August 07, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
Whoa! What a passage. We practically need asbestos gloves or very thick oven mitts just to pick these verses up. This thing is white hot!
What prompted this from our Lord? It’s maybe difficult to know but from the looks of the passage, it appears that just possibly there were some who were trying to “make nice” by tamping down all possible controversy surrounding Jesus, his message, and the kingdom he was proclaiming. Maybe there were some who were seeing the stir Jesus was causing with the religious establishment of his day and who were therefore saying, “Can’t we just all get along? Come on, people now, smile on your brother! Let’s go along to get along. Live and let live. We agree on more than we disagree on. We’re all on the same team. So let’s get together—Pharisees, Sadducees, Chief Priests, Jesus, Jesus’ disciples—and all start pulling our oars in the same direction, OK?”
Maybe. In any event, there obviously had been some talk about how Jesus should make things nicer and smoother because from the looks of these verses, Jesus is counteracting what he perceived to be a false impression of who he was and what his ministry was about. Jesus did not come to prop up the old ways. He did not come to perpetuate more of the same. His kingdom did not fit in neatly with the kingdoms of this world and so a strong measure of disruption simply had to be expected.
Apparently then, as now, it was easy to turn Jesus into a kind of Rorschach ink blot in which you could see whatever you wanted (and no perception was better than any other). Some people still talk about Jesus in such terms today. Jesus is here to validate the best and brightest of whoever you are and whatever you want. Following Jesus is mostly about being nice, about getting along, about endorsing any and every viewpoint.
To this Jesus says a firm No! To perceive Jesus that way is to misperceive him and his kingdom. To make the point, Jesus invokes a meteorological image to remind people that they are better at reading the weather than spiritual signs. When the wind turns southerly or a dark cloud appears on the western horizon, folks know what it means. But now that the kingdom of God has appeared on the horizon of their spiritual awareness, they clearly have no clue what that kingdom means. They think it means more of the same, the old-time religion warmed over.
But in point of fact the kingdom Jesus was bringing represents this world inverted. This is a point Luke the evangelist has been making from the get-go in this gospel. Anyone who thinks that Jesus’ advent would represent the same-old, same-old need only read Mary’s “Magnificat” in Luke 1. Mary foresaw with startling clarity the reversal of the way things normally go as the poor get elevated and the rich get sent away empty-handed.
Anyone who saw the kingdom of God as representing “business as usual” was misreading the signs just as surely as someone who saw a dark cloud and predicted sunshine or who grabbed a parka on account of a strong southerly breeze.
Jesus knew that his work and the in-breaking of his kingdom would bring a measure of distress, even to the point of cleaving families apart. He certainly was not particularly eager to see such mayhem but what he clearly was eager to see was the arrival of the kingdom itself. Jesus clearly expresses a deep desire to see the fire kindled because he knew better than anyone how badly this world needs the fire of renewal that God’s kingdom represents. And if that new kingdom could come in no other way than to cause the conflict Jesus foresees, then that was the way it would have to be. The main thing was that the kingdom would come.
C.S. Lewis once observed that even Christian people sometimes think that being a follower of Jesus is like being a horse that gets trained to run a little faster than it used to run. But in reality, Lewis wrote, Jesus doesn’t want a regular horse that can run more swiftly—he wants to give the horse wings and teach it how to fly! Jesus doesn’t want to move into the house of our hearts just to slap on a few coat of fresh paint and change the draperies. No, when Jesus moves in he brings a wrecking ball to tear down whole walls, gut the rooms down to the studs and basically build a whole new house.
But that level of change and renovation is hard! We want to baptize the various practices of our lives with a nice sprinkling of fresh water. Jesus’ Spirit comes to us with a baptism of fire that burns up our lives and starts all over. When we resist this level of change and challenge, that is when Jesus has to talk tough to remind us that precisely because things are so endemically and thoroughly messed up in this world, we cannot expect that everyone is going to want to go along with his program. Disagreements are going to arise. Those who remain enthralled to the way life has always been are going to have sharp things to say to those who represent the wrecking ball of Jesus’ kingdom.
