A sermon I preached this morning, based upon Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2, entitled, “The Great Cloud of Witnesses.”
I was a big time baseball fan as a kid. I remember the very first time I got to go to Yankee stadium: walking up the stairs, through cement hallways, and then suddenly, there I was, my first, breathtaking glimpse of the radiant green playing field where the players played their game, with all the energy of the tens of thousands of fans watching.
These days I am a more of soccer fan than a baseball fan. Yesterday, 66,000 fans filled Giants Stadium for an opportunity to see David Beckham, the international soccer star, play for the LA Galaxy against the local team, the New York Red Bulls. Typically, the Red Bulls only draw about 11,000 fans to a home game. I wasn’t there, but watching on TV it was clear that having the stadium packed dramatically intensified the energy of the game down on the field.
It is surely a great thrill for the players, and especially the home team, to have 66,000 fans looking down on them, watching their every move, cheering passionately, celebrating the plays they made, grieving over their misplays. (My son Bobby hopes to one day play goalkeeper in such a setting.)
I want to suggest that what takes place in the great arenas of professional sports is just a pale reflection of what takes place unseen in the spiritual realm.
This earth upon which we live can be thought of as the most exquisite of arenas. In short order they will build a new, even larger arena to take the place of Giants Stadium, with the construction expected to last a year. The arena that you and I play on took billions of years to create. Astronomers who study the universe ponder the question whether there might be life on another planet some where else in the universe. Nobody knows for sure. But the more they study, the more scientists marvel at how extraordinarily unique are the attributes that characterize our planet, making it hospitable to life. Some scientists think it possible that Earth could be the only such “arena” on which conscious, intelligent life could exist. If professional athletes consider themselves fortunate to have made it to the playing field of Giants Stadium, how much more should we consider ourselves fortunate to find ourselves here on planet Earth.
The 11th chapter of the letter of Hebrews is devoted to the theme of faith. It recounts several different heroes from the Hebrew scriptures who lived out faith, and one of the things that becomes immediately clear from this listing is that living by faith meant different things at different times and places. For some it meant triumph in this world, but for others it meant enduring suffering and defeat without succumbing to despair.
And then at the beginning of the 12th chapter we come to this verse:
“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…” (Hebrews 12:1)
Who makes up this “great cloud of witnesses?” Well, it includes the “heroes of the faith” that the author has just mentioned, but countless others as well — people whose names will never show up in the world’s history books but who strove, in their own way, to live by faith in the particular time and place that God planted them — people from throughout human history, all gathered together in eternity, watching those of us who are still going at it down here on the playing field of the great arena planet Earth.
You know some of these saints personally: some are parents, spouses, even children, friends, fellow church members — those who have gone before us. (It is striking to ponder the fact that since this congregation has been around for nearly 180 years, a majority of its members now live on the other side.)
Last week we talked about the life of faith, of how, in this world, faith doesn’t exist in a pristine form; it exists in a difficult but creative struggle with doubt. In this life we are both saints and sinners; none of us are perfect, and the journey of faith isn’t straight and smooth. We plod along as best we can — sometimes stumbling, sometimes getting off track — an ongoing process of getting lost, then found, then lost, then found again.
And then at the end of our lives, something absolutely extraordinary happens. We reach this moment where the final play must be made: to chose whether to continue clutching to this world, or to let go and embrace the great gift that is being offered to us. We find ourselves standing before God, and either we stubbornly refuse the gracious invitation, holding tightly to our old tired resentments, fears, and pride, or we let go of what the author of Hebrews refers to as “every weight and the sin that clings so closely” and go towards God to take our place in the great cloud of witnesses, with the fans going wild with delight.
But if in the course of our lives faith has gotten a foot hold with us, then I think, generally speaking, making the play at that final moment won’t be so hard — not, really. The love and light of God that lies before us will be so beautiful; the desire to be with God so compelling, that making the play will seem like the most natural thing in the world.
The moment of saying yes to God involves letting go of everything inside us that isn’t of love. If we have been on the Jesus path during our lifetimes, this is precisely what we’ve been trying to do all along, only with very mixed results. But in the moment of death a person becomes perfected in love, as Jesus is perfect.
And so, to go back to the image of the arena: You and I, we’re down on the playing field of the great arena, and up in the stands are all the saints, the ones who have been perfected in love — more than we could ever number. And they are cheering for us. Unlike the fans at a sporting event, these fans have lost their capacity for being a “jerk”. Having been perfected in love, they’re no longer petty, or capable of disloyalty. When we mess up and misplay, they don’t shout, “You bum! You stink!“ or “My grandmother could have made that play!” Having once played the game themselves in the great arena, they know how very hard it can be to make the plays. They remember their own stumbling, their own dropped balls.
Here’s another thing about these fans — this great cloud of witnesses. From the perspective of heaven, they realize all the more clearly that we really are all connected, that this race we’re competing in is more of a relay than a solo race, and that in a certain sense, the race isn’t over until everybody has been brought into the great cloud of witnesses.
And what are the “plays” that they are watching, and rooting us through? As we said before, living by faith means different things at different times. At times it’s big things, but mostly it’s little things — the little moment by moment choices with which life confronts us.
Whether to be kind, or to be cruel.
To hold on to hope, or to succumb to despair.
To live with honesty and integrity, or with deceit and hypocrisy.
To succumb to our fears, or to muster a bit of courage.
To share what we have been given, or to hoard it all for ourselves.
To be a bridge builder, a peacemaker, or to be a gossip and a dissension breeder.
To try and help one another, or to try and beat one another out.
To appreciate the beauty that is around us and within us, or to merely hurry on down the road.
And some of the most important plays that the great crowd of witnesses up in the stands are rooting for us to make are those that take place AFTER we have stumbled and fallen, because Lord knows, we’ve all blown the play plenty of times. Whether we’ll give lie there and give up, condemning ourselves and cursing life, or whether we’ll get up and, once more, try again.
The letter to the Hebrews was written to a community of Christians going through a wilderness time. Their knees were weak, their legs were drooping. The temptation to give up was strong. And so the writer of the letter challenges them to keep on keeping on: “Run the race with perseverance that is set before us.” If life is a race, it’s a relay race, but its also a marathon.
What’s the hardest part of a marathon? Generally speaking, it’s not the beginning, where the energy and excitement of the starting line drives the runner forward. Nor is it the end of the race, when, despite the difficulty, the runner is sustained by the sight of the finish line in the distance. No, the hardest part of a marathon is in the middle, where putting one foot in front of the other can seem oh so hard. In the marathon of life it is those dog-day-afternoons of August that can present the toughest challenge, when life seems tedious, tiresome, even pointless — those times when it is easy to wonder, “what’s the use?” We’re out there, seemingly alone, wondering if it really makes any difference how we live our life. To whom does it really matter?
It is helpful at such a moment to remember that we have more fans rooting for us than David Beckham.