:: Tuesday, February 15, 2005 ::
Sermon 13 February 2005
Text: Hebrews 12:1 – 3
Candidacy Sermon: The Cloud of Witnesses
When I first encountered members of this congregation as a part of the pastoral search process several months ago, one of the first things they told me was that this church has a two hundred year history. As we have continued our discussions, it is clear to me that history and tradition are very important to people here.
I, too, have long found history important. During my second semester of college, when I realized that I really didn’t like my engineering classes, I gravitated back to history and took it on as my major course of study. I’ve always been interested in how things came to be “as they are” and enjoy telling the stories. My friends know me as a person who always wants to tell a story about my hometown’s “local history” because I find that it explains well how we got where we are today.
The author of this Letter to the Hebrews was writing to a group of Christians who were going through a major transition as a part of their faith and who were starting to come under persecution for it. You see, as the book of Acts tells us, most of the first followers of Jesus thought that the message of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, was only for the Jews. Even after Peter’s experience with Cornelius, the Roman General in Acts 10, and Paul’s journeys throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, the Christian Church was primarily a Jewish movement.
However, with increased missionary activity in non-Jewish areas, and increased resistance to the message by Jewish people, the church’s demographic began to change. Most people who became followers of Jesus were not Jewish anymore. They knew who Jesus was and the salvation he had affected for them, but it is likely that they did not know so much about the Jewish milieu out of which Christianity sprung.
The author of this letter to the Hebrews, then, painstakingly illustrated by example and analogy Christ’s role in the greater salvation history of Judaism – for the benefit of Jewish Christians and non-Jewish Christians alike. And in doing so, he gives us a way of approaching history that allows us to benefit from it without miring ourselves in it so that we become immobile. Let’s take a closer look.
II. Our Past: The History of Our Relationship with God
Scripture readings that begin with “therefore”, such as the one we read today, are naturally problematic – what we read today depends on what precedes. Were we to have read all of chapter 11 as well, we would see in great detail what Hebrews means by “the great cloud of witnesses.” Chapter 11 is a veritable “hall of fame” of faithful people throughout the history of God’s relationship with the people of Israel. In it, we hear a resounding, repeated term: faith. There are a number of vignettes of famous people from the Old Testament, all beginning with the phrase, “by faith.”
By faith – Abraham.
By faith – Moses.
By faith – Abel.
By faith – David.
Over and over again, we hear the stories of those who have come before – not because of their deeds themselves, but because those deeds were the expression of their faith in God and God’s promises. These people demonstrated God’s faithfulness by their faith. Their faithful actions have shaped the present, he says, and have provided an example for us of what faithfulness to God looks like. More than that, he says, all who are followers of Jesus Christ are living out the fullness of the promises of God that past men and women only experienced in part.
And things are similar for us: we could create our own list of people and their activities that have shaped us through the actions of faith.
By faith – Luther.
By faith – Judson.
By faith – Billy Graham.
By faith – Roger Williams, the first Baptist in America.
By faith – the pioneers who started this congregation.
III. Our Turn: Our Past has been good, but God has something bigger for us
Our history of faith has been good. Yes, it has had its ups and downs. But our history of faith is sound. And the great temptation in our celebration of our history is to focus on it, to remember it, to hold tightly to it. But this passage offers a challenge to our view of history.
This passage challenges us to place our focus on Jesus Christ and what he has for us. Our spiritual ancestors, our older Christian brothers and sisters are, in the imagery of this passage, in the stands cheering us on in our race in which we run to follow Christ. They are urging us on, saying, “Live by faith! Keep your focus on Christ! Live out the fullness of the promises of God!”
In this way, we do not apply our history slavishly to today. Instead, we follow the example of the greats of faith who came before us. Let me tell you a story. About 300 years ago, a pastor named Thomas Ken was in charge of the spiritual life of a boys’ school in England. He was trained musician, and he wrote a song to help the boys at the school express their faith in God. Unfortunately, his colleagues and superiors in ministry became quite angry with him for this, since he violated the custom of the time.
