The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

SUPERSTARS

Delivered 8/15/04
Text: Hebrews 11:29-12:2
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

The Olympics are back...in case you had not heard. Did you see the opening ceremonies from Athens Friday night? Spectacular! Three hours of pageantry that was absolutely magical - a celebration of life, love and Greek civilization beamed to four billion TV viewers across the world. It should probably not be a surprise that it was as good as it was - after all, Greeks have been doing drama for 3,000 years.

The parade of athletes was awesome. Almost 11,000. It was especially good to see the team from Afghanistan with its women members who had been so brutally repressed under the now-overthrown Taliban regime. Good too to see the team from Iraq who had been flown from Baghdad under cover of darkness by the Royal Australian Air Force. The Olympic spirit lives even amid the ongoing conflict.

I was distressed to hear that one of my favorites from the Sydney Olympics four years ago is not in attendance. Eric Moussambani, the swimmer from Equatorial Guinea who competed in the 100-meter freestyle and finished dead last. Eric had only learned to swim a few months before the Olympics. He trained diligently - three days every week, a whole hour at a time - in the 20-meter pool of a local hotel. But the trouble with swimming in the Olympics is that the competition is in an Olympic-size pool - 50-meters. And the 100-meter event means swimming it twice, and in front of 17,500 screaming fans! Well, Eric had never even come close to swimming 100 meters before. Halfway through the first heat of the race (which he had to swim alone because his two fellow competitors had been disqualified for false starts), he began to flail away and appeared in danger of drowning - people were ready to jump in and rescue him. But he hung in there, dog-paddling his way home in just under 1:53 to some of the loudest cheers of the games, not quite twice the time it took for his nearest competitor (who ended up 70th) to finish the race.

If you remember the story, it turns out that Eric Moussambani had learned that the Sydney Olympics would fly any competitor to the games for free, plus house and feed them, and, in general, treat them like royalty, so he decided he wanted in on the action. Wonderful. Since the 2000 games, Eric has continued his training and has now reduced his time by almost half. Unfortunately, he just recently ran into a passport problem and was unable to come to Athens. Too bad.

Who will be the superstars of the Olympics of 2004? Some are predictable, acknowledged by all to be best in their field. Some will be surprises, unlikely heroes who for one reason or another - and not always excellence, as the saga of Eric Moussambani attests - will rise to international attention.

Our lesson from Hebrews 11 this week falls into the category of the unexpected victories by overlooked competitors. The chapter which has become known as "Faith's Hall of Fame" includes names with which everyone is familiar - Noah, Abraham, Moses. But the list includes some unlikely inductees - Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah. Do you know those folks?

Rahab was a prostitute who lived in Jericho. Her "step of faith" was in cooperating with the Israelite spies who were looking to conquer her town - she made a deal with them not to harm her or her family in the coming conflict in exchange for her not ratting them out.(1)

Gideon is a name made famous by the Bible-distribution organization that uses him as their hero, but he too is an unlikely superstar. He lived in the day when Israel was under threat of being overrun by the Midianites. We meet him for the first time when he is threshing wheat, not at a granary but in a winepress because he was afraid the Midianites would steal it from him. He stayed pretty much a coward throughout our contacts with him in scripture, but he finally came through as a reluctant warrior even though he would probably have chosen to be anywhere else at that moment.(2)

Barak, another famous name. Not. He was an Israelite army commander who was told to go to battle against a Canaanite enemy but he refused to do it unless the prophetess Deborah went too. OK.(3) Reluctant hero.

Samson is a name you probably know.(4) Samson and Delilah, after all. Samson does sound like a hero in the Olympic mold - he probably could have gotten a gold in weightlifting. He does not seem to have been terribly religious. His reputation as a champion of Israel was apparently a result of his personal quarrels with the Philistines rather than any special piety. He was vicious and vengeful. He fancied himself a ladies man, eventually took up with a prostitute (Delilah) and has cost countless individuals countless dollars in lost bar bets. Question: who cut Samson's hair making him lose his strength? Answer Delilah and lose your money; it was a man Delilah called in to do the job. Samson died when he single-handedly destroyed a Philistine temple and everyone in it, including himself. Great hero.

How about Jephtha?(5) Jephtha was a bandit warlord, the illegitimate son of another prostitute who was prevailed upon to become a commander of the Israelite army at a particularly dangerous time. Jephtha made a bargain with God: "If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord's, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering." Jephtha wanted a good luck charm, just in case. Well, what came out of his house on his return was his only daughter, happy to see her daddy. He kept his vow. How's that for a hero?

The name David appears. No surprise. He was always recognized as Israel's greatest king. But he was also recognized as a murderer and adulterer as well. Superstar.

Samuel? When we encounter that name, we remember that nice Sunday School story about him hearing the voice of God as a young boy. But there is also the story of him hacking a prisoner of war to pieces(6) that sounds like something we might expect to see on a video from Islamic terrorists.

