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August 19, 2016, 5:05 PM

Persevering Faith

by Sandy Bach

12 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, 2 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. (Hebrews 12:1-2 NRSV)

Sometimes, we enter a scripture late.  Like arriving at worship late, we miss out on what has been said and done before we arrived.  When that happens, the context is lost.  In this case, the preacher of the sermon to the "Hebrews" skips us by until we can catch up.

At the beginning of Chapter 11, we find that famously comforting text, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1 NRSV)  In the best of times we can eagerly nod our heads and point back to episodes in our lives that prove that point.  However, if you're among the congregation that first heard these words, you might need some assurance.

So the preacher offers examples of faith.  And who best to point out?  Our heritage of leaders and martyrs from scripture.  The preacher begins with Abel who offered a sacrifice pleasing to God, but at his own peril.  Then to Enoch who didn't experience death as we will.  And then Noah.  Need we say any more about him?

Now we move to Abraham, called to be a wanderer far from the safety and security of the city.  The preacher spends an unusual, but justifiably, long time preaching on Abraham's virtues.  Then he moves on to Moses.

By this time, the preacher has built up a head of steam.  He has so many exemplars to mention: those who passed through the Red sea as if on dry land, yet the Egyptian soldiers drowned; and how about those Jericho walls that fell after only seven days of marching?  We can hear the congregation saying, "Preach it brother!"  "Amen!"

"And what more should I say?" asks the preacher as his voice raises towards a fever pitch.

"Tell us more!  Preach it!"

"Time fails me to tell you of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets..."  (vs 32b)

But he tells us anyway that through faith they:  conquered kingdoms; administered justice, obtained promises.  Others quenched fires, escaped the edge of the sword and won strength out of weakness.  Still others were killed by the sword, went about in skins of sheep and goats, and wandered in the deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. (vs 21-38)

The preacher's voice has finally reached that fever pitch.  The congregation is with him, cheering him on.  This is what they've needed to hear!  They're worn down and worn out by the world that doesn't deserve them.  They're tired of persevering; tired of fighting the good fight.  Tired.

The preacher has mounted one exemplar on top of another.  Finally, he pauses and takes a deep breath.  Then he looks behind him, as if he can see Abel and Enoch and Noah and Gideon and the prophets.  He sweeps his arm toward them saying, "Yet..."

Yet.

Their faith was exemplary.  They listened and they followed.  Some received what they hoped for: their dead resuscitated; their kingdoms saved; justice administered; promises received.

Their faith was exemplary, but some died by the sword and were martyred in gruesome ways.  Not all of them received the earthly reward.  The congregation also understands that none of them was perfect.

Abraham used his wife to protect his own neck; Noah turned into an alcoholic; Jephthah sacrificed his daughter in an impetuous moment of arrogance; David committed rape and murder and then tried to cover it up.

They all fell short despite their achievements.

Now the congregation settles down to listen because the preacher has more to say.  Some of them received earthly rewards, but not all of them.  And none of them received what was promised.  "All that faith, all that righteousness, all that suffering, all those endless miles of journeying, and they 'did not receive what was promised.'" (Thomas G. Long, Interpretation: Hebrews [Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1997] page 125)

And the congregation asks along with us, "Why not?"  The preacher answers immediately: because God had something better.  And when we hear the sound of our Lord's name, we nod in agreement.  Jesus.  The one who came to us and lived among us, who went to the cross willingly and faithfully, knowing that what lay beyond the cross was worth all that suffering.

Jesus did that for that discouraged and disappointed congregation in the first century.  Jesus did it for you and for me.

The silence is deafening.  Then. And now.  The preacher pauses while we take it in.  And then he turns once more to look back at that pantheon of faithful saints.  Consequently, we have this cloud of witnesses who reached beyond themselves to serve so that those who followed would also be able to serve.

And this cloud of witnesses now reaches out to us to help us and lead us to serve and be served.

We need that cloud of witnesses as much as they need us.  This stream of faith that stretches across history reaches out to us to grab hold and move forward as faithfully as any of them did, knowing that our feeble actions are perfected in Christ.

Those of you who are reading this have known doubt and fear and disappointment and even discouragement.  Perhaps you need to that cloud of witnesses beside you right now to keep you moving forward, even if it's only one step at a time.  Perhaps you've come through a difficult time and can be a part of that cloud who can reach out to someone who needs to know that they're not alone.

The stories of Abel and Abraham and Moses and Gideon and Deborah and Rahab and David and Elijah and all the rest are stories that need to be told over and over again.  They were ordinary, sinful people who rose to extraordinary levels and they have a story to share with us.

Those stories move us to realize that we can't give up.  We can't allow ourselves to be weighted down with sin and worry and all the other stuff that gets in our way.  Somehow, we find a way to put things in perspective, to set them aside so that we can focus on the Jesus of the cross who knows suffering and pain and rejection and disappointment.

To that first-century congregation who first heard these words to this 21st-century church who worships in many different ways, the preacher reminds us that we're not alone; we can't trust in ourselves alone; that we have a pioneer and perfecter in Jesus; that just as that cloud of witnesses looked forward in hope for something better, we, also, have to do the same, passing that legacy on to the next generation of believers.

Perhaps David E Gray says it best: "Faith allows people to see beyond what is right in front of them, their daily problems, to see what God is doing in their midst, to see what God has done throughout the ages, and to see the future joy God has in store for us." (Feasting on the Word, Year C Volume 3 Pastoral Perspective [Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010] page 354)

What is God doing today to show you the future joy?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen


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