That Cloud of Witnesses

Delivered January 5, 2003 by Rev. Jeff Collins,
Founder & former President, Love In Action.

Theme: Considering all of these saints who have gone before, Old Testament, New Testament and since then, early church fathers and reformers and even today, How ought we to live? Let’s seek individually and corporately the spirit of dedication and catch the vision of those who have gone before us, let us serve Jesus by seeking to serve others.

Sermon Text:
Hebrews 12:1-13

The New Testament Lesson is found in Hebrews. Hebrews 12, Verses 1-13.

“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. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. Who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted tot he point of shedding your blood and you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as son. My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son. Endure hardship as discipline. God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father. If you are not disciplined, and everyone undergoes discipline, then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who have disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the father of our spirits and live. Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best, but God disciplines us for our good that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace. For those who have been trained by it. Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. Make level paths for your feet so that the lame may not be disabled but rather healed.”

May the Lord add his blessing and understanding to the reading of his word.

What a blessing and a privilege to be here with you at Central Presbyterian Church today. And to be able to share with you from God’s word. I had a six-page sermon that I prepared for the earlier service, and when I got up here in the earlier service in to the pulpit, I found out that three pages were locked in the office. But I think God helped me to survive. Again, I thank you for the privilege of being here with you today. I asked God that he would bless our time here and that he would teach us from his word.

Central Presbyterian has been a special blessing to me and to the ministry that I headed for many years, Love In Action. God knows of your activism, social activism within the community. God knows of the ministries or various ministries that you have to reach the poor and needy in the communities. You are well known for your dedication to those services.

In the beginning, we as a human race were created to fellowship with God, to enjoy God forever. To enjoy the eternal blessing of that incredible relationship. Perfect health, security, prosperity, but almost from that very beginning, we as the human race have rebelled against God, choosing rather to suffer, to follow the advice of the wicked one, to do what we felt was right in our own eyes. At that point, there was immediately drawn a line between the forces of good and the forces of evil. The human race fell from grace because from that time until now we were found short of the glory of God. I would like to spend a few minutes today talking about America in the west. We live in difficult times, but I would like to present to you this morning that it’s very difficult to be a dedicated follower of Jesus Christ in America today. I am thinking of the words of the late southern Baptist evangelist, Vance Havener who said “We as American Christians have been inoculated with the dead germs of Christianity. We have become complacent building for ourselves here on earth. Too often little kingdoms of our own with total disregard to individual and corporate responsibility for ministering to humanity around us. And with total disregard for eternity”. I have had the privilege since the age of 18 to serve God around the world in various nations. I have seen the body of Christ strongest and often most beautiful under the persecution of totalitarian states and Marxist states. It seems that the gospel light has shown the brightest and the darkness of repression and under such circumstances to be a faithful servant of God, automatically means to face need, earthy suffering, deprivation of education in many case, unemployment, no employment at all for those who believe, imprisonment and in some cases torture and even on occasion, martyrdom. I am reminded right now of the three Baptist missionaries who were killed in Yemen just last week. Under such conditions and such societies, there is no grey area of compromise. You are either a follower of Jesus, a strong one or you are not a follower at all. In our country, which was founded on the principles of freedom and the freedom of religion, the freedom for each man or woman to pursue happiness and today more often than not, that pursuit of happiness is sort of translated in to an existential philosophy where, you know, everybody is doing what is right in their own eyes, just as it was in the Garden of Eden when we rebelled. Not much has changed about human nature. But I present to you today that the western body of Christ is today found wanting. We are often ill and anemic from the very freedoms that we enjoy. We have our rights. We have our rights. We demand our rights. And in a judicial and earthy sense, this is absolutely correct and true. But far too often, we seek to impose this demand for our rights on God in a spiritual sense. When in fact, we as sinners stand before God and aside from our faith in Jesus Christ, we stand unworthy. And we are found spiritually wanting. The Bible describes this position as “holy lacking” and aside from God’s provision of redemption by faith in his crucified son, we find ourselves, each one of us condemned by our own miserable failures and our own propensity towards sin. This is not to say that political freedom or even human rights is wrong, or that the very principles on which this nation were founded are wrong, not at all. But what I mean to say is that it is difficult to be a Christian in a country where for the most part, there is no persecution, we are comfortable and we can find instant gratification and be entertained by the purchase of a ticket or a flip of a switch.

Prior to the children of Israel entering Canaan, the promised land, we read in Deuteronomy, Chapter 8 that God told his people all about the wonderful riches that were awaiting them and then he said as a warning to the children of Israel,

“When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you. But be careful that you don’t forget the Lord your God. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”

God goes on to remind his people Israel, of all the ways that he tenderly cared for them, how he provided for their protection and he said, “You may say to yourself, “my power and the strength of my hands has produced this wealth for him.” But remember the Lord your God for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth.”