The difficulty of all this lies in the fact that dramatic though these differences are, they don’t always run neatly along solid black lines of demarcation that everyone can spy with ease. Rather, these lines and the differences between the world’s way of doing things and the kingdom’s way of doing things zig-zag through our lives such that each of us sooner or later becomes adept at picking and choosing. We’ll let Jesus have this part of our lives but not that part. We’ll let the kingdom influence our decision-making at home but not so much at work (where we are, after all, expected to kowtow to business as usual or we get fired). We’ll let Jesus have our Sunday mornings but not our Saturday nights.
Picking and choosing like this makes life easier. It reduces conflict. It helps everyone to get along better with everyone else. Surely even Jesus would want that kind of peace and serenity for our lives, wouldn’t he?
If the kingdom of God is to up-end our lives and the way the world typically operates, how does that apply to family situations? Well, it minimally applies to the priorities we set in our homes. Curiously, the pace of modern culture–a pace driven by precisely people’s desire to “make a life for themselves”–may itself be at variance with the gospel. The busyness of our lives as we get more and more consumed by work, the yen to make money, the clutching desire to climb the corporate ladder edge out what was once known as “family time.”
Indeed, some families have cut back on church in order to clear out Sundays as their special “family time.” In the past few years I’ve heard from pastors from other parts of the country who lament what soccer is doing to church attendance. Apparently youth soccer leagues, recognizing the hectic pace of people’s lives, have determined that Sundays from 9am until noon are the best time to schedule games. When pastors have complained to these organizations that this zaps church, they have been rebuffed with polite indifference. Worse than that, however, is the reaction these pastors have had from their own members. Some parents have refused to interfere with their children’s intramural sports, choosing soccer over worship because this promotes “family time” (and isn’t that exceedingly valuable?).
It’s not just the world that refuses to surrender. We, too, have a hard time giving up this or that “typical” aspect of the “typical” North American lifestyle. We, too, have a hard time saying “No” to our kids or “No” to the boss so that we can say “Yes” to God. We, too, would rather find ways to blend our Christian faith in with a “typical” suburban existence rather than be seen as some religious weirdos more interested in resurrection life than the latest trends which define “the good life” of our neighbors and co-workers.
Years ago a man named Millard Fuller was pretty near the apex of an American success story. He was a high-octane corporate executive working eight days a week and pulling down close to a million bucks a year. But then one day he heard God calling to him, telling him his life was overfull and his priorities out of whack. So in prayer with his wife one day, Fuller re-committed his life to Christ. He quit his job, moved to a more modest house, and wondered what to do next. What he ended up doing next was building affordable houses for low-income families who could purchase these homes interest-free. Today we are most of us well aware of the great good Habitat for Humanity has done.
A preacher once re-counted Fuller’s story but was later approached by someone who asked, “How old were Fuller’s children when he quit his job like that?” It took this preacher a minute to appreciate what lay behind this query: how dare Fuller uproot his kids and subject them to a less lavish lifestyle just so that he could serve God?!
Author: Scott Hoezee
Isaiah 5 begins with what looks like a light-hearted romantic ballad. A kind of troubadour opens this chapter by saying, “Listen up! I’m going to sing you a ballad about my beloved one–a song about the vineyard of our love!” It reminds me of the Paul McCartney song that claims the world will never have enough of “silly love songs” and he’s right. Isaiah 5 starts out looking like just another love song (and what’s wrong with that, I’d like to know . . .).
But it does not take long to sense this is not just another love song. It’s a lament, and a harsh one at that. The singer worked hard to create the right conditions for his love-vineyard, for what is later called “a garden of delight.” He did everything right. He planted expensive vines, vines of cabernet, zinfandel, merlot, and chardonnay grapes. So far as he knew, everything was on track. Grapes grew and looked like the genuine article. Vines seemed to flourish. Finally the harvest came, but the only grapes he could find were sour, stinky, and worthless.
“What else could I have done,” the man cries out in despair. “What more could I have provided? There’s nothing for the entire project but to start over.” So in a kind of fury fueled by heartbreak the vintner declares the destruction of all he had labored so hard to build. And just in case anyone has missed the point of this chapter’s first 6 verses, the voice of the prophet bursts onto the scene in verse 7 to make painfully clear who the vineyard is: it’s Israel. And she’s done for.
But that is not all that verse 7 clarifies. Through the clever use of a verbal word play or pun Isaiah makes clear why it was that in the end Yahweh regarded the Israelites as a bunch of stinkers. In verse 7 Isaiah said that the good, juicy grapes Yahweh wanted were justice and righteousness. Instead what God discovered was the exact opposite. Instead of justice he found bloodshed, instead of righteousness he found the cries of the oppressed.
