A Great Cloud of Witnesses

April 22, 2018

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Preached by Canon Brian Wakelin, Assistant Minister at Christ Church, Winchester using Hebrews 12:1-3 at Evensong on Sunday 22nd April, the Fourth Sunday of Easter.

12 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, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-3 NIV)

Have you been following the debates in the national and local press about having standing areas at our major football grounds. The argument has gone that you get a greater atmosphere when the fans are on their feet – and that this encourages the players. Although, I think Saints problems are far deeper than that!

Similar stadium imagery is used at the start of Hebrews 12. The writer thinks of our struggles with discipleship, our struggles with being faithful witnesses to Jesus, our struggles of loving others as God in Christ has loved us and says: ‘You are not alone. Remember all those I’ve just listed in chapter 11. Think of their struggles – what do you see? That God encouraged them, carrying them through the difficulties they faced. If he has done that for them, take heart, he will do it for you.’

Who are your heroes of faith? Maybe a godparent or family member who introduced you to Jesus, to worshipping God. Maybe someone more widely known. The one clear thing is that those heroes have testified to God’s faithfulness – sometimes even to the point of death; and their testimony has profoundly affected us.

Jeremiah is among my heroes of the faith. Our language has distorted his character by taking his name and applying it to dark and destructive sayings – a jeremiad. Yet over the years that I have read and re-read his story I see both hope and despair, both joy and sorrow; something echoed in most of our lives. A priest congratulated me when I had been accepted to train for ordination by saying ‘you will have a lifetime of joy and sorrow’. Twenty years on I can see what he meant.

Jeremiah is called by God to speak hard words to a society which kept up a religious face, but which was wandering far from God. Jeremiah protested at his initial call from God: ‘I’m too young … I wouldn’t know what to say’ and he complains many more times during his long and, at times, painful ministry.

In our reading (Jeremiah 15:15-21) we find Jeremiah at his lowest. Everything has finally got to him. He’s preached, but nobody is paying any attention. He’s almost paranoid. He knows his own suffering even while those he preaches to about repentance seem to be getting away with sin. Like our teenagers, Jeremiah’s screaming ‘It’s not fair’. Actually, it’s about to get even harder, at the start of chapter 16 he is told to remain single in a culture where marriage was the norm.

Yet Jeremiah also is called to speak some of the most comforting words found anywhere in the scriptures. To a people who had lost their way: ‘I have plans for you, plans to prosper you not to harm you’. To a people in exile: ‘Bless the city where I have placed you’. To those on the point of giving up: ‘I place my law in your hearts … I will be your God and you will be my people.’

Yes, Jeremiah ranks as one of my heroes of faith. His testimony rhymes with things in my life and encourages me to keep on keeping on.

But the writer to the Hebrews encourages us in another way too. Not only are we to look at the heroes who have gone before us, but at one particular hero – namely our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Why?

Because Jesus has walked our path before us and for us.

Jesus knows the daily struggles to live and work – but has shone through that.

Jesus knows the temptations to give up – but he has continued.

Jesus knows the pain of betrayal by close friends – but he has survived.

Jesus knows the pain of feeling separated from God – yet has been reconciled.

Jesus knows the power of death and sin – but has conquered both.

Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of the faith. Like the fixers who go ahead of Michael Palin on his journeys, Jesus has walked our way before us and now calls us to follow him. ‘I have gone to prepare a place for you’, he says to his friends on the night he was betrayed.

What greater encouragement can there be for us to ‘keep on keeping on’? As someone once said, ‘The Christian life is a long-distance race not a sprint’. Our heroes of the faith have gone before us and bear witness to God’s great faithfulness. The Lord Jesus Christ has pioneered the route – he has cleared the way, he has shown the way, he has walked the way, he is the way. He now waits to welcome us home; to say, ‘well done, good and faithful servant’.

At the end of his life, one of my other heroes, the apostle Paul, could say: ‘I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.’ Like Jeremiah, life for Paul had not been easy, yet he had his eyes fixed on the finishing line, on ‘the upward call of God in Christ’. And we are called to do the same.

Are you struggling? Look back to the heroes who have gone before us.

Are you struggling? Look to Jesus the pioneer of our faith.

And if that is not enough of an encouragement go back and reread our psalm which speaks of God as our Creator, Provider, Redeemer and Lord.

And remember Jesus last words to his disciples: ‘I am with you to the end of the age’.