September 28, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
“Is it OK to smoke while you are praying?” a man once asked a wise old abbot. “Oh no,” the abbot replied. “Prayer must be the whole focus of one’s mind.” Later another person came up to the abbot and asked “Can a person pray while smoking?” to which the abbot immediately replied, “Of course! You can pray at any time!”
Sometimes the answer you get depends on how you ask the question!
Taken all by itself and out of context, Jesus’ words about divorce and re-marriage in Mark 10 are troubling. They are troubling because they seem devoid of the grace Jesus usually exuded. Jesus grace shined the brightest, in fact, when he was faced precisely with people caught in adultery, with a woman married five times and now living with another man, with prostitutes and tax collectors and . . . well, you get the picture.
Thus it’s a little hard to imagine a woman coming up to Jesus, explaining that her first husband beat her mercilessly such that she ended up being divorced from him only to have Jesus look at this poor soul and say, “You are now living in a perpetual state of sin so long as you remain divorced and if you ever even think of marrying some other person—no matter how fine a man he may be—you will then double-down on your sin and live in a perpetual state of adultery. Have a nice day.”
At the same time, there is no denying that Jesus said something exactly like this in Mark 10. But to what question was he responding? Well, it wasn’t some earnest question of “Lord, is there grace sufficient for one such as I?” Jesus was not responding to a hurting person. Instead he was responding to people who over the years had become experts at splitting some of the finer hairs of the Law of God. He was responding to people who were trying to trip him up, to trap him in one or another interpretation of the Law, either of which could land Jesus in hot water. In short, he was talking to people who treated the Law not like the divine gift Jesus views the Law to be but to people who treated the Law like a poker chip or a football—the whole thing to them had become a kind of sick game.
Donald Juel once pointed out that there was sharp disagreement in Jewish circles as to when a divorce was permitted. Deuteronomy 24:1 permitted this (initiated only by the husband, however) in case there was “something objectionable” about the woman or the marriage. One school of thought said that this unspecified “something” was infidelity only; another school of thought interpreted it more broadly to include any number of things. By asking Jesus where he came down on this issue, the Pharisees were trying to peg him within their broader religious tradition (and so inevitably hoping that Jesus would enflame one side or the other, helping to build their case against him).
As was his custom, Jesus did not want to play. It reminds me of the last scene in the Harrison Ford movie Clear and Present Danger when the President of the United States urges Jack Ryan—the hyper-loyal and ethical CIA agent played by Ford—to engage in a cover-up of some recent illegal actions taken by the administration. As the President explains how this works in Washington, he says “It’s the old Potomac two-step, Jack” to which Ryan replies, “Sorry, Mr. President. I don’t dance.”
Jesus looks at the Pharisees and says, “Sorry, boys, but I don’t dance.” Instead Jesus turns the tables on them and cuts to the heart of the matter when it comes to marriage: the story of creation. As most of us know, outside of Genesis 1-3, the exact details of the Adam and Eve creation story rarely get mentioned elsewhere in the Bible. But here is one of the most prominent such references to that story, and Jesus uses it to make a powerful point: marriage (or its dissolution) is not to be treated like some parlor game for clever ethicists and lawyers to bat back and forth in casual and speculative conversations. Instead this goes to the very heart of the way God made us as male and female. This is a beautiful thing and a mysterious thing and the fact that anyone could talk about its demise in some academic way only shows how far people have fallen from their created goodness.
Jesus talks tough here as a way to catch the attention of people who thought this was just a game, just a way to be clever in legal wranglings of various sorts. Jesus essentially tells them “This is as serious as it gets, folks, and shame on you for not seeing that to begin with.”
Now let’s be clear: also for Jesus this reply was not just a rhetorical trick to pull the rug out from underneath his too-clever-by-half religious interlocutors. Jesus is right about marriage and right about how tragic the consequences are when marriages end (for whatever reason they end). Yes, divorce makes it possible to take one flesh and separate it back out into two again but seen from God’s angle, that process is a ripping and rending of flesh and bone, of heart and soul. It’s painful. In fact, it is inevitably painful when you realize what marriage really is.
