“Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, 2 Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2).
Robert Louis Stevenson told the story of a little boy looking out a window and watching the men come down the street lighting lights in the old lamp stands. Every night he watched them climb a ladder, light the lamp, then move on to the next one. When asked what he was doing, he replied, “I’m watching the men knock holes in the darkness.” Christ came to knock holes in the darkness. He wants us to lay aside everything that is robbing us of our Christian joy. Jesus wants us to give up the sin that is stopping us from being holy. The Lord invites us to look to Him and remember an important principle: the past is the key to personal freedom in the present. This is true nationally, and it is true spiritually. Others have died so that we might live in freedom. Many have bled and died on the field of battle to secure national liberty. One died on a Cross to secure personal liberty for others from the bondage of sin.
“Father, thank you for those who have given their lives so that others might live in freedom. May we cherish the sacrifices that have been made, and those who have made them. Amen.”
A Moment in History
Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s service. There are many stories as to its actual beginnings, with over two dozen cities and towns laying claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day including Boalsburg, Pennsylvania.
As the story goes, it happened in October 1864. It was a pleasant Sunday, and in the little community burial ground behind the village, the pioneers of colonial times slept peacefully side by side with the recently fallen heroes of the Civil War.
It was on this day that a pretty, young teen-age girl, Emma Hunter by name, and her friend, Sophie Keller, chose to gather some garden flowers and to place them on the grave of her father, Dr. Reuben Hunter, a surgeon in the Union Army, who died only a short while before. It was on this very same day that an older woman, Mrs. Elizabeth Meyer, elected to strew flowers on the grave of her son Amos, who as a private in the ranks, had fallen on the last day of battle at Gettysburg.
So the two with their friends met, kneeling figures at nearby graves, a young girl honoring her officer father, a young mother paying respects to her enlisted-man son, each with a basket of flowers which she had picked with loving hands. They started talking. The mother proudly told the girl what a fine young man her son had been, how he had dropped his farm duties and enlisted in the Union Army at the outbreak of the war, and how bravely he had fought.
The daughter respectfully took a few of her flowers as a token and placed them on the son’s grave. The mother in turn laid some of her freshly cut blooms on the father’s grave.
These two women had found in their common grief an uncommon bond as they knelt together in that little burial ground in Central Pennsylvania where Mount Nittany stands eternal guard over those who sleep there. They did not realize at the time that their meeting had any particular significance – outside of their own personal lives; it was just that they seemed to lighten their burdens by sharing them. But as it happened these two women were participating in their first Memorial Day Service.
The story goes that before the two women left each other that Sunday in October, 1864, they had agreed to meet again on the same day the following year in order to honor not only their own two loved ones, but others who now might have no one left to kneel at their lonely graves.
During the weeks and months that followed the two women discussed their little plan with friends and neighbors, and all heard it with enthusiasm. The report was that on July 4, 1865 – the appointed day – what had been planned as a little informal meeting of two women turned into a community service. All Boalsburg was gathered. The Rev. Dr. George Hall preached a sermon, and every grave in the little cemetery was decorated with flowers and flags; not a single one was neglected.
It must have been an impressive ceremony that took place that day in this peaceful mountain-rimmed valley where not so long before the red men had held their councils. It must have been such a scene as this that inspired Henry Longfellow to write:
“Your silent tents of green
We deck with flagrant flowers:
Yours has the suffering been,
The memory shall be ours.”
It seemed such a fitting and proper way of remembering those who had passed on that the custom became an annual event in Boalsburg, and one by one the neighboring communities adopted a similar plan of observing “Decoration Day” each spring.
On May 5, 1868, just four years after that first meeting in the little burial ground, Gen. John A. Logan, then commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued an order, naming May 30, 1868, as a day “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.” He signed the order “with the hope that it will be kept up from year to year.” And so it has.
At first the ceremonies were held to honor only those who had served the Union cause in the Civil War, but later the program was broadened to embrace the men who fought in gray as well as in blue, finally to include all heroes who have made the supreme sacrifice in all American conflicts from the Revolutionary War to World War II. This, of course, is as it should be if the immortal words of Oliver Wendell Holmes are not to become an empty, meaningless phrase—”One flag, one land, one heart, one hand, one nation evermore.”
God and Country
While our hearts stir with patriotic zeal and gratitude, it is not improper for the Church to take advantage of the hour to remember the spiritual legacy that has been handed down to us. We are reminded afresh of the need to study the history of our faith, to know it well, and to pass it on to the next generation. The Psalmist said “We have heard with our ears, O God, our fathers have told us, what work thou didst in their days, in the times of old” (Psalm 44:1).
In like manner the writer of Hebrews takes the events of past ages to exhort and encourage the people of God saying “Wherefore, seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses…let us run with patience the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1).
In these words we find the essential unity that exists between the saints of the Old Testament and the saints of the New. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel is the God of Peter, Paul, and John, Mary, Martha, and Lydia. There are not two Gods in the Bible, but one. And there are not two people of God in the Bible, but one. The believers of the New Testament Church are not independent of the believers in the Old Testament Church nor are they made perfect or complete without us as Hebrews 11:39-40 plainly states. “And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: 40 God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect” (Heb. 11:39-40)
The essential unity that exists among the people of God is used by the holy author to encourage the hearts of the people to persevere in the faith just as others have done. Such encouragement is needed, because sometimes, it is easy to get discouraged in the Christian life.
