These witnesses who have gone before us have experienced everything this life has to throw at them. They have lost loved ones to war, natural disaster, distance and sickness. They’ve been strangers in a strange land, they’ve had rebellious children and tragic love affairs and trouble at work. In all these things, they are witnesses to God’s grace and faithfulness.



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New Year’s Eve 2014

Hebrews 12:1-2

In certain parts of the world, they use a very unique method to catch monkeys. The hunters will create a sturdy container with a narrow opening. The opening is just big enough for a monkey to fit its hand through. Inside the container, the hunters and trappers put many nuts of the varieties that monkeys enjoy. Then they fasten these containers securely to trees in the jungle. The monkeys smell the nuts and come to the containers. They put their hands in the containers to get the nuts. But when they are holding on to the nuts, the hands of the monkeys are in a larger, fist shape, and they can’t withdraw the hand from the container. In order to get its hand out, the monkey must drop the nuts, leaving them in the container, and then withdraw its hand, without any nuts. The amazing thing is, most monkeys won’t drop the nuts. They’ll sit there, holding the nuts, and because of that, stuck in the container which is fastened to the tree. They will continue holding the nuts, even when the hunters return to capture them. To get away, all they would have to do is let go of the nuts and run, but they rarely do.

As we consider what has transpired this past year, and look toward the future, ask yourself this questions: “what are the ‘nuts’ that I’m holding on to?” I am not referring here to your family. What I mean is this: As you face the new year, what are you holding on to that keeps you from going where God wants you? I don’t mean necessarily that God wants you to move physically. But is there some step he wants you take or some relationship he wants you to heal? Is there something that you know you should do, but other things get in the way? Is there a change he would like to make in your life, but you can’t let him because you’re holding on to something else?

Hebrews 12:1-2 is a great passage of scripture, especially for New Year’s Eve. Please turn to it and keep it handy while you read these notes. One reason this passage is so appropriate to New Year’s is because it is a point at which the writer completes the process of looking at the past, and then directs our attention to the present and the future. In Hebrews chapter 11, the author of the book has us consider the lives and events of many of the Biblical heroes of faith. He writes about Noah; Abraham and Sarah; Isaac; Jacob; Joseph; Moses’ parents and Moses himself; Rahab; Gideon; Barak; Samson and many more. All those people lived in the past and experienced joy and suffering, victory and defeat. But they all faced their circumstances with faith in God and in his promises.

Now, the writer says this:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Let’s break this down piece by piece. First, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. I think this means essentially two things. It means, for one thing, that those who have gone before us have confirmed and established the truth of what we believe. Their lives were used by God to prove that He is reliable, and that his promises and actions in this world are real. We’re aren’t out here making up a new religion. We aren’t crazy people. What we believe has been proved over and over again in the lives of those who have gone before us. Also, what we have faced in the past and what we will face in the future has been experienced before us by those who trust the Lord – and the Lord proved himself faithful. The text says, in chapter eleven:

Some men were tortured, not accepting release, so that they might gain a better resurrection, and others experienced mockings and scourgings, as well as bonds and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they died by the sword, they wandered about in sheepskins, in goatskins, destitute, afflicted, and mistreated. The world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and on mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground. (Heb 11:35-38, HCSB)

These witnesses who have gone before us have experienced everything this life has to throw at them. They have lost loved ones to war, natural disaster, distance and sickness. They’ve been strangers in a strange land, they’ve had rebellious children and tragic love affairs and trouble at work. In all these things, they are witnesses to God’s grace and faithfulness.

The second thing about this great cloud of witnesses, is that we aren’t alone in our “race.” I don’t mean that the saints who have gone before, pray for us or give us help.[1] There is only one person who intercedes on our behalf – and that is God himself as the Son and as the Holy Spirit (1 Timothy 2:5; Romans 8:26-27). But there is a sense given by this passage that these faithful people who have gone before are also there, cheering us on, so to speak. Certainly they cheer us on and inspire us by the examples that their lives were.

Now we come to the nuts in the jar. We are told to “throw off everything that hinders.” Something that often goes unrecognized is that many times, good things can hinder us from what is best and most important. Satisfying work that pays well is a good thing. And yet millions of people allow this good thing (that is, a job/career) to hinder them from effectively following Jesus. Many folks put in hours they don’t need to, to make money that they don’t really need, to buy things that they don’t really need. Many people dedicate their lives to the pursuit of career and fortune. Family – and even following Jesus — become things that have only the bits of time which are left over.

I’ve known people who don’t have a problem letting their careers control them, but other good things get in the way. I knew a couple once that went to so many church conferences and special events that they didn’t have time to plug into any Christian community. They didn’t develop real relationships with other Christians, or become humbly vulnerable and when they began to struggle in their marriage there was no one to help.

I’ve known pastors who spend so much time trying to help their denomination or association that they neglect their own church. Sometimes something is as simple as television. It’s not inherently evil, but if you don’t control it, TV can hinder you as you seek to follow Jesus. The same is true of computer games, or facebook, or any one of a thousand things you might do on the internet. What good or neutral things might be hindering you right now? Now, use your common sense here. It is not legitimate to say, “My marriage is hindering me, so I’ll get a divorce.” We know from other scripture passages that to God there is only one acceptable reason for divorce, and even then, it may not have to occur. Likewise this is not necessarily an excuse to quit working altogether, or to evade your responsibilities.

We are also told to get rid of “the sin that so easily entangles.” These are bad things. Things like drunkenness or adultery or rage or bitterness or un-forgiveness or addiction. Usually they’re pretty obvious. Don’t waste time lying to yourself here. Is there a sin that keeps recurring in your life? Are you addicted to the computer, or porn, or alcohol or pain killers or anything?

The writer of Hebrews tells us to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” That seems to indicate that it is a somewhat long race and it will require a certain amount of stick-to-it-iveness to finish it. It isn’t a sprint – it’s a marathon. It means we need to pace ourselves, be patient and stay with it. By inspiring the writer to describe the life of faith as a race, I think the Holy Spirit had something in mind. Our Christian life has a definite beginning, standards for qualifying, and a definite goal in mind, with a prize and rest at the end. We aren’t wandering aimlessly through life. We are moving toward a goal, a finish line, and a reward awaits us.

Now, how are we do get rid of what hinders, and get rid of sin and then run the race well? By fixing our eyes on Jesus. How did you forget your High School algebra? Not by saying “whatever happens, I will not remember that x+y=a.” You also didn’t go around thinking “x+y=rabbit.” No, you forgot it because you quit using it, and your mind became occupied with other things. That’s kind of the idea of fixing our eyes on Jesus. Don’t concentrate on not sinning – focus instead on Jesus. Don’t fixate on what might be hindering you. Instead, whole-heartedly pursue a closer relationship with Jesus. Don’t get caught up by other things – get caught up by Jesus.

Another thing that helps us as we focus on Jesus is to realize that he has already endured and gone through this life. He knew he would have some trials and struggles that probably none of us will ever have. But his focus was on the end. I don’t know what 2015 will bring for us. It may be a good year. It may not be. But I do know what the end will bring for us.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!

Do you want to lose weight next year? Get rich? Learn to play the banjo? My prayer for you is that you first submit that goal or desire to the Lord. And then, leaving that in his hands, make only one resolution: to simply fix your eyes on Jesus, to endure whatever may come for the sake of the joy that awaits us. Happy New Year!

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[1] This is one of the verses the Roman Catholic Church uses to suggest that we should ask the saints to pray for us.

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