As I write, we are in Pennsylvania, on our way from one ministry gathering in New York to another in Massachusetts. We have a little time to get to the next place, so we are spending the day enjoying the cool air and spectacular fall color of this beautiful part of the country. The leaves are at the perfect peak of their change, and the countryside is a flaming patchwork of reds, yellows, oranges, and greens. The backroads take us past farms and little towns, full of activity as everyone prepares for the long winter to come.
Earlier in the trip, we were near Lake Oneida in New York. That is where a young Charles Finney moved with his parents and siblings close to 200 years ago, when those parts were still the western frontier of our brand-new nation. Finney referred to that region as the “burned-out district” since everyone had heard a good share of preaching, but were numb and indifferent to it. What the preachers had to say had very little impact on the hearts and lives of the people; many were jaded by the dissonance between what they were taught the Bible said, and the difficulties they saw in their own lives.
All throughout this part of the country, we see evidence of this same feeling, unfortunately alive and thriving today. There are billboards all along the roads warning of the dangers of pills laced with fentanyl. There are signs encouraging people not to be fooled by the too-often fatal allure and false promise of opioids. There is ample evidence that people are not finding anything that makes them feel alive and purposeful; rather, so many are discouraged and despondent.
We spent time with a good friend in New York, and he mentioned having to watch out not to be overcome by what he called his “Northeast skepticism.” He described the condition as wondering if anyone would be able to actually walk with Christ in abundance and victory like we all hope. There have been so many moral failures, so many people who claim to be godly but are actually rascals, and so much hurt and pain that it is easy to begin to wonder if all of this Christianity stuff is actually too good to be true. Sadly, this skepticism is not at all relegated to only one part of the country.
But there is something we must not forget...
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, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. - Hebrews 12:1-3
This time of year, we celebrate All Saints’ Day, which happens on the first day of November. Our culture absolutely loves to decorate anything and for any reason, and we are currently decked out for All Hallows’ Eve, aka Halloween. Though most have forgotten the significance of what they are decorating for, and simply enjoy a fun night of candy and costumes and celebrating, the origin still remains, and perhaps many of us could again emphasize the true meaning of the season.
There is an important reason we look at the headstones in the graveyard this time of year! We actively remember all who have walked in our faith before us, because it is a mighty number. The writer of Hebrews called it a Great Cloud of Witnesses, and gave a role-call in the previous chapter. Those mentioned are Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Issac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, the people of God marching around the walls of Jericho, and Rahab,
From there, the writer broadens the scope and says, “And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”
Of course, the writer means that all of those amazing people had faith in God even before the incarnation, suffering, cross, death, and mighty resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! Since then, think of all the mighty men and women who have given their whole lives to loving and serving Jesus…
- All of the great apostles and disciples of the early Church, who marched right into a fierce and raging persecution, including Peter, John, Paul, James, Barnabus, Lydia, Phoebe, Timothy, Junia, Philip and his daughters...
- The great fathers and mothers and fathers of the Christian faith, who faced trial and tribulation in an age of great uncertainty and change - Justin Martyr, Athanasius of Alexandria, Basil of Caesarea, Thecla, Gregory of Nazianzus, Theosebia, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Tertullian, Cyprian, Jerome, Fabiola, Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo...
- The great theologians and artists of the long Middle Ages and the Renaissance, withstanding the press and threat first of barbarians and then of a militant Islam, and of pestilence and disease - St. Patrick, Boniface, the many nameless monks who preserved and copied the Bible, the architects and builders of stunning and mighty cathedrals, St. Francis, St. Clare, Anselm, Aquinas, Catherine of Siena, Leonardo daVinci, Michelangelo…
- The reformers and mystics, who withstood much pressure and persecution from the most powerful within Christendom to bring the Word of God and a personal walk with God back into the forefront of our faith - Erasmus, Luther, Katherine von Bora, Calvin, Zwingli, Wycliffe, Huss, Count von Zinzendorf, Madam Guyon, John Bunyan…
- The revivalists and creatives, who refused to let a vibrant faith in Christ be swallowed by the cold reason and individualism of their age - Whitefield, the Wesleys, Finney, Hannah Whitall Smith, Beethoven, Bach, William Wilberforce, Olaudah Equiano, Hannah More…
- The moderns, who stood strong for Christ in the age of rising atheism, fascism, and militant Marxism - GK Chesterton, CS Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Amy Carmichael, Hudson Taylor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Watchman Nee, Mother Theresa, Pope John Paul II, Tolkien, Billy Graham, Martin Luther King, Jr., Francis and Edith Schaefer, Corrie ten Boom…
The list goes on and on, filled with men and women who left a lasting mark because of their bold faith in Jesus Christ. Just about all of this cloud of witnesses faced hostility from people in power during their lifetime, some who hated God and some who claimed to represent Him. This always has been and likely will continue to be the case on this side of heaven. But even in the face of unpopularity, persecution, and violence, an incredible number of the most wonderful people ever to live have been followers of Jesus, all the way up to today.
I feel like the writer of Hebrews must have - there are so many amazing people who are alive today, loving and serving Jesus faithfully and making a real difference in their communities for His glory: it would take a whole library to contain all of their names and stories! They are standing up against the absolute insanity and confusion of this age, boldly proclaiming the love and reality of Jesus Christ. The broader world may never know any of their names, but they are many and they are bringing life and hope through Christ to people - and not just in the West, but all over the world.
Just like in Charles Finney’s day, this whole country is a burned-over District. We have seen and heard it all. Politicians make endlessly empty promises, social media never stops blaring its smoke and mirrors, many try desperately to deconstruct an orthodox faith and belief in Christ, and people are tired and confused. Families are breaking apart, kids don’t know who they are, and many people are desperate for an escape from reality.
Just like 200 years ago, many think they know what God has said, but are numb and indifferent to it. What the preachers have to say has very little impact on the hearts and lives of the people; they are so jaded by the dissonance between what they think the Bible says, and the difficulties they see in their own lives.
Friends, may we not give in to the confusing spirit of this age and grow weary or lose heart. May we keep our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. May we remember the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, and who cheer us on still. They withstood the tremendous pressures, uncertainties, and dangers of their own generations and remind us that if they can make it, we can too because the same God is with us.
Just like them, may we lean heavily on Jesus - the same Christ who endured the shame and brutality of the cross for the joy set before Him - and take courage and comfort in His help and presence. Just like them, may we believe the Word of God to be true and alive and active, sharper than any sword.
Just like in Charles Finney's day, when many tens of thousands came to vibrant faith, may the Spirit of God breath a mighty revival of faith in Christ into our hearts and throughout our burned-over land.
Hi! I'm Mary - mother to two wonderful grown daughters, wife to an incredible husband, and loving our life in the piney woods of Texas... (read more!)
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