I love looking at old photographs. I think I got this trait from my mom, who at age 85 has lots of old photographs. She has a big portrait in an ornate black frame of my great-great-grandparents who looked very stern. Supposedly, my great-great grandfather was quite the cut-up, somewhat of a family trait, but one could never deduce it from the old, yellowed portrait.
After my grandmother died, my mom and aunt found a black and white snapshot of her with two others from Athens High School in 1929. They were sitting on a wooden railing and behind them was a dirt bank with the edge of a newly-constructed stadium. The photo was taken by the North stands at the west end zone in front of Sanford Stadium. I had never seen the photograph, and wish I could have asked my grandmother about it.
I enjoy seeing pictures of my parents when they were young, although there are very few of them. My mom grew up in a sharecropping family in Madison County, and my dad grew up on a farm in Hart County. They came from very humble means, and when I look at those pictures, I wonder what else was happening. I also gain strength knowing that they worked hard and persevered through difficulties.
We have seen photos of six saints today; I call them saints not necessarily because of any merited conduct but instead because of their decision to follow Jesus as their Savior. When many hear the word “saint,” they automatically think of deceased Christians who have been glorified or canonized by the Catholic Church; those have been given sainthood. Others think of individuals who have withstood hardship or performed great benevolent acts, and they are called “saints” by family and friends. Some think of the NFL franchise in New Orleans. But the word “saint” in the New Testament refers to living individuals who have decided to follow Jesus, those who deliberately chose to be set apart as Christians, those who acted like Jesus.
All Saints Day is the Church’s Memorial Day; it is not a Baptist or Catholic observance. It started long before the formation of the Roman Catholic Church which was around 1000 AD, and certainly predates the group called Baptists who started in 1609 resulting from the Protestant Reformation begun 500 years ago. Christians began formally remembering the saints who had gone before them as early as the second century, and November 1 officially became All Saints Day in 741 AD. (http://www.churchyear.net/allsaints.html) Christians have had these kinds of services in early November almost 1,300 years.
We know that there are people in our mental photo albums who have gone before us; for some gathered today, the photos on the big screens are also regularly-seen pictures on their mental screens.
Others of us have mental photographs of people no longer with us who helped us get where we are today. Think about these folks. They encouraged us; they believed in us; they supported us. Their championing of us mattered.
In high school, I played football, wrestled, and ran track. My parents never missed any football game or wrestling match. My dad missed some track meets because many were right after school, and he was not off work yet. Having my parents in the stands brought me encouragement. Having my Dad’s photo flash across my mind’s screen occasionally brings me strength. Tomorrow would have been his 80th birthday.
We do better when we know that there are people, literally or figuratively, in the stands cheering for us. If they are cheering for us, we want to finish the race. Family members cared for all six of these saints until the end. In our passage today we find this phrase, “so great a cloud of witnesses,” which described those who had died.
The writer of Hebrews knew that his listeners and readers needed encouragement; they were being persecuted for their faith. In the previous chapter, which some call the roll call of faith, the author provided example after example of people who had exhibited faith, who had refused to give up, who had continued when others quit. We know there were no photos in those days; these words painted pictures of their spiritual ancestors. Stories of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and Rahab the prostitute were intended to remind those early listeners and readers how important it was to hold on. These stories essentially became like encouraging photographs reminding them to keep the faith and not to give up. The author didn’t have to tell the entire biography, just like when we saw the photos of saints, we did not have to know every detail of their lives. This great cloud of witnesses had completed their races, just like the six Madison Baptist saints we referenced earlier.
This life of ours is a race, not a sprint, not a 100-yard dash, but instead our life is a marathon with a purpose. Ours is not a life simply to exist, to take up space, to consume natural resources. Ours is a life intended to be lived intentionally for Christ.
Sports was big during the First Century; sports is big now. This metaphor communicated well to the First Century Jewish Christians who teetered on leaving the faith. Keep running the race; remember that many completed the race; recall the stories of those who have finished the course. The six saints I mentioned earlier ran as long as they could. All had long races. Seeing their photos and knowing that they ran all the way to the end brings us encouragement.
As the author described this Christian life as running a race, he gave the impression that many had gone ahead of them and now were in the grandstands of heaven awaiting their arrival, much like what happens in Atlanta on the fourth of July. The Peachtree Road Race has people starting at different times; those who start early wait when they are finished and cheer on those who started later.
We, like those First Century Christians, are invited to keep running the race, and in doing so, we are to put aside everything that hinders us and the sin which so easily entangles us.
What slows us down? I know of some people years ago who placed weights on their ankles when they ran in hopes of building leg muscle so that they could run faster without the weights. Unfortunately this practice can wreak havoc on a person’s joints, so I don’t advocate it, but the author of Hebrews says to throw off whatever slows us down.
What slows us down-unresolved grief? All of us have relationships that have ended in death; while it is part of life, acceptance of this fact doesn’t always come easily. The depth of our sadness relates directly to the kind of relationship we had. It’s ok to grieve; it is healthy to grieve, but we are not meant to get stuck in grief. Unresolved grief can be a hindrance to running the race.
What slows us down–no one encouraging us? Many fall into the trap that a friend or colleague has more support; some get locked into the comparison game. This actually borders on envy, which is a sin that can easily entangle us. Wishing people liked us as much as another misses the mark, and a primary word picture of sin in the New Testament is of an archer missing the mark. Envy can keep us from running the race.
What slows us down-not being focused on the goal? Just running with no end in sight or no finish line in the future, just running for the sake of running is not the goal of our race. If we claim the label of Christian, of being a follower of Christ, then our race becomes purposeful. We will keep the faith; we will not give up; we will persevere through difficulty because of our ultimate goal.
In chapter 11, we find many snapshots, but none measure up to the one found in our text in chapter 12. The author provides one last photo, and it actually was the reason they were running the race in the first place. The First Century Christians were to run their races knowing that they would see Jesus at the finish line, much like the six saints we named today. The six saints are now in the presence of their Lord. The earlier photographs of Old Testament heroes invited the listeners and readers to remember those who had gone before them, just as we have done today. Our All Saints Day emphasis is not a time to worship those who are no longer with us; every Sunday, we gather to worship God and offer thanksgiving and praise for the love of Jesus Christ. We have lit candles today, but no one holds a candle to the example of Jesus, the Light of the World. The tallest candle represented Jesus; six smaller candles were lit from the larger candle. Jesus is the reason we continue to run the race. The joy set before Jesus is the joy now enjoyed by the great cloud of witnesses, those Old Testament heroes of the faith and the six Madison Baptist saints named today. Jesus didn’t quit. He endured the cross; he scorned its shame, and he finished the race.
This passage has been encouraging Christians for more than 1,900 years and I hope that it has encouraged you today also. So let’s keep running our race with perseverance. Let’s remember that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. And most importantly, let’s set our sights on Jesus, because if we can focus on him, we will find the needed encouragement to finish our own race. AMEN.