“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)
Memorial Day, once called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance of those who have died in our nation’s service. This is how it all began. As the story goes, it happened in October 1864.
It was a pleasant Sunday, and in the little community burial ground behind the village of Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, 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 place 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, July 3, 1863.
So the two ladies met to become kneeling figures at nearby graves; a young girl honoring her officer father, a mother paying respects to her enlisted 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 of respect, and placed them on the son’s grave. The mother in turn laid some of her freshly cut flowers on the father’s grave. They did not realize at the time that their providential meeting had any particular significance – outside of their own personal lives gut, as it happened, these two women were participating in the nation’s first Memorial Day Service.
The story continues 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 many heard it with enthusiasm.
History records 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. Many citizens of Boalsburg gathered. The Rev. Dr. George Hall preached a sermon, and then, every grave in the little cemetery was decorated with flowers and flags; not a single grave was neglected.
On May 5, 1868, just four years after the first Decoration Day, as it was initially called, General John A. Logan, 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 a Memorial Day has been kept.
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, and then finally to include all combatants who have made the supreme sacrifice in all American conflicts.This is the way it should be. In the immortal words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, America is a people of, “One flag, one land, one heart, one hand, one nation, evermore.” We have a national legacy to be remembered.
As our hearts stir with patriotic zeal and gratitude, it is proper for the Church to take advantage of the hour to remember the spiritual legacy that has also 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).
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). Such encouragement is needed, because sometimes, it is easy to get discouraged in the Christian life. There are many trials that test our faith. However, what matters most, is that we as Christians persevere in our faith, like our forefathers. Faith, not feelings must dictate our conduct. For that to happen, three things must be done to persevere as a Christians.
Believers are 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, or activity that hinders spirituality. This verse applies to young people, who face peer pressures that weigh heavily upon them. There is the pressure to smoke, to take drugs, to drink to excess, to use profane language, and engage in adult behavior that they are not ready for, psychologically or physically.
Christ comes and says to Christian young people, “I can set you free from such pressures. Just tell your friends that you are a Christian and you are following Me. It will be enough. It is the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Adults, too, have many weights that press down upon them causing them to lose their spirituality. 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 often suffer. For a variety of reasons people no longer have time for one another, or for God. Any intimacy of the soul with the Lord is often replaced by the intensity of the next project, or a distracting gadget. Whatever weight keeps the Christian from enjoying the gifts of God, and the Lord Himself, needs to be put aside.
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). Secret transgressions 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. Let the Christian pray, “Lord, I want to be holy.” Honesty is an over arching principle. Let the Christian pray, “Lord, I want to be honest.” Truth, integrity, moral purity, and faithfulness to one’s promises are overarching principles that can unify the soul, and guide individual moments of decision IF they are embraced.
But, what is to be done by those who find themselves with a weight on their heart? The Biblical command is to put it aside by making no provisions to engage in whatever activity will hinder our relationship with God. However, that is not easy to do. Realistically, it is very tempting to continue to engage in a self-destructive, and other destructive behavior because of the pleasure it often brings. So, again, “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 have struggled with their behavior, our hearts are encouraged to be different as we look afresh unto “Jesus the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2).
The Bible tells us about the shortcomings 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. Any man who has 300 wives and 700 concubines has a problem.
Gideon was afraid of men.
Lot found himself with sons, the product of his own incest.
Esther was willing to give her body to a king for a one night stand, and a financial reward.
Martha was bossy and impatient.
Despite their struggles, men and women of old found faith in God so that in the end their righteousness is 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 weaknesses of the flesh were set aside, and fantastic faith was focused upon for the glory of God, and the good of the soul. The author of Hebrews says to you and me today, Lay aside anything, and everything, that is keeping you from holiness, and everything that is slowing you down in the race for righteousness.
Let 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 are studied, it might be recorded that, where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.
Let the history of the Church one day record that many Christians in the 21st century who were weighted down by something, and surrounded by mental and moral darkness, looked to Jesus. The burdens of life were lifted, and the darkness was dispelled. It was like being born again. And so the past, is still the key to the present.