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Cloud of Witnesses

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Hebrews 11:29-12:2

A little boy went into a shop advertising “Puppies for sale”. The owner showed him five adorable little puppies. How much are they he asked. £50 the man replied.

Reaching into his pocket the little boy pulled out some loose change and counted it. £1.47p. “I’m afraid I can’t sell you one for £1.47p” said the man, “you’ll have to save your money and come back next time we have more puppies for sale”.

The pet shop owner’s wife appeared with another puppy from the back of the shop. It was smaller than the others and had bad leg. It couldn’t stand up properly and it limped. The little boy asked what was wrong with it. The man told him that the vet had examined it and discovered that it didn’t have a hip socket. It would always limp and always be lame.

“Oh, I wish I had the money to buy that puppy” said the boy excitedly, “that’s the one I would choose!”

The shop keeper said the puppy wasn’t for sale but if the boy really wanted him he would give him to him free of charge. The boy became quite upset. He didn’t want him free of charge. That puppy was worth every bit as much as the other dogs for sale. “I’ll give you the £1.47p now and pay you £1 each month until he is paid for.”

The shopkeeper was puzzled and said, “You don’t really want to spend your money on a dog like this. He’ll never be able to run and play with you like the other puppies could.” The boy bent down and pulled up his trouser leg. Revealing a twisted and crippled leg encased in a metal brace he said “I can’t run and play too well myself. Perhaps he needs someone like me who understands.” The letter to the Hebrews was written to a group of Christians who were really going through a tough time. Probably those who’d just witnessed the appalling persecutions under Nero. They knew what real pain and suffering was all about. And God speaks to them through this letter - showing them the empathy and encouragement that can only come from one who has suffered in a similar way.

Not just by telling them that Jesus has been there before them but by also giving them great examples of faith and encouragement from Old Testament characters. Characters that despite being up against incredible odds all trusted in God and were delivered by Him. But remarkably the characters included in this list were all rather flawed people.

And, surely, the Hebrews, and we ourselves, must find it encouraging to discover that the people God holds up to us as role-models have all of our weaknesses?

The first person quoted as an example of great faith, Rahab, who at great personal risk hid and protected the spies that Joshua sent into Jericho. As a Canaanite woman she was something of an outsider anyway. But being a woman of very ill repute shows that God can, and does, work through the most unusual channels. He’s no respecter of our humanly defined boundaries. Even the most unlikely people can receive God’s word and receive his power.

Neither virtuous or pious she is held up as an example of wonderful faith. In spite of what she was she put her faith in God and was delivered. Having heard how God had enabled the Hebrew pilgrims to cross the Red Sea, she believed if it was possible for Him to perform that seemingly impossible task that he could save her too.

After Rahab comes more examples of flawed role-models of faith to encourage those suffering Hebrews who might be contemplating giving up on their faith.

Gideon who was frightened and doubted God. Barak who was so hesitant he wouldn’t do the Lord’s will unless Deborah went with him. Samson who stupidly allowed Delilah to know the secret of his strength when she was obviously up to no good. Jephthah who acted in such a rash way that his daughter had to lose her life on his account. David, besotted by a beautiful woman and committed adultery. Samuel who allowed his money-grabbing and dishonest sons to become judges in Israel.

So to a people that were suffering great persecution and consequently flagging in their faith these rather weak and feeble people are held up as examples of faith. People who trusted in God against all the odds and were delivered by Him.

I find that encouraging. I hope you won’t be too disillusioned if I tell you that I’m not perfect. As a weak and feeble human being I find it encouraging to know that others with similar weaknesses have gone before and been delivered by God.

These examples of faith also show us that faith is no guarantee of an easy life free from pain and suffering. But these victorious people won through and are now in fact a great cloud of witnesses for us. Witnesses to the faithfulness of God, and in some mysterious way witnesses to the race which they have finished but we are now running.

