This Great Cloud of Witnesses

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

As I read these familiar words from Hebrews this week, I found myself wondering about the litany of heroes before us now. Indeed, I wondered at how familiar most will be with them. I have attempted here to capture in a few words what we know about each one:

Gideon (Judges 6-8) I suspect that the only association most people have with Gideon is the modern day “Gideons” who ensure hotels rooms are graced with Bibles and who give out small New Testaments to students on campuses large and small. Indeed, how many will recall  Gideon’s stuttering response to God’s call, his success in leading the Israelites in battle against the Midianites or, in the end, his idolatry which led to his own demise as well as that of his family.

Barak (Judges 4-5) Who will recall that Barak was Deborah’s assistant? That he did not show nearly the courage that Deborah did in battle and that, in the end a woman, Jael, did the gruesome work of taking the life of their enemy, Sisal? Oh, one may  wonder why it is that Barak is named at all in this litany.

Samson (Judges 16) Perhaps Samson is more familiar to those who gather for worship this week, given his particular popularity in Sunday School leaflets recalled from childhood. Yes, we remember his gargantuan physical strength. We recall that his physical prowess was snatched away with the cutting of his hair. We can envision his pulling down those pillars with his monumental strength, taking thousands of Philistines with him. We probably don’t remember hearing of his entanglements with a number of women and the ways in which he allowed himself to be manipulated by them. No doubt that part didn’t get told to us when we were children.

Jephthah (Judges 11) Many who hear this list of heroes of the faith will probably not be well acquainted with Jephthah. Given the company he is keeping here in Hebrews, though, we are correctly led to assume he was another mighty warrior, however the other part of the story is less well known. Few will recall the promise he made in exchange for victory in battle. That in return he would offer the life of the first one to greet him on his return. It would be his only daughter who would run to welcome and to celebrate with him. It would be his own child whose life would be exchanged. And yes, there are those who will say that it was always the women who would meet the returning warrior in this way. That Jephthah would have known this. And knowing this, how does one understand this ‘hero’ then?  Indeed, perhaps it is more than fitting that the ‘last word’ in this sad chapter is given to the mourning women of Israel as they wept for his daughter.

David (2 Samuel 11) Most will be well acquainted with David — both with his gifts and his failings. We remember a gifted musician, a talented warrior, a charismatic leader. And like it or not, his story is not complete without speaking aloud the name Bathsheba and the horrific end to which her husband, Uriah, came at King David’s command. Not to mention the fact that Bathsheba would have no choice but to accede to David’s request for her to come to him.

Samuel (1 Samuel 8) Along with David and Samson, Samuel is likely very familiar to those who will hear this reading from Hebrews this week. Many will remember the call in the night which was his to respond to as a small boy. Some will remember that he was instrumental in moving Israel to a whole different form of governance — however reluctantly. Unlike the others named today, Samuel was no warrior. Rather, he was a prophet, discerning his way, and speaking, sometimes, against his own better judgment. Indeed, most will likely not recall that Samuel’s sons, Joel and Abijah, were ones he appointed judges. They proved to be unfaithful — motivated by greed and all too willing to pervert justice. So it was that the leaders of Israel used Samuel’s own sons as part of their reason to move to a system which would be ruled by Kings.

Indeed, there is plenty of sermon material in verse 32 alone. And yet, as you can see above, I have chosen to offer pieces of the ‘whole story’ — not only the more heroic chapters. Indeed, for the most part, their stories are not complete without the stories of women: Deborah, Jael, Delilah, Jephthah’s unnamed daughter, Bathsheba, Hannah, and on and on. Oh yes, there are any number of ways in which you and I might be called to bring the Word next week-end.

  • I, for one, might edit the litany of names here to include the names of those women.
  • Indeed, I may just tell their entire stories.

And in doing so? Perhaps in sharing some of the other details of their stories, we can begin to see ourselves as members of that ‘great cloud of witnesses as well. With all of our failings and faults. With our wise decisions and our less than wise ones, too. In those times when we have chosen to be self serving and in those perhaps all too rare times when we have not. Through it all, God continues to move the Gospel Witness forward. Sometimes because of us. And often, yes, in spite of us. For this is so. In the end, we are simply witnesses to what God has done. Indeed in the end surely this is what keeps us running ‘with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the  pioneer and perfecter of our faith…’ (Hebrews 12:1-2)

  • I expect the story of any one of the names offered in Hebrews 11 could stand alone as an example of what God does because of us and in spite of us. If you were to choose just one, which one would it be?
  • Is it helpful to you to recall the entire stories of those listed here? Why or why not?
  • I wonder what it would look like to expand the list of the ‘cloud of witnesses’ to include other names and stories more familiar to your/my particular listeners this week. Or is it enough to stick with what the writer of Hebrews offers here?

2 comments

  1. Mel says:

    A thousand thanks for this! It gives me hope – that as ministers of the Gospel, we serve in and out of our weakness!
    With love In Christ
    Mel

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