In the Fire, Under the Great Cloud of Witnesses – 8,19,07 – Hebrews 11:29-12:2

The year he turned 40 years old, in 1989, Billy Joel released the song “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”  The song gives a whirlwind tour through significant headline events of the second half of the 20th century, starting the year Billy Joel was born, 1949, and going up through what was then the present day.  The song was a number one hit in the US.  It begins in a rapid fire style and keeps the same intensity throughout:    

Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray
South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio
Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, television
North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe

The chorus that gets repeated throughout is a brief but pointed commentary on Billy Joel’s baby boomer generation and their place in all these events.  

We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning

We didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it
But we tried to fight it

The events are mostly in chronological order and slowly approach the late eighties.

Birth control, Ho Chi Minh, Richard Nixon back again
Moonshot, Woodstock, Watergate, punk rock
Begin, Reagan, Palestine, terror on the airline
Ayatollah’s in Iran, Russians in Afghanistan

“Wheel of Fortune”, Sally Ride, heavy metal, suicide
Foreign debts, homeless vets, AIDS, crack, Bernie Goetz
Hypodermics on the shores, China’s under martial law
Rock and roller cola wars, I can’t take it anymore

We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning

We didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it
But we tried to fight it

My main memory of listening to We Didn’t Start the Fire is of me and my siblings gathered around our little stereo in the living room listening repeatedly to a copy of the song we had made from the radio on to a cassette tape.  My older sister Rachel, who later went on to become a history/ journalism double major in college, had the idea that we should write all the lyrics down so we could memorize the song and remember what all different events were being covered.  And since we didn’t have any intention of actually going out and buying the album so we could see the lyrics printed there, we would listen to five seconds of the song, press stop, write down a few things we understood, rewind it and listen again to what we understand, rewind it again if we still didn’t understand, and on and on until we had most of the lyrics down on paper.  If I remember correctly my older sister was much more interested in the words and the history while I was much more fascinated with starting and stopping and rewinding the cassette.    

                Now being at least a little more in tune with history and culture, the lyrics of this song do interest me.  And not just the specific items mentioned, but the overall effect of how the song presents forty years of history in several minutes.  The song does have a sense of order to it.  Things are moving chronologically, the rhythm and meter stay consistent throughout.  But more overpowering than the order is the sense of disorder, the sense of instability and – almost – randomness that comes out of the song .  These are supposedly culture-shaping events and people, headline items in bold print that have impacted the flow of history.  But the flow feels disjointed and scattered.  The listener, and the person experiencing these events, can get the overall feeling of being pulled in multiple directions by all of this activity, having very little sense of how things fit together and almost no control over what is coming next.  Getting bombarded with soundbites that don’t hold together in any meaningful bigger picture.  This is perhaps why Billy Joel uses the analogy of the fire rather than any kind of sensible flow, like a river.  Each event that gets named becomes more fuel for the craziness of the fire of history that has always been burning since the world’s been turning.  Turning, and, it often seems, spinning out of control.  

Had the song been written more recently, it could have included a verse that may sound something like this:

9/11, Enron, Martha Stewart, Simpsons      

genocide in Darfur, Iraq and the terror war,

Katrina hits, levees fail, Karl Rove reads your mail, 

Global warming, Virginia Tech, You Tube, chrystal meth,

Roadside bomb, Tony Blair, immigration, health care,

Harry Potter final book, heat wave, nation cooks,

Steroids in sports, Aaron’s record is no more,

Obama, Clinton, Romney, Gulian, The ‘08 race is on

We didn’t start the fire, it was always burning since the world’s been turning.  We didn’t start the fire.  No we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it.     

I doubt if Billy Joel was reading Hebrews 11 while he was writing this song.  I could be wrong, but his source of inspiration probably came elsewhere.  Likewise, I doubt if the writer of Hebrews 11 ever anticipated a song like “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”  But however much cultural and historical space there seems to be between these two texts, I have a hunch that it could be valuable to hold them alongside side each other for a short while and allow them to read each other and speak something fresh to us.    

Part of the message of Hebrews 11, written to a group of people who were among the first generations to receive the faith that came out of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, was the message that “We didn’t start the faith, it was always churning since the world’s been turning.”  Writing to first century Christians who were experiencing the newness of the Jesus movement, we see a message that this all did not appear out of thin air.  Hebrews 11 traces a line from the birth of the world up through the present moment, a line that follows the active presence of faith throughout history — people and events who are the closest thing to headlines we get in the Bible: “God creates world through spoken word”, “Abel, the brother who was the victim of murder and not the triumphant killer, receives praise from God”, “Abraham set out not knowing where he was going,” “Moses leads Hebrew slaves out of Egyptian empire,” “Prostitute Rahab is hero in Jericho battle.”  “Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets conquer kingdoms, administer justice, shut the mouths of lions, win strength out of weakness, receive back dead by resurrection, suffer mocking and flogging and imprisonment, wander in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground, of whom the world was not worthy.”

A continuous naming of people acting out of faith all the way up to the present moment.  “We didn’t start the faith, it was always churning since the world’s been turning.”