And we are running the race with an advantage that they didn’t have, for we have the supreme example of Jesus. They trusted and endured without knowing anything about Jesus. We are fortunate enough to have a goal to aim for. Jesus who can draw us on with his magnetic love if we keep our eyes on Him. This is vital! As in any race there are others running alongside us but we must keep our eyes fixed on Jesus as the goal and not on others running alongside. We are not running in a competitive race.

This fact helps explain the difficulty of today’s gospel passage. Jesus does divide: we who are running towards Him are divided from those who are not.

The great cloud of witnesses is our example, spurring us on towards the prize of Jesus. A cloud of witnesses that’s able to spur us on all the more because they were as weak and fallible as us.

But as comforting and helpful as it might be to be spurred on by people that were every bit as deficient as us I wonder if you still find it a little surprising that these characters are offered as examples of faith?

This ties in with many amazing discoveries I’ve made in my life-time – often at CYFA camp – each one usually showing me that God is not really a God of common sense. Now, common sense is an attribute that I’ve always highly prized. I’m often heard bemoaning the fact that someone is all brains and no common sense and I’ve always valued common sense far more highly than any intellectual ability.

Consequently it’s always a shock to discover that God doesn’t always seem to display much common sense. When God called Abraham (as we heard last week), or when God told Noah to build the ark, where was the common sense in that? Remember the Titanic was built by professionals – the ark by amateurs!

Look at Rahab again. Common sense would have told her that these wandering desert nomads with no artillery or military power couldn’t possibly capture Jericho. Yet she staked her future, and that of her family, on the belief that God would do the impossible even though common sense said it was a hopeless situation.

We’re told to race towards a goal that is physically invisible to us. A goal that much of the world believes to be irrelevant or non-existent. We’re told that this race is surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Fallible witnesses that some would say, at best are sleeping in the Lord, and at worst no more than dust.

Perhaps the biggest example of a this seeming lack of common sense is the fact that when we give our lives wholeheartedly to this God, Jesus, it all seems like pie-in-the-sky tomorrow, for most of our lives here seem to be racked with pain and suffering.

But God tells us in the face of such adversity, to trust as former heroes and heroines have done. To trust against all odds - and common sense. For those that witness our race, and most especially Jesus, the goal and the companion on the way, know what it’s like for us.

This God in whom we trust really knows and empathises with us along the way.

Like the boy and the puppy He knows when we find life hard because our lives are twisted and painful. He’s been there too and He’s there with us now.

We’re a crippled people, crippled by sin, crippled by the pain in a world that doesn’t know God and says success is a sign of ‘wholeness’ and ‘goodness’. As a consequence our pain and suffering makes it easy for us to be crippled by thoughts of our inadequacy, our lack of self-worth. Crippled by thoughts that perhaps God is not real after all. Perhaps God doesn’t love us after all.

But He is the crippled God, twisted in agony at our suffering. Twisted with agony at those who reject Him. A God that with nail scarred feet and hands limps along with us. That knows just how to encourage us through His word, giving us examples that we can relate to. Giving us a guide that understands because He’s been there too. And if this doesn’t make great common sense then perhaps that’s good.

The beginning of our Hebrews passage talks of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea and being saved and yet when the Egyptians followed they perished. When the Egyptians saw the amazing sight of the sea being held back and the Israelites passing through it seemed like common sense to follow. If those people just in front were O.K. then they would be too. But the Egyptians didn’t have what was most needed. Faith.

Faith in a great and mighty God that delivers those who trust and belief in Him - whatever the odds. This discovery that God doesn’t always seem to employ what I perceive as common sense feels a bit risky to me.

Personally I always see September as the start of a New Year and as I prepare to embark on another lap of life’s race I invite you to join me. As I look at those less than perfect examples of faith I’m encouraged by their faith which defied common sense.

For my part I often find myself echoing that great cry from the father who asked Jesus to heal his son. “I believe, help thou my unbelief”.

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