Scripture Passage – Hebrews 12:1-3
Description – 2012 Memorial Day sermon
As I started writing this week my thoughts were drawing to the 1998 Steven Spielberg film Saving Private Ryan. It is the fictional story of a unit of Army Rangers who fight their way onto Omaha Beach during the invasion of Normandy (which took place 68 years ago next month) and then are tasked with the mission of finding a US Army paratrooper and bringing him safely back to the rear so that he can be sent home. And the reason he has being sent home is that three of his brothers were killed in action and so he is sought to keep him from becoming a fourth casualty.
The movie opens with an aging Ryan and his family walking in the cemetery that was created to bury the dead of that great battle in 1944. Ryan is moved to tears and falls before a grave marker and relieves those moments and days of his life as the story is told. But it is the closing scene I am thinking of this morning as Ryan stands before the grave of the Ranger captain who led the search for him. As he begins to walk away and reflect on all that has happened to him since those days and as he, no doubt, considers those who died saving him he asks his wife, “Tell me I am a good man” in the midst, of “a cloud of witnesses.”
And our main text, that includes the phrase “a cloud of witnesses” is Hebrews 12:1-3
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.
We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.
Because of the joyawaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. Think of all the hostility he endured from sinful people;then you won’t become weary and give up.
Ultimately we are to honor and obey God with our lives here on earth but because of this weekend I want us to think about how we honor and remember two clouds of witnesses who have gone before us this day.
The first “cloud” is those who have served our nation and have either died on the battlefield or have passed away since their service. The second “cloud” is those people of faith who have faithfully and sacrificially served the Lord and the Church.
I suggest this morning that we honor the first cloud in the following ways:
- Vote – I have said to you before that two of the most sacred places on earth are the altar at a church and the voting booth. Great sacrifice has been made to make these two places accessible. And there are millions today who seek to have the freedom to vote and to worship without fear and intimidation.
- Serve your community – I am not just your pastor I am also a member of this community. I have a responsibility to this community and you do too. It does not mean that you load your schedule and soul up with five or six responsibilities however. It does mean that we find a way to give back to the place we call home. Remember Jeremiah 29:5-7
- Say ‘thank you’ to those in uniform when you see them. In fact, I want those who have served in uniform and in our community to stand and let us thank them this morning.
There are many other ways to honor the cloud of witnesses who have served our nation but let us remember and honor them most by being active and involved citizens.
But what about the second cloud of witnesses? How do we honor them?
Our main text tells us some ways but before I share them I remind us of Hebrews chapter 11 to help us with some context this morning because the great cloud of witnesses referred to in chapter 12 are also mentioned in chapter 11.
Chapter 11, often called the Faith Chapter is a recitation of the people of faith like Abraham, Issac, Jacob, and Joseph whose example of faith is to be remembered. And then the writer of this book (much discussion over the who) pulls the camera back to a wider view and perspective and tells his audience:
By faith these people overthrew kingdoms, ruled with justice, and received what God had promised them. They shut the mouths of lions, quenched the flames of fire, and escaped death by the edge of the sword. Their weakness was turned to strength. They became strong in battle and put whole armies to flight. Women received their loved ones back again from death.
But others were tortured, refusing to turn from God in order to be set free. They placed their hope in a better life after the resurrection. Some were jeered at, and their backs were cut open with whips. Others were chained in prisons. Some died by stoning, some were sawed in half,and others were killed with the sword. Some went about wearing skins of sheep and goats, destitute and oppressed and mistreated. They were too good for this world, wandering over deserts and mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground.
All these people earned a good reputation because of their faith, yet none of them received all that God had promised. For God had something better in mind for us, so that they would not reach perfection without us.
And this moves him to continue with “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.”
And what the Biblical writer does is to call his first audience to not just remember this cloud of witnesses but.to.action just like them!