The word-play here stems from the fact that in Hebrew the difference between “justice” and “bloodshed” and between the “righteousness” and “cries” is just one letter. These words are so similar to each other that you have to read carefully and listen closely to see or hear the difference. God looked for
mishpat (justice) but discovered instead
mishpah (bloodshed); he looked for
zedekah (righteousness) but found instead
Again, this is a kind of pun where the change of just one letter creates a very different meaning. It would be like creating an English word play between words like “picture” and “pitcher” or “whither,” meaning “which way are you going,” and “wither,” which means to wilt and dry up. They sound and very nearly look the same but their meanings are exceedingly different. Puns, of course, are often used to humorous effect, as when Winston Churchill, commenting on what he regarded as the roaringly boring speeches of diplomat John Foster Dulles, once said that his speeches were “dull, duller, dulles(t).”
But there’s nothing funny about the pun in verse 7, so why did Isaiah use it? Perhaps to convey that when it comes to justice and righteousness, close is not good enough. It didn’t matter whether the grapes on Israel’s vine looked from a distance like the kind of grapes God desired. It was the closer inspection that counted.
Israel had a form of justice, all right, but it was justice for the few, the wealthy, the lucky “winners” of society. Meanwhile, most of what the upper crust had was ill-gotten gain: it was built upon the shed blood of the poor. Some of the people looked very righteous, very pious–they went to the Temple, observed the Sabbath, prayed now and again. Yet their ears were deaf to the cries of distress which God’s ears picked out very easily. Instead of being the locus of justice, the Temple became a shelter for the elite whose walls were used to keep them from hearing the cries of the needy.
Throughout the Old Testament it is clear that justice involved far more than criminals getting punished. Crimes carried punishments in ancient Israel, of course, but that negative aspect of justice was not nearly as vital as the positive aspect. Justice was mostly a way to prevent crimes from happening, and one of the biggest crimes that needed to be avoided was a trampling upon that trio grouping which comes up again and again in the Old Testament like a refrain: the widow, the orphan, and the alien. Women who had lost their husbands, children who had lost their parents, and the “stranger who is within your gates” were all people who potentially could have fallen through the cracks.
These groups represented the “underdogs” of society–the marginalized who could so easily be exploited. “Justice” in the Old Testament (and the Old Testament has 86% of all the Bible’s references to “justice”) was more about caring for the needy than punishing the wicked. Today we tend to restrict justice to matters related to the legal system. “Judges” today are people in black robes who get involved only after laws are broken. TV shows called “The Justice Files” or “Criminal Justice” are all about detectives and lawyers and prosecutors getting crooks their just deserts. But the biblical “judges” (from the book of the same name) were not people who doled out verdicts from a bench but were champions of justice who went out and pursued the righteous things of God so crimes would not happen in the first place.
But the day finally came in Israel when there were no such champions. The Jubilee year was ignored. Farmers greedily picked up every last speck of grain from their fields, leaving nothing behind for the poor to glean. People who fell into debt did not see their debts cancelled or their mortgaged property returned eventually, as God’s law demanded. Precisely what God did not want to see in Israel happened anyway: there developed a permanent underclass of widows, orphans, and foreign immigrants. The people who allowed all of that to happen were the real stinkers in Israel who break God’s heart in Isaiah 5.
A divine heartbreak is, of course, no small matter. Eventually Israel did suffer grievously in history, being conquered in the northern kingdom by the Assyrians and later in the southern kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians–a defeat from which the nation of Israel never really recovered (unless you count the founding of modern Israel roughly 2,500 years later!).
Still, that was then. That is history. So what does Isaiah 5 have to teach us now? After all, we are not living in ancient Israel or any kind of divinely sanctioned theocratic nation. Nowhere does the New Testament tell followers of Christ to form their own nation, adopting the laws of ancient Israel lock, stock, and barrel. As some of you know, there is a group which recommends just that. They are called “Theonomists” or “Reconstructionists” who believe that if America is truly to be God’s country, then Old Testament-like laws need to be adopted here, including the death penalty for gays, adulterers, and rebellious children.
But does that mean that for Christians in the church today 86% of the Bible’s talk about public justice is just an historical footnote? How are we to appropriate God’s love of justice and righteousness? That is not an easy question to answer. It needs to be wrestled with. But few can plausibly deny that God’s yen for justice has economic and human rights implications.
