Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. Hebrews 12:1(NLT)
By the end of this month not only will the time have changed, and the nights and days be shorter and colder, our songs will change; we will begin singing songs like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”. It will be Advent, the signal that the old cycle has expired and the new is on the horizon.
It’s fitting that All Saints Sunday closes out our view of time and makes way for Christ the King Sunday on the last Lord’s Day of the year. Today we remember those of our loved ones that death has ushered into the presence of Christ, and we crown Him Lord of All to close out the year.
Then comes Advent – a new cycle of remembrance of God’s grace and glory, and His gift of God putting on human skin to bring us the ultimate treasure of eternal forgiveness and life.
These cycles of life we call the Christian year are gentle, constant reminders of our story of creation, fall, forgiveness and the grace of our Redeemer. The Psalmist spoke of the wonders of the seasons and God’s created order telling us the old, old story:
Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known. Psalm 19:2(NLT)
Whenever I think of the great cloud (or crowd) of witnesses, those saints who have been transported to the presence of our Lord, and what Paul could possibly have meant by them surrounding us, I imagine the ministry of presence.
There’s a difference in a person’s step when you know you’ve got people in your life that have your back! It’s more than just a crowd cheering; somehow you know there’s a chief cheerleader who’s looking out for you.
I had a football coach who was like that. Marv Weitz put us through the wringer when it came to pre-season conditioning. Sit-ups, wind sprints and tackling drills put me in the best condition of my 16 years. Then I made a wrong move on the field and got clobbered – ruptured spleen, emergency operation – all the edgy, horrible stuff a parent worries will happen to their kid. I was out for the season.
But, the next fall, I hadn’t learned a thing – showed up for the first summer day of practice. That was the year I graduated. On the last day of school I hunted up Coach Weitz and asked him to sign my yearbook. He wrote:
You taught me a lot about courage. Thanks!
When I read that I thought, courage? Me? Really? I honestly just liked football, but my coach thought I had courage? Wow! He was the toughest man I ever knew; he could chew nails and spit out skyscrapers.
Coach Weitz passed several years ago. I hadn’t seen or talked with him in many years, but we had a chance to talk by phone just months before he died. One of the last things he said to me was: I still think about the way you wouldn’t give up. Truth be told, I never thought I was anything, but that encouraging man made me believe I just might be ok.
And this is what the presence of Moses, Abraham, David, Peter, James, John and Paul is all about; they are witnesses of the life of faith in my life and yours.
These are members of that great cloud of witnesses, people like Jerry Hutchinson, a landscape contractor who helped me see Christ in the ordinary details of everyday life.
And people like L.B. Thomason who gave me the opportunity to preach to his church of 500 people before I could even spell sermon.
And people like the Caudle family in my first appointment as a Methodist. I showed up and a month or so later Glynn Caudle died. I told the family it would certainly be understandable if they wanted a minister they’d known; I hardly knew their dad. They said…nope…you’re our pastor now and you’ll see Daddy off.
This is how the great cloud of witnesses surrounds us and encourages us to use what God has given, and step out in faith for what He hasn’t yet given, but is waiting to bless us with!
And that’s the issue of running with endurance in this race. Paul said, strip off all those besetting sins – the weights that will keep you from running your best race for the Master.
YOU must do that; nobody else will. God will help, but you are the one to make the decision to be part of the greater crowd than just popular opinion here on planet earth. The direction you swim, upstream or with the tide of going along is yours to choose!
The space between us and this great cloud of witnesses who encourage and make our endurance possible has been described as thin, a mere wisp of breath between heaven and earth. It is like the distance between dusk and dark, or the moment of birth or the transition of death; thin places.
In 1988, a few years after Elizabeth’s mother passed, our 17 year-old daughter Jennifer was hospitalized for an illness that baffled the doctors. She had a fever and pain, but they had no real clue as to what was wrong, and our child was getting weaker every day. We had prayed constantly for our daughter, but the situation was causing serious concern. It was a scary time. Our daughter calls it a miserable three weeks!
On day 21 of the hospital watch – in the middle of the night – my bride had a dream or vision that her Mom, Sofie, who had died three years prior, came into our room, sat on the bed and said, Elizabeth, stop worrying about Jennifer, she will be alright. She then just left. In the next instant we were awakened by the telephone. A hospital staff person had called to tell us that Jennifer’s fever had broken and she would be discharged as soon as the paperwork was processed.
To this day the doctors can only offer guesses as to the cause of Jennifer’s illness, but the thin place between a midnight vision and the healing hand of God has me convinced that this great cloud of witnesses is more than a religious theory or a mystery; what they really are is God’s great army of encouragement to the saints here on earth to run the race with the endurance of warriors!
And I say warriors because Sofie, who had been a nervously edgy, worried, and rather negative-focused person on this side of the Jordan, appeared strong, confident and encouraging. She had been transformed, changed in the twinkling of an eye; she was more than Mom – she was God’s strong hand holding us tightly through one of life’s dicey moments.
The question is…do you want to join with Sofie and the many others you’ve known who make a positive, encouraging difference now and for eternity?
Do you want to be part of that great cloud of witnesses encouraging the saints with presence and power to run with endurance?
You can be; you really can! The line is a very thin one!
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen
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