“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, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Have you ever run a marathon? Or played football for your team, whether a local team, or a school team perhaps, or even a workplace team? Robert used to do cross-country running when he was at school and university, and these days, of course, we compete in ice-skating.
The thing is that, no matter what sporting event you compete in, or, for that matter, whether it’s an elite, national or world-class event, or just a local event, it makes all the difference if there’s a crowd cheering you on. Some competitions you go to, there’s hardly anybody watching, and you wonder why you bother. But there’s one international adult competition we go to every year, in France, and because people have come from all over, there’s usually a pretty good audience, except for the classes held very early in the morning. And it’s pretty marvellous when they call our your name and you go out there, and people are cheering and ringing cowbells and waving Union flags and so on! And even better when you’ve finished and they cheer again – although usually, we haven’t skated very well so the applause at the end is more polite than enthusiastic! However, be that as it may, it’s the most wonderful feeling knowing that people are watching, and cheering, and rooting for you.
I’ve heard it said, too, that if you are doing something that requires great endurance, like running a marathon, or cycling in a multi-stage race like the Tour de France, having people cheer you on as you reach the finishing line makes all the difference. It really helps you to continue.
Now, whoever wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews obviously knew all about that: “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.”
But who were these witnesses? Well, we had some of their names in the early part of the reading, didn’t we? And, in fact, all of Hebrews chapter 11 is a list of people of faith: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses, and then the ones we had in our reading – the ones who crossed the Red Sea, and the ones who marched round the walls of Jericho to cause them to fall. Then there was Rahab-the-prostitute, and the ones mentioned only by name: Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, and all the others mentioned, although not by name, some of whom suffered quite dreadful things. Heroes of faith, each and every one of them.
And it is they, we are told, who form this great “Cloud of Witnesses”. And I’m sure you can think of lots more people who will have joined them since this letter was written! People like Thomas More, or John Wesley, or John Calvin. Or perhaps more recently – do you remember Viera Gray, who was a minister at King’s Acre twenty years ago? Her, definitely. Who else? Can you think of anybody?
And, of course, shedloads of people that nobody’s ever heard of! Just ordinary people, who lived out their lives quietly and peacefully, doing the work God called them to do, and eventually finishing this life and going to glory. Some will have gone prematurely, through war, illness, accident, famine, or whatever; others will have lived out their time. Some, even, will have outlived themselves, with either their body or, worse, their mind leaving before the rest of them.
So what should our reaction be? Humble, yes. Awed, possibly. But there’s one interesting thing that we probably haven’t noticed in our list of the great and the good: none of them was perfect!
Some of them were absolutely awful! Even Abraham told lies; Isaac rather obviously favoured one son over another; Jacob was thoroughly deceitful; Joseph was rather an obnoxious brat.... Moses was a murderer, and so the list goes on. Of the ones just mentioned in passing, Gideon is the one who was so doubtful that God was calling him that he kept testing the Lord by putting out a fleece. Barak was a judge, although overshadowed by Deborah and Jael; Samson – well, we all know about him; he got distracted by sex, visited prostitutes and brought disaster on himself! Jephthah made a rash oath and ended up killing his only daughter. King David, too, didn’t exactly keep it in his trousers, and his passion for Bathsheba led him to commit murder.
We aren’t told anything bad about Samuel that I can remember, but I dare say he had his faults and failings, too. All these people were human beings, just like we are.
It’s interesting, you know. The Bible always shows people exactly as they are, warts and all. Plaster saints live in churches, not in the Bible! We see the people in the Bible as human beings – they eat, they drink, sometimes they get drunk, they sleep, they have sex, they go to the loo. They’re human beings, just like us.
But the writer to the Hebrews doesn’t want us to get fixated on them. They are witnesses, urging on the next generation of Christians to a goal they’ve already reached. We mustn’t stop and gaze around – we must press on, looking only to Jesus.
Jesus, who, too, was human. We are apt to forget that, at times. But we see him being born, growing up – that story when he stays behind in the Temple and then, when his parents finally find him and are cross, he goes, “Oh, but you don’t understand!” I’m sure those of use who have brought up children know exactly how Mary and Joseph felt!
And in today’s Gospel reading, I get the feeling that he’s restless, anxious, beginning to be aware of what lies ahead and absolutely dreading it: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptised, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” He knows it’s not going to be fun – families are going to split up, fathers against daughters, mothers against sons.... bad times are coming. It’s not just his own imminent death – although that, too – but there were bad times coming for Israel; within 40 years of the crucifixion, the Temple had been razed, and it would be nearly two thousand years before Jerusalem came back under Jewish rule.
The one thing that really gets Jesus hot under the collar is hypocrisy. He absolutely can’t stand it. You see him dealing gently with prostitutes, lovingly with a woman who was caught in adultery, genially with dishonest businessmen like Zacchaeus or Levi – but to hypocrites? Not a chance! He thunders on at them “Woe unto you!” He even gets a bit fraught with his disciples: “Don’t tell me you can’t see the signs of impending doom – you can read them as clearly as you can tell tomorrow’s weather!”
But he gets really furious with those who go through all the outward motions of being holy, but who are living a lie – they aren’t who they project themselves as being. They are scrupulous about tithing – every last mint leaf – but ignore the hungry and despise the less fortunate. They push to the front and try to look more important than anybody else. They make a great show of how holy and virtuous they are, when really, they aren’t any more so than anybody else.
The teachers of the law come off badly, too, with Jesus, as they load people down with all sorts of petty rules and regulations and make it nearly impossible for them to follow God.
For Jesus, it didn’t really matter what was or wasn’t described as work, that you could or couldn’t do on the Sabbath day. It didn’t really matter how many mint plants you had in your garden, and how many of those you tithed. It didn’t really matter whether you washed your hands in the prescribed fashion before eating, or just sketchily, or not at all. Those were just peripherals; they were unimportant. The only thing that mattered was that you loved God with all your heart, and mind, and soul and strength, and that you loved your neighbour and yourself.
This, of course, means, being incredibly honest with ourselves. We know when we sin, usually – we know when we’re unkind, or lazy, or snappish. That’s why we have a prayer of penitence and assurance of forgiveness in our worship. It’s not just about being sorry – that, too, of course; it’s also about being incredibly honest about who we are, what we are like. Honest with ourselves, and admitting it freely to God. If we can allow ourselves to be less than perfect, and not have to cover up those parts of us that are less.
For our writer to the Hebrews – this great crowd of saints that he listed, all the people, known, or unknown, they didn’t really matter. Sure, they are witnessing our own journeys, cheering us on, but we should be looking only unto Jesus! Everything else is peripheral. Jesus had to put up with a great deal – and our Gospel passage shows that it wasn’t always easy for him – but he did it willingly, knowing or trusting that at the very end it would be worth it. And it was! I rather love this modern paraphrase of the first two verses of Hebrews 12, and I want to finish with them:
Do you see what this means—all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we'd better get on with it. Strip down, start running—and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we're in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he's there, in the place of honour, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he ploughed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!
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