January 7, 2024. Sermon Title: Keeping Our Eyes on Jesus

First Mennonite Church

January 7, 2024

Keeping Our Eyes on Jesus

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.

Proverbs 17:24

A discerning person keeps wisdom in view,
but a fool’s eyes wander to the ends of the earth.

The other day, Jasmine and I took Lola, our puppy, to the vet. Before she went in with Lola, she suggested me to read the book she was reading. The book was by Dr. Helen Roseveare, “Living Holiness: Willingness to be the Legs of a Galloping Horse[1].” In it, Dr. Roseveare reflects on her time as a missionary doctor in Congo, between 1953-1973. In the second chapter, she deals with the issue of spiritual distractions. There, she tells the story of the hospital church’s effort to bring some joy to about 60-80 orphan children they had under their care and to children of the village. The event became a special children’s day in December, to which both children and parents looked forward. It was a day of fun activities and sports competitions. The nurses divided the children into groups by age and they started with those who were just beginning to walk and run. The organizers gave two simple instructions to these little ones: Follow the yellow line on the ground and take the gift the person has for you at the end of the line. At the end of the line, volunteers waited with little baskets in hand to give the toddlers as they finished the race. The signal was given and the children started, but as they went a few yards they started turning over to their parents who were cheering for them along the race path. Only one little boy went all the way to the finish line. The crowd was cheering and applauding but then realized the reason why. The person at the end of his line was Rev. Ndugu, the child’s grandfather. Little Mark knew him and, thus was not afraid to go to him.

The point of her story is that we as God’s children should not be afraid to go to God. He is our Father and everything he has for us is for our wellbeing.

So, as we begin the New Year, let us determine to keep our eyes focused on the Lord and not get distracted by the loud noises around us, by the events that will take place, and not even by what happens to us along the way. By this time, many of us have already defined the goals we want to achieve this year. By this time, it is likely, that we have already begun preparing for the things we want to do or buy or change this year. (For one, I tell you I have already ordered the seeds I want to plant in my garden this spring.) The word for us today is that above everything we have set as our goals and objectives for this year, let us keep our eyes on the Lord.

In Hebrews, chapter eleven, we are given a list of spiritual heroes who achieved great things through faith. In the last few verses of chapter eleven, we read about men and women, “who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies…and received back their dead, raised to life again… say verse 33-35.

The author of Hebrews calls these are the men and women “the cloud of witnesses,” mentioned in chapter 12. The Christian community the author was addressing was a minority group. He, however, wanted to encourage his readers that apart from them, there is a cloud of witnesses cheering them as they run the race. He calls this cloud of witnesses “heroes of faith.” These men and women kept their eyes focused on one purpose alone—the fulfillment of their calling by God. They pursued, they chased after what God called them to until they fulfilled their calling. Take for instance, Moses, one mentioned as a hero of faith, although he did not enter the Promised Land, he led the people to the doorway of Canaan. His call was to lead the people of God’s people into the land God had promised Abraham. Another example is that of Daniel. God gave him honor so that in turn Daniel would honor and give witness to God to a foreign royal household and a pagan nation. God honored Daniel with great wisdom and grace and Daniel honored God even when it caused him to be thrown into the lions’ den and cast into a fiery pit. There was Naomi too. She left her household and homeland and God rewarded her by becoming part of the Messiah’s ancestry.

But Hebrews chapter eleven also refers to some unsung heroes. These, for the most part, are nameless people who despite their faithfulness endeavors did not end well with them. In Hebrews 11:35-40, we read:

There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.

39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

This second group of heroes suffered loss, were mocked, suffered poverty, flogging, imprisonment, and death. Their stories were never recorded besides this reference about them. The world was not worthy of them. They did not receive an immediate reward for their faithfulness, but are commended for their faith and also part of that cloud of witnesses.

Chapter twelve of Hebrews is a forceful exhortation to believers of all times that faithfulness is not measured by immediate success or failure. Although we are all called to live a life of faithfulness, victory, grandeur, or success will not always be the immediate result. If we were to measure faithfulness based on success, we would certainly become frustrated and disillusioned when things are not going well. If we were to measure faithfulness in the way Joshua conquered Jericho, by only marching around the city and having the walls come down, we would be discouraged if the walls we want to conquer do not fall even when we are beating them with a sledgehammer. If faithfulness is to be measured in the way of Joseph who turned from slave to master, we would give up on all faith when our lot seems not to change a bit for the better.    

Triumph or tragedy, victory or defeat, success or failure is no guarantee that someone is faithful or not. Faith in God leads the believer to obey. Faith does not calculate the result or dangers that come as a result of obedience to the commands of God. That understanding of faith was in the mind of the writer of Hebrews when he turned to the following chapter. The writer of Hebrews realized that among those who lived by faith were men and women who changed the course of history. But also among those who lived by faith are some who lost everything including their lives for the sake of obeying God. Having faith is not a guarantee to success, but neither failure is an absolute indication of a lack of faith. 

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 “great cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us are people of every age whose lives were determined by their faith in God. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews compares them to sports fans in the stands of a stadium. They have already finished their race. But they do not lose interest in those who are still struggling and running. They urge them on and applaud them.

The author of the letter to the Hebrews seems to indicate that those who have gone before us, those who have finished the race are now watching us and are encouraging us not to lose sight of our calling.

The author sets Jesus as our supreme example of faithfulness. He is the first who ran this race. That is why he is called the “pioneer” (trail-blazer, or pathfinder, is better than the NIV “author”) of the life of faith. In the running of the race, Jesus faced the full weight of suffering that comes upon those who choose to submit to the living God rather than the powers of this age. Jesus “endured the cross”, “scorning its shame”, setting aside the joys of earthly life. This is why he is the “perfecter of faith” (“our” is not in the Gk.); he sets the perfect example. Against all odds, Jesus trusted the will of God, living it out day by day.

This year, as history has proven, we will see much of the same things happening as we have seen before. This year, we will experience many of the same things we experienced last year and even those we would not like. There will be pain, but also moments of joy. This year, we will see or hear about violence (already at Perry High School, Iowa), natural disasters (an earthquake in Japan, flooding in England), political turmoil, the faithful struggling to remain faithful, and so on.

At a personal level, we might experience moments when anger or bitterness will assail us because someone transgressed against us. We might experience anxiety over something regarding our loved ones. We will be tempted by pride for something we would do or has happened to us. These are all distractions or even sins that easily cling to us.

But this year too, someone will speak to you words of encouragement in your moment of sorrow. A brother or sister will hold your hand and remind you that God is still present in your life. But also remember, this year, God will want to use you by showing his love to others. This year you will have the opportunity to console someone in his or her moments of sorrow.

Let us remember that there is a cloud of witnesses cheering for us as we run the race with our eyes focused on Jesus, the Lord who has called us to Himself. Amen!

Pastor Romero

[1] Helen Roseveare, Living Holiness, Willingness to be the Legs of a Galloping Horse. Christian Focus; Revised edition (May 20, 2008).