That’s me and my wife on Mount Sinai in Egypt, 1989. I recall the photo vividly. It was early morning, and the free show we are looking at is the spectacular sunrise over distant Saudi Arabia. It is the kind of intense red I think, impossible to capture in a photograph. I recall that we had arrived by taxi to the foot of the mountain at about 11 PM. No matter. The ascent is long and arduous, and there are natural stopping places along the way. The narrow foot path up the mountain is punctuated by the spot where God appeared to Moses to give him the Ten Commandments. Because no man can see God and live, Moses hid himself in the cleft of the rock, and saw only the back of God’s glory as he passed by. There are also Bedouin tents interspersed at intervals so that you can sit down and rest, drinking sweet tea with mint out of glass tumblers. I believe we reached the summit at about 3 am, then nothing left to do but try to sleep for a few hours until the blinding sunrise.
It seems to be quite a seminal picture, looking out over our future, perhaps? It also seems that we are all alone. Let’s just say that like all new couples, were were ‘alone’ in the figurative sense... perhaps no one else existing or really mattering to us in the world during that space of courtship. The view changes however, if you turn around 180 degrees.
The odd thing about Mount Sinai, is that despite the jaggedness of the mountain-scape, when you get to the summit, it is as flat as a table, almost as if someone just sliced off the top from a cake with a big knife. This flat top is about the size of two rooms. Not huge. Because of its popularity as a destination, the other fact of the matter is that the mountain at the time we were photographed, likely had about two hundred travellers, each trying to find an inch of space to lay down a pallet and sleep during the wait for sunrise.
That’s right, the backpacker who turned the camera and captured us looking off the summit into the distance, he was part of a great ‘crowd of witnesses’ off to the side. If that alliteration sounds familiar, it is pretty close to what the author of Hebrews says in the twelfth chapter, that we are surrounded by a great ‘cloud of witnesses’.
“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, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith...”
Like most young couples, we weren’t thinking too hard about the great cloud of witnesses at that time. We were mostly trying to figure out how to bridge a long distance relationship and take things to their natural completion, marriage, kids, a life together. The cloud of witnesses would have to wait.
Still, it is a great truth. In North America particularly, we seem to live our lives as through a prism of individuality. We imagine ourselves to be alone in the world. Perhaps taking marriage vows is the first thing to reverse this notion. People who are properly married, do so in community, in the presence of witnesses, and there are good reasons for this that are both practical and theological.
No man is an island. We are supported, buoyed and encouraged by those around us, family, friends, a faith community if you have it. They help you up when you stumble, they shine a light in the darkness, and they provide a safety net of those who have gone before, facing the challenges of the world in good faith and with the best of intentions. When something happens, you won’t feel so utterly alone in the world. That’s the plan - to connects us to the whole, so that we can become whole.
The cloud of witnesses in Hebrews, are quite spectacular. The author says that they, “through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens”. Now that is quite a list if you are looking for a confidence booster. It seems that faith is a big thing. Maybe it is just the medicine needed to get you past the post when other things in life are troubling and draining. Hope the size of a mustard seed, can move a mountain, to quote Jesus.
I am thinking of my own cloud of witnesses. I don’t know anyone who stopped the mouth of lions. Still, when I think of my parents’ example, I know that they lived out their faith despite many things which did not make this easy. When their back was to the wall, they did not waiver on the verities. Those back-to-the-wall kind of people are the ones most needed for those tough points in life that come to all. The writer of Hebrews knew.
At work as well, it seems that God always placed a witness somewhere in the mix, someone to come and check with me how things were going, someone to encourage me, even pray with me. God knew that I would need the cloud of witnesses. Just like on that mountain top, if I had turned around I would have found the crowd of witnesses there all along.
I am on the middle stretch of the journey these days, it is the start to finish that comes with raising a family, and being married, all things where finishing well matters. If I turn around now, I will find that great cloud of witnesses still, encouraging me to run with perseverance the race set out before me. May your cloud of witnesses encourage you to do the same.