“I am the true vine, you are the branches,” Jesus famously said. Why didn’t Jesus simply say “I am the vine”? Why did he nuance it as the “true vine”? Commentators think it was because Jesus was harking back to Old Testament passages like Isaiah 5. Israel should have been God’s true and genuine vineyard, but she wasn’t. Only stinky grapes got produced off Israel’s vines in the long run. So God chucked it and ultimately started over with Jesus, the true vine of God. Here at last was the kind of fruit God had wanted all along.
But we are the branches of that vine. If grapes grow, they grow in our lives. So although our situation is vastly different from ancient Israel, many of the same ideas about justice then need to be of concern for us now. Christian people of good conscience may disagree on some of the specifics as to how this gets carried out but that a way must be found to embody God’s love of justice should be beyond dispute. Christian preachers need to keep that in front of God’s people.
Isaiah 5 is finally a passage about justice in ancient Israel. More specifically, it is about the lack of justice in Israel–a deficit which caused God great pain. In fact, as my seminary classmate Reggie Smith once said, Isaiah 5 is a little like “God Singing the Blues.” If you are familiar with the jazz genre of the Blues, then you know that most such songs are about unrequited love or love gone bad. Billie Holiday was probably the greatest Blues singer as she crooned lyrics like, “Without your love I’m like a song without words, a nest without birds, a plane without wings, a violin without strings, without your love.” “Lady sings the blues, she’s got ’em bad, she feels so sad.” “You’ve changed, that sparkle in your eyes is gone, your smile is just an aching yawn. You’ve changed, you’re bored with me in every way. You’ve changed. You’ve forgotten the words ‘I love you’ and each memory that we share. It’s all over now. You’ve changed.” That’s the Blues!
Isaiah 5 is God singing the Blues.
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 82 is a most unusual Psalm for at least two reasons. First, it is not a Psalm of praise or thanksgiving or penitence or confession or lament or imprecation or coronation. Unlike most Psalms, it is not addressed to God in any of those ways, except in the very last verse. Rather, it is God speaking to us. It is a Psalm of Judgment proclaimed by God against those who are guilty of social injustice.
It begins with a vision of God standing in the “great assembly,” the great hall of justice in heaven, the supreme Supreme Court. He is presiding over a gathering of judges. This is not a business-as-usual meeting. God has gathered these judges to “give judgment” against them. The judges are about to be judged by the Judge of all.
Who are these judges? This is the second reason this Psalm is so unusual. The judges to be judged are “the gods.” The Hebrew word there is elohim, the same word translated “God” in the opening words of Psalm 82, that is, the One bringing judgment. So, what on earth can that mean? Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the gods are treated as empty nothings. They don’t exist, except in the minds of their creators and in the visual representations of them in idols. But here “the gods” are charged with unjust judgment, as though they actually exist, but have done a poor job of the work God has given them to do.
Understandably, there is a rich and vast literature on this knotty question. Some argue that the Psalmist has simply adopted the standard world view of the ancient Middle East, in which there is a pantheon of gods governing the affairs of humanity and nature. Often they fight or mate or conspire, but sometimes they meet in a heavenly divine assembly which is presided over by the head/father God, like Zeus or Jupiter.
All of Israel’s neighbors held to such a view of reality. Here the Psalmist adapts that worldview in order to make a huge point; namely, that the God of Israel is greater than the supposed gods of the nations. So Psalm 82 is a bit like a modern day preacher using a contemporary myth, some fictitious but widely known story to make a larger Gospel point in a sermon. This understanding of Psalm 82 makes a good deal of sense. I’ll say more about it later.
Others think that the Psalmist is talking about the human rulers of the surrounding nations, who often viewed themselves as representatives of the gods, if not actually divine themselves. Still others believe that the Psalmist is addressing the rulers and judges of Israel itself, who were given the power to judge by God himself. So they functioned as “gods” when they sat on their thrones in the court. And still others think that this Psalm is directed at all Israel, because every Israelite was commanded by God to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
Lending credibility to that last interpretation is the way Jesus used Psalm 82:6 in an exchange with the Jews in John 10:34-36. They were about to stone him for claiming that he and the Father are one. Jesus stopped them in their tracks by quoting Psalm 82. “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are gods’? If he called them ‘gods’ to whom the word of God came… what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world?” From Jesus’ own mouth, we have proof that even mere mortals have been called “gods” by the true God. Who are these mortals? Those “to whom the word of God came,” which could mean either specially appointed rulers and judges or ordinary Israelites to whom the word of God came on Sinai.