This nation of Old Testament Israel embodied all that was both good and all that was bad about human nature. In times of need, they fell on their knees before God and confessed sin and begged for forgiveness. In times of prosperity, they very often wandered from the way and turned against God. I am reminded of one incident when Israel had fallen away from God and God addressed Israel through the prophet Ezekiel and Ezekiel penned these words on behalf of God. “As surely as I live declares the sovereign Lord, your sister Sodom and her children never did what you and your children have done.” In other words, Israel was seen as worse in he eyes of God. And then the prophet goes on to describe the sins of Sodom. “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom. She and her children were arrogant. They were overfed and unconcerned. They didn’t help the poor and the needy.” In other words, Israel was accused by God of being full of pride. Israel had become haughty. Israel had become materialistically indulgent and Israel had become unconcerned for the poor and needy in her communities.

I know I am preaching to the choir here today, because I see the works of Central Presbyterian Church, good works. And how you have organized to reach the community and how you reach out to people in the community who are living with AIDS, how you are working with prostitutes, how you are working with injecting drug users, how you are working in areas of housing and how you send summer mission teams abroad who return here to the church to excite others to participate and to support the foreign mission work. God blesses you for what you are doing. But still here in America for many congregations there is hardly any persecution for us, for any of us. We hardly have any persecution because of our Christian values. We have Christian radio and Christian television. There is no opposition, very little opposition to the message of Christ. Our President carries his Bible proudly and prays. Many congressmen and senators do the same, because it has become a respected thing to do. It’s been easy to think of ourselves individually and collectively though as perhaps being better than others. It’s been easy for us to amass wealth in this country. It’s been easy for us to entertain ourselves so much with the pleasures of this world that we are absolutely blind to the poverty and human deprivation that surrounds us. I see this desperation today in the face of the abject poverty that we see constantly in foreign lands on CNN, almost hourly in the poorer neighborhoods of the United States and this desperation can be seen in the headlines of every newspaper when we read it everyday. We live in perilous times. Somehow the New World Order that was promised to us in 1991 never happened and today we have New World Disorder. Conflicts on just about every continent of the globe and repression of Christians in foreign countries is growing and this year we see our own country possibly fighting on three different continents. Our own sons and daughters leaving for war.

But yet in the middle of the all the problems that we face today, we have the story of the struggle of seeking to serve God here in America, in the face of what the world views as success. The Bible is very clear in this matter. Throughout the Old and New Testaments we are taught that success is not the measure of a man’s popularity or the calculation of the number of material possessions that he has amassed in this life. Very often it is interpreted that way. In the ancient days the Jews had a saying, “Whom God loveth, he maketh rich.” But that philosophy got them in a lot of trouble. And their very philosophy today is echoed very sarcastically perhaps on the bumper sticker that we often see. “He who dies with the most toys wins.” However for us, it’s believer’s true success is knowing God’s will for us. And God has a will for each mother here, for each adult and child. God has a will. God has a plan. And true success is knowing that plan and doing it with all of our hearts.

Contrary to the attitudes of the world, and even the attitudes of many believers today, Christ is calling us to life of self-denial and a life of serving others. I recollect the words of William Carey in the 18th and 19th century. He was often referred to as the father of modern missions. A shoe cobbler who was called of God to go to India and he reached literally millions of people during his lifetime with the gospel of Christ. William Carey’s heart was burdened for the lost. He cried out to God and he poured out tears as he looked at a globe that he had made of shoe leather and he prayed to God for the salvation of peoples in foreign lands. In speaking to one congregation or a conference of ministers he said

“Seeing the great overwhelming spiritual need that exists in our world today, it’s not a question as to whether or not we should go and do something about it, we should rather ask God if we should stay where we are.”

I would like to say that ancient and medieval and modern history is replete with success stories of our brothers and sisters who have accomplished great things for the Lord Jesus Christ. Despite their pride and temptation that they had towards materialistic indulgence and the temptation to be complacent and unconcerned, they went forth and did great things for God. The ancient historical recording of some of their lives is chronicled in the Epistle of Hebrews, to the Hebrews in Chapter 11. Now today for our sermon text we looked at Hebrews 12, 1 and 2 and on through verse 13. But that Chapter 12 begins with a “wherefore” and in seminary I was always taught that when there is a wherefore you have to find out what it is there for. Chapter 12 is referring back to Chapter 11. What is Chapter 11 talking about? It talks about great men and women, heroes of the faith and who is recorded there? Well we don’t have time to mention them all and even the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews said he didn’t have time to write about them all. But he mentions a few and I am just going to skip over even some of those today because we simply don’t have time.

There was Noah that God used to build the ark in the face of great opposition, he believed God when there had never been rain on earth and went out with his family to build an ark in the middle of a desert area and to warn the people that there was going to be a flood, when there had never been a flood on earth. Now that took great faith. Can you imagine people coming up to the side of that huge boat that was one and half times long as a football field and as wide as a football field and he with his sons and their family members trying to protect that boat at night. Can you imagine people coming up and writing graffiti on the side of the boat and jeering at crazy old Noah because he said that water was going to fall from the sky and there is going to be a flood on earth, but Noah believed God.

