November 4th, 2018

There are Peaking Eyes Behind Those Clouds
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.

Dad lived in Maryland. I lived in Georgia and we bridged our geographical separation by regularly calling each other. My father was a Baptist pastor who started his ministry near Sneedville. As a young man, he moved to Maryland and started a church he pastored for 37 years.

When I became a pastor my calling created a special bond between us. No longer were we simply father and son. Now we were fellow ministers, sharing together the joys, the challenges, and the struggles or our unique calling.

Sometimes an entire week would go by without a phone call, but that always changed on Sunday evening. You see, my dad was always interested in knowing what had happened in my church on Sunday. Did my sermon go well? Did new members come? Did I make anybody mad? Yes, Dad was always anxious to hear about my Sundays and I was always anxious to share with him. So every Sunday evening, as soon as I got home from church, I’d pick up the phone and dial 795-1886.

Dad died in 1991. His funeral was on a Monday and on the following Sunday I was back in Georgia, leading worship services. I’ll never forget what happened when I got home from church that Sunday night. Without thinking, I went straight to the kitchen and picked up the phone. I think I must have dialed two or three numbers before reality rushed in. Dad wasn’t there. I had no one to call.

That was not the last time I went to the phone on Sunday evening. Truth be known, it took several years for me to stop having that Sunday night urge to call my father. And though he’s been gone for over 25 years, I still find myself sometimes wanting to give him a call.

Dad was a saint, one of the many saints who have made a difference in my life, and though he is not here with me now, his voice and his life impact most everything I do.

Earlier today in our service, you identified some of the saints in your life, and you likely have stories similar to mine, stories about lingering memories of those precious saints who still make a difference in your life today. That’s why we are having this service today, All Saints Day, a day when we cherish the memories of these saintly people who have made such an impact on our lives.

Have you ever noticed? When those we love die, they do not leave our lives. In fact, for many of us the opposite is true. When those we love die, their voices often speak more loudly to us in their dying than they did in their living. When they die, their words come back to us in a profoundly different way, a way that must be heard, a way that must be heeded, a way that causes them, in their death, to speak more loudly than they did in their living.

It wasn’t until after my dad died that I fully understood the words in Hebrews 11:4. Speaking about Cain’s brother, Abel, the verses states, “and by faith, though he is dead, yet still he speaks.”

That’s the way it is with my father. “Though he is dead, yet still he speaks.” Sometimes he speaks to me as I prepare a sermon. Sometimes he speaks to me as I offer comfort and solace to the sick and beavered. On some Sunday mornings as I walk out of this building and look toward Clinch Mountain, my heart hears his voice saying, “Gene, well done, well done, good and faithful servant.” Do I hear an audible voice? No not really, but my heart hears of the voice of my father, those holy echoes of the things he said and did while he lived on this earth. And the echo of his words still make a difference in my life. Yes, he’s dead. But though he is dead, yet still he speaks.

I suspect the same thing happens to you. When you’re loved ones die, they don’t quit speaking to you. The echo of their words and life are with you every day. Sometimes those echoed words give you direction. Sometimes the echo of their laugh makes you smile. Sometimes the echo of their life makes you cry. But one thing is for sure. They did not quit touching your life when they died. Yes, though they are dead, yet still they speak.

As we look at today’s biblical text, the writer of Hebrews tells us what we should do with the voices of dead people as they speak to our lives. He tells us we should use these voices to motivate us toward saintly living. In verse one he states that upon hearing the voices of those gone before we should, “throw off everything that hinders us from saintly living and run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

To understand the full impact of Hebrews 12 we need to look back at Hebrews 11. Hebrews 11 is often called the “roll call of faith.” In Chapter 11 the author lists numerous past saints who lived lives of exemplary faith. Among those saints listed are such notables as Noah and Abraham, Moses and David.

After listing these saints in chapter 11, the writer begins chapter 12 by referring to these saints “a great cloud of witnesses.” It’s almost like he’s saying, “Look up at the clouds. There are saints behind those clouds, cheering you on as you run the race of faith.” So with that picture in mind, let me offer this illustration.

Visualize, if you will, a great stadium filled with people like you and me, all ready to run in a race. Now this race isn’t just some 100 meter sprint, this race is a marathon of endurance, a race to see who can remain faithful in their Christian life.

Before the race begins we hear the commentators.

“It’s a beautiful afternoon here at Neyland Stadium, a perfect day for these new Christians to begin the race of a lifetime, the grueling Christian Marathon.”

“Hi, I’m Vern Lunquist along with Pat Summerall and we’re here to bring you mile by mile coverage of this exciting event.”

“Pat, what do you think of this year’s contestants? Do you think they have any chance of making it to end?”

“Well Vern, you know the Christian life is one of the most demanding of all races. Each year, thousands begin only to fall by the wayside when they get entangled by worldliness and sin. And you know, these days the course is so much tougher than it has been in previous years. To be quite truthful, I’ll be surprised if a third of them reach their heavenly goal.”

“You may be right, Pat, but sometimes these Christians can surprise you and that’s especially the case in front of this hometown crowd. Just about the time you think they’re falling away from the faith, the crowd gets into the action and these Christian believers keep pushin’ on.”

“Well, Vern it looks like they’re ready to start. The Christians are lined up fresh out of the baptistery and off they go.”

“Pat, all of them appear to be off to a good start. But wait, there’s Newbee Christian starting to get entangled by sensual desires.”

“Yeah, Vern, he’s not the only one getting tripped up. Julia Newfaith has let greed throw her to the ground, as well.

“Yeah, Pat, greed and lust have tripped up many a good Christian runner, so I’m not surprised that these two are the first casualties of the event. But wait a minute.” Listen to that crowd. They’re up on their feet, all chanting together.”

“Can you tell what they’re saying, Vern?”

“Yeah, it sounds like they’re shouting Jesus is better than silver and gold so don’t gain the world and then lose your soul. Keep your hearts faithful and keep your lives clean. Run fast for Jesus, your Savior and King!

“Vern, I can’t believe it. Newbee Christian and Julia Newfaith are back on their feet, making up for lost time. That crowd sure makes a difference.”

“You can say that again, Pat. It always does. When those Christians hear the voices of saints gone by, it does something to them. It makes them run like they’ve never run before. . . .”

Now I know what you’re thinking. Some of you are thinking that nothing like that is in the Bible, but it is. Really! Listen again to verse 1.

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 that is set before us.

Yes, the Bible tells us we can run with new strength in the life-race of faith by listening to the voices and heeding the lives of those who’ve died before us. That’s why we’re celebrating All Saints Sunday. It’s a time for us to remember those gone on before, but not just remember. It’s a time for us to listen to their voices and run faster than ever toward the finished line of our faith.

The year was 1864 and an epidemic was taking lives all throughout Brooklyn, New York. Many of those who died were friends of Robert Lowry. As Lowry watched them die, one question kept going through his mind, “Shall I meet these saints again? When we are parted at the river of death, shall we meet at the river of life?”

One afternoon, Lowry sat down at his organ, and penned these words,

Shall we gather at the river, where bright angel feet have trod?
With its crystal tide forever, flowing by the throne of God?”

Then as through buoyed by some unheard saintly voice he proclaimed,

Yes, we’ll gather at the river. The beautiful, the beautiful river.
Gather with the Saints at the River that flows by the throne of God.

My dear friends, on this All Saints Sunday remember that there are peeking eyes behind the clouds, eyes of the saints who cheer us on. Listen to their voices, remember their lives and heed the lesson you’ve learned. Yes, there are peeking eyes behind those clouds and one day we, too, will “gather with the saints at the river that flows by the throne of God.”