This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Hebrews 12:1-3
Brothers and sisters in our Lord Jesus Christ,
Being first is not always easy. Being the first one to get your appendix removed would be rather frightening.
“Sir,” the doctor says, “it appears that the cause of your stomach ache is a little piece of your intestine that is acting up. We don’t know what it does (if anything), but we think we should take it out. We’ll try it on you, and if it works, we can help others.”
You know that your chances aren’t too good if they don’t do something, but, if you are the very first to receive the procedure, you wouldn’t know if you’re going to wake up either. And if you do wake up, maybe your appendix did more than anyone dreamed, and your quality of life would go way down.
Somebody has to be first for these ordeals, but I wouldn’t want it to be me.
When I face an ordeal, I usually comfort myself with these thoughts: others have taken this exam, and they survived. In fact, they passed and now they’re successful engineers or doctors or teachers or mechanics. If others could endure the ordeal successfully, I am sure that I can as well.
Knowing that others have gone before me and have made it through the ordeal helps me face it with more confidence. Today, if I suddenly had an attack of appendicitis, and if there were no complications, I wouldn’t be too concerned about the surgery. Hundreds of thousands have endured the surgery already, and they are perfectly healthy people now.
Hebrews 12:1-3 follows a long chapter with a list of names of people from the Old Testament: Abel, Noah, Enoch, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and his parents, the Israelites, Rahab, and so many more. The author of Hebrews draws our attention to these Old Testament people because he wants to show us their faith.
All of the ones he lists endured some sort of ordeal. They faced a challenge or sometimes a difficulty in life, and usually that challenge or difficulty had something to do with their relationship to God. The question was usually this: do I trust God who is invisible, or do I trust things which I can see?
The reason the author of Hebrews lists them is because these Old Testament people understood that although they could not see God, it was far better to trust him than it was to trust things that we can see, things like idols or money or other people or health or ability. They trusted that God could help them through their particular ordeal, even if it meant that the ordeal they were facing would get worse if they put their trust in him.
Although Daniel is not mentioned by name, he is listed among the heroes of faith from the Old Testament. He refused to stop praying to God, and because he continued to pray, he was thrown to the lions. God protected him.
It’s easy to say that God would protect him from our perspective. We know the whole story, but Daniel didn’t. We can be fairly certain that he didn’t know if God would spare his life. But he was willing to take that chance in order to be obedient to the Lord. He would rather suffer death than not put his faith in God.
Why does the author of Hebrews include that long chapter of faithful people from the Old Testament? Because he wants to draw a parallel for his readers.
The original recipients of this letter were being persecuted. They were most probably Jewish people who had put their faith in Jesus Christ and had become Christians. Now they were beginning to wonder if they should have made that move. Should they have remained Jewish? Being a Jew in the Roman Empire was not the best experience, but it was a lot better to be a Jew than it was to be a Christian. Jews were ostracized. Christians were persecuted.
It seems that some of these first Christians were beginning to think that they should return to their Jewish roots by giving up on Jesus Christ. If they stop following Jesus, maybe things will be better for them.
The author of Hebrews warns them that that is not a good idea. Don’t give up on Jesus, he says, because if you give up on Jesus, you give up on any chance of salvation. He then goes on to prove to them that Jesus is the one to which everything in the Old Testament pointed. Jesus is the fulfilment of the sacrifices. Jesus is the fulfilment of the priestly system. Jesus is the initiator of the new covenant. Jesus is the one who gives us salvation.
Faith, he goes on to say, is believing that what God has done in Jesus Christ is more trustworthy than anything we can see. We trust in what we cannot see. And that gives rise to Hebrews 11, that great chapter of the men and women of faith from the Old Testament. They all trusted in what they couldn’t see.
So, in our text for today, we read the word, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses . . .” These are not witnesses who are looking at us. They are witnesses who have gone before us, and they are testifying that trusting in the Lord was the right thing to do.
Sometimes, before a difficult surgery, it is good to talk to someone who has been through it: “I had my appendix out, and I’m glad I did. I had my hip replaced, and I’m glad I did. I had triple bypass surgery, and I’m glad I did. Life is so much better after the ordeal of surgery.” These witnesses help us to face surgery more confidently, and if there is any question about whether we should go ahead, they help us make that decision.
This is the kind of witness we read about in Hebrews 12:1. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. There are literally millions, perhaps billions, of people who testify to what they have experienced to be true. They have remained faithful to Jesus Christ, and they have found that to be far better than compromising their faith.
Some time ago CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) radio played a song in which they took the words of an old man and set them to music. This man was in his 90s and often sat on a park bench feeding the pigeons. As he threw the crusts of bread, he sang these words over and over, in a quavering voice, “Jesus has never failed me yet. Jesus has never failed me yet.” Someone took those words and set them to music, and for about a week CBC played that song on the radio. It was rather ironic that CBC, which is not known for its support of things of faith, provided a testimony, a witness to the faithfulness of our Lord and Saviour.