It is good and right to remember those who have sacrificed themselves to tell the Good News of salvation. But, we too, are called to action from this passage of scripture. How do we this?
We first strip off every weight that slows us down. When Jesus said in Matthew 5, “So if your eye—even your good eye—causes you to lust, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your hand—even your stronger hand—causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell,” he is talking about getting rid of everything that hinders us from faithfully walking with God especially sin.
What this means (and what Jesus said) is that we need to let go of everything that slows us down in our walk with God. This could mean music we listen to, a relationship we are involved in, a hobby we have, even a job.
Our main text is a notice to arms! We too, will eventually become part of the cloud of witnesses. Nothing, absolutely nothing, must slow us down from running this race of enduring faith.
This is the second way we are to respond as we remember those who have gone before us. To walk with the Lord is a marathon and not a sprint.
Now have done some running in the past (the very distant past) and having spent a great deal of time chasing two boys around northern Indiana cross country courses, I am familiar with the issue of endurance. To run 3.2 miles or 5 kilometers, which is the distance for cross country, you have to have a different perspective and approach.
I have seen runners take off with a bang and then fade halfway through. I have seen other runners start slow and finish strong. Either way one cannot run a cross country race of a longer distance over a terrain that can include a hill (as our High School runners tackle every season called Agony Hill that is a steep grade of about 15% UP!) and run it like a 100 meter dash. Endurance is a necessary and essential mindest.
Endurance is a major Kingdom of God value. It is frequently mentioned in the New Testament.
In Romans 5:4 we read “And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation.”
In James 1:3-4 says “For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.”
And in 2 Peter 1:5-7 we read, “In view of all this, make every effort to respond to God’s promises. Supplement your faith with a generous provision of moral excellence, and moral excellence with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with patient endurance, and patient endurance with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love for everyone.”
This race is a race of faith. It is a spiritual race. It is an inner race that has implications for our bodies and our souls. It has to do with our maturity and inner health and life. It has to do with Heaven and Hell. Good and evil.
If you have ever talked to a marathon runner you will hear that at a certain point the mind begins to get foggy as the body begins to make its condition known. Focus becomes critical. Will power must be called upon.
But there is a clear focus in this race and this clear focus is the third thing we must pay attention to- it is Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone.
We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.
We must never take our eyes of Christ. If we do, like Peter who got out of the boat onto the water at the call of Jesus, we start to sink back down.
And while we run alongside others in this marathon race of faith, love, and obedience to God, we cannot fix our sight on them. We are human and we still fail and falter and grow weary and stumble and fall off the pace.
Now as we run alongside others in this race of faith, we are to support and encourage one another. But ultimately we are responsible for our own running. And Jesus himself must be fixed in our sights as we do so. Time and time again I have seen runners lose a spot or two at the finish line because they have broken stride and looked around or back thus slowing down and losing valuable time.
I get frustrated these days because of all the distractions within the Christian faith that cause us to take our eyes off of Jesus. There is the newest program or the newest book. There is the newest idea or ministry model.
We need good books and programs and ideas and models. But that is not the point of our faith.
Our faith is about a person and a relationship.
Our eyes must be GLUED to Christ.
So when we get tired and frustrated and we give up and stop moving forward, our focus on Jesus helps us gain strength. And we start running the race again.
So what does all of this mean for us on this day and this holiday and this week?
I suggest that to honor the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, those people of faith who helped us come to faith in Christ…
…that we do the same thing they did.
Let go of those habits and hang-ups that cause us to slow down in our life of faith.
To run with endurance, not talent, not pizzazz, not in a sprint but.with.endurance the race of faith.
To keep looking at Jesus.
We give thanks today for those who have served our nation and do so today as well.
And we give thanks for those who stood their ground, often at the point of death, for the Christian faith and as well as those who stand today, at great cost sometimes, to tell the Old, Old Story of Jesus and His Love.
Would you please stand for a moment of silence as Taps is played.
Amen and amen.