But Hebrews 11 is much more than the rock song with a biblical twist.  There are some significant differences to note.  Whereas one song focuses on the image of us living in the middle of the unpredictable fire of history, the Hebrews 11 song culminates in the image of us living under a great cloud of witnesses.  Hebrews isn’t as concerned about all the main players of history, but rather a particular story going on within history.  A story of those whose lives included the element of faith, of hope, of living out the active presence of God in their lives.  Those events and people are more than just fuel for the fire.  Events, interpreted in a particular light, and people, driven by faith, form something more like a living, hovering cloud that surrounds us with meaning and connection to a historical legacy.  I’m glad this great cloud isn’t just the perfect people who teach all of us imperfect people how to get it right.  I’m glad it includes deeply flawed individuals who still found their way into God’s embrace.  I’m glad Moses is in there, a guy who lost his temper and killed an Egyptian and had to be a fugitive for 40 years before those other forty years when he lead the Hebrews through the desert.   I’m glad it includes a prostitute who apparently gets on the team for doing one act of grace, she welcomed the Hebrew spies in peace and kept her end of a bargain.  I’m glad we can continue adding names and faces to this ever expanding cloud of witnesses.  We’ve got those troublemaking early Anabaptists as part of our witnesses who decided to actually try and live out Jesus’ teachings.  Gandhi, MLK Jr., Dorothy Day, and Oscar Romero are among the 20th century heroes of nonviolence.  We each have mentors and family members who are part of that blanket of faith and grace surrounding us.     

Also, more than just a rapid fire sequence of seemingly unconnected events and experiences, Hebrews 11 presents us with a center.  Something/someone present in the middle of it all who draws us in toward the center.  The pioneer who carved out that center.  The perfecter of our faith.  Jesus, the Christ, through whom history is transformed.  The one whose faith enabled him to live within the disjointedness of the world as it is.  Who walked with people who would never make the headlines and called them the first to enter the kingdom of God.  Who chewed out the Pharisees and other religious people for misusing their soundbites from Scripture while not seeing how they all hold together in God’s big picture of doing justice and acting with mercy.  Who called together a group of followers who were to help continue creating this center after he was gone.  Who eventually experienced the raging fires of crucifixion, who absorbed the randomness of violence.  Who, we believe, somehow came out on the other side not as one consumed in the fire, but as one able to now live within it and beyond it, present in the brokenness of history, as well as present at the center of the great cloud of witnesses who watch over the living. 

                So which is it?  Are we living in the middle of the fire that’s always been burning since the world’s been turning.  Is our culture just one big bonfire of headlines?  Is history just one rapid fire event after another?  Are we in the fire, or are we living under the great cloud of witnesses, having access to the aliveness of Jesus and others who live by faith?  Who got it right? Billy Joel or Hebrews?

A certain stream of the Mennonite tradition has thought in very dualistic terms between culture and faith.  Faith was the realm of Christ, the realm of the saved, and there was a strong sense of separation between the churchly life of faith and the worldly life of culture.  To stick with these metaphors we’ve been using, there was the attempt to live peacefully under the great cloud of witnesses away from the unpredictable fires of the rest of the world.  In the North American context, especially after the World War II experience which brought many Mennonites doing alternative service into closer contact with the troubles of the world, this kind of separation is no longer possible or desirable.  We have found ourselves much more integrated with society, and we’ve had to give up thinking in such black and white terms between the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God.  We have had to re-think what it means to be ‘in the world but not of the world,’ as Jesus instructed us to be.  To be in the fires of history without allowing ourselves to be burned up by those flames.  To be engaged in our context, involved in our culture, even helping form and create our culture, without our identity being completely consumed by it, or the instability of world events.

                So Billy Joel pretty much nailed it.  History is messy, ambiguous, tragic in many ways, and in most ways, well beyond our ability to control.  His “text” challenges us to recognize the many, many influences coming at us from all directions that we live with on a daily basis.  Not necessarily good or bad influences, but events that shape us and the way we interact with each other.  Whether we like it or not, we’re right in the middle of the fire, and, I would venture to say, this is exactly where God is calling each of us to be.

                But this is not all there is to the picture.   Hebrews 11 challenges us to recognize that there is more than just a fire that we live in.  There is also something like a cloud, a great cloud hovering over all of this, a cloud with a faith lining, alive with Jesus and all those who have lived out the story of faith.  One of the most important things that we do as a Church – and I’m using Church with a big “C” – anybody and everybody identifying themselves with the mission of Jesus – whether it’s a group of 1000 or a gathering of two or three…one of the most important things we do as Church is to continue identifying together with this particular story of faith; to continue speaking of this canopy of meaning that we live under, this cloud of witnesses whose faith is alive and well.  We believe that our primary identity comes from God’s story of the world and from history as transformed by Jesus.  The story of God’s loving activity of redeeming history and our involvement in that activity, our faith. 


2 thoughts on “In the Fire, Under the Great Cloud of Witnesses – 8,19,07 – Hebrews 11:29-12:2

  1. Hey, thanks for that funny memory (and the good sermon) … we were ambitious, weren’t we? It would be really interesting to see our decoded lyrics today to know what we managed to figure out.

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