Graves Full of Glory
Preached by Jason Abbott
Images of churches surrounded by graveyards have become synonymous with things that are scary in our culture—like ghosts and zombies and Halloween.
But did you know that that wasn’t the original association?
In fact, graveyards around churches were originally meant to teach theology, even joyous and hopeful theology. They were meant to be a visible lesson for us that, though our Christian brothers and sisters may have died, they won’t stay dead. Originally church graveyards were meant to signal a mere temporary resting place for the faithful who will, at Christ’s return, be eternally awakened to stand, dance, and sing God’s praises in his perfected universe.
Today I want to resurrect this vision of the grave. I want to remove the fear (that’s associated with cemeteries) so as to replace it with the hope of eternal life which believers have through faith in Jesus Christ.
To do this, let’s read what the author of Hebrews says about this witness which we have from the grave and about what it should do in us and for us now. You can find today’s text on page 1156 of the brown Bibles.
11:39 And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.
12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
In this passage, the author of Hebrews argues that (1st) there’s a great future in store for us, and, in light of this great future, that (2nd) we, who are believers, should live out a great present. Let’s take a look at each of these in more detail.
1. A great future (11:39-40)
What comes before the first verses of today’s passage is a long list of some of the big dogs of the Christian religion. And we’re told to pay attention to them and to their faithfulness. Abraham and Sarah, Moses and David—all make this list.
However, what kind of faith is being put on display here? It’s a living faith, not a saving faith. In other words, through a saving faith in God, by trusting God’s saving purposes, a living faith or an active faith for the service of God will emerge. And that’s the kind of faith being displayed here. Take a look:
- “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice . . .” (11:4).
- “By faith Noah . . . constructed an ark . . .” (11:7).
- “By faith Abraham . . . offered up Isaac . . .” (11:17).
- “By faith the people crossed the Red Sea . . .” (11:29).
- “By faith” believers “conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, [and] escaped the edge of the sword . . .” (11:33-34).
I was an English teacher so I love active verbs. And this passage just hums with them. This is active faith on display here.
Let me pause for a moment and ask you to consider how your faith is active. This is really a pastoral question. How are you offering, constructing, conquering, crossing, enforcing, obtaining, stopping, quenching, or escaping thru faith in Jesus for the glory of God? A life following God should be characterized by active verbs. So please take time today to reflect on the health of your faith.
Well, all this activity eventually ended. All these faithful saints finally died. And this is where the author picks up in our passage. He writes:
And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect (11:39-40).
What was the main promise which all these faithful believers had hoped for, but hadn’t yet received?
It’s what we celebrate at Christmas—the coming of the Messiah, the Savior. It’s the promise fulfilled in Jesus Christ’s holy birth, perfect life, sacrificial death, and triumphant resurrection. It’s the promise of physical resurrection-life with God for ever and ever. Jesus Christ was the main promise hoped for but not yet received because, as our author points out, “apart from us they should not be made perfect.” You see, he’s saying: “Salvation is social.”1
Every other year my wife’s big-crazy Mexican family will gather together on Christmas day. They can’t do it every year because of other family obligations, but once every two years it happens—and it’s a nonstop, raging fiesta with food and music and more food and dancing and more food and maybe a piñata or two and, of course, some more food.
What’s interesting is watching them trickle into Natalie’s parent’s house leading up to Christmas day. When each new person arrives, there are waves of joy and celebration. There are miniature parties. But only when the last uncle or aunt or brother or sister arrives, only when we all stand together on that special day, does the true celebration begin. If even one is missing, it won’t start!
Friends, it’s like this with God’s main promise—God’s resurrection party through faith in Jesus Christ. The celebration will not begin until we can all stand and dance, eat and drink together. And so, our brothers and sisters, who’ve gone before us, will wait for that great future day when God will gather all his children into the eternal, resurrection fiesta. Not one will be missing!
That’s the great future which all the faithful—throughout human history—should hope for and live for. This should be our hope!
God isn’t, however, content that believers should just have a great future. And it’s this desire of God’s that brings us to our second point.
2. A great present (12:1-2)
In light of this great future, look at what the author of Hebrews writes next:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (12:1-2).
We’re told here: In light of the great future ahead, live out a great present. The author says: Look at how all the great men and women of the faith ran the race of life. They lived it with an eye on, one day, receiving God’s promise of perfection. So do the same, he says. Train yourselves to run well now, he says.
While in my 30s, I gave myself five marathons to qualify for one—Boston. In my first four attempts to qualify, I failed, the fourth time by only a few minutes. For my fifth and final attempt, I really turned the screws. I talked to some experts about training and began a running plan that worked up to eighty miles per week. Many days I ran twice a day—getting up early for a run and doing another run late. My training wasn’t casual. For months, it was my focus. So by the time I stepped to the starting line, I had honed a singular purpose or goal—to qualify for Boston. That is what I trained for.