These days whether it’s the casualness of the Kardashians or the “predictable” end of the union between Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, it’s hard to find too many people who see the tragedy of it. Some divorces elicit even from many Christians no more than a shrug and a “Well, whaddya expect?” reaction (even as for many other people the swift demise of a Kardashian-like union becomes the rollicking source of many’a late-night TV show stand-up comedy routine).
Yes, there is forgiveness for all sins and tragedies in life, and Jesus would not for a moment have denied that had he been asked a different question. And yes, we as pastors need to be pastorally sensitive in preaching on Mark 10 lest we single out for scorn the divorced in our midst in a way we never single out the greedy or the angry or those for whom gossiping is a way of life. Even so, however, in a culture that also treats marriage and divorce with all the seriousness of changing one’s socks or buying a new car, it would hardly be the worst thing in the world if we let Jesus get in our faces a bit even as he got in the faces of the Pharisees and company in Mark 10 to remind us of the profound creational beauty and mystery that lies at the heart of every single married couple in the church and how awe-filled and serious we all ought to be about precisely that reality.
Mark 10 contains a number of incidents that are easy to separate out from one another and treat in compartmentalized ways. But in the Greek of this chapter, Mark continually strings these sections together with the word kai, letting us know that the conversation on divorce and the incident with the little children and the arrival of the young man are all actually connected to each other. Each flows into the next and all comprise a single unit. We impoverish our interpretation/exegesis of any one of these sub-sections of Mark 10 if we do not bring them into dialogue with all the others.
In Frederick Buechner’s novel The Final Beast there is a scene in which a member of a congregation is begging the pastor to declare forgiveness to a deeply disturbed woman in their church. The pastor replies that the woman already knows that he, the pastor, has forgiven her, to which this other member replies, “But she doesn’t know God forgives her. That’s the only power you have, pastor: to tell her that. Not just that God forgives her for her poor adultery. Tell her that God forgives her for the faces she cannot bear to look at now. Tell her that God forgives her for being lonely and bored, for not being full of joy every day in a household full of children. Tell her that her sin is forgiven whether she knows it or not, that what she wants more than anything else–what we all want–is true. Pastor, what on earth do you think you were ordained for?”
Job 1:1, 2:1-10
Author: Scott Hoezee
Lately I have been doing some reading of books that try to teach people how to become better writers. Specifically these are books to help aspiring novelists hone the necessary skills that might one day help them to garner that much-coveted acceptance letter from a publisher. One essay that I read recently caught my eye because it mentioned the biblical character of Job. The writer was pointing out that you can never compose a story worth reading unless there is some measure of trouble, of tension, of crisis. Something has to be “up” in a story for people to pay attention to the story.
But then this author went on to say that even so, it’s not merely the external or surface crisis that makes readers want to keep reading but rather there absolutely needs to be an internal, spiritual, psychological crisis going on for some character. In the case of Job, this author said that if all we knew was that Job lost his property and most of his family, that would indeed be a tragic set of circumstances to read about. But all by itself, that alone may not be enough to keep readers engaged. One can read reports of that kind of thing in the newspaper most any day of the week. No, what makes it interesting is when we discover that this whole thing was a spiritual test for Job orchestrated in part by no less than God himself. That’s curious! But then things get really engaging and interesting when we as readers discover the four-alarm fire of disorientation this has set off in Job’s mind as he tries to square the theology about God to which he has so long adhered with the miserable circumstance in which he now finds himself.
Job lost everything. Interesting. Losing everything made Job question his faith and theology. Now it’s really interesting!
And also really complicated! The Book of Job is essentially one long disquisition on the age-old question of theodicy: Why does a good God let bad things happen to good people? The conversations that take place around this question eat up the bulk of this book until finally God comes on the scene less to give an answer to that question and more to so confound the inquirers as to let the conversation end on a note of wonder, mystery, and awe.
That’s all interesting enough (even if the conversations do grow a bit tiresome as the chapters pile up). But it’s the first two-and-a-half chapters of Job that are the hardest to take and the hardest to understand. Yes, as just noted, this is where we encounter the spiritual crisis that becomes our main reason to keep reading this grim book. But it’s not easy for any of us all these years later to make sense out of the discovery early in Job that this whole thing is a test allowed by God and carried out by some “Satan” figure.