Given the words of Jesus, I’ll choose the latter two interpretations of “the gods,” though I’ll say something about the first interpretation later. In Psalm 82 God hauls his people into court. Indeed, what follows verse 1 reads exactly like a court proceeding. He brings specific charges against them, finds them guilty of crimes so serious that they have destabilized the entire earth, and sentences them to not only removal from office but also execution.
In verses 2-4 God addresses the accused. His opening words sound like a lament often heard on the lips of Israel. “How long…” God sounds desperately sad, impatiently angry about the sins of his people. What was their crime? They were unjust judges, in two ways. First, they didn’t punish the criminals. That is often how we think of corrupt judges. They are soft on crime. They let criminals off with a slap on the wrist. They aren’t strong on “law and order.” And that was true for these unjust judges. “How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked.”
But God reserves most of his condemnation for the second way these judges did not do their jobs. They did not defend the victims, which was the first order duty of kings and judges in the ancient Middle East, and in Israel. (Cf. Psalm 72, Prov. 31:8,9, Isa. 11:4, Jer. 23:3, 16, et al) God is not talking about the victims of theft or rape or slander or even murder here. He is talking about those who are simply weak and fatherless, poor and oppressed, in a word, those who are needy.
This is a word we desperately need to hear today. There are fierce political debates in our society these days about the needy. We argue about how people get needy, why they stay needy, how to most effectively help the needy, what role the government ought to play in helping the needy, etc. All of those are very important questions. But we must never forget that God holds his people responsible to treat the needy not only with mercy, but also with justice. And as Psalm 82 says, justice has to do with “maintaining the rights of the poor and oppressed.” There are rights at stake here. God commands his people not only to feed the hungry, but also to defend their cause, to address their needs in the courts of justice. God calls for social justice.
Psalm 82 shows us that social justice is not a liberal cause, as some conservatives claim. It is God’s cause—not God’s only cause, to the exclusion of, say, evangelism. But social justice is part of his great work of restoring the world to its original Shalom. Conservatives and liberals might have different approaches to helping the needy of the earth, one relying more on individual initiative, the other on governmental intervention. But both right and left must defend the cause of the weak and maintain the rights of the poor. Or else!
Or else what? Or else God will haul us into his divine court and judge us, because this is serious business. God shows how serious it is in verse 5, where he says that injustice in this matter has earthshaking consequences. Now, it is difficult to say for sure who “they” are in verse 5. Is it the weak and the poor who walk about in darkness, understanding nothing? Maybe, but that doesn’t fit the overall message of the Psalm, which is condemnation of unjust judges. Thus, although “they” might be “the wicked” from verse 4, it is most likely those in Israel who do not exercise their God-given duty of doing justice for the poor and needy.
When those appointed to do justice show that they don’t understand moral issues and don’t know God’s standards, when they walk in moral darkness, the whole world order crumbles. When those in charge of justice don’t do justice, “all the foundations of the earth are shaken.” “Injustice is a cosmic sin with ramifications both in heaven and on earth.” (Brent Strawn) This is an empirically verifiable observation. Think of the number of times the world has been shaken when the weak and the needy finally rose up in desperate rebellion because those in charge of justice did not administer it fairly and mercifully. The result was never Shalom, but a shaking earth.
That’s why God is so harsh in his sentence upon these “gods” who judged unjustly. God placed them in charge, giving them his own name and authority (verse 6). But they will all lose not only their positions of authority, but also their lives. “But you will die like mere men (adam in Hebrew); you will fall like every other ruler.” What a warning to God’s appointed judges! What a warning to us who are called “sons (and daughters) of the Most High!”
And what a devastating verdict on the “gods!” Let’s return to the first interpretation of “the gods” mentioned above. If the Psalmist adopts the prevailing world view of the ancient Middle East which believes that the affairs of humans and the course of nature are deeply affected by the pantheon of the gods, then Psalm 82 pronounces a terrible judgment on that whole system of belief. Even if we assume that the gods really exist (contrary to everything else the Bible says), Psalm 82 says that they are subservient to the God of Israel. And even if we assume that they have power over humans, power to judge them, Psalm 82 says that they failed in their exercise of that power. They are unjust judges and God has tried, convicted, and condemned them to death. In other words, Psalm 82 announces the death of the gods.