During the last few miles of that race, I realized it was going to be close. Charley horses and blisters and dehydration and fatigue—all began to hound me. And my pace had slowed considerably—so much so that when I caught a glimpse of the finish line (about 300 meters away), I still wasn’t certain I’d make it in time. But that’s precisely when all the faithful training paid-off; that’s when all the days and nights of faithful running paid-off. And I sucked it up and hobbled a bit faster and qualified by only a few seconds.
Now, friends, it’s really tempting for us to think that something like this is what the author of Hebrews is telling us to do; but it’s not!
You see, all my training was designed to enable me to qualify for my goal—Boston! And I did . . . kind of. I really qualified for the Boston Marathon. I even ran in it in 2008. Oh hooray! Yay me! But, where is all that faithful training now? Where has it gone? I have trouble now running one mile at my old marathon pace. So what did I really achieve? What did I achieve that was lasting?
Friends, the author of Hebrews isn’t telling us to run our lives faithfully now so that we can qualify for God’s great future. Rather, he’s telling us that thru faith in Christ, we’ve already qualified—we’ve already won the prize; it’s already ours. Thus, we should live accordingly now. We should live as victors in the meantime. That’s the great present he urges us to have.
Just ask: Who’s the founder and perfecter of your faith if you’re a Christian? It’s not you. Training hard by yourself isn’t going to win you long-term perfection. I don’t care who you are! I don’t care how diligent and exacting you are about it! In time, you will always fail on your own.
I love what John Owen, the 17th century English theologian, says about this. Owen calls our attempts to purify or perfect ourselves through our own powers—“the saddest [kind of] warfare.” This is what he writes about its futility:
A soul under the power of conviction from the law is pressed to fight against sin, but hath no strength for the combat. They cannot but fight, and they can never conquer. . . The law drives them on, and sin beats them back.2
Oh man! I really want to write out that quote in large, legible handwriting and send it off to every self-help author and every health-and-wealth preacher. Owen was shooting straight with his readers. You need sin help—he says.
Just ask: Who’s the founder and perfecter of your faith if you’re a believer? What does the author of Hebrews say?
. . . let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us [that’s the perfection part], looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (12:1b-2).
The author makes it clear here. We’re not going to win this race on our own. Rather, we’ll win by looking to Jesus, who is the founder and perfecter of our faith. In other words, we are told to actively fight sin, to actively pursue a great present, by looking to or trusting in the victory of Jesus for us.
Notice two things here. Notice the “has” and the “can” of Christ’s victory. First, the author says that Jesus has won perfection for us. He “endured the cross” for you and me. At the cross, Jesus took our sins upon himself and crucified them; he killed our sins there. Every sin we’ve committed—past or present or future—dies on that cross when we trust in Jesus. Moreover, through that very same faith, we gain Christ’s perfection. So through faith in Christ, we have won!
Second, the author tells us that Jesus can grant perfection to us since he sits “at the right hand of the throne of God.” Jesus is reigning in glory with his Father at this very moment. He has all the power of the entire universe at his disposal. And he loves us! Therefore—as you struggle against sin in this life—look to Jesus. Ask Jesus to begin to perfect you now; he’s capable. He can grant victory.
One day a week, I do a sprint workout. Lately, I’ve begun to do my sprinting in an old church graveyard which sits across the street from my house. While there, I always read a few headstones. Some of the individuals in that graveyard lived around the time of the Revolutionary War—so many hundreds of years ago now! I’ll read the names and the dates they lived and wonder what their lives were like; I’ll wonder what regrets they might have had.
All this reminds me to live well now for God with my eyes fixed on Christ, knowing that a great future awaits me and many of those whose tombstones I pass while I run my sprints.
Let me close with this reflection from Russell Moore, a Baptist theologian, on the glories to be found in old church graveyards:
Sometime, when you get a moment, find an old church graveyard and walk through it. Not for the goose bumps or ghost stories, of course, but to remind yourself of some matters of eternal weight.
Walk about and see the headstones weathered and ground down by the elements. Contemplate the fact that beneath your feet are men and women who once had youthful skin and quick steps and hectic calendars, but who are now piles of forgotten bones. Think about the fact that the scattered teeth in the earth below you once sang hymns of hope. . .
They are silent now. But they will sing again. They will preach again. They will testify again. They will laugh again.
And, while you are there, think about what every generation of Christians has held against the threat of sword and guillotine and chemical weaponry. [Namely that] this stillness will one day be interrupted by a shout from the eastern sky, a joyful call with a distinctly northern Galilean accent.3
Amen. Will you pray with me?