To my mind, the idea that our lives could become chess pieces in a cosmic game between God and those who oppose God trends toward the chilling side of the spectrum. Over the years I’ve heard lots of answers to the question “Why does God allow bad things to happen?” and not a few of the answers I’ve heard have been offensive to me in one way or another even as other suggested answers seemed incomplete or off-base in some other way. Of course, a few answers I’ve heard seem more right, too, or at least seem to be tracking in a direction that seems consistent with what we believe is true about God and about the overall witness of Scripture. But if someone ever suggested to me that things happen the way they do because we’re all just dice getting thrown willy-nilly to prove a point or win a bet . . . well, then I think I’d feel something worse than mere offense. I think then I’d be really quite frightened.
So let’s hope that the Book of Job is less a reflection about how things go in the heavenly realms on a routine basis and more a scenario that maybe has happened only once in cosmic history for all we know. Because it would have been one thing had Job lost his fortune on the stock market or had his house burn down or had to deal with the heartbreak of psoriasis or something. But to lose all ten of his children, to have animals die and employees be slaughtered ratchets all of this up into a very different realm. Job 1-2 do not make for comfortable reading. Indeed, it should make us very nearly sick to our stomachs.
Of course, whatever we make of the cause behind the disasters that befell Job, what we cannot deny or forget is that something very like the scenario sketched here does happen all the time on this planet. Parents do lose children—sometimes all of them at once. Disaster and disease come to people who are as lovely and precious of folks as you could hope to meet. And such chaos is pretty indiscriminate, too. Hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes do not generally flatten the houses of mafia types and drug kingpins while leaving churches, synagogues, mosques, and the domiciles of the faithful standing. Pandemic flu outbreaks don’t target the really greasy people who work for a given company while leaving untouched the kind and gentle souls on the payroll. Disaster and disease come to all when they strike (even as it seems that drug kingpins and greedy Bernie Madoff types have as good—if not a better—chance to do well for themselves and pile up lots of money as do honest entrepreneurs who always color inside the lines.
Hence even if you shear Job of its somewhat troubling cosmic backdrop in the heavenly precincts, at the end of the day what you have here is still one very basic scenario that seems an endemic part of the human condition: the asking of the question “Why?”
Everybody asks that question. But whereas the irreligious have nowhere to lodge the query, religious people find themselves in the unenviable position of knowing exactly to whom they should pose the question but then discovering that for that very reason, the question pinches and hurts a whole lot more. As Job knew, it is actually possible to make suffering worse in case you are convinced that at the core of the cosmos there is supposed to be a God with our best interests at heart, a God who is supposed to be just and good, a God who created the entire universe (but who presumably did not create it only for the purpose of watching his creatures writhe in agony at the end of their various ropes).
As also the Psalms of Lament in the Bible display, it is not a weak faith that asks the ultimate question of “Why?” but instead it is only a plucky faith, a bold faith, a stubborn faith, that asks the question. We are told in Job 2:10 that in and through it all, Job did not sin. What that tells us is that it’s no sin to stand up for the way things are supposed to be. It’s no sin to look God square in the face and say, “No sir, you can’t make me believe this is right, this is what you want, this is what you had in mind in the beginning.”
The rest of the Book of Job shows Job’s friends trying to square everything at the corners by concocting various scenarios as to how all this bad stuff in Job’s life can fit nicely within the cosmic scheme of things after all. For every event there is a Creation and Theology category, a Creation and Theology file drawer, into which anything and everything can be neatly put. But when you think about it, what that approach amounts to is some effort to say that the way things are must be basically the way things are supposed to be. The world as we encounter it is the straight edge against which we measure all that appears crooked.
Job knew better. Job knew that the way things are bear no necessary resemblance to the way God may well want them to be. So Job stood up for creation, he stood up for God, he stood up for what should be but what all-too-often is not.
