God’s Love-Song 10th Pentecost
Isaiah 5:1-7 Hebrews 11:29-12:2 Luke 12:49-56
Those of you who are familiar with J. R. R. Tolkien’s story of The Lord of the Rings—either the books or the movies—will remember a scene where Frodo and Sam are working their way toward Mount Doom. Struggling through difficult situations, they keep plodding along to the one place where they can destroy an evil ring that Frodo carries. They are weary of this quest, and discouraged because things get more dangerous with every step.
Then there is a shining moment when Sam Gamgee says this: “It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.
Now, if you know the story, you know that Sam, in his own humble way, made it possible for them to reach their destination—even carrying Frodo for the last part of the journey! Reaching back to the old stories gave him the strength and confidence he needed for his story!
This scene kept coming to mind as I looked at our Scripture passages for today, especially the one from Hebrews. The writer knew the power of remembering the stories of our people! And the Isaiah passage speaks very poetically about “an unfolding love-story” between God and the People of God—a love story like many we hear about today, with ups and downs and betrayals and forgiveness and RESTORATION. It’s an unfolding story, not yet finished.
And then the writer to the Hebrews hearkens back to some major chapters in our story, how people of faith kept plodding along through the dark shadows and became…victorious. He then urges his readers to stay connected to all this history while we “run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”
Just as the GREAT STORIES—“the ones that really mattered”—were a source of strength for the fictional characters of Sam and Frodo, you and I are strengthened and sustained by the stories of our faith. The ones we learned in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School and sitting on the laps of our grandparents. The ones we read in Guideposts and other devotional readings. The stories of God’s faithfulness to the people of God—taking us through the valley of the shadow—each generation being a “new verse” in God’s love-song for us.
The Apostle Paul writes that “we live by faith, and not by sight.” This is the faith that the writer to the Hebrews was talking about. “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. THIS is what the ancients were commended for.” Then he goes through a whole catalog of familiar events in which people by faith did various things God was calling them to do, and it all worked out in the end. Faith is being sure of God’s love and power and provision even when things around us look pretty “iffy.”
As Frodo and Sam were strengthened and encouraged by remembering their stories—you and I are encouraged as we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” This is a poetic way of saying that you and I have a story—we’re IN a story—and we have the chance to be a great part of the story IF…
- If we lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely;
- If we run WITH PERSEVERANCE the race that is set before us;
- if we keep our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith!
I love the way William Barclay writes about this soaring passage in Hebrews! He describes the “great cloud of witnesses” as a huge gathering of people in a stadium, and we are being watched and cheered on by them. He writes, “An actor would act with double intensity if he knew that some famous dramatic master was sitting in the stands watching him. An athlete would strive with double effort if he knew that a stadium of famous Olympic athletes was watching him. It is the very essence of the Christian life that it is lived in the gaze of the heroes of the faith who lived, suffered, and died in their day and generation. How can a person avoid the struggle for greatness with an audience like that looking down upon him?”
Then, we are supposed to “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely.” You wouldn’t start a race with a heavy backpack on, would you? You and I have encumbrances to deal with before we run the race, so we can “travel light.” They might be habits or pleasures or self-indulgences or associations that hold us back, weigh us down.
Running the race with perseverance means more than just “hunkering down and enduring something until it’s over.” And it’s not a state of denial that lets us just skip over all the hard places. It is, instead, a resilient determination which goes steadily on and refuses to be deflected, staying with it until victory is achieved—even if we have to stop and rest occasionally. We have a “victorious perseverance!”
Then the writer to the Hebrews talks about Jesus, and holds him up as our example of one who persevered to victory. For the goal that was set before him, he endured all things; to win it meant the way of the Cross. He endured the humiliation of the Cross—and arose victorious! (Luke 12)
Which leads to the final point: We have in Jesus not just an example, but a living presence. Jesus is not only our inspiration and model—he is also our companion on the journey! Jesus gives us Himself, and he gives us each other. You see, friends: This race we’re running is not a competition against others as much as it is a cooperation—a “group excursion” in which we are helping each other to cross the finish line. As companions of Jesus, you and I are on an adventure of faith—we’re living the stories that continue The Big Story of God’s work in this world—God’s creation, God’s provision, God’s restoration.
Well, I want to finish this morning by telling you about my Uncle Ozzie, who was a Presbyterian pastor for many decades. While I was growing up, I knew him to be a loving, engaging, self-sacrificing, and inspiring person. Then, as I began my ministry 40 years ago, I often found myself asking, “I wonder how Uncle Ozzie would respond to this situation?” Ozzie loved Jesus, and he loved others without reservation or condition. And he’s one of the characters in The Big Story that makes me want to follow Jesus, to be on this adventure of faith.
Yes, friends. Sometimes the adventure is tough, and we have lots of chances of turning back, BUT we’re holding onto something, something worth holding on to—and we’re in it together! We are part of God’s Love-Song!