Sermon by Professor John Stensvaag, Luther Seminary Chapel, St. Paul, Minnesota, January 14, 1979
Text: Hebrews 12:1-3 — 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, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he 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 sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
The recipients of the Letter to the Hebrews were in need of encouragement. They had found that discipleship was no path of roses. Rather than peace, joy, and prosperity, it had brought hardship and hostility, and some of them, it seems, were quite ready to throw in the towel and call it quits.
To counter this defeatism and to instill in them a new spirit of courage, the author gives example upon example of persons who in times past persevered in the face of great difficulty— Abraham, Moses, Gideon, David and the prophets. Some, he said were tortured; others suffered mocking and scourging. But they did not quit! Why? Because they believed in God and rested in his promises. And now, says the author, when you are hard pressed, think of all these who have gone before you. They are round about you like a cloud, witnesses to God’s faithfulness, cheering you on.
You and I in our day are not up against the same kind of pressure as were these early Christians. But we, too, are tempted at times to become discouraged, to wonder if it’s at all worthwhile, this Christian walk. We don’t seem to be making any headway against evil, either in the world or in ourselves. And what about all the promises of God? We don’t see any great evidence of all these good things coming into our lives. We may well wonder then, is the whole thing a delusion? Are we on the wrong track?
In such moments of discouragement, there is great strength in remembering that we are not alone, that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, countless thousands, yes, millions who have gone the way before us. They, too, had doubts. They, too, had trials. Some of them had worse trials than we will ever have; but they persevered in the faith and lived to give thanks to God.
This passage about the cloud of witnesses came home to me with great force a few years ago when my wife and I visited Gamle Aker, an old stone church in Oslo, built almost 900 years ago. We came a bit too early for the services and so we walked about the outside, looking at the grave markers, trying to make out the names and dates on these weather-beaten stones. There, among the others, we came across the grave of Hans Nielsen Hauge, born 1771, died 1824. As a young man Hauge had a conversion experience while working in a field on his father’s farm; and in the days that followed, God laid on his heart a great burden for his own people. He traveled up and down the length of Norway preaching the gospel of the grace of God. In so doing, he called people from dead ‘churchianity’ and empty forms, to a vital life in God. A remarkable spiritual awakening followed.
Church historians will tell us that many of the Norwegian emigrants who came to this country in the 19th century had been deeply affected by this awakening, and that this in turn affected the churches that they founded here. The Haugean awakening, with its call to lay witnessing, to a meaningful life with God, and to earnest and godly living, is a part of our heritage here at Luther— a very good part. It’s great to know that in that cloud of witnesses that calls to us and cheers on, there is is someone like Hauge, a man who suffered much opposition and many and yet remained faithful to his God.
But most meaningful to me that day in Oslo was the communion service in the old stone church. As I knelt at the altar I thought of the countless Christians who had knelt there before me. Generation after generation, century after century, they had bent their knees and confessed their faith. It hit me as never before that I was a part of that great family of God, reaching back through all the ages, back to the first disciples in that upper room, yes even back to Abraham himself. The thought of it gave me both joy and strength. I am not alone. I am not a solitary Christian fighting the battle of faith. I am a part of the communion of saints. That’s true of me and that’s true of you. We are a part of a great army on the march, each helping the other. Rank upon rank have gone before us, rank upon rank will follow after us, yes, on and on until that great day when we shall come from the East and from the West to sit down at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the little people, in the kingdom of God.
The witnesses are all about us, “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven”– yes, and we might add, all the company on earth, too. Perhaps some of you are thinking just now of some departed dear ones, a parent, or a grandparent, or a Sunday School teacher or a pastor. A host of witnesses, and everyone quite different. Yet they all have one thing in common, they point us not to themselves, but to Jesus Christ. It is to him we look now in this sacred moment. He is the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith… For the joy that was set before Him, He endured the cross, despising the shame and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.” He persevered, and because of Him and His unfailing love, we too shall persevere, we too shall be with God forever.
Gamle Aker Kirke (Old Aker Church), Oslo, Norway
Almighty God, we pray that,
encouraged by the example of your saints,
we may run with patience the race that is set before us,
looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith;
so that at the last we may join those whom we love
in your presence where there is fullness of joy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
–Book of Common Prayer