Then there was Abraham. Abraham when called of God, he left his parents in the abundant wealth that he had in _______, he left it all behind to follow God. It said that when God gave the command Abraham went out not even knowing where he was going, but God said, “Go” and he went. And we read that Abraham lived in tents the rest of his life, going from one place to another, simply because he believed God and wanted to obey God. Abraham had blind faith in what God said, that what God said was true and that what God said was to be obeyed. There were many other examples of Abraham’s blind obedience of God during his life. How unreasonable that blind obedience must have been to Abraham’s parents and friend’s back in _____ _____ when he said he was going and his parents said, “Where are you going?” And he says, “I don’t know, I am just going, because God said go.”

Then there is Moses. We read that Moses, who could have been King of Egypt, Pharaoh, who could have enjoyed all the honor of that position and all the wealth of that position, we read that he chose rather to suffer affliction with God’s people, Israel, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season. In the King James Version it says that because he had respect under the recompense of the reward. He knew the difference between temporal time and eternity. Moses believed what God had said and Moses obeyed God and we read that he took the children of Israel and lived in the wilderness with them for so many years, the children of Israel that were grumbling and complaining and getting on his nerves, yet Moses believed God. And then we read there that there was Samson and Rahab and David and many others. Certainly not perfect men and women by any means, but they were men and women of great faith. They believed God and their belief resulted in some powerful action.

Now today we can add to the Old Testament saints that are listed there in Hebrews Chapter 11 because we have more church history and we can add on to them the 12 Apostles, who went throughout the world being Peter crucified as tradition says upside-down because he believed what Jesus said. John, according to tradition boiled in oil on the Island of Patmus, and Thomas who was speared to death in Madros, India. The Apostle Paul who was either beheaded or thrown to the lions in Rome. They bravely confronted opposition to their witness and in many cases they chose death over life and in doing so they turned the world upside-down. Through the following centuries they were followed by our early church fathers and then later on by the reformers and we read about John Huss, who was burned at the stake in Germany. Hugh Lattimer burned at the stake in England and many others who chose to be faithful to God and whose testimonies produced great fruit because they believed God.

Beginning at the age of 18 I began traveling overseas and God has given me the privilege to be in Europe every year since then, at least once to serve him. Working first in France, Italy and Germany I had soon became interested in Eastern Europe. I had read some books about the Christians of Eastern Europe who were living under communism and I went there. I began smuggling Bibles. I met wonderful saints of God. During those years in Czechoslovakia and Hungary and Romania, later in the Soviet Union, the former Soviet Union and also in China, I had met with Christians who had been in prison for up to 35 years. Separated from their families, and from other brothers and sisters who lived in terrible conditions in prison because they had faith in God. I had met with widows and children in homes whose fathers had been put to death because they chose to be faithful to Jesus Christ. And all this brings us in closing once again to our message test today, considering all of these saints who have gone before, Old Testament, New Testament and since then, early church fathers and reformers and even today, How ought we to live? 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 us. It’s hard to do in today’s society. But we are encouraged to do it and we as believers we want to do it and let us run with perseverance the race that is marked out for us. God has a plan for each one of us. He’s got a race for each one of us to run. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author, the perfecter of our faith. He is the one who began our faith and he is the one who will continue our faith and give us strength to live for him. Who for the joy that is set before him endured the cross scorning its shame and then sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. And let me say sat down in victory. Consider Christ who endured such opposition from worldly sinful men, so that we ourselves today won’t grow weary and won’t lose heart.

Brothers and sisters, again I am aware of the wonderful things that God is doing through you here in Central Presbyterian Church. The church has even continued to grow without a senior pastor. God has given you strong leadership, united leadership and I encourage you to continue doing what you are doing. This next year 2003 is going to be even more difficult than the last year. But we need to keep on keeping on. We live in critical times and we need to be faithful to God during these critical times. I would encourage you once more with some words from William Carey. Despite the times in which we are living, these words are very appropriate. “Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.” Let’s seek individually and corporately the spirit of dedication and catch the vision of those who have gone before us, let us serve Jesus by seeking to serve others. Indeed it’s not a question as to whether we should go out to help those who are in need, it’s rather a question as to whether we should sit back and remain comfortable during the days ahead. I don’t think any of us has permission to do that. We can ask ourselves in the words of hymn writer, Isaac Wah who penned these words in 1709,

“Am I a soldier of the cross, a follower of the lamb? Shall I fear Jesus’ calls or blush to speak his name? Must I be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease while others fought to win the prize? And sail through bloody seas? Are there no foes for me to face? Must I not stem the flood? Is this vile world a friend of grace to help me on to God? Sure, I must fight if I would rein. Increase my courage Lord. I will bear the toil, endure the pain supported by thy word.”

God Bless his word today, Hebrews 12, 1, 2 and 3. Let those words and the testimonies of the saints in Chapter 11, early church fathers, reformers and brothers and sisters in our own times who suffered for Christ, let them be an encouragement to us to be faithful no matter what the cost.

God, we thank you for your word, we thank you for your Holy Spirit that leads us and instructs us. Today we ask that you would help us to be faithful to you throughout the coming year and help give us a vision to expect great things from you and to attempt great things for you. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.