So Great A Cloud of Witness: Rahab, Gideon, and Jephthah and So Many More…

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

So it is that this week the writer of Hebrews continues with powerful words of encouragement to those who are listening. As we heard last week, he draws heavily on the examples of heroes from Hebrew Scriptures — some of which will surely be familiar to those who gather close this week and some of which may not. I, for one, have always loved the movement near the end of this section as we are called to consider and give thanks for all those who inhabit our ‘great cloud of witnesses,’ certainly including those named here.  In particular now, I am wondering at the ‘weight’ which slows us down, holds us back, perhaps even discourages us from continuing the race altogether.  Indeed, I am thinking now of the ‘weights’ which those named today must have carried and somehow cast aside so as to follow where God was surely leading.

I mean, think for a moment of Rahab, this one who was not raised in the faith of the Hebrew people. Indeed, not only did she have to lay aside the fact that she was stepping out in and into a faith which must have been wholly unfamiliar, but she had to set aside her own presumably unsavory past and whatever shame would have been assigned to her then as a result.  And not only this? What a profound risk she took as she held the confidence of those spies who had been sent ahead, relying on their promise that she and her family would be saved.  How much fear must have been hers to set aside!  (Joshua 2)

  • And oh, don’t you see yourself in Rahab?

Or consider Gideon who is named next in this section.  We remember him as an initially unwilling warrior, demanding signs again and again from the One who had called him. Indeed, Gideon comes up with excuse after excuse NOT to go and NOT to follow through on that which was placed before him. Without a doubt, if nothing else Gideon had to set aside the weight of his own fear in order to lead his people into battle! (Judges 6:11-40)

  • So maybe you see yourself in Gideon as well?

Or listen to the story of Jephthah who is first introduced as the son of a prostitute, resulting in him being cast out by his half-brothers, receiving none of the inheritance which should also have been his.  And just imagine the weight he would have had to set aside when those same brothers came to him and asked him to join him in their war with the Ammonites! More than this, after his highly questionable and certainly short sighted vow to sacrifice whoever it was who came out to greet him in the wake of victory and the result being that his only child, his only child, would be that one whose life would be taken, one wonders how he continued on at all.  We hear nothing of his grief or regret in the telling of his story, but one wonders at what powerful ‘weight’ was his to lay aside as he continued to try to be faithful. (Judges 11:1-12:7)

  • Oh, certainly there are parts of Jephthah’s story which resonate with you, with me, too?

You can surely wonder as well at the stories of others who are named: of Barak, of David, or of Samuel.  Indeed, each of these in one way or another serves as shining example of those who ‘laid aside the weight and the sin that clings so closely and who ran with perseverance the race that was set before them…” (Hebrews 12:1) For as was the case last week with Abraham and Sarah, if we look back, we at least get a sense of their lives with all their texture.  Indeed, surely part of their heroism lies in the fact that they were each one so very human and yet as their stories unfold, we hear that somehow they were able to ‘lay aside’ that which needed to be laid aside so that they could continue forward in faith.

And so it is I wonder now what it is you find ‘weighing you down?’  What is dragging on you as you seek to continue to be faithful — to simply keep your eyes fixed on “Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith….?”

  • Because along with all the heroes and heroines named in the letter/sermon to the Hebrews now, it is easy to let the past (our own or someone else’s), or shame, or fear hold us back.
  • Indeed, many of us carry losses, old and new. As for this, we know that grief must be tended and in a timely way, or that which is unresolved surely drags on us without our perhaps even being able to identify it. And yet, we find ourselves weighed down by such as this, don’t we?
  • Or maybe it is the unrealistic expectations we place on ourselves — too much reinforced by too many others — which can be a weight which becomes more and more difficult to carry as we seek to be faithful in ‘running the race.’ Without a doubt, while there are outside factors which hold us down or hold us back, often it is more true that it is which we often carry inside which does so.  Certainly each and all of those whose stories come to mind with this reading’s prompting learned again and again that the power they leaned on was not their own.  Indeed, more than this, while they were each called to lead, I cannot think of one of them who actually carried ‘all the weight’  of that responsibility all on their own.
  • Or you add your own.  What is it that threatens to weigh you down?

So for now, I do wonder at what these heroes of the faith would offer you and me if we were able to sit across the table from them now.

Would Rahab remind me to keep my eyes and heart open for what God is already doing in the world and to tie my hopes to that — as she did?

Would Gideon remind me that God always keeps God’s word — that if the promise is made it will always be kept, as he discovered?

Would Jephthah speak of the truth that although the past shapes us, it does not define us, and so to be open to what God has in store, as was so for him?

  • Indeed, what would Barak and Samson, David and Samuel and all the  prophets have to offer us now as we are called to lead into a future we cannot quite discern, even as they did?
  • What weights would they urge us to lay aside so that we might keep ‘running the race?’ And how might that ‘laying aside’ allow us to lean into what is yet to come?

For surely their experience, their encouragement, their wisdom are more timely now than ever before, aren’t they?

At least for me, I find myself pausing there as in the place where I live and serve we find ourselves considering and considering again all sorts of things we thought were long settled or which have come to us new in the wake of these last years.

Things like:

  • What does the faith formation of young people look like in a time when families are more busy than ever and parents who used to have more time and energy to help are simply tapped out?
  • How do we build a cohesive worshiping community when sometimes up to half of those ‘gathered’ are doing so on a live-stream — or even simply watching later in the week?
  • How do leaders (professional and otherwise) stay ‘in the race’ when perhaps more than ever we find ourselves carrying too much ‘weight’ which needs to be simply laid aside — both our own and often that of countless others?
  • Or you name

Surely the powerful gifts passed along to us from all those who are in our ‘great cloud of witnesses’ make a world of difference now, don’t they?

How are those gifts especially valuable in this particular time when we also find ourselves in a time which is so unlike any other, even as they all did?

What difference does it make to return to these stories again and again as you also seek to ‘run the race that is set before us?’


  1. Beth Olson says:

    Thanks for the work you did at giving us succinct thumbnail sketches of these folks—and for the provocative connections you make. Last week, I preached about the faith “Hall of Famers” in the lessons and had people discuss who was in their own faith “hall of fame.” I look forward to making the cloud of witnesses even more real for my congregation because of your approach to text. Thanks, my friend! Take good care.

      • Beth Olson says:

        Please feel free to! Having people talk with each other about parts of their faith stories is an idea I picked up from David Lose a number of years ago. It’s pretty cool to watch them engage each other. I give about 5 minutes of the sermon over to talking about our faith. Enjoy!

  2. alaire willits says:

    thank you for this glorious writing – all us witness are flawed, horribly flawed…and to be reminded of traits, situations and qualities of them – I can and do relate. Thanks

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