We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, people like that old man in his 90s on the park bench and people like Daniel in the lion’s den and people like the travelling Abraham who testify that God is faithful, that he is dependable, that he is trustworthy.
Should we give up on Jesus when things get a little tough? Should we say that perhaps it would be better to let our faith slide? Would it be better to put our faith in things we can see rather than in the God we cannot see? The witnesses give us the answer, and it is a resounding, “No.” Do not abandon your faith in Jesus Christ, not for anything!
Rather, we are called to run the race.
Here the author of Hebrews employs language that is familiar to us, but in a Scriptural sense and in our every day experience. Paul speaks of running the race (Philippians 3:14, 1 Corinthians 9:24, 2 Timothy 4:7). The Christian life is compared to a race, a physical test of endurance, and all those who compete according to the rules (that is, remain faithful to Jesus Christ) will receive the prize.
Here in Hebrews 12:1 & 2 the imagery of the race is not so much to focus our attention on the prize, but on how to compete. There are three things that are listed there:
First, we need to get rid of those things that hinder us, the impediments to running. Not all of these are bad things. Sometimes perfectly good things can get in the way of our walk with Jesus Christ. The word that is used here moves us to think about things that we might be carrying on our persons or in our hands. You can’t run well with a bag of gold. Money is not bad in itself, but the love of money causes all sorts of problems. In fact, loving any of our possessions too much can cause all sorts of problems in our walk with the Lord.
Let’s take money as an example. God has richly blessed some people with great wealth. They have bank accounts which have more zeros than most of us can even imagine. But for some of those wealthy folk, money is not an impediment. They use their money appropriately as a tool to enable themselves and others to live. They are stewardly with their money. Their money does not impede their race; rather, it helps them. It’s like they have the money in large bills tightly bound to their bodies, and they are willing to spend the money when it is needed for the Kingdom of God.
Others, on the other hand, treat their money like bags of gold. They are always opening up the bag to look at it. They are weighing it, trying to increase it. It becomes their obsession. It captivates them. It consumes them. They are richly blessed, but their blessings become their focus.
What does this verse say? If it impedes us in the race as we follow Jesus, we should get rid of it. Yes, it is saying that when something becomes more important than being a disciple of Jesus Christ, we need to get it out of our lives, even if it may be a good thing.
What might be impeding your walk with the Lord? Is it money? Or perhaps it’s the cottage. Or your friends. Maybe your friends are keeping you from being a faithful Christian. Maybe it’s a career. Maybe your career is more important than obedience to Jesus Christ.
Only you know what that might be. But you do know, and the Bible says that we have to get rid of those things from our lives so that they don’t get in the way.
First, if we are going to run the race well, we have to get rid of impediments. Second, we have to throw off the sin because it entangles us.
Sin is always wrong. The author of Hebrews is not talking about one or two sins that might be worse than the others. Rather, he is talking about sin in general, sin that tends to cling to us.
It is generally true that people who do not fight against sin in their lives will eventually be tripped up by it. When a man and woman move in together without the bonds of marriage, it is generally true that their actions lead them away from the Lord. Their sin entangles them so that walking with the Lord becomes nearly impossible. Their inappropriate relationship ruins their relationship with God.
When the owner of a business decides that he does not wish to pay his workers a living wage, we generally see his selfishness reflected in his attitude toward God’s people. The lack of fairness toward others quite often leads to stinginess in the Kingdom of God.
The reality is that God is holy, and he cannot abide sin in his presence. It is also a reality that sinful, unrepentant people cannot abide being in the presence of our holy God. Sin keeps us from running the race. It keeps us from our full potential as followers of Jesus Christ.
The third thing we need to do to run the race is to fix our eyes on Jesus. Observe a runner in the 100 metre dash. From the time they put their feet on the starting block until the time they have crossed the finished line, they never stop looking at the goal. They are trained to keep their eyes fixed on the end without looking at even the fans who might be cheering them on.
Why do we fix our eyes on Jesus? Why don’t we fix our eyes on what we are going to receive, eternal life?
Certainly because Jesus is the reason that we live. We confess that. Without Jesus we would not be saved. We could not be saved without him. We fix our eyes on Jesus because he is the most important one in our lives.
But there is a practical reason as well. Recall the situation to which this letter is originally addressed. The Christians were being persecuted for their faith, and some of them were wondering if perhaps they should leave their faith in Jesus Christ and return to the old ways. Life as a Christian seemed too hard.
They needed to look at Jesus. According to verse 2 Jesus is the author and perfecter of our faith. Another way of translating this would be to say that Jesus is the pioneer of our faith, the one who completes our faith. Jesus is the trailblazer. In exploring new territory, someone has to go first to find the way. That is true of discovering new lands, but it is also true of surgery. We have pioneers in the surgical field.