What an unusual way of proclaiming the sovereignty of God. Rather than denying the existence of other gods, Psalm boldly claims that the true God has exercised his sovereignty over them by judging, condemning, and executing them. The kings/gods are dead! Long live the King/God of Israel.
This is an important message for our polytheistic, multicultural world. James Luther Mays puts it this way. “As long as nations and peoples do not see the reign of God as the reality that determines their way and destiny, there will be gods who play that role. Faith must always see the Lord standing in the midst of the gods of the nations and know that to say ‘Thy Kingdom come’ is to pray for the death of the gods.”
That is precisely what we pray in the last words of Psalm 82. Having seen a vision of the end of injustice and those who perpetrate it, the Psalmist turns to God with a single powerful petition. “Rise up, O God, judge the earth.” God is perfectly entitled and able to do that, “for all the nations are your inheritance (or domain).” The earth is such a chaotic mass of injustice that it will take God to straighten it out. The Psalm participates in the “already but not yet” dynamic of the New Testament Gospel of the Kingdom. God already reigns in justice, but the earth is not yet completely just because those charged with administering justice are unjust.
In the end, this Psalm points ahead to the Day when the Judge will come to earth from heaven. He did that once in the Incarnation of the Son of God. And he will complete his work when he comes again to “judge the living and the dead.” When he came the first time, he announced the purpose of his coming in the words of Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
We can spiritualize those words; they surely refer to more than physical salvation. But they don’t mean anything less than that either. We know that because of Jesus words in Matthew 25:31-46. When the Son comes the second time, he will judge all people on the basis of what they did for the poor and needy. No, we are not saved by our commitment to and performance of social justice. We are saved by our commitment to the Savior who will come again to judge the living and dead. But he commands that we show our love for him by loving the least, the last, and the lost. As Jesus’ brother James put it, “Religion that our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
At the beginning of this piece, I said that this is an unusual Psalm in two ways. Now we can add two more ways. In a post-modern world filled with multiple gods, each one as good as the others, Psalm 82 fiercely declares an anti-polytheistic message. And to a church that is often ambivalent about social justice, Psalm 82 issues a strong pro-social justice warning to judges who do not defend the cause of the weak and maintain the rights of the poor. There is only one God and that God demands that everyone not only prays, “Thy Kingdom come,” but also works for the justice and peace of that kingdom on earth. Or else!
To help people picture the vision presented in Psalm 82, you might project on your screen a picture of the United Nations in full session. Now imagine God sitting in the midst calling the nations to account. Or picture God arguing his case not only before the Supreme Court, but also against the Supreme Court. Or, closer to home, picture your denomination’s annual meeting where the whole church is gathered (at least representatively), and Jesus walks into the midst and demands an accounting of our performance on social justice matters.
One example of what happens when the rights of the poor and needy are not defended by those in authority is the Russian Revolution. When the people rose up against their oppressors, the result was not the hoped for “workers’ paradise,” but a hellacious shaking of the social order. That’s what happens when “the gods” don’t do their work justly—a godless revolution ruins a whole society and jeopardizes the world.
Author: Scott Hoezee
There is a terrible moment early in the movie Saving Private Ryan. Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) and most of his men have somehow survived the utter carnage of the D-Day invasion at Omaha Beach and are now on a high bluff overlooking a scene of utter destruction. One of Miller’s men says “That’s quite a view” to which Miller replies, “Yes it is—quite a view.” But the view is one of red-stained ocean water washing up and around countless bodies of fallen soldiers who, along with many dead fish, litter the beach as far as the eye can see. It is a horrific tableau of the sacrifice made by so many to turn the tide against Hitler and set the stage for the final end of World War II.
Standing on the high bluff that just is the start of Hebrews 12 and looking back on the last verses of Hebrews 11 is like that: It’s quite a view. The landscape of these verses are also littered with the martyrs who gave their all for God and for his cause in the world. Having spent much of Hebrews 11 singling out for a bit of extended consideration many of the heroes of the faith, the author finally says there’s just too many more to mention in any detail. And that’s not even to try to mention the countless nameless figures who were tortured, murdered, run through with spears, split in two by swords, and who endured every human hardship imaginable on account of their faithfulness to God. It’s quite a view.