This is a lesson of Job—and of the Bible generally—that seems too often lost on some of us in the church, especially when we get rattled over the claims of those who point to the world as it is and then try to use it as some proof that there cannot be any God in existence (much less any God who created and designed this universe). For instance, I was recently reminded that one of the facets to nature that deeply disturbed Charles Darwin (and that caused him to wonder about the goodness of the God he had been raised to believe in) was the actions of the ichneumonidae wasp. This particular species of wasp lays its eggs inside a certain kind of grub. As the larvae develop inside the grub, they feast on the internal organs of their host. (If you’ve seen the movie Aliens, you get the idea). Worse, they do this organ feast in a very clever order, consuming first the organs that the grub can do without for at least a while, thus reserving the more vital organs—whose absence will finally kill the host—for last.
People like Darwin—and now more recent writers of the Richard Dawkins variety—look at disgusting and disturbing spectacle and declare that this must prove that no God designed this world (or that if there is a God who designed this wretched mechanism for wasp reproduction, then he’s a pretty nasty deity after all). Similar apparent defects of design are trotted out by those who want to say that the world as it stands demonstrates that there cannot be a God.
But Christians (and Jews) have long alleged that the world as we encounter it now does not necessarily reflect in its every detail the desires of God. Indeed, it’s that kind of thing that points to the need for a Savior, for a re-making of all things, for a cosmic salvage operation.
This was something Job seemed to understand, and maybe it is as important a lesson as the rest of us can take away from this strange and oft-times troubling book, too. Sometimes the most pious posture a person can assume is the one that stands up to the world as it is—and stands up before the face of God—to say, “No! This I will not accept. This is not right, and God knows that better than anyone.”
At the end of this book, God will let Job know that the exact ins and outs of it all go beyond Job’s ability to grasp. But on this one point regarding Job’s defiant stance against the way things are, God seems to nod in agreement.
In the past I have sometimes made reference to the Pennyroyal Caxton Bible illustrated by the outstanding artist Barry Moser. Moser often displays an uncanny insight into biblical stories through how he draws his art. In the Book of Job, Moser drew three portraits of Job. The first is before the disasters struck and the caption is “Job, Perfect and Upright.” It shows a well-groomed, well-dressed older man, yet his chin is tucked in a bit and there is something in the way Job’s eyes are set that hints ever-so-slightly of condescension. He looks like a man who has it all, and he knows it. He’s looking down on you almost. He looks like a good man but also a comfortable and self-satisfied man.
By contrast the next picture shows Job naked and covered with sores. This time he is not looking down but is looking up, with a searching look in his eyes and yet with his jaw set. He looks not just destitute but determined, not just bereft but in search of an explanation for what has happened. The final portrait is sub-titled “Job, Old and Full of Days.” He has clearly been restored here and is once again well dressed. Once more he is looking down but this time without a hint of arrogance or superiority. Instead he looks consternated, maybe confused, and certainly chastened. He’s looking down now but he’s not looking down on anyone but is instead bowed down in humility.
Those three portraits nicely capture the progression of this book. Job moves from the heights of this life down into the depths before getting re-elevated back to the heights. But it’s not as though Job moves from Point A, down to Point B, and then right back to Point A all over again. Job winds up in the end at a different spot, a Point C. Point C bears resemblance to the original Point A in that Job receives back his wealth and is able to start a new family, but Job clearly changes through what he experienced, encountered, and learned down at the low point of his life. How could he not be a changed man?
Author: Doug Bratt
Psalm 26 is the poet’s plea for God’s “vindication.” It pictures a courtroom in which the poet-defendant begs the judge to declare her innocent. In it she insists she’s innocent because she has led what she calls a “blameless life” (1).
Yet such a plea seems to clash with the profession that God’s grace alone saves worshipers who can only receive it not with their blamelessness, but with their faith. To pray for God’s vindication on the basis of worshipers’ righteousness seems to contradict the doctrine of grace.
