came to a clearing in the woods.  There was a vast crowd of witnesses waiting for me.
“You can do it,” they cheered me on.  “We’re rooting for you.”
As I crossed the finish line, they took pictures of me.  They cheered and clapped their hands.
It was humiliating.
Even more humiliating than that is that I apparently was the only person in my age category.  Therefore, I won a trophy – first place in my age category.

Hebrews tells us that we are running a race of life and we are before a great crowd of witnesses.

The witnesses expect us to take life seriously and to do our best.

The problem is that even when we take life seriously, this is a hard race we are in.
It is not easy.
It is not always pleasant.
I have a buddy from my high school days who is struggling with cancer.  He doesn’t know what the future holds or if he will ever be able to enjoy his retirement, which is getting close.  The race of life is hard.
We’ve done so many funerals in our church this month – far more than usual.  With each there is grief and sadness and difficult adjustments for children or spouses or friends.  The race of life is hard.
School is beginning this week. That means new demands, new challenges, lots of things to learn – and the not just for the teachers but for the students – the race of life is hard.
And we run this race with a great cloud of witnesses looking and watching – cheering us on.

Let me tell you about this great cloud of witnesses – they are NOT that great.

Oh sure, on the surface, they look fine.  They look like saints.  But they are not.  If you were to read the entire chapter 11 of Hebrews, you would see one person after another of this great cloud of witnesses:

          There's Noah.  Sure, he built an ark.  He was a good man.  But what does he do when he gets off the boat?  He goes out and gets drunk, passes out and lies there with his face on the barroom floor and without a stitch of clothing.

          If Noah was up for election as a New York City Mayor, the press would have a field day with that kind of behavior.

          You've got the entire nation of Israel mentioned in this list of the Faithful because of their stroll across the parted Red Sea.  But keep an eye on where those people go to next, and what you've got are a bunch of people who turn their backs on God the first chance they get.  While Moses is up on the mountain conversing with God, these faithful people build an idol of gold and start worshipping it.

          Then there is Rahab, a prostitute. Case closed.

And THIS is the great cloud of witnesses cheering us on in our difficult race in life?

Yes – and while they may be sinful and gullible and in some cases just plain stupid, they ran their own difficult race of life and they did one thing that made their race easier.

The had faith.

If you look carefully at the lives of these people, what you find is that they all lived their lives in expectation of God's promise.

They did not always understand God.  But they trusted God to know what he was doing.
They did not always live up to God’s values, but they trusted God’s mercy.

          For each person, the promise of God might have been different, but they all lived in expectation of something that had been promised to them by God.

          For Noah, the promise of God was Judgment of the world, and salvation of his family.  So in expectation of that promise, Noah built an ark.  It took him 120 years.  That’s a long time to believe – I mean at some point after a couple of years – or may 40 years at the most – many of us today would have left the project unfinished. 
But with no evidence that a flood was coming, Noah believed.  That is faith.
Faith is the substance of that which we do not see.

          For Abraham, the promise of God was land and a nation of children, so in expectation of that promise, Abram packed up his camel and headed out without so much as a map, and before a single child had been born, he changed his name from Abram, to Abraham, which means Father of many nations.

          And because it took decades for Abraham and his wife to have children, there were times when their faith struggled.  But believing that God was telling the truth AND that he was able to do what he promised – that’s faith.

          For Moses, the promise was the Promised Land, so in expectation he led the children of Israel through the wilderness. 

          Each of these people, and all of the others in this list given to us by the author of Hebrews, lived in expectation of God's promise.  God had promised something, and from that point on, their lives were governed by that promise.

Now, what about us?

What has God promised to us?
For one thing, peace.  In John’s Gospel, chapter 14, Jesus says, “I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid.”

And yet, we do not believe the promise.  And our unbelief creates the anxiety that becomes a barrier to any peace at all.

We face unemployment, or underemployment.  We look at our debts.  We struggle with raising children.  School is about to start.  The doctor says we have cancer.  We face death – our own or a loved one.

Peace?  Give me a break!  There is no peace.

Life’s hard. 

But the Lord has promised us peace.  Believe the promise.  Trust.  Open your heart to be at peace.  Have faith – I’m not saying have faith that the problems go away.  They might not – but have faith in the promise that in the midst of life, Jesus has come to give you peace.

When Paul sat down to write a letter to the Philippians, he was in prison waiting to die, and while waiting on death row he said this:  "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and petition, along with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, shall guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:6,7)

Believe the promise, and be at peace.

That’s faith.

Faith is not understanding God – when bad things happen, we want to know why.  We want to know that there is a plan and we want to see what that plan is.  But faith is not believing in the plan.  It’s believing the planner – it’s believing that God is in control and trusting him.

I had a great relationship with my father.  He and I did all sorts of things together.  He taught me how to fish, how to start a camp fire without matches, how to use a compass – and one day we were hiking and we came across a rope bridge.  I was probably 5 or 6 years old and it was the first time I’d ever seen a bridge like this.  A single robe was for your feet, and two ropes for your hands.  I looked down and it must have been a thousand feet to the vast river below.

Of course, I was only 5 or 6 years old so it was probably nothing more than 10 feet above the puny creek below, but I was terrified.  I didn’t trust the rope to hold in place.  I didn’t trust my feet or my hands. 

But I had learned by then to trust my Dad.  And he encouraged me to walk across, and I did – safely.

But I was terrified every step of the way.  My brain was telling me, this is not a good idea.  My trust in my father said, “it will be okay.”

We are able to face life’s most terrifying things because of faith.

And faith is simply believing God.

Most of us, tragically, lack that sense of expectation that God can and will do what He claims he can do.

A little over a century ago, there was a famous French tight-rope walker and acrobat.  His greatest fame came in 1859 when he accomplished one of his greatest feats.  He walked on a 1100 foot tight-rope suspended 160 feet above the waters of the Niagra Falls.  This man went onto repeat this act several times.  Each time he did something unusual, to give it a dramatic flair. 

Once he even made the walk pushing a wheelbarrow.

When he reached the other side, he asked the spectators – “How many people believe I can do this again?”

They all cheered, “yes, you can do it.”

Then he asked the spectators, “How many people believe I can do this with a person sitting in the wheelbarrow.”

The crowd went crazy, “Yes, you can do it, you can do it.”

Can I have a volunteer?


There is a difference in saying you believe, saying you have faith, and actually having enough faith in God to let him lead you, carry you, direct you where He wants you to go.

It’s easy to say we believe in God, but to actually believe with expectation that God can do what he says he will do – that’s faith. (From… D. Greg Ebie, from a sermon “When Life Gets Tough . . . Turn to Jesus!”

You are running a tough race in life.  Look around at the great cloud of witnesses in Hebrews. They ran tough races in their lives – but they trusted God.  Let us, in our own difficult lives, trust and believe God.