If I was to make a list of my favorite scripture passages, this would be one of them. I often used it at funerals when celebrating the life of particularly faithful and active church members. The 11th chapter of Hebrews is a masterful chapter noting the Hall of Fame of the faithful. The Roll Call of Faith includes such persons as: Abel & Enoch & Noah & Abraham & Sarah & Isaac & Jacob & Joseph & Moses & Moses’ parents & the prostitute Rahab & Gideon & Barak & Samson & David & Samuel & the prophets – “Name after name is given of those faithful heroes who: ‘by faith conquered kingdoms, by faith enforced justice, by faith received promises, by faith stopped the mouths of lions, by faith quenched raging fire, by faith escaped the edge of the sword, by faith won strength out of weakness, by faith became mighty in war, by faith put foreign armies to flight’ (Hebrews 11:33-34).”1 For those who know their old testament, it really is an impressive litany!
Let me see if I can recreate the emotion – the feeling – this writer of Hebrews awakened in those who read his letter. A few weeks ago the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame game was played in Canton, Ohio, where the Pro Football Hall of Fame is housed. How many of you have ever been to the Hall?
Well, imagine if you will when the game is played the stands being filled with former inductees into the Hall of Fame as well as the ones being elected this particular year – imagine the players on the two teams playing knowing that in the stands are the greats of the sport. Imagine looking up into the stands and seeing Johnny Unitas, Jim Thorpe, Walter Peyton, Raymond Berry, Dick Butkus, Ray Nitchkie, George Halas, Tom Landry, Bill Walsh, Vince Lombardi – and then, if you’ll beg a little partisanship: Jimmy Brown, Paul Brown, Lou Groza, Gene Hickerson, Ozzie Newsome, Paul Warfield.
“These are the men to whom the game belonged before (the current players) took the field. These are the players and coaches who set records and won championships. Trophies and awards are named after these guys – and now they’re watching (the current players) play their game.”2 Can you imagine what it would mean to know that those were the guys in the stands cheering you on? Wouldn’t you think it would cause a player to step up their game a little if they knew those guys were in the stands watching? Don’t you think they’d want to try and do their best in memory – in honor – of what the heroes of the game did?
At the start of chapter 12, the author of the letter to the Hebrews wrote what I think is one of the most memorable, inspiring, motivating phrases in all of religious history: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses,” and then he continues with, “let’s throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector 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.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)
“Carlyle Marney called these witnesses our balcony people. He said that we all have people who sit in our balcony and cheer us on. People of all ages who enable us to run the race with perseverance and grace. We can’t run the race alone. We find our way because there was (all those named by the author of Hebrews) and a multitude of others. But we run the race faithfully because of all those other nameless champions. It might be a mother, an aunt, a father, a cousin, or a scout leader. It might be a teacher or pastor or youth leader or neighbor or author of some book we have read. (The questions we might want to ask ourselves include) “Who sits in our balcony? Who cheers us on? Who is it that made it possible for us to keep on keeping on? (Or, we might want to reverse the order.) Whose balcony do we sit in? Whom do we cheer on? Who is it that counts on us and our faith and fidelity?”3
I absolutely enjoy the Olympics. I’ve been to two – Montreal in 1976 and Atlanta in 1996. I watch as much of the games as possible. I'm especially attentive to the track and field events. In the ancient games, it was primarily what was contested and it’s that image that the author of the letter to the Hebrews was drawing upon in this portion of his letter.
Several years ago I came across a description of the scene that those in the early church probably visualized when they read these words from the author of the letter to them. I long ago lost the source of this description, but I hope it helps recreate the scene in your mind: “The nearby sea is like sapphire, the sky cloudless and of the deepest blue. The air is soft and the sunshine warm. In the distance are the graceful brown columns of a Greek temple. Along the highway running from the temple in the stadium are busts and tablets on which are inscribed the names of the winners in the Olympian Games in past years. Along the race course rise, tier upon tier, the marble seats of the stadium, crowded today with visitors from all parts of the Greek world who have come for the annual celebration of the games.
