A sermon preached by Fr. Justin Clemente November 7, 2021, All Saints’ Sunday at New Creation Church (Anglican) in Hagerstown, MD.
Our passage from Hebrews 11 and 12 is the passage we need today, friends. It’s an impressive tour de force of examples from the Old Testament and Intertestamental period of faithful saints. These all lead up to the conclusion in chapter 12: you have something even better. You have Jesus: signed, sealed, and delivered.
I want to jump right into our passage with the three important lessons I believe the Lord has for us today.
The saints trust in God, not their agenda for God. (11:32-38)
Suffering and hardship are a challenge for us. We’re comfortable with a faith that overcomes, that wins the victory in the here and now, but we’re challenged by the call to endure persecution, distress, and death. We’re challenged, for instance, by the Church Father Tertullian when he says, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
But both are found in our passage today. As the preacher to the Hebrews looks over the Hall of Faith, as we might call it, he sees people who knew how to triumph well and how to suffer well. Isn’t it true, brother and sisters, that in our time and our day, we expect God to make us triumph, but we are severely tested when it comes to the opposite?
But the defining quality of these saints is that they trusted in God, not their agenda for God. There is a massive SHIFT in this passage that will test the mettle of our faith. Can you find it? Do you see it? Most of all, can you embrace it? It happens half-way through verse 35. It begins with the word “some.” We see the people of God now not living by faith but dying by faith. And friends if we don’t get this, then as Tim Keller says, our faith is doomed. You see, we need to hear about suffering well and dying well by faith now, so that we can do it later when it becomes a reality. And for many of us, it has become that this year.
Let’s look at just one example from the scriptures today. Take the faith of three Hebrew men under King Nebuchadnezzar recorded in the book of Daniel. They are found out as faithful Hebrews and are given a choice: worship the king or die in a fiery furnace. How do they respond?
Daniel 3:16-18, “16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. 17 If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
Did you hear that: “Our God is able to deliver us, He will deliver us, but even if he doesn’t, we won’t bow the knee.” Their treasure and hope was in God, not in their agenda for God. Every time we confess the Faith with the words of the Nicene Creed, we echo the faith of these men. We say as we cross ourselves, that “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.” By that we show that our hope is in God alone.
On the other hand, we don’t want to be Christians for whom it is always Lent and never Easter. We don’t want to be so pessimistic that we don’t acknowledge that God is at work in our world and in our lives. After all, Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego were delivered. In verse 35, women do receive back their dead by resurrection! I remember a few years back when Bp. John came for visitation and prayed for Dave Breisch, who was having some very strange symptoms of ill health. Bp. John prayed that God would lay an ax at the root of that disease. And God did. Dave’s health return to normal. We ought not be afraid to celebrate the victories God gives us, for the kingdom of God has broken into our fallen world.
Later in this passage, we’re told that we are to each “run the race that is set before us.” Author John Kleinig notes, “This [phrase]…forms a fixed classical expression for a race whose course had been set by stewards in charge of [an athletic] event.” (Hebrews by John Kleinig, pg. 593) Each of us has a race marked out for us by God himself – and it is usually a marathon, not a sprint. It will include trusting him in triumph and loss, victory and suffering. Let not our comprehension of the goodness and sovereignty of God end at only the good gifts we receive from his hand. Let us go on to believe that he sovereign and good over and in all circumstances. Not because we love suffering and loss, but because our God is so great as to have good purposes for us even in these.
John Piper summarizes it this way: “We live by faith, we die by faith. The defining element of living or dying faith is that it considers God better than what life can give now and what death can take later. Faith is utterly in love with God.”
We have an even greater cloud of witnesses available to us, training us to run our race with endurance (11:39-12:1)
Look at verses 39-40: “39 And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”
These saints in chapter 11 did not receive what was promised. So here, we haven’t even gotten to the New Covenant, to Jesus, and to the saints of the New Covenant. And not even the Apostles and the writers of the New Testament got to see the fruit of their labors on earth. But you do.
You and I have the privilege of looking back over 2000 years to see the faithfulness of Jesus when he says, “I will build my church…and I am with you always, to the end of the age!” (Matthew 16:18, Matthew 28:20) You and I have witness upon witness from every walk of life, in every time and place, telling us that Jesus is faithful and can carry us through to the finish line of faith. We have no excuse not to lay aside every weight and the sin which clings to closely, seeking to bog us down and take us off the race we are to run.
As Calvin put it, “If those on whom the great light of grace had not yet shone showed such surpassing constancy in bearing their ills, what effect ought the full glory of the gospel to have on us? A tiny spark of light led them to heaven, but now that the Sun of righteousness shines on us what excuse shall we offer if we still cling to the earth?”
The saints fix their eyes on Jesus, and so must we (12:2)
V.2 “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 throne of God.”
The saints of God are role models, not simply because of their great faith, but because of their great faith in a great God. This is why we always say on our Commemoration Days that “we give thanks for the work of Christ in so and so…” When we look to the lives of the saints their gaze is fixed elsewhere, just as ours is to be.
From John Kleinig again: “In most churches the congregation does not completely encircle the altar as it receives Christ’s body and blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of our sins, because part of the circle belongs to the people of faith who have gone before us. They complete the circle as they adore the Lamb of God together with us.” (Hebrews by John Kleinig, pg. 593)
The posture of the saints who surround us in verse 1, is that cheering us on by pointing us to Jesus. They are saying to us, “Look at him! Jesus is faithful, keep going!” It’s as if they are an angled mirror, reflecting Christ back to us.
In the losses that many of us have endured this year, we must remember that, in Christ, the circle of fellowship we have with our loved ones is yet unbroken. In Christ, they are not lost, but have graduated to becoming yet another witness of Jesus’ faithfulness to us. Just as we must look away to Christ, so they are pointing to greatness of Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning point and the ending point of our faith. And listen: he is the one who has not only marked out our race, but has faithfully run the race of faith for us and for them.
Consider how suffering and triumph, joy and sorrow come together in Christ Jesus. Jesus suffered more than any of us will ever suffer. Jesus endured the Cross itself, despising the shame, and because of that he now owns the joy of his Exaltation, seated at the right of the Father, and can share his joy freely with us.
What we learn here is that we are not to make our own suffering, our own trials, our own tribulations into something so unique that we think Jesus can’t walk us through them. The saints of God show us otherwise. In Jesus, we have and merciful and faithful high priest who will take us all the way.
And so we give all the praise, all the honor, all the thanksgiving to God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.