It continually amazes me the way God can use the most unlikely among us to fulfill divine purposes...even me. The less than perfect character of some of the heroes of the faith who are mentioned in our lesson certainly provides some contact with our lives, but the point is not so much to say that Gideon and Samson had feet of clay so it's all right for you and me to have feet of clay too. It is rather that, like it or not, we DO have feet of clay, but that does not disqualify us from the race of faith. Hear that again: we DO have feet of clay, but that does not disqualify us from the race of faith.

The Olympians who get the glory are usually those that win medals. But there are also those who train, who persevere, but do not even come close to winning. You may remember the English skier "Eddie the Eagle" or the Jamaican bobsled team immortalized in the 1993 film "Cool Running." Eric Moussambani. Superstars, every one.

Last Sunday's issue of Parade magazine has an article by David Wallechinsky titled "Why I'll Cheer for Laos."(7) We do not usually think of Laotians as contenders for Olympic medals, and for good reason. Laos is a very poor country and its athletes (there are three in Athens) have quite limited facilities and opportunities for training. Only one Laotian Olympian has ever finished anything but last in his or her event. But they persevere. Superstars, in my book. In terms of you and I who are running the race of faith, that will surely preach.

The Barcelona Olympics of 1992 provided a wonderful story.(8) Britain's Derek Redmond had dreamed all his life of winning a gold medal in the 400-meter race, and his dream was in sight as the gun sounded in the semifinals. He was running the race of his life and could see the finish line as he rounded the turn into the backstretch. Suddenly, he felt a sharp pain go up the back of his leg. He fell, face first, on to the track with a torn right hamstring.

As the medical attendants were approaching, Redmond fought to his feet. He set out hopping, in a crazed attempt to finish the race. When he reached the stretch, a large man in a T-shirt came charging out of the stands, hurled aside a security guard and ran to Redmond, embracing him. It was Jim Redmond, Derek's dad. "You don't have to do this," he told his son.

"Yes, I do," said Derek as the tears streamed down his face.

"Well, then," said Jim, "we're going to finish this together." And they did. Fighting off security men, the son's head sometimes buried in his father's shoulder, they stayed in Derek's lane all the way to the end, as the crowd watched, then rose and roared and wept.

Derek did not win the gold, but he walked away with an incredible memory of a father who, when he saw his son in pain, came to him to help him finish the race. And you KNOW that will preach!

I love the way our lesson concludes: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders...our doubts, our fears, our questions...and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us."

Last year, back when American troops were still heading across the sands of Iraq toward Baghdad, toward what, they did not know, I read an interview with an Army chaplain, whose responsibility it was to care for the young and overwhelmed soldiers of the First Brigade. "What do you tell them?" he was asked.

He pointed toward the stars and said, "I remind them, we sleep under the same stars as Abraham did, on his journey of faith with God. I tell them the story of Daniel," he said, "here on these same sands, Daniel who never lost faith and kept serving his God under the oppression of King Nebuchadnezzar." What the chaplain was saying was that there was with him, with his young soldiers, a great cloud of witnesses, from far, far back in the annals of faith, people of faith whose love for their God did not waver and whose lives still bore witness in the sands of Iraq to the faith which still upholds and strengthens, still gives life and hope.(9)

Clarence McCartney noted to a previous generation that the picture in Hebrews is that of a heavenly stadium packed with famous fans, all with voices, cheering us on as we press toward the goal.(10) Yonder they are! Yonder is the gallery of the patriarchs, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob; and over there the section for the prophets, Moses and Elijah and Samuel and Jeremiah. And here are the seats of the apostles, Peter and John and Paul. And there is the gallery of the martyrs, all those who died for truth, Stephen and Polycarp and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And just beyond is the gallery of the reformers, Luther and Calvin and Knox. And there are the great missionaries, St. Augustine and St. Patrick and David Livingstone and Albert Schweitzer. And over there the great musicians, Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley and Fanny Crosby.

But there is yet another section of the stadium that means far more to you and me perhaps than any of the others. It is the gallery where sit our own mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, whose race is already run. They are the witnesses who surround us and inspire us to keep the faith, who see our struggles and rejoice in our victories. And with them all, standing above them all, looking down with twinkling eyes and the warmest smile, is Jesus. He sees what we are up against. He knows we need help and he offers it.

That is God's word to you and me today. "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." Superstars. "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus..."

Amen!


1. Joshua 2:1-21; 6:22-25

2. Joshua 6-7

3. Judges 5

4. Judges 13-16

5. Judges 11-12

6. I Samuel 15:32-33

7. 8/8/04, p. 8

8. from Hot Illustrations for Youth Talks, Wayne Rice, 1994

9. Alida Ward, "Cloud of Witnesses," May 25, 2003, Greenfield Hill Congregational Church Web Site, Geenfieldhillchurch.org

10. Clarence McCartney, "The Sin Which Doth Beset Us," The Greatest Texts of the Bible, (Nashville : Abingdon, 1979), p. 169

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