This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning. The text I preached on was Hebrews 11:29 — 12:2.
The book of Hebrews tells us some faith stories. First, the faith story of the Israelites who were set free from slavery in Egypt. As they were escaping, the Egyptians pursued them. Hebrews tells us that by faith the Israelites were able, thanks to God, to pass through the Red Sea as if it were dry land. But when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. After God led them to the promised land, they encountered a city called Jericho, whose people fought them. The walls of Jericho were high and strong, yet by faith the Israelites encircled the walls, and at the blast of a trumpet, the walls fell, thanks to God. And they captured the city. Through faith, they were safe from all their enemies.
Then Hebrews tells us the faith story of Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute who, despite the fact that her people and the Israelites were enemies, through faith hid the Israelite spies, and prevented their capture.
Hebrews lists some others with faith stories. Gideon, the Israelite warrior who trusted that God would win the victory over the Midianites, even while he was hopelessly outnumbered.
Barak, Samson, and Jephthah, judges of Israel whose faith in God’s word led them to victory and wisdom. Samuel and the prophets, whose faith led them to proclaim God’s word to the people even when their own lives were at risk. King David, whose faith in God allowed him to unite the country and rule over a golden age for Israel.
Faith Stories. Faith Stories are stories of people, everyday people, told from the perspective of their faith. A Faith Story is like an autobiography, but told from the standpoint of faith. The author of Hebrews doesn’t mention these people because they were perfect. Samson was a bully, Barak was a coward. Gideon continually put God to the test. Rahab wasn’t even an Israelite. King David was a murderer and an adulterer. Yet all these people, at key times in their lives, put their faith in God. And through that faith, God was able to change the world.
From one perspective, the Bible is simply a series of Faith Stories. The stories of the Old Testament are the faith stories of many Israelites, who put their trust in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And the stories of the New Testament are the faith stories of many early Christians, who put their trust in the same God, whom they now knew as the father of Jesus Christ. All these stories tell of what God did for these people. How God provided for them. How God called them. And the amazing things these normal, imperfect people did in God’s name.
And the author of Hebrews tells us exactly why we have so many Faith Stories here. Here’s why: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” These people are a cloud of witnesses. The narrative of the Bible gives us a cloud of witnesses. A witness is someone who has seen something and reported it. These people have seen the amazing power of God, and told of it. The author of Hebrews himself, or herself, is one of these witnesses, by writing this book, telling us how active God has been in the history of Israel.
And because there are so many of these witnesses, they become like a cloud. There are so many that they all kind of blend together. There is no need to remember whether it was through Barak or Samson that God defeated the Canaanites – the point is that all of these people witness and report and live out the work of the same God. That’s what makes them a cloud, and what makes their testimony so powerful. So many people have experienced God’s love and power, and so many people’s lives have been changed through it.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”
They inspire us. They encourage us. They give us hope and endurance. Through their witness, God gives us hope that we can be witnesses too.
And that’s the trick. The cloud of witnesses is always changing, always growing. It didn’t stop when Hebrews was written. Our cloud of witnesses is bigger than that, and we each have our own clouds. People whose faith has made a difference in our lives. I can tell you the names of some of the witnesses in my life: Nina. Kurt. Tom. Kim. Maritza. These people and many more have shown me what it means to be faithful, what amazing things God can do. These people are just as important as those listed in Hebrews, maybe more so, because I’ve actually met these people! You have some people in your life as well. Who are among your cloud of witnesses? Call out some names! They could be family members, friends, teachers, coaches, pastors, authors, singers, people you know or celebrities or whoever. Call some names out.
These are your witnesses. Together they make a huge cloud of witnesses here in Johnsonville. Their lives, their inspiration, their faith, their stories have helped make us who we are. I could tell you stories about Nina, and Kurt, and Tom, and Maritza, and Kim, and why they’re part of my cloud of witnesses. And you could all tell me about all your names. You could tell me something of what these people taught you, what they struggled with, what they suffered, how they persevered, and what God did through them. We don’t have time in this sermon to share those stories, but it is those stories that make them the witnesses they are. Those stories of faith. The Faith Stories of our Cloud of Witnesses.
You also have a Faith Story. Each and every one of you. You have a story of how God has been active in your life. Maybe not as spectacular as the stories of some. But your Faith Story is just as powerful, and just as important, as theirs. What difference has God made in your life? What have you lived through because of God? How has God used you in the world? How have you struggled to trust God? Answering these questions are the way of discerning our own Faith Stories.
Over the next few months, members of Prince of Peace are going to have some opportunities to learn how to discern your Faith Story, and how to tell it. Some of these opportunities may be during worship, but most will be at other times. The first opportunity is the “40 Days of Prayer and Faith Sharing.” These opportunities will take a commitment. But I think this is incredibly important, because when you can recognize your own Faith Story, when you can tell your Faith Story to someone else, your faith grows deeper, and so does theirs.
And in doing that, you become part of the next generation of the Cloud of Witnesses. And people in decades to come will think of you when they hear these words of Hebrews: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”
Do you want to be part of that cloud of witnesses? Let’s discern our Faith Stories together.