Thankfully we have surgeons who blaze the trail. They are the first ones to do new procedures. They develop methods. They discover new treatments. Without them, we would not have the medical technology we enjoy today. When a new procedure is first discovered or developed, it is often expensive and dangerous. But, over time, techniques are streamlined, and radical new surgery becomes commonplace. For example, heart bypass operations used to be new territory. Now it seems that everyone and his neighbour have one. And we don’t worry about the dangers like we used to, mostly because many of the dangers have been eliminated.
Jesus has done that with our faith. He is the pioneer. He is the trailblazer. He is the one who develops our faith by giving us reason to believe. How did he do it? By enduring the cross and scorning its shame. He was willing to die the most horrible of deaths, a kind of death that no Roman citizen was ever made to endure, a kind of death imposed upon only slaves and criminals, a death in which he lost all dignity so that we could believe.
But not only did Jesus blaze the trail, he perfected our faith. It’s like he not only blazed a trail through the wilderness; he also built a highway so that we could gain faith easily simply by believing in him. Jesus does not expect great feats of heroism or strength in order for us to gain eternal life. All he expects is that we trust him alone for our salvation.
He is the author and perfecter of our faith. In giving his life for us, Jesus is the ultimate witness, the ultimate testifier to God’s goodness and grace. While the testimony of others is wonderful, what surely gives us confidence to believe is what Jesus has done for us.
And, so, we fix our eyes on Jesus. We look to him, and we learn that because he has already gone before us, we can follow confidently. We can trust the way is clear for us because Jesus has made it clear.
Verse 3 finishes our text: Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men so that you do not grow weary and lose heart.
It is good to know that someone else has endured an ordeal successfully before we go through it. Be it an exam or a surgery or a difficult period of training, when others have gone through it successfully, we become more confident of our ability to finish.
Jesus has blazed the trail for our faith. He has paved the way as if it were a highway. We know that because Jesus goes before us, the way is clear. Millions testify to the same. They have trusted Jesus, and they are witnesses to us that when we are following Jesus we will reach eternal life.
That does not mean that life will always be like travelling a highway, without bumps and ruts. Sometimes, as in the case of the Hebrew Christians, life will be strewn with difficulties. We do not need to expect that we can live comfortably without struggle, without trial, without ordeal just because we are Christians.
That is not what the author of Hebrews wants us to think. Rather, he wants us to know that no matter how big the obstacles, no matter how severe the struggles, Jesus has faced worse. And he made it through and opened a pathway for us.
When someone else has made it, they are an encouragement to us. Knowing who waits for us on the other side of difficulty and ordeal gives us strength to go one.
Sometimes we become discouraged in difficult times because we do not know when they will end. Difficult relationships, struggle with cancer, ridicule because of our faith – all of these seem unending when we are in them. If only we could see the outcome, we often say. If only we knew the future.
Here we do know the future. We know that Jesus Christ is waiting for us. We know that he is reaching out to pull us along the trail he has already blazed. We know what the end will be. The end will be life with Jesus forever. Knowing that makes the most difficult situation bearable. Knowing that Jesus awaits us enables us to labour on, striving for the Kingdom of God, bearing fruit in a world which needs to know Jesus.
Fixing our eyes on Jesus, considering him, keeps the weariness away. Fixing our eyes on Jesus causes our hearts to beat strongly, enabling us to finish well.
Order of Worship
WE GATHER TO WORSHIP
Hymn of Praise: #239 “Amid the Thronging Worshippers”
* Call to Worship
* Prayer for God’s blessing followed by #16(SNC) “I Love You, Lord”
* God’s Greeting
* Hymn of Praise: #464 “Father, Long Before Creation”
WE ARE RECONCILED TO GOD
Call to Confession:
Minister: Our Lord Jesus said:
People: “‘You shall love the Lord your God
with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
and with all your mind.’
M: This is the greatest and first commandment.
And a second is like it:
P: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
M: On these two commandments
hang all the law and the prophets.”
P: As God has instructed us in these great commandments,
and because we have not lived in full obedience,
we now confess our sins to God,
trusting Christ as our Savior and Lord.
—based on Matthew 22:37-40, NRSV
Hymn of Confession: #255 God, Be Merciful to Me”
Assurance of Pardon – Ephesians 2:1-10
Hymn: #631 “Praise and Thanksgiving”
WE HEAR GOD’S WORD PROCLAIMED
Prayer for Illumination/Understanding
Scripture Reading: Hebrews 12:1-3
Sermon: “Surrounded by Witnesses”
Prayer of Application
* Hymn of Response: #472 “O Jesus, We Adore You”
WE BRING OUR PRAYERS AND GIFTS
* Offertory Prayer
WE GO OUT TO SERVE THE LORD
* Hymn: #322 “God, the Father of Your People”
* Benediction – Hebrews 13:20-21
* Doxology: #632 “To God Be the Glory”