The philosophy of the world is heard to say that there are better things to do with time than to pray, study the Scriptures, read the Bible, go to church, witness, and do good deeds. After all, we are told, “You only go round once in life so get all the gusto you can get.” And gusto is conceived as a life free from the rules and regulations of religion. “Gusto” is suggested to be a life apart from faith.
The response to such thinking is to remember the past promises of God, and the perseverance of the saints of old. In particular God has promised eternal life for those who worship Him in spirit and in truth. God has promised that in the age to come there will be a new heaven and a new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness. Jesus will be manifested more visibly as King, as Paradise will be restored.
The timing of this coming expression of the eternal age is not revealed. We may be the last generation, as many believe. But it is also possible that hundreds and thousands of years of human history shall yet be allowed as mankind rushes into the 21st century. And it doesn’t matter. What does matter is to live the present in light of the past. What matters is that we persevere in the faith like our forefathers, and do three things. Christians are exhorted to “lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us”; “run with patience the race that is set before us”; and look “unto Jesus.”
First, the exhortation comes to “lay aside every weight”. On a positive note this commandment is very liberating, for there are artificial burdens that people bear. This was certainly true in the New Testament era, for the Scribes and Pharisees placed upon people many duties that went beyond the Laws of God. When Christ came to liberate people and set them free, He was hated, for the Lord challenged the traditions of men. Two thousand years later, custom, society, and tradition continue to impose burdens on the backs of people. Young people, for example, face peer pressures that weigh heavily upon them. There is the pressure to smoke, drink, to use profane language, and engage in adult behavior that they are not ready for psychologically or physically. Christ comes and says to the young people, “I set you free from such pressures. Just tell people that you are following Me and it will be enough. It is the truth and it will set you free.” Now you have to tell the truth, but that is a blessing, not a burden.
Adults also have many weights that press down upon them. There is the problem of trying to conform to an image of success. The temptation comes to live beyond one’s means, or to pretend to be something one is not. As a result relationships suffer. For whatever reason people no longer have time for one another. The intimacy of the soul with God and man has been replaced by the intensity of the next project. Whatever weight keeps us from enjoying the things of God, and the Lord himself, needs to be put aside. There are others things which God has given us “richly to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17).
If there is a particular sin that hinders spiritual progress that too must be dealt with. Jesus said, “If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross” (Matt. 16:24). The apostle Paul wrote, “let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and of the spirit” (2 Cor. 7:1). The reason why we need to cleanse “ourselves”. is because we know ourselves better than anyone else. The truth of the matter is there is a public persona, and a private behavior. To each other we appear to be one thing, but we know what we are really like. This truth is realistically reflected in scripture which says that while man looketh on the outward appearance, God looks on the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). God knows our hearts. and so do we. And because we know ourselves we know what sin “easily besets us.”
Sin can hinder spiritual progress easily because of the ability of the human heart to suppress the truth. Truth is suppressed when our lives are compartmentalized and there is no over-arching principle of life to live by that unifies the soul. I mentioned this concept to someone once and they asked me what I meant. The answer is this. Holiness is an over-arching concept as the Word of God defines it. Honesty is an over arching principle. Truth, integrity, moral purity, faithfulness to one’s vows, all of these things are overarching principles that can unify the soul, and guide individual moments of decision IF they are lived by. But, once the overarching principles of life are suspended in time, once a sense of entitlement to happiness (at the expense of holiness) is conceded to, once the Forbidden Fruit becomes more appealing than the Word of God, it is easy for sin to reign supreme. Very easy.
What is to be done by those who find themselves with such a weight of sin. The Biblical command is to put it aside by making no provisions to engage in whatever activity will hinder us. But that is not easy. Honestly, realistically, there is great temptation to engage in a self-destructive and other destructive course of action. If it were not difficult to be saved and delivered from sin there would have been no need for Calvary. So what can be done?
The past may be a key to the present. When we begin to remember the struggles of other Christians, when we remember the great mercy of God towards those who struggle with evil, our hearts are encouraged to be different as we look afresh unto “Jesus the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). The Bible tells us about the sins of the saints.
Noah drank too much.
Abraham and Isaac struggled with lying.
Sarah was a witch towards Hagar.
Moses was a murderer.
David and his son Solomon had an insatiable lust pattern.
Gideon was afraid of men.
Lot found himself with sons, the product of his own incest.
Despite their struggles, men and women of old engaged in faith’s activities so that in the end their righteousness was remembered more than their sin. Today we read of their spiritual victories.
By faith Noah built an ark.
By faith Abraham sojourned in a strange land. He believed in God and it was accounted unto him for righteousness.
By faith Sarah conceived the child of promise.
By faith Moses, when he was come of age refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season.
By faith Gideon took up the weapons of warfare against the Philistines and cried out, “The sword of the Lord and of Gideon!”
By faith David began the preparations for the building of a great Temple.
The time came when the sins of the heart were set aside and fantastic faith was focused upon for the glory of God, and the good of the soul. And the author of Hebrews says to you and me today, “Do the same thing. You are no better nor worse than others. Now lay aside all that keeps you from holiness and every sin that is slowing you down in the race for righteousness. Let faith in Christ be the overarching principle to unify your soul that leads to victory in time and eternal life.”
In as far as we do this, when our own legacy is written and the memories of this generation is studied, it might be recorded that, where sin abounded, grace did much more abound. Those who were weighted by sin and surrounded by darkness looked unto Jesus. Personal sinful burdens were lifted, and the darkness was dispelled. Now, there is the freedom to help others.