The Great Cloud & the Big Race

On Sunday, I was so moved by the stories of contemporary saints who have meant so much to members of our church. The stories were vulnerable and beautiful and gave such poignant vitality to our celebration of All Saints’ Day.

In case you missed it, my older son and his friend both dressed as Jed (complete with cardigan) and my youngest dressed as Chris (man-bun included). Pretty much the cutest thing in the world, but in its own silly way a testimony to just how early in life we find our saints. We like to believe that we are these nicely independent beings who might need a helping hand from time to time when things get bad, but for the most part, we’ve got this under control. My boys bust that myth—it is their joy to know that at every moment they are upheld in their faith by others who love them.

As the service progressed, I felt led to share Hebrews 11-12 with all of you. I was only able to sneak in a snippet then, but I wanted to dwell for a moment here.

Hebrews 11 begins with that incredible definition of faith, “being sure of what we hope for and certain about what we do not see.” It’s a wonderful paradox—the very definition of faith seems so impossible that it requires faith from us! But that definition also kicks off what I always heard called “the Hall of Fame of Faith” in my Sunday School Days.

The writer of Hebrews lists great heroes from the Bible, listing them one by one. It’s a roll-call of those who did amazing things—the sort of saints we stand in awe of. And indeed that’s a ready temptation with our saints, isn’t it? Sometimes we want to put them neatly behind glass so that they are always these shining examples of perfection and impossible achievement. We admire them but we make them too perfect to actually try to imitate.

But the author of Hebrews steers us away from that mistake. The author says that it wasn’t their deeds that made these men and women great. They weren’t just the best and the brightest, the ones who caught all the breaks or had all the talent. Instead, what’s emphasized is their faith. Their remarkable achievement was their utter reliance on God in all things. The more the saints diminished their own agendas, the more they stopped leaning on their own abilities, the more saintly they became.

Still, even that level of faith can be intimidating. There’s still a sense that ‘that’s them’ and ‘we’re us’ and, well, we just aren’t going to make it into that hall of fame.

Again, the author to the Hebrews pivots: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the father.”

Those who have been saintly presences in our lives, instead of exerting pressure to achieve or do, actually encourage us first to cast off and give up. That is to say, their example was such a testimony of faith, that our immediate response is to lay aside the weighty sins that cling to us—chief among those sins the prideful desire to run the race on our own.

And notice too that while we may have been set on our path by that great cloud of witnesses, we run with our eyes fixed not on them, but on Jesus, to whom they had always been pointing.

The month of November mirrors this arc perfectly. We begin this time together remembering all those who have been saints to us, and as we are encouraged and compelled by those saints, we move toward the end of the month and the end of our church year with Christ the King Sunday, when our eyes are drawn upward to the supremacy of Jesus in all things, forever and ever. Amen.