Cloud of Witnesses
Hebrews 11: 1-3; 8-13; 12: 1-3
11Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. …
8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. 9By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. 12Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’ 13 All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. …
12Therefore, 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, 2looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of 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. 3 Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.
On September 1, 2018, my niece Krista D’Adamo gave birth to a son – Ian James D’Adamo.
It was a big event in the family.
The first grandchild of one of the Tindall boys.
The week after that I found myself in McKeesport visiting a parishioner.
On my way home I stopped at the Richland Cemetery in Dravosburg.
I knew that my grandfather, Henry Tindall was buried there.
I had visited the cemetery a few times over the years trying to find the grave but to no avail.
But on that trip, the caretaker was at the office and took me to the grave.
So, I spent a little bit of time with Henry, a man I never knew.
Then, I took a picture of his headstone.
On my way home after my visit with Henry, I decided to stop by Jefferson Memorial Cemetery.
My parents are buried there next to my grandmother Fay, Henry’s first wife.
A bit of a visit with mom and dad, and with Fay who I met maybe once.
Then I went to the grave of my grandparents on my mother’s side, Gladys and George Thursby.
I knew them well.
Another visit and another picture.
Finally, I found my great grandparents on my dad’s side, TJ and Edith Tindall.
I never knew them.
A quick visit and a final picture.
That was as far back as I could go to visit any of my ancestors who were buried nearby.
I am not sure I can explain exactly why I took such a journey that day, but I ended up compiling all the headstone and grave marker pictures and sent them to my brother Tom so he could share them with his daughter Krista and one-week old grandson Ian.
For some reason I felt compelled to do all this because the family that had included all these people had just acquired a new member, Ian.
I guess wanted to make sure that Ian had a chance to know at least the names of his ancestors and maybe even a few stories.
After all, these are the stories that culminated in Ian, and hopefully a few more down the road.
What will Ian learn from these stories?
Maybe nothing specific.
But he will learn when they lived and maybe something about the times they lived in and so might get a bit of enlightenment or even inspiration from them.
Or maybe not.
But I am still glad I did it.
I guess I wanted to sort of be with the family that day.
It felt good to be there.
This is kind of what the author of Hebrews is doing in our text today.
The author is visiting the graves of the ancestors of the Israelites who are the ancestors of the followers of Jesus.
Of course, there were no graves to be actually visited, so the author used the Hebrew Bible as the place where such folks could be honored and remembered.
Hebrews 11 and the first couple of verses of Chapter 12 is where the author does this.
The author starts with Abel, moves through the Exodus, the 40 years in the wilderness, the judges, the kingdom, the prophets.
Many names are provided, most left out.
Some are identified by deeds and suffering alone.
Some we are familiar with.
Many not at all.
Some we like.
Some we don’t.
Some perform great exploits.
Some deeds are – well – distasteful; even horrible.
But the one thing that connects them all is this:
They all trusted God.
And in some big or small or mysterious ways, they passed that trust on to the next generation.
And that is kind of what we do here today.
Like the author of Hebrews, we recall our ancestors.
The ones who passed on their trust in God.
We come forward and light candles for those we want to “visit”, at least in our hearts and minds.
To honor them.
To Remember them.
Maybe people we loved dearly.
Maybe some we never knew.
Maybe those who were heroic in some way.
Maybe those who weren’t.
Why do we think of them today?
Because their history is our history.
And their history is part of who we are whether we like it or not.
Just like the author of Hebrews taking this trip down through the Hebrew Bible.
The author is reminding the readers of a particular part of their history.
The history of their trust in God, which has been passed down to them by those who came before them.
Their ancestors who received promises from God and trusted in them.
Because of that trust, they were able to persevere through the hard times.
The text I chose today focuses mainly on Abraham.
Abraham left his home, not knowing where he was going, but trusted that God would keep the promise that Abraham would be the father of a great nation.
Abraham never saw it but trusted that it would happen.
His descendants were many but even they did not see the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham.
Which brings us to one of my favorite verses:
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.
They saw the fulfilment of God’s promises from far off and welcomed them from a distance.
In many respects that is what we do.
We observe the fulfillment of God’s promises from a distance and welcome them from far off.
Next, we jump to chapter 12 and are told by the author that these past generations are a “cloud of witnesses” (another phrase I love) who though dead, surround us with their trust in God.
They help us persevere in our faith, our trust in God, so that we can continue on without growing weary.
And so, cloud of witnesses, those who came before, push us forward.
But the author now adds a new member to that list.
The one who is the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith”.
The one who trusted God to such an extent that he went to the cross for our sake.
Jesus did that so that we would not grow weary and lose our trust in God.
Now since that time, there have been many more people who have demonstrated trust in God.
In our reformed tradition we have Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Tyndale (not me, the guy who translated the Bible into English and was burned at the stake for doing it), Knox, Wesley, and many more.
Then we have more modern folks.
Peter Marshall, Fredrich Buechner, R. C. Sproul (to name some Presbyterians), Billy Graham, Martin Luther King, Jr. and that is just a precious few.
But then there are those who were not so famous.
The pastors at the churches we grew up in.
The Sunday school teachers that taught us about Jesus.
Our parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts.
Friends who brought US to church.
The folks whose lives you remember with these lit candles.
It helps us to remember that we are not the first trust God’s promises from afar, and we won’t be the last.
We can look to those who came before us for inspiration.
Their time has come and gone.
A baton has been passed on to us!
And we can begin to fashion our lives so we can inspire those who come after.
Because this is our time.
Until it’s time to pass the baton on to our children, and their children.
And so, it will continue.
Until we all arrive in the Kingdom of God.
When the promise is fulfilled.
That is how we should see ourselves.
Part of the great cloud of witnesses who walk through time waiting and trusting in the promise of God to bring us home to God’s kingdom.
And like all those who came before us, look at that promise from afar, while looking to Jesus as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, so that we do not grow weary or lose heart.
That is why we come to this table today.
We come here for a visit with Jesus.
To honor him.
To remember him.
And to be encouraged as we do our part to pass along our trust to those who come after us.
And for all this, we should be profoundly grateful.