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"Since we are Surrounded..."
Hebrews 12:1-3

(c) Copyright 2005 Rev. Bill Versteeg

Hebrews 12:1-3
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. 2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

To understand this passage, we need to understand its original audience, Hebrew Christians who had gone through extended persecution, who had faced hardship, loss of property, loss of life, loss of loved ones, Hebrew Christians who were wondering if all the struggle and perseverance was worth it. For them life was looking very dark, dismal, they were ready to start throwing in the towel as followers of Christ, there were getting ready to say uncle to the forces around them.

The writer of the book of Hebrews invited them, as he invites us, to see with the eyes of faith, to use our imagination (as Ignatius would say) and he does it by the very words he uses.

The first word that entices our imagination is translated “cloud.” The Hebrew Christian’s were all to familiar with the cloud of doom that seemed to hand over them. Their faith which promised so much blessing seemed to return so little. Life looked so dark. All they saw was the cloud’s dark underbelly, threatening another storm, another disaster, still more trouble, still more hardship, still more persecution. And they knew what it meant to be surround by those threatening clouds. No matter which way they turned there was threat and gloom. The only way out, some argued was to abandon the faith. They were surrounded by the clouds of doubt and strikes of despair.

But the writer of Hebrews tells them to see with the eyes of faith, to imagine beyond their immediate sight and see the glorious crowns of the clouds around them. Don’t just look at the underbelly, look at the glory that surrounds you! But the glory he was referring to was not the golden sun-kissed cumulus towers of violent updrafts, the glory he painted was of a surrounding glorious cloud of witnesses who were watching with enraptured anticipation and deeply vested concern. The writer of the book of Hebrews moves them and us from the short-sighted underbelly of a storm to the grandeur of a stadium, glorious cheers, a race, perseverance, training and a prize to be won in one dramatic brief sentence. His encouragement, or maybe I should call it an exhortation, no maybe even something stronger, he telling them to stop being "wusses," buck up, get back to the race, even with a sense of rebuke, the kind of rebuke that angers a person enough to get moving... he starts all this with the phrase “Since we are surrounded...”

These four words for us today...

“Since we are surrounded...”

“Since” is actually a word of exhortation - maybe a better way to translate it would be “so then we are surrounded” or “therefore we are surrounded.” Get the point - we are surrounded, all around us, we are not alone.

That truth lies at the heart of everything that we need to hear. We are surrounded, we are not alone.

You see, the power of the underbelly of darkness is individualism - we so often think we are alone, we are wounded by individualism. It’s wounds show up in many ways. First of all we think that our faith is our private faith. We came to faith in God by ourselves, it was our decision, our faith is us determining our destiny. And success is in securing for ourselves the promises by our achievement of faith. But individualism has a dark underbelly - it hides from our eyes a God who makes covenants with us, a God who chooses for us. It hides from us that our choices are made on the foundation of dozens if not hundreds of choices made for us, by our parents, by our heritage, by those who have gone before us. If hides from us our deep and profound indebtedness to those who have gone before us. The underbelly of individualism becomes especially dark when our strength fails, our faith fragments, we struggle to stand on our own and discover how hard it is to stand alone - a truly dark place to be..

We are surrounded!

But who are these witnesses that we are surrounded by?

The Greek word is μαρτύρων - from which we get our word martyr. The word martyr literally means witness, those who we are part of, the community of those who trust the promises of God. And the author is first of all referring back to Hebrews 11 - Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Israel, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets. We are not alone. Today, we are surrounded by brothers and sisters in Christ, some of them visible, many of them only visible to the eyes of faith, generations of the faithful who have gone before us, they are watching, they are cheering, they are encouraging us on.

You are not alone. I have changed the pronoun because individualism turns the we of community into the you of individuality. Have you ever wondered why it is that those individuals who struggle in their obedience to God, whose pathway leads to destruction always break away from community. Their faith doesn’t see past the underbelly of the clouds.

A young mother, married to a faithful believing husband with children wanted more. Their marriage was not perfect, but hers was an issue of faith - she wanted more from her life, the community it seemed could not give her what she wanted. It wasn’t long before she was not at church, she was abandoning the fellowship of the saints, choosing to go it on her own, and it was not long before running the race of faith was appeared as if it was no longer an issue for her, her marriage was no longer an issue for her, she left it all behind, deeply bitter at how the world, the community, the promises had let her down. A person cannot survive as an island. You were designed for community.

And so this cloud is first of all an encouragement, an exhortation to see that God called us into his eternal body, surrounded we are and surrounded we need to be, to run this race called faith following Jesus - the pioneer and perfecter of our faith..

