There is a terrible moment early in the movie Saving Private Ryan. Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) and most of his men have somehow survived the utter carnage of the D-Day invasion at Omaha Beach and are now on a high bluff overlooking a scene of utter destruction. One of Miller’s men says “That’s quite a view” to which Miller replies, “Yes it is—quite a view.” But the view is one of red-stained ocean water washing up and around countless bodies of fallen soldiers who, along with many dead fish, litter the beach as far as the eye can see. It is a horrific tableau of the sacrifice made by so many to turn the tide against Hitler and set the stage for the final end of World War II.
Standing on the high bluff that just is the start of Hebrews 12 and looking back on the last verses of Hebrews 11 is like that: It’s quite a view. The landscape of these verses are also littered with the martyrs who gave their all for God and for his cause in the world. Having spent much of Hebrews 11 singling out for a bit of extended consideration many of the heroes of the faith, the author finally says there’s just too many more to mention in any detail. And that’s not even to try to mention the countless nameless figures who were tortured, murdered, run through with spears, split in two by swords, and who endured every human hardship imaginable on account of their faithfulness to God. It’s quite a view.
The world was not worthy of them, the writer finally heaves out with great emotion. Could there ever be a more noble compliment than to say this? The world was not worthy of them because the world had fallen so far from God’s intentions and desires. But God stuck with the world even so and dispatched his emissaries to carry out his mission of redemption, of salvaging what was still good and would be good again. Each of these people were islands of God’s shalom, signposts for what could yet come if only we’d all turn back to God and to his designs for flourishing.
We don’t know with any precision the audience of Hebrews. Probably some were facing similar hardship and active persecution. Maybe others were in more stable places. Whatever their original settings as receivers of Hebrews, these words of Scripture have come to many millions of other believers along the ages, and right on down to today too. But for many of us 21st century readers of these words, we have not faced that level of peril, danger, or death. Some of our fellow Christians in the world right this very moment do face that, and they need our prayers.
Yet others of us are in—and have for most of our lives as Christians been in—very different circumstances. We have been blessedly free of the kind of life-threatening persecution so many have faced. But for all of us, the author says, whether or not we face or may ever face such hardship ourselves, we are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us. They are still with us. They never left.
But precisely because we have their witness, how much more shouldn’t we be able to, as the author says, cast off anything that could trip us up as we seek to follow Jesus? If they could do it facing the most extreme of circumstances, then surely we who exist in far better situations to begin with can keep following Jesus too. And if their witness and their inspiring role modeling is not enough, then we can certainly do what they also did: fix our eyes on Jesus alone. Because he was able to stare down nothing short of his own cross. It was shameful, it was ignominious what was going to happen to God’s only Son. The world was not worthy of him, either, but that was the whole point of Christ’s ministry: he who was greater than all the world entered the world in order to save it from the inside out.
Of course, we know theologically that Jesus did this because it was the only way. We have to be saved by grace alone because nothing we could ever have done could have even chipped in a little to salvation, much less pulled it off. But as the New Testament makes everywhere plain, grace is no excuse for idleness (much less for indulging in our sins on account of God’s ready-to-hand forgiveness). We have a race set out before us and it’s our sacred pleasure to run it for Jesus’ sake. We have a role model to follow and the Spirit gives us the strength to give it a shot, to draw inspiration from that great cloud of witnesses detailed in Hebrews 11 and above all from the Jesus who even now has sat down at God’s right hand to keep an eye on us and to keep sending us his Holy Spirit.
Those of us who preach grace and who fear contributing to anyone’s latent legalism can get a little queasy at the prospect of emphasizing sacred obligations and the running of races. We try to keep the imperatives in our sermons to a minimum lest we prop up a “work your own way to heaven” mentality that is too prevalent as it is. At the same time, however, our culture of “moral therapeutic Deism” has also gotten pretty good at soft-pedaling the moral shape of our lives. God’s a pretty indulgent old man upstairs who’s mostly interested in seeing if we’re “pretty good people” overall but not too worried about the details of our daily living, the decisions we make, what we do sexually or with our money or all the rest.
But the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us—and the pioneer of our faith who has gone before us—do not exist to cheer on our moral mediocrity. They are there to cheer us on to the finish line of the race marked out before us. We honor them—we honor Him—when we take that with holy seriousness.
Harry Potter has been back in the limelight lately with the start of a new play in London and now the release of the book version of that play’s script. Fans of Harry Potter will remember very well what happens in the final book of the original series when Harry is gifted with one of the final artifacts of the Deathly Hallows: the resurrection stone. As Harry grasps the stone in his hand, suddenly he is surrounded—if you will—by a cloud of witnesses of those who had died for the cause.
Harry sees his father and mother who died defending his infant self from Lord Voldemort eighteen years earlier. He sees his godfather Sirius Black who had been murdered a couple years earlier by one of Voldemort’s minions and Professor Lupin who had died that very night battling Voldemort’s forces. “Why are you here?” Harry asks, to which his mother replies “We never left.” They had been with Harry, in his heart, all along and would stay with him in the impending death Harry expected as he was going to sacrifice himself in one last attempt to defeat Voldemort.
Their witness helped Harry march toward his enemy and face his own death in the course that had been marked out for him.
Seldom has there been a moment in fiction or in cinema that so closely mirrors Hebrews 12:1-3.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 14, 2016
Hebrews 11:29-12:2 Commentary