(http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/a/w/awakemys.htm) He was very nearly expelled from his pastorate. You see, at that time, all songs sung in church had to be taken exactly from the scriptures: no variation. Rev. Ken’s song did not. However, his song has long outlasted all of his contemporaries’ music, being familiar even to this day, the last verse of which is as follows:
Praise God from whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him all creatures here below,
Praise Him above ye heavenly host:
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.
If Thomas Ken were here today, he would likely be standing in the grandstands, cheering us on: live by faith! Focus on Jesus! By faith! By faith! By faith! We take his example to heart: doing what is necessary in our time to follow the call of God, to live by faith, even it means doing what is new and different.
This passage urges us: we focus on Jesus because he is the author and perfecter of our faith. But what does that mean? Jesus is the source or initiator and the completer or finisher of our faith. Faith is about him from beginning to end: in each of the stories in the preceding chapter, each example person’s faith was left partial and incomplete because it had not been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Each promise God has made is made complete in Jesus Christ. He makes our faith possible and completes it in ways we could not hope to understand as people with very well-defined limits.
Inasmuch as we, too, like the many who have gone before, live the life of faith, we are reminded by “author and perfecter” that the purpose of what we do is not for ourselves – of course! – nor for others (whether historical others or contemporary others), but to live out the promises God has made about Jesus Christ: including the promises that those who have gone before are valuable to us, not to be forgotten, and that all who are here today are to be loved – even our enemies.
By living in this way, the joy set before him – living God’s life – the eternal life – is available to us as we, too, endure the cross, scorning its shame, allowing us to one day be in the full presence of God – the presence which we taste today only in part.
The others cheer us on. But Jesus makes the life of faith, the race, possible. And he is the one who brings it to completion. The others cheer us on as we pass them in the stands; Jesus is with us from start to finish. Our history is our starting point for powerful, faithful ministry in today’s world.
IV. Our Challenges: Today’s relationship with the Gospel
But what does faithful ministry in these days look like? Here we may draw a parallel to the situation of the letter to the Hebrews. Like them, the cultural context for our Christianity has shifted. In recent years, a significant change has occurred in our society: previously, the (vast, overwhelming) majority of people had some church affiliation or background. They were, in effect, “Christianized.” That allowed for an approach to ministry in the world and a relationship with society that could capitalize upon that “Christianization.”
Now, however, the significant majority of people in society do not have such a “Christianized” background. They’ve never had a Christian background. Probably not been to church. Their parents didn’t raise them to go to church: their parents quit going as young adults. For most, there isn’t even a nominal Christian understanding. This means that our tools that depended on a level of Christianization must adapt to the new situation.
And our spiritual forbearers cheer us on from the grandstands: “keep up the race!” “Live by faith!” “God’s mission is before you!” “Look to Jesus Christ!” They cheer us on, because they know: we must do as they did, taking a look at our contemporary circumstances and proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ as best we know how in the language of the time.
Perhaps we take the example of Thomas Ken and write music to communicate the faith we live in. Perhaps we do the work of mission with the poor. Perhaps we invite our neighbors over to dinner with some of our church friends. But one thing is clear. By faith we proclaim the same Christ that Thomas Ken did. The same Christ as the author of the letter to the Hebrews. The same Christ as Paul. The same Christ as all the apostles: because God calls us forth in mission to continue the race, to proclaim the good news that God has come in Jesus Christ to reconcile the entire creation to himself. This is the truth of which we are witnesses. God chose to do it through Jesus Christ, who endured the cross, scorning its shame, and, rising, and ascending, sat down at the right hand of God. And as we strive on through the race, taking hold of Christ’s victory, we hear the great cloud of witnesses behind us: Live by faith! Persevere in the race! Proclaim the good news!
And by God’s grace we will do so.
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