You’re greater than you think
(Hebrews 11:32 – 12:2; John 15:1-4; 9-15)
Scholars widely believe that the book of Hebrews was written by a preacher with the intention that it be preached to the faithful in the new and growing church of Jesus Christ. His goal was to inform the people that they are not alone and because of this, they have a responsibility to keep the faith – and to pass it on to the next generations.
So I will preach it as part of this sermon.
The section I am about to read follows the more familiar section on faith – where the preacher not only gives a definition for what faith is, 11:1 “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”; but he also gives a detailed list of men and women of the Old Testament who proved faithful to God through impossible circumstances and against all odds.
As I read, I want you to imagine that everyone I mention is here with us today, marching up the street even as we speak, see them lining up outside the door and coming down the aisles. Imagine them all standing around the walls inside this sanctuary and up in the balcony looking down. Even if you do not know the stories, listen attentively and let your hearts be open to their steadfastness and faith.
Now, Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses and even Rahab the prostitute. All of them heroes of faith who were righteous before God and suffered for their faith are already here. They were detailed in Hebrews 11:1-31.
Now let’s hear about the others from the preacher himself...
32And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33who through faith conquered kingdoms,
shut the mouths of lions,
34quenched raging fire,
escaped the edge of the sword,
won strength out of weakness,
became mighty in war,
put foreign armies to flight.
35Women received their dead by resurrection.
Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection.
And now hear of how they suffered...
36Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.
37They were stoned to death,
they were sawn in two,
they were killed by the sword;
they went about in skins of sheep and goats,
tormented— 38of whom the world was not worthy.
They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
Can you see them now? Filling the sanctuary; surrounding us; watching us; praying for us...?
See this whole assembly of faithful ancestors line up as far as the eye can see...
All the men and women of old who trusted in the promises of God... Consider what they went through; feel their strength of character and courage...
39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith,
did not receive what was promised,
40 since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made perfect.
There it is – that statement that connects all the faithful from generations before to each one of us.
He encourages us to remain faithful as they were faithful – because we are all linked to one another and to Christ – who is the ‘something better’ with the ‘better resurrection’.
We are part of a great unbroken cord of salvation that stretches from the beginning of human history right up to heaven where it is anchored by Jesus.
There is a big gap in the line and that’s for all those who hear and respond to the gospel today and in the generations who come after us.
We are to step up to the cord and join with those who through the ages have held on by faith. This is what the preacher means when he says that “they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.”
They need us!
So now this great cord is passing through the sanctuary and it is your turn to form the human links of faith that join the whole chain to Jesus in the City of God – heaven to earth and earth to heaven.
And now the preacher changes the metaphor. It is not a cord or chain that we have in our hands but a baton –
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.
We are now runners in a race begun by our ancestors; maintained by us and continued by our descendants to come. All of us important players in this race; each one necessary for the safety of the other.
The baton has been passed from Abel to Enoch to Noah to Abraham, each runner handing it on to the next. Now it’s your turn to run! The previous runners, that great cloud of witnesses are all here and all are watching to see how we will perform.
The preacher knows that it is late in the day and that we have already run several sprints and dashes. We are winded and tired, but this is the race that counts, so we are to strip off anything that would slow us down – all the binding weights and shackling sins – all the disappointments that threaten to make us quit; all the angry moments that would paralyze us if we let them; we’ve got to overcome all of that and run our portion of the race with endurance.
The path of the race has already been forged by Jesus.
He is the lead runner!
As the pioneer, he sets the course and shows us where to go. He also shows us how to run – since he is the one who runs the race with perfection – the ‘perfecter of our faith’. In fact, it is Christ who makes it possible for us to run at all.
Jesus kept his eye on the prize – the Kingdom of God; and he calls for us to do the same.
Many congregations today – especially here in North America are suffering with a decrease in numbers and in stamina; some are closing; others merging; some have just given up and are slowly dying – paralyzed by fear and hopelessness.
If ever we find ourselves feeling despondent about our small numbers, let us remember that chain; let us remember that we have the baton and we’ve got to pass it on. You are part of something much bigger than your individual lives.
You’re greater than you think!
And, as in today’s reading, let us remember Jesus who said, “I am the true vine...4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.”
We need to stay connected to Jesus – we need to always keep him in mind when we make our decisions; when we work and when we are at leisure; we need to constantly be refreshed and nourished by the living word of God.
All we need do is follow him.
But, following Jesus sometimes means going against modern culture; sometimes means sacrifice and suffering; sometimes means taking risks and being labeled as naïve or weird. And for many today, following Jesus is dangerous.
If I had time, I would tell of many heroes of faith and courage, since biblical times, who stand as shining examples for us. But the one who comes immediately to mind is one whose fight for justice threatened his life many times and, like Paul, landed him in prison for many years.
I am thinking of Nelson Mandela – a man who never backed down in his non-violent fight against apartheid; never gave up even under overwhelming circumstances. He is just one of thousands of examples – still living – who can inspire and encourage us to keep moving forward and run our race.
If ever you feel insignificant or worry about the size of your congregation, remember to stay faithful to God.
You are greater than you think because you possess the power and the strength of the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ.
And as we run, let’s remember that his goal is to ‘bring many children to glory’ (2:10) – he’s running to heaven with all of us and all those who went before right back to Abel – running and rejoicing right up to heaven proclaiming (2:13)
‘Here am I and the children whom God has given me.’
“Look, Father! See them all here with me – runners in this race – enduring all the suffering and pain but holding onto their faith. Father, receive them into your kingdom even as you have received me.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen
The prayer for our newest member:
Please let us pray for Yvonne now…
O Lord, uphold Yvonne by your Holy Spirit.
Increase in her from day to day
your gifts of grace:
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord,
the spirit of joy in your presence,
both now and forever.
Commissioning: (by Harley Bye)
Go out into the world in peace;
be of good courage;
hold fast to that which is good;
return to no one evil for evil;
strengthen the faint hearted;
support the weak;
help the afflicted;
honour all people;
love and serve the Lord;
rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.