Therefore since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings to us 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 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)
Our New Testament passage in the book of Hebrews is a letter or perhaps the transcription of a sermon likely preached by the Apostle Paul to persecuted Jewish Christians in Jerusalem about 65 AD. These converts by their decision to become Christians are now outsiders to the Jewish faith, discouraged and demoralized, and persecuted by the Romans. This is not too long before Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. Right before the two verses at the start of Chapter 12 comes a list of Old Testament heroes of the faith, from Moses, to Rahab, to Gideon, Barack, Samson, Jepthah, David, and Samuel. Paul is reminding the Hebrew Christians that they follow a “cloud of witnesses” a series of Old Testament heroes who have come before them and have gone to heaven. Each one of these Old Testament heroes has a story to tell, which the Hebrews would have been very familiar with. The ancestors of the of the Hebrew Christians in Jerusalem, though unsure of their future, trusted God to lead them. They were struggling and discouraged. But what encouraged them was the “cloud of witnesses,” their Hebrew ancestors who though unsure of their future trusted God to lead them into the promised land.
I’d like for us to take a minute or two to think about who is in your cloud of witnesses. Who led you to faith, who keeps you faithful, and whose example do you remember and model yourself after?
Paul contends that Christ is the ultimate model of faith, the one who goes before the Hebrew Christians and us to encourage and perfect human faith. He leads all people into union with God. Christ orients us in our approach to life.
There are several metaphors for life that people adopt. Some say life is a bowl of cherries, or life is a journey or life is a ride, or life is what you make it. Or like Forest Gump life is a box of chocolates. The Apostle Paul sees life as a race. Conveying a message of hope and faith, Paul uses the metaphor of life as a race but not the kind of race we are used to. Picture the saints of God at the finish line watching the race and cheering the Hebrews on. Picture Christ going first and showing them how to run that race. And picture a God who does not abandon them when they are in the final stages of the race but is there giving words of encouragement, handing out water bottles and wet towels. The Old Testament stories of the saints, the cloud of witnesses challenged the people to put their trust not in themselves, but in God who stayed true to their ancestors and Christ is the prototype for these saints.
And so I wonder, if life is a race, what kind of a race is it? We know that there are different kinds of races. There are short races, there are marathons, there are races that start at different times and require special skills. There are races that have obstacles, there are races for all kinds of people in all kinds of situations. Some people run a short race, some a long-distance one, there are team races and individual ones. Some have only one winner and in some just finishing is winning. There are all kinds of races and we can consider what kind of race we are running. Are we discouraged like the Hebrew Christians?
In our present context, as a church today, I can tell you that it isn’t always easy to be a Christian in a mainline church today. Churches are not bursting at the seams with people like in the 1950s and 1960s. The average age of mainline church attendees is going up and a majority of “millennials” identify themselves as “none” when asked about their religion. There is great nostalgia for the churches of the past, say the time before computers, the internet, global warming, the opioid addiction crisis , mass shootings, and it seems there is much more international conflict and drama. Like the Hebrew Christians, we also know what it is to be discouraged and worried about the future. We worry about what direction our country is going. We worry about our parents, our families, our kids our friends. We feel like our churches are on an obstacle course and will run out of steam before they reach the finish line.
Could Paul’s advice help us out? I think so.
First of all Paul says to let go of the the weight and sin that clings to us and holds us back. What weighs you down? Let’s take a moment to reflect on what is weighing heavy on your heart. Is it illness, doubt, discouragement, a bad habit, family conflict, fear? What sin keeps you from being in a close relationship to God or stands in the way of being at peace? Can you let it go? We would not run a race with ankle weights or try to push our teammates out of the track. Paul has surely seen the lives that are ruined by worldly worry and clinging sin. Each runner has to decide what to take on the race and what to leave behind, to be physically and emotionally ready to run the race. We have to let go of whatever holds us back from being in a relationship with God.
Second we are to run with perseverance, focusing on prayer, worship, and doing good for our neighbor. Sometimes it feels like we are on an obstacle course, and we need to guard against discouragement, keeping our eyes on the prize. We need to keep going despite the difficulty of the race or the obstacles we must overcome. Long range planning and patience pay off in the race.
Third, look to Jesus, the “pioneer” and “perfecter” of our faith. Jesus is the only one who was ever fully God and fully human. He entered humanity in solidarity with all persons, and endured suffering, shame, and loss. He can identify with the struggles and discouragement of our lives. If life is like a long-distance race, Jesus is like our coach who has already run the race. He helps us set our pace, avoid distractions, and keep focused on the goal. The life of Jesus reminds us that nothing in the world can compare to the life we find in Him. God does not abandon us but waits patiently at the finish line to welcome us into the reward of life forever with God.
Finally, this passage tells us to expect joy. When we follow the path focused on our savior ,we are able to find joy in life, despite discouragement, shame, and suffering, as we move, sprinting or limping to the finish line we are cheered on by the “cloud of witnesses” who have run before us. We all come to a moment when we are asked to endure something beyond our strength, and it is beyond our strength when we try to do it alone. But we are not alone. We have Jesus and cloud of witnesses cheering for us. We follow along line of those who have persevered, your encouragers in the race of life. Are we listening to Christ in the words of the encouragers?
Today you can choose to be discouraged or optimistic about the future. You can let go of the weight of the world, and the sin that holds you back? You can persevere when you get to the injuries, delays, and obstacles? Can you listen to your coach Jesus who has gone before you and hear the “cloud of witnesses” that are rooting for you to finish the race?
By faith you will find joy in unity with Christ, who, for you, gave up his life that you might have eternal life with him in the company of the saints. May we take Paul’s words to heart when we become discouraged. Let us remember our encouragers and be encouragers to others. Please pray with me that we may choose life with Christ as our leader, our example, our pioneer in faith who has shown us how to live. Amen.