The world was not worthy of them, the writer finally heaves out with great emotion. Could there ever be a more noble compliment than to say this? The world was not worthy of them because the world had fallen so far from God’s intentions and desires. But God stuck with the world even so and dispatched his emissaries to carry out his mission of redemption, of salvaging what was still good and would be good again. Each of these people were islands of God’s shalom, signposts for what could yet come if only we’d all turn back to God and to his designs for flourishing.
We don’t know with any precision the audience of Hebrews. Probably some were facing similar hardship and active persecution. Maybe others were in more stable places. Whatever their original settings as receivers of Hebrews, these words of Scripture have come to many millions of other believers along the ages, and right on down to today too. But for many of us 21st century readers of these words, we have not faced that level of peril, danger, or death. Some of our fellow Christians in the world right this very moment do face that, and they need our prayers.
Yet others of us are in—and have for most of our lives as Christians been in—very different circumstances. We have been blessedly free of the kind of life-threatening persecution so many have faced. But for all of us, the author says, whether or not we face or may ever face such hardship ourselves, we are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us. They are still with us. They never left.
But precisely because we have their witness, how much more shouldn’t we be able to, as the author says, cast off anything that could trip us up as we seek to follow Jesus? If they could do it facing the most extreme of circumstances, then surely we who exist in far better situations to begin with can keep following Jesus too. And if their witness and their inspiring role modeling is not enough, then we can certainly do what they also did: fix our eyes on Jesus alone. Because he was able to stare down nothing short of his own cross. It was shameful, it was ignominious what was going to happen to God’s only Son. The world was not worthy of him, either, but that was the whole point of Christ’s ministry: he who was greater than all the world entered the world in order to save it from the inside out.
Of course, we know theologically that Jesus did this because it was the only way. We have to be saved by grace alone because nothing we could ever have done could have even chipped in a little to salvation, much less pulled it off. But as the New Testament makes everywhere plain, grace is no excuse for idleness (much less for indulging in our sins on account of God’s ready-to-hand forgiveness). We have a race set out before us and it’s our sacred pleasure to run it for Jesus’ sake. We have a role model to follow and the Spirit gives us the strength to give it a shot, to draw inspiration from that great cloud of witnesses detailed in Hebrews 11 and above all from the Jesus who even now has sat down at God’s right hand to keep an eye on us and to keep sending us his Holy Spirit.
Those of us who preach grace and who fear contributing to anyone’s latent legalism can get a little queasy at the prospect of emphasizing sacred obligations and the running of races. We try to keep the imperatives in our sermons to a minimum lest we prop up a “work your own way to heaven” mentality that is too prevalent as it is. At the same time, however, our culture of “moral therapeutic Deism” has also gotten pretty good at soft-pedaling the moral shape of our lives. God’s a pretty indulgent old man upstairs who’s mostly interested in seeing if we’re “pretty good people” overall but not too worried about the details of our daily living, the decisions we make, what we do sexually or with our money or all the rest.
But the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us—and the pioneer of our faith who has gone before us—do not exist to cheer on our moral mediocrity. They are there to cheer us on to the finish line of the race marked out before us. We honor them—we honor Him—when we take that with holy seriousness.
Harry Potter has been back in the limelight lately with the start of a new play in London and now the release of the book version of that play’s script. Fans of Harry Potter will remember very well what happens in the final book of the original series when Harry is gifted with one of the final artifacts of the Deathly Hallows: the resurrection stone. As Harry grasps the stone in his hand, suddenly he is surrounded—if you will—by a cloud of witnesses of those who had died for the cause.
Harry sees his father and mother who died defending his infant self from Lord Voldemort eighteen years earlier. He sees his godfather Sirius Black who had been murdered a couple years earlier by one of Voldemort’s minions and Professor Lupin who had died that very night battling Voldemort’s forces. “Why are you here?” Harry asks, to which his mother replies “We never left.” They had been with Harry, in his heart, all along and would stay with him in the impending death Harry expected as he was going to sacrifice himself in one last attempt to defeat Voldemort.
Their witness helped Harry march toward his enemy and face his own death in the course that had been marked out for him.
Seldom has there been a moment in fiction or in cinema that so closely mirrors Hebrews 12:1-3.