On July 5, 1994, my son Christopher and I attended "Game 44" of the World Cup. The game was being held at Giants Stadium. We went early to take in some of the activities set up outside the stadium and it was amusing to see all the costumes people had put together to wear to the game. Bulgaria was pitted against Mexico and the stadium was completely full. Over 70, 000 fans were there to witness the first game of the world’s grandest competition to go into overtime, and then a sudden death shot out in order to determine the winner. The atmosphere was amazingly electric and we were blessed to watch the shoot out in the front row! The World Cup, The Super Bowl, The World Series, The Stanley Cup, and the Olympics all have one thing in common. They are the premiere game that determines the best of the best in their given sport. If you've been able to attend one of these championships, you can't help but be captured by the energy of cheering on your favorite team and the instant familiarity you have with the thousands of others who have come to do the same. It is why many teams in many sports consider their fans to be "the twelfth man".
The Christian walk can feel like an intense athletic competition. We are met with opposition, temptation, trials, challenges and obstacles in our daily lives as well as milestones, victories and the satisfaction of a job well-done. If you've ever tried to face the challenges alone, you know how discouraging and detrimental that can be. And who wants to celebrate a victory by themselves? It's so much better to celebrate with others who understand your joy and want to celebrate with you. Most importantly though, knowing there are others who surround you with encouragement and love, no matter what part of the journey you're on, is like the team whose "twelfth man" cheers them on to victory in spite of the tremendous obstacles they face to win. This is the imagery that the author of Hebrews is reminding us of when he writes that we have a "great cloud of witnesses" watching us as we run the race of faith in Hebrews 12:1. Not only do we have fellow believers here on earth to help us take on the challenges of the race, but we also have those who have gone on before (take a look at chapter 11 if you want to know who some of them are), sitting in the bleachers of heaven, and rooting for us to fight the good fight, finish the race, and keep the faith (2 Tim. 4:7).
Paul was well acquainted with the struggles of the Christian walk. When writing to the Corinthian Church he used several images from the Olympic games to describe his struggles and the outcome of those trials (2 Cor. 4:7-18). Those words, afflicted, crushed, perplexed, not despairing, persecuted and struck down were terms which also applied to wrestling and running. Like an athlete who trains his body almost mercilessly so that it will perform in competition, the struggles of faith train us for an eternal end and although no suffering is pleasant, Paul reminds us that it is temporary. Our great cloud of witnesses know better than we do the glories to come therefore they cheer us on like the fans in the stand who call out encouragement to their team when they are behind.
Have you ever noticed that Paul often closes his letters with greetings from the believers with him to those who will receive it? Paul is reminding them all that they are in the "faith walk" together and face the same challenges. The same is true for us. We not only have a fan base in heaven, there are earthly counterparts that can be a source of encouragement too if we let them (Heb. 10:23-25). Whether or not you are a well-trained athlete you may be facing a competitor this week. That adversary could be as simple as managing your time better or as deep as overcoming an addiction. Remember, you are not alone in this challenge. There is a "great cloud of witnesses" gathered around you to cheer you on. Draw on the strength and enthusiasm of your "twelfth man".
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
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