Hebrews 11Hebrews 12:1-11

Hebrews 11 of the Book of Hebrews is a roll call of those who lived by faith. It is inspiring just to read and to recall their exploits. It speaks of Abel, Enoch and Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses. It speaks of David, Samson, Samuel and three who I will mention later — Rahab, Barak and Jephthah — as well as all “the people who crossed the Red Sea” and “the prophets.” It speaks of women who received their dead but still believed in the resurrection, and of those tortured, humiliated, imprisoned, stoned, ill-treated, sawn in two, “of whom the world was not worthy.” Read Hebrews 11 and see if it does not inspire you. It is simply amazing what a difference faith in God can make in the life of an individual!

Hebrews 11 is a litany of the faithful in the Old Testament who found themselves in ordinary circumstances but made them extraordinary events by living out their faith on a daily basis. The author of the Book of Hebrews makes it clear what made these ordinary people extraordinary: faith.
It is almost as if each had that first name: “By faith” Abel, “by faith” Enoch, “by faith” Noah, “by faith” Abraham, “by faith” Sarah. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have your life story introduced in that manner? “By faith” Jim, “by faith” John, “by faith” Mary, “by faith” George, “by faith” Ruth. How thrilling it would be to be introduced in that manner! Hebrews 11 is a thrilling chapter! But today’s Scripture lesson is from Hebrews 12. It follows this litany of the faithful. It is written in response to this inspiring listing of how people lived out their lives “by faith.”
Whenever I listen to a sermon, I always have this little question in the back of my mind, “So what?” I guess I grew up asking the preacher that question. Every Sunday he would preach, and I would respond “So what?” I wanted to know what difference what he was saying would make in my life. I wasn’t being a wiseacre. I was just being practical. I thought then, and I think now, that a sermon is not meant to be a theological treatise on how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. I want to know what difference a biblical truth is going to make in my life today. So, as I read Hebrews 11, that little question once more appeared in the back of my mind, “So what if all of those men and women had faith? So what?”
Our text answers that “so what” question. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2). That must be one of the longest sentences in the Bible. It is two verses long, but it surely tells us what to do when we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses.”
We who are living today are surrounded by all the faithful who ever committed their lives to the living God. The model seems to be an athletic event where we have entered the arena to run the race of life, using Jesus as our inspiration. We look up in the stands and there see millions of others, who at one time placed their lives in God’s hands, and who were successful runners in this race of life. How thrilling it is to know that they are there cheering us on! How eager that makes us want to get on with our lives, for already they have successfully completed the course.
How encouraging it is to know that many of them experienced great difficulties, and they never lost their faith. How comforting it is to know that in spite of great adversity, they did not lose their religion. Some of them were even martyred and tortured. We, today, are encircled by the greatness of the past. We are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses. They are our cheerleaders.
The author of the Book of Hebrews really believed this. He said, “exhort one another every day …” (Hebrews 3:12); he also encouraged us to “not neglect to meet together … but encourage one another (Hebrews 10:25). He felt that the presence of believers with other believers would strengthen our faith.
Edward R. Murrow once described the secret of Britain’s stand against the Nazi tyranny. It was a courage that came less from logic than faith. He wrote, “Unconsciously they dug deep into their history and felt that Drake, Raleigh, Cromwell, and all the rest were looking down at them, and they were obliged to look worthy in the eyes of their ancestors.”
When Napoleon was seeking to motivate his tired, dispirited troops in Egypt fighting almost in the very shadows of the great pyramids of that land, he said to his men, “Remember, forty centuries are looking at you.” This is what our text is telling us. Remember that you are not alone. Forty centuries of faithful believers surround you.
How exciting that so many people of great faith are watching us today. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah — there are three people in the list who, if you knew who they were, you’d be surprised, David’s story, of course, we know. “A man after God’s own heart,” he was an adulterer and, really, a murderer, but also a man who turned his life around. But there was also Rahab, the harlot; Barak, a vicious warrior; and Jephthah, the son of a prostitute, who led a band of marauding outlaws and who killed his own daughter. In other words, some in this “cloud of witnesses” are listed for their strengths, and some are listed for the weaknesses they overcame. Some of them were pretty dark clouds, but they eventually became the silver linings.
It’s a good reminder that those whom God calls are always a mixed bag. They are always like, well, us. The followers of God who live by faith include every race, every geographical area, every handicap, every background that there is in the world. God has created us all, and He calls us all to follow Him in Christ; when we do, this “great cloud of witnesses” becomes even more diverse, and it is wonderful. God’s followers include people with every kind of background.
A dramatic example can be seen in the two Presbyterian ministers who used to serve the First Presbyterian Church of Burlingame, California. One was Paul Watermulder and the other was Jeb Magruder. Paul was a former policeman and Jeb Magruder, after his Watergate experience, spent some time in jail. The article in the San Francisco paper was titled, “Pastors in Church are Ex-Cop and Ex-Con.” See how the cloud of witnesses is inclusive? Aren’t we glad it is?
This diverse cloud of witnesses is there cheering us on to be more like Jesus. Our text encourages us to “look to Jesus.” That is our race in life, to conform more to the life of Jesus. To love more, like Jesus did. To sacrifice more, like Jesus did. To be as compassionate as Jesus. To be as understanding as Jesus. To be as forgiving as Jesus. To be willing to lay down our lives for another person. This should be our goal in life: “Looking to Jesus.”
Our goal is not simply to cross the finish line, but to cross the finish line “looking to Jesus.” The “great cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us cheers when our lives reflect the glory of the Christ-like God. In our modern-day long-distance running, the goal is not so much to cross the finish line first, but to simply finish. The goal is not to win, but to complete the race — and obey the rules during the race. This is our goal in the race of life: not to be first, but to cross the finish line glorifying God.
The Catholic Digest carried the story of Phillip Kelly, a Franciscan Brother stationed in New Jersey. He was working with Puerto Rican migrant workers who had come to pick tomatoes for Campbell’s Soup, vegetables for Bird’s Eye, and just about every blueberry you have ever eaten. Many of these workers brought their families. Everyone’s dream was to earn enough money to build a house back on the island.
Walter Jansen was retiring after forty years with the canning company; for the past 25 years he had been the factory foreman. How he loved the people he worked with! And they loved him.
Every December, the two hundred Puerto Rican families in the parish would gather, and each family would place five dollars in the pot — about a day’s pay for a fruit picker then — and write his own name on a slip of paper. Then someone would be blindfolded and draw the name of the family that would go home for two glorious weeks on the island.
“Why don’t you come to the drawing?” Walter suggested to Father Kelly. “I’ll introduce you to everyone.”
Father Kelly wrote later, “I can still see the paper streamers strung from the rafters under the roof. I can still see on the wall the travel posters of Puerto Rico.”
By three o’clock each family had parted with its five dollars. But before the drawing, the announcer called Walter up and presented him with a plaque commemorating his service and expressing their gratitude for his years of care and friendship. Everyone applauded like mad. Then Father Kelly was asked to draw the name of the lucky family.
“On went the blindfold, and I was led to the drum,” wrote Father Kelly. “I reached in, sorted out a handful of entries, and finally settled on one.
“I took off the blindfold and read the slip of paper: ‘Walter Jansen!’ The cheers were deafening. Everyone surrounded him, congratulating him, hugging him.
“While the commotion continued down on the floor, I casually reached back into the drum and drew out a handful of slips. Each one, in different handwriting, carried the name — Walter Jansen.”
You are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses and they are all cheering for you, and they have all placed your name on their ballot.

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