(A sermon for All Saints Day based on Hebrews 12:1-2 preached at the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, Georgia on October 30, 2011)
This is a day on which the Church looks back and remembers those members of our church family who have finished their race here on earth and have gone home to be with the Lord. For some of us they were members of our family as well as members of our church family. Part of the dynamic of today for all us, then, is grief; we are all processing our grief over the passing from this life of people who, in various ways, meant a lot to us. It is good that we process that grief together; it is good that we acknowledge our loss together; it is good that we encourage these families together; it is good that we celebrate the lives of the departed together.
We are here today, in other words, to practice and to celebrate memory.
When we remember our brothers and sisters who left us during this past year, let us remember them in all their glory—by which I mean let’s remember them in all the aspects of their lives. They were all special, after all, but they were not perfect and that’s a good thing because we all share together in our humanity and it’s good to know that we are all in it together, that we can empathize with one another in our struggles, and that we are all called to keep growing in Christ. Besides, it’s like the bumper sticker puts it: “Christians aren’t perfect—just forgiven,” and one of the main truths we celebrate today is that those we remember today were Christians because they were forgiven by the grace of God through the cross of Jesus Christ.
In other words, in remembering our brothers and sisters today, let’s remember Jesus Christ who is their Savior and ours; let’s remember Jesus Christ who gave his life for them and for us; let’s remember Jesus Christ who is the pioneer and perfecter, the author and finisher, of their faith and of ours.
The unknown author of the letter to the Hebrews motivated his readers by reminding them that they were “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (12:1). While he may have wanted the Hebrews to think in terms of those who had gone before them looking down on them, it is more likely that he wanted them to think in terms of the ways in which those who had gone before them had born witness through their faith. As F. F. Bruce said, “It is not so much they who look at us as we who look to them—for encouragement” [F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1964)].
Let’s also remember that our First Baptist sisters and brothers who have left us have now joined that great cloud of witnesses that comprises all the saints of all the ages. When the author of Hebrews listed for his readers some of those who had gone before them, he emphasized their faith, their trust in God. How does the faith of the great saints of the past put us in mind of the faith of our more recently departed saints? How does the faith of the saints of both the distant and recent past inspire us to lay aside the sins and burdens that hold us back and to run with perseverance the race that God has given us to run?
Does the faith of Abel remind us of their faith? Of Abel’s faith the writer says, “He died, but through his faith he still speaks” (11:4). How do we hear the faith of our brothers and sisters still speak to us?
Does the faith of Enoch remind us of their faith? Of Enoch’s faith the writer says that it was through his faith that he “pleased God” (11:5). How do we remember our brothers and sisters displaying the kind of trust that caused them to walk closely with God and thus please God?
Does the faith of Noah remind us of their faith? Of Noah’s faith the writer says that he “respected the warning of God” (v. 7) and carried out the audacious act of constructing the ark. How do we remember our brothers and sisters respecting the words of God so that they by faith practiced radical obedience?
Does the faith of Abraham remind us of their faith? Of Abraham’s faith the writer says that he “obeyed” and “set out, not knowing where he was going” (11:8), that he “received power of procreation, even though he was too old” (11:11), and that he “offered up Isaac” demonstrating that “he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son” (v. 17). How do we remember our brothers and sisters having faith to put one foot in front of the other in following God even though they couldn’t know exactly where that following would lead them? How do we remember them practicing the kind of faith that led to the blessings of God? How do we remember them having the kind of faith that put faithfulness to and obedience to God ahead of clinging to their blessings?
Does the faith of Isaac remind us of their faith? Of Isaac’s faith the writer says that he “invoked blessings for the future on Jacob and Esau” (v. 20). How do we remember our brothers and sisters believing in the future that God has for us?
Does the faith of Moses remind us of their faith? Of Moses’ faith the writer says that “when he was grown up, (he) refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (11:24-25). How do we remember our brothers and sisters living out a faith that led them to stand with the people of God in living in the ways of God rather than standing with the crowd in living in the ways of the world?
So perhaps the faith of the saints of the distant past reminds us in some ways of the faith of saints of the recent past. But everyone is unique and so everyone has to live out her or his own life. Our loved ones lived their own lives of faith and we have to live out our own lives of faith. My encouragement is for all of us to look for good and helpful examples of faith and to look for and to act on the best ways for us to live out our own faith.
Mainly, though, let’s keep our eyes focused on Jesus Christ. All the great saints who lived before Jesus came into the world lived in the trust, the writer of Hebrews says, that something better was coming; they lived looking for a home land that they trusted God had prepared for them. They were in faith looking for Jesus and, in a mysterious way, they found him. Our recently departed loved ones lived and we live after the coming of Jesus and so they looked and we can look to Jesus (12:2) who, because of his death on the cross and his subsequent resurrection, finalizes and fulfills our faith.
Therefore, as we remember our recently departed loved ones and as we remember all the saints of our church and as we remember all the saints of the Church universal and as we remember all the saints of all of history, let us remember first and foremost Jesus Christ our Lord…and in remembering let us be inspired to run the race that is set before us!