“Presently, there is the sharp, clear, commanding note of the herald’s trumpet calling the runners to their marks. A hush comes over the expectant crowd. From out of their training booths the racers come, trained to the moment, not an ounce of superfluous flesh sagging from their splendidly molded bodies, bronzed by the sunlight. At another blast from the trumpet announcing that the runners should get set, they take their place on the starting line, every muscle tense and set. Among the thousands who line the course not a word, not even a whisper, is heard. Suddenly there rings out the third blast on the trumpet, and the racers are off like an arrow, straining for the distant goal. Save for a loin cloth, they are naked. For months they have trained for this race, abstaining from strong drink and rich foods and the pleasure of the world. The ambition of each racer’s life is to have his name inscribed on one of those memorial tablets and to have the laurel crown of victory placed on his brow. As they flash down the course, their friends on the marble seats, who happen to be from that part of Greece from which a particular runner comes, shout their encouragement to them.”4
With that image in our minds let us again hear the words those struggling to stay faithful read in this letter from one concerned about the possibility of their giving up the faith: “Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” I love the way Eugene Peterson puts it in his contemporary translation The Message: “Do you see what this means – all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running – and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed – that exhilarating finish in and with God – he could put up with anything along the way: cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!”5
The last time I preached on this text was the Sunday after Dorothy and I were informed by the neurologist at the Cleveland Clinic that unless something showed up in the spinal tap, which she didn't believe was going to happen, her diagnosis was "probable ALS." It was Friday, August 13, 2010. While it wasn't official enough for us to share yet, it was apparently enough on my mind that next Sunday morning to disrupt my reading of the above illustration about racing; trained, bronzed, and molded bodies; tense muscles; ambition. With no warning, I lost it. One of the members of the church began to make his way to the chancel area, but somehow I regained enough composure to finish the sermon. Flooding my mind and interrupting my presentation were images of my athletic and active body not being able to do what I had done before - thoughts of my being among the crowd of witnesses in the stands cheering others on - thoughts of those who had already cheered me on in my life - thoughts of those I was going to have to rely on in the future - already that morning I was thinking that I wasn't going to be standing in that pulpit very much longer - thoughts of how long - thoughts about not being able to have very many more years with Dorothy and the kids and grandkids and the rest of our families and friends. Yeah, it truly was a flood of thoughts and emotions!
We are indeed surrounded on every side by a crowd of great people we cannot see – a cloud of witnesses – who have run the race by faith before us. Just as the spectators on the crowded benches of the amphitheaters watched and cheered on their friends who ran in the races, so do those of the faith, and others, do so for us today. Believe me when I say, it is that crowd of witnesses, the living and the dead, who help us keep going in the midst of the challenges we face daily. It is in the presence of all the heroes of the faith – of all those who lived by faith throughout history that we live our lives as Christians – that we run this race of life.
Think about it! Along the way as we try to run the life set before us – watching, observing – are those who lived by faith – the heroes of faith – those who occupy the hall of fame. In one section our fans include that ancient litany we heard in the letter to the Hebrews: Abraham & Sarah & Isaac & Jacob & Moses & Elijah & Samuel & Jeremiah; & then there is that section of those we know about from the New Testament: Peter & James & John & Paul & Mary & Martha & Priscilla. And in still another section are the martyrs – and closer to our time we hear the cheers coming from the reformers – and then we pass before the great preachers and teachers and missionaries and musicians – and then, even closer to our day, we visualize that section of relatives: grandparents, and parents and aunts and uncles, maybe brothers and sisters – and then there’s a section of people in the churches we’ve been a part of: the YF leaders, the camp counselors, the Sunday School teachers – all there in the stands waiting for us to join them but encouraging us on the way in this life.
Yes, running the good race can sometimes hurt – we can indeed have faith pains as we try to run the race of faith – live by faith. Faithfulness does sometimes call us to love those others choose not to. Faithfulness does sometimes call us to take stands – to speak out – on issues within our country, within our community, within our church, and yes, even within our families at times, which might cause others to make fun of us – to stay away from us or reject us or disown us. We might even endure suffering for no apparent reason - not God's doing or wish even, please. Sometimes suffering just is our reality. Let me say it again: God is the comforter, companion on the journey, not the mean ogre playing games with his/her creatures for simple amusement to prove how unknowing, all-powerful, he/she is.
If we are going to be faithful in the midst of the pain that surely will come our way, then we must keep reminding ourselves of those who are on our side and we must - most importantly - keep our eyes on our Savior, Jesus Christ – “the author and perfector of our faith.”
David Kalas, Emphasis, July/August, 2007, p. 57.
Ibid., p. 52.
Ibid., p. 57.
Eugene Peterson, The Message (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Navpress, 1993), p. 474.