25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

The second powerful underbelly of today’s darkness might be called “presentism.” It is the myopic vision that sees only today, it does not see beyond the present. Presentism dares to think that in this journey of faith, we have exceeded those who have come before us, our understanding of faith and the experience of faith exceeds those who have journeyed before us. It arrogantly thinks that what they have to give us is not worthy of our attention.

Presentism is myopically ignorant of history, the past and of eschatology - the future.

Presentism dares to suggest that all the matters is my experience of the faith today, covenants - that’s old testament stuff, tradition - that’s nothing more than dead faith, creeds - those are just historical documents, church leaders like Aquinas, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Kuyper - they’re old ghosts we can afford to ignor. Presentism reduces our perception to the immediate and says only the immediate is worthy of our attention.

We are surround! We are surrounded by history - past and future. And we will never understand the present without knowing the past and having the promise of the future.

That was a big part of the struggle for these Hebrew Christians. They had come to faith, anticipating the blessing of God, anticipating that life would go well in the blessing of God, what they discovered was hardship and persecution, what they saw in the present was a dark underbelly. But had they seen a little further, had they looked into the past with more interest, had they looked forward with more earnest research they would have seen truths that encouraged them on the journey.

First, they would have seen the clouds of martyrs around them - I use the word martyrs because the very words just before Hebrews 12 are these.

39 These (in this cloud of martyrs) were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. 40 God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

This entire cloud, this crowd watching, they witness to the promises of God, but in their life, many of them experienced hardship. Listen to Hebrews 11 description of them:

(They) were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

These died in faith - they did not receive the promises given. But now they sit, they stand with vested interest watching the events of our lives. - Why? Because our success is their victory. And their victory is God’s faithfulness. They watch in eager anticipation of seeing God promises fulfilled, realized in our lives, in their lives as with together with them come to see the fullness of our salvation.

A simple yet very common illustration. I am not a sports fan, but you do not have to be one to notice this. When the Canuck hockey team wins, what is the most common phrase that comes out of mouths of those who watched the game.

It is not - "well at least my ticket was worth it this time...."

It is not - "those professional hockey players from all over the world that we hired won."

It is “We Won!” People dance in the streets and honk their horns and wave their flags. Any objective observer would say - "all you did is sit in the stands - you didn’t win." But the truth is, the victory of our team is our victory. We surround them. We are them, they are us.

So to we are surrounded, by the body of Christ throughout history. With rapturous intensity they watch and cheer because our faith is their victory. They trusted God’s covenant promises, and in our lives they see those promises fulfilled and the surrounding crowds thunder to the faithfulness of God. They watch as we practice the traditions of the faith, in our time and in our culture and as we discover that traditions are the living faith of those who have passed on before us, they celebrate the privilege they have had to support us and through leadership serve us through the channels of history. When they hear us confess our faith with a creed, it is their anthem of victory, their celebration of God’s faithfulness to give them a homeland that they had long looked forward to. When they see us following Christ, they see God faithfully fulfilling all he has promised through Christ.  And when we run, the clouds thunder their applause because God in Christ continues to be, and always will be faithful to his promises.

The call of this passage is to look beyond our own lives and the dark underbellies we face to see the crowd in glory. The call of this passage is to widen our vision beyond our present difficulties to the past and the future church throughout the world and throughout time. Yet, even though this passage calls us to see further and to perceive wider, even as we see more, we are called to focus - focus on the one before us - Jesus, the Pioneer and perfecter of our faith. You can well imagine a hockey player so focused on noticing the crowds supporting him that he loses his concentration on the puck. To run this race means that we, following Christ, run hard under the dark underbelly, through suffering, through hardship with perseverance, for just like Christ who for the joy set before him endured the pain, so must we.  Let us follow him, Christ, who under the darkest cloud ever, through three hours of perfect daytime darkness, died on a cross for us.  And all history, the cloud of witnesses, us included, stand in awe and wonder at the victory he has achieved. 

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. 2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

This morning we are going to celebrate communion together - and in communion, though we are surround by such a great cloud of witnesses, we fix our eyes of Jesus, the bread and the wine before us. For it is in him that all the promises of God are true, in him all the promises of God are and will be fulfilled. We - that is a community word - we run this race, encouraged by those who have gone before us, but focused on him and him alone. And as we gather around this table, we hear the exhortations from Hebrews chapter 10, the beginning of this passage.

10:22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.

32 Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering.

25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as we see the Day approaching.

5 So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. 36 You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.

Communion Liturgy


(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

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