>The following was preached at Veedersburg and Hillsboro UMC on Sunday, August 15, 2010.  The text for this week’s message is Hebrews 11:29-12:2.

The last couple of weeks, we have looked at passages that help us to understand what it means to live the Christian life.  Two weeks ago we looked at some of the practical application portion of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, and we saw the importance of keeping our minds occupied with heavenly things.  Last week we looked at the opening chapter of the book of Isaiah.  It was a difficult message for us to hear, but I think that just makes it all the more important.

The people of Israel had gotten to the point where their sacrificial system became a way for them to sin, and not have to worry about it.  If they sinned against God or their neighbor, they knew that their sacrifice would atone for it.  It was no big deal.  They were just shrugging off their sin.  In speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God lets the people know, in no uncertain terms, that this is unacceptable.  They cannot simply go through the motions of their faith and assume that everything will be all right.  Living a life of faith is about what is going on in your heart.  It doesn’t matter what you do or what you say if your heart is not in the right place.

Today, we are going to go in a little different direction.  Today’s Scripture is not so much about what to do or what not to do when it comes to our life of faith, but, rather, it’s a way for us to stop and take a look around.  We are not in this alone.  Nobody becomes a Christian without somebody else coming alongside, and nobody can mature in their faith by doing everything alone.  We need to have people to help us grow.  Now, keep that in mind because we are going to come back to it in a minute, but to begin with this morning, I want to take just a couple of minutes to introduce Hebrews, the letter where we find ourselves this morning.

First off, while tradition tells us that the apostle Paul is the author of this letter, the truth is, we don’t really know.  Nowhere in the letter is the author identified, and some of the grammar doesn’t match-up with Paul’s other writing, so say people who study such things.  It appears as though the recipient of the letter is a group of Jewish believers, and we can see that through some of the content, but also in the first verse, the author talks about how God spoke to “our fathers” through the prophets.
Just as we are not exactly sure who the author or audience for this letter is, we do not know exactly when it was written.  It is a pretty safe bet to say that it was written prior to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D, but that only narrows it down to a 30-40 year window.

This letter is really more about encouraging believers to hold on to their faith in Jesus Christ.  The author spends quite a bit of time talking about how Jesus is greater than the angels, priests and the old covenantal system.  In Jesus, we see the fulfillment of all that God has been doing in history.  Instead of calling the people out of the old covenant, however, this letter encourages us to take the next step in faith and find true rest and peace in Jesus Christ.  In some sense, it is really about persevering in the faith no matter what obstacles may arise.

Hebrews 11 begins by giving us a definition of faith.  “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  When we come to today’s reading, we are coming to a part in the letter that points to the history of the people of Israel.  This is a section that would have brought to mind a ton of different stories of people that we can find in the Old Testament; stories that really meant something to the Jewish people.

Throughout the portion of the chapter that we didn’t read this morning, the writer talks about the stories of Cain & Abel, of Abraham and of Moses; stories that are rich and deep in significance.  We opened today’s reading with more great stories and figures for the people of Israel – the exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea and the fall of Jericho.  Stories of great people of faith in their history – Rahab, a woman who wasn’t even an Israelite, but still displayed an amazing amount of faith; the judges, the kings, the prophets – all people who were far from perfect, but still were examples of faith for the Jewish people.

I find this passage to be really inspiring because it is a call to remember those who have gone before us in the faith.  And at the end of the section, the writer says that all of these people, these giants of the faith that had gone before us, though they were certainly commended for their faith, they never saw the fulfillment of God’s promises.  Their stories are stories that should inspire us to greatness in our faith, and yet, even they could not see what has been revealed to us through Jesus Christ.  As great as they were, there was still something more.

The writer then goes on to give us this great image.  He says that we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.  One of the highlights of my life, apart from the obvious things, has to be taking a trip to Cooperstown to see the National Baseball Hall of Fame.  I know that sounds like a weird statement to make, but stick with me for a minute on this one.

Cooperstown is just an unassuming town.  I think it’s fair to say that it’s not all that much bigger than Covington.  It is a small town tucked away in middle-of-nowhere New York state.  And yet, in this town, there is a place that is inspiring.  You walk into the Hall of Fame, and you are greeted by those who have gone before.  You see the exhibits; you remember the stories of the past; maybe you even learn a few more stories along the way.  Being a Cardinal fan, obviously some things were going to stick out more – Musial’s locker, Brock’s cleats, the World Series rings.  But I also remember seeing a tribute to Jackie Robinson, and other greats of the game.

After you go through all the exhibits, and you remember those stories, you go downstairs to the hallway where all the plaques are located.  And it is awesome.  It is pretty quiet, and you are surrounded by the likeness and stories of the greatest players of the game of baseball.  As a baseball fan, there is no place quite like it.  And when I read this passage of Hebrews, I get that same feeling.

I get the feeling that the author is taking us on a tour.  We are going through the museum of our faith, and we are seeing and hearing and experiencing these stories as if for the first time.  We should be in awe of what is happening all around us.  We should be inspired to a greater faith, and that is what we see in this passage.  We see a call to live our lives in a way that is consistent with the greatness that has been laid down before us.

And here’s the thing, we aren’t just walking through a museum where we can see the great feats that others have done.  We have to realize that we are a part of something greater than just ourselves.  We are a part of a community of faith.  Take a look around you.  You are not on this faith journey alone.  Not only are there people who have gone before us, but there are people all around us who are on that same journey.

I don’t know of a single person that has ever gone through their entire life of faith all by themselves.  You are here this morning because somebody influenced you life in a powerful way, and you decided to check out what God was doing.  Maybe this happened recently; maybe this happened decades ago.  Nobody does it alone.  The community of faith is just that – a community.  It is a gathering of people seeking after God.  Nobody has got it all so right that they don’t need others to take the journey with them.
As a response to this reality, because we are surrounded by so great a community of faith, we are called to press onward.  We are called to put away the things in our lives that hold us back from our relationship with God.  I like the language that the author uses here.  He tells us to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely.”

Have you ever thought of your sin as something that weighs you down?  Have you ever thought of your sin as something that clings closely to you?  Those are great analogies for the things in our lives that do us no good.  It is difficult enough to go through this life, but when we try to do it with things weighing us down, it is even more difficult.

I remember going camping once with a friend and a handful of middle school boys.  We went on a hike, and it was a pretty hot day.  So, we brought a backpack full of granola bars and bottles of water to give us the energy to do this hike.  And guess who got to carry the backpack.  This hike was going to be hard enough as it was, but to add an additional 20-30 pounds in the backpack made it even more difficult.  And while I was tired and worn out by the end of the hike, do you know what made it a little easier?  The fact that the backpack weighed significantly less as we drank the water and ate the snacks.

Life is a lot like that.  As we continue in our journey, and we begin to release more and more of the sin that is weighing us down, it becomes a little easier.  I’m not saying that giving your life to Christ means that you are suddenly going to have smooth sailing, but it does become less of a burden when we hand over our sins to the Lord.  Our sins weigh us down, and over time, they wear us down.  They cling to us.  They make life difficult.  But because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it is possible for us to be rid of our sins once and for all.

The call in this passage is for us to look at the example of Jesus Christ and be encouraged by it.  We are called to press on.  Let go of the sins that are clinging to you and follow the example set forth by Jesus.  Living the Christian life has a lot to do with perseverance and endurance.  It is not always going to be easy.  We are going to need to stick to it, even when it is difficult, and the reason why we can is by faith, by looking at those who have gone before us, and even by turning to those who are walking alongside us right now.