Thursday, November 07, 2013

Sermon: Hebrews 11:32 - 12:2 All Saints

Halloween is a funny time of the year. The false faces sit side by side with the Christmas cakes on the supermarket shelves. The fireworks can often turn out to be a damp squib. The practice of ‘trick or treating’ seems to be on the rise - whether you’ve a bucket of sweets ready or you sit in the darkness hoping they’ll just go away. My sister-in-law went through a box of lollies and several bags of fun size bars in her housing development; whereas anyone calling at the rectory would have been disappointed. We were out at the bowls!

Halloween is now big business - from the selling of sweets and costumes, to the tourist attraction that is Londonderry with the big parade. And Christians are divided as to whether to embrace it all or not. For some, its association with all things wicked and scary is just too much; for others, a bit of dressing up and partying never harmed anyone, especially if it can be used for the gospel. Some churches even have ‘bright lights’ parties to celebrate the light of the world on that dark day.

Yet the very idea of Halloween comes from the church - Halloween being the Hallowed Even - the night before All Saints Day, 1st November. So tonight, you’ll be glad to know that we aren’t thinking about Halloween, but rather about the saints.

Saints aren’t just special holy people, as some traditions hold; nor are they stained glass window characters who are long practiced at looking very pious. Rather, the saints are Christians - any Christian, not just those who are dead and already in Christ’s nearer presence. Paul writes to the saints in Ephesus, Philippi, and Colossae - he’s writing to the church, to Christians.

Tonight, for a few moments, we’re going to look at this little passage from Hebrews which brings us face to face with all saints - both those in glory (what the Prayer Book calls the Church Triumphant) and we who are here right now (the Church Militant here on earth). But, as we’ll see, the saints aren’t our main focus. We can encourage one another, but we’ll discover our main focus in a wee while.

We jump in towards the end of Hebrews 11, and we come face to face with the saints of old. The chapter has been described as the Hall of Fame of faith and there are some great stories - Abel’s faith in offering blood sacrifice; Noah’s faith in building the ark; Abraham’s faith in obeying God’s voice by trusting his promise as he went to a place he did not know; Moses’ faith in choosing to go with the Israelites rather than remain in the palace.

The writer is almost getting carried away as he surveys the Old Testament and reminds his readers of the faith in action of so many saints of old. We get this great summary of what the prophets did - including the stopping the mouths of lions and quenching the power of fire, which you might recognise from our morning series in Daniel.

All these examples of old testament saints show that it’s not always easy to be a believer, but in the end it will be worth it. And that’s important in the context of the letter to the Hebrews. These were Jewish Christians who were now thinking about giving up on Jesus and going back to the temple religion. So the whole way through the letter, the writer keeps showing them how Jesus is better than the old covenant - He is a better mediator priest; of a better covenant; through a better sacrifice.

The argument is therefore - because Jesus is better, keep going by faith in him, rather than deserting him and losing out. All these saints are pictured as ‘a great cloud of witnesses’ like the crowd in an athletics stadium, cheering on those running towards the line.

All those inspiring voices call us to keep going, to not give up as we run our race. Just think of the moment in eternity when you’ll be able to chat with Moses about what it was like when the burning bush spoke to him, or with David to hear about him slaying Goliath. So keep going.

If the saints in glory are the witnesses, the case studies of God’s grace in the past, well we find that we are the saints who are on the track. We are the ones who are being urged to run with endurance the race that is set before us.

To do that we need to do two things. First, to ‘lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely’. We need to get rid of things. Just as you wouldn’t see an Olympic champion taking to the track in a cassock and surplice or in wellies, dungarees and a raincoat, so we need to lay aside anything which will hinder us, slow us down, or keep us back.

It may be something different for each one of us. What is it that holds you back? If it’s a particular sin, Jesus has already dealt with it. Earlier in Hebrews we’re told of how Jesus is the (better) perfect sacrifice for sin. So let go of it. Don’t carry it around with you any more. It’s only hindering you.

The second thing to do is to look. I remember when I was learning to drive and my instructor said to look in the direction you’re going. Don’t just depend on the mirrors, but look where you’re going. And it’s what the writer tells us here: ‘looking to Jesus, the founder and perfector of our faith.’

Jesus is our focus - not the saints of old or the saints by our side. We’re going towards him, and so it’s to him that we look. But it’s not just a vague ‘look to Jesus’ that we’re given. Rather, we see the very same pattern that Jesus endured in order to begin and perfect our faith. He endured the cross. He endured the shame. He looked beyond the current to see what lay beyond - the joy that was set before him.

He is our joy, sitting at the right hand of the Father. His is the face we long for; his the first face we will see in glory. Look to him. Remember what he has achieved for you, and keep going.

The season of All Saints is a useful time to remember those who have gone on ahead. But don’t focus on the saints. Instead, look to Jesus as you, and I, and we, and the whole church moves closer to heaven, and closer to all that God has promised.

This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall, Brookeborough on Sunday 3rd November 2013.

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