In fact, we might argue that Psalm 26 sounds a lot like the Pharisee’s self-righteous prayer of Luke 18:11-12: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men … I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” What’s more, this psalm’s theme sounds inconsistent with Paul’s assertion in Romans 3:23 that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
Questions about God’s grace and Psalm 26 aren’t exercises in esoteric theology. Since the Psalter remains the songbook of the church, worshipers want to know how to let the Spirit make this psalm and others like it their own. So those who preach and teach Psalm 26 will want to carefully explore it with worshipers. Is Psalm 26 a negative example of an Old Testament prayer that stands in contrast to proper, New Testament prayer and faith? Is it, as some worshipers have asked, just the prayer of a young, slightly arrogant poet? Or might we think of it as the prayer of an older saint for a younger, less godly worshiper?
Those who preach and teach Psalm 26 will want to admit there are no readily obvious answers to such questions. It is hard to know how to juxtapose Psalm 26 with the doctrine of grace that the Church so deeply treasures. That apparent incongruity may even make this psalm an opportunity for worshiper feedback and discussion with preachers and teachers.
Certainly those who lead others through Psalm 26 will want to note the nature of the “vindication” (1) and “redemption” for which the poet pleas. Christians tend to think of redemption as God’s rescue from sin that grants worshipers eternal life. However, Old Testament worshipers had a slightly different concept of salvation. When they begged God for vindication and redemption, they were often thinking of rescue from immediate circumstances and threats. When, then, the poet begs for redemption, he’s likely pleading for God not to grant him eternal life because he’s been so blameless, but to rescue him from some imminent danger.
On top of that, some scholars suggest the psalmist is saying her “blameless” life consists not so much in perfectly obeying God’s law as in persistently trusting in the Lord (1c). She seems to be reminding God that she has refused and continues to refuse to take matters into her own hands. So it’s almost as if she’s claiming that she has received God’s grace with her consistent trust in God’s good plans and purposes. In that light, the moral integrity the poet describes in verses 2-8 are simply expressions of that unwavering trust.
The poet invites God’s scrutiny and examination of his life. This takes much courage. After all, God already knows everything about it. Yet the psalmist is confident that God will find that his inner attitudes match his outer actions.
In verses 3-6 it’s as if the judge is seated and the defendant presents her case for her unwavering trust. In that way it’s reminiscent of Luke 18:3’s widow who keeps begging a judge to right a wrong an attacker has done to her. Here, as James L. Mays notes in his excellent commentary on the Psalms, the poet prays to the God who is the nations’ and individuals’ judge because God alone knows hearts, minds, feelings and intentions. She asks God to order things so that she lives, not dies. In that way Psalm 26’s prayer echoes that of Jeremiah who begged God to vindicate both his mission and message.
In Psalm 26 the poet presents three couplets that demonstrate his faithful trust. In verse 3 he claims that he constantly focuses on God’s sovereign grace. He insists that God’s love is always “before” him. The poet adds that he walks constantly in God’s truth, that, in other words, he serves the Lord “come what may.”
Verses 4 and 5’s couplets reflect the poet’s careful choice of people with whom she has relationships. She refers to “sitting” at both the verses’ beginning and end. Scholars note that such “sitting” refers to long-term residence, to becoming a citizen and adopting the customs of surrounding people. So the psalmist isn’t claiming that she doesn’t interact with the “sinners” the way Jesus himself did. She’s talking, instead, about refusing to adopt the disobedient ways of those who rebel against the Lord.
Hypocrites are those who build their lives as webs of lies. Their actions hide their true selves from other people so that people never really know them. Yet “evildoers” (5) don’t even try to hide their rebellion against God in that way. The psalmist insists that he doesn’t adopt either those openly rebellious or more hidden sinful ways.
These couplets invite those who preach and teach Psalm 26 to reflect with worshipers on the nature of their relationships. What are the potential dangers of associating with deceitful people? What are the possible benefits of interacting with the “wicked”? How can worshipers try to influence such people in godly ways instead of being influenced by rebels’ disobedience?
In verses 6-8 the psalmist describes the opposite of consorting with sinners. He describes the beauty of joining God’s children in heartfelt worship and thanksgiving to God. He insists he prepares his heart and hands so that he can enter God’s presence. Such “cleanliness” reflects the kind of life that’s wholeheartedly devoted to the Lord. Here the poet recognizes the importance of being in God’s presence, not just in Jerusalem’s temple, but also in a whole life lived in God’s presence. The Spirit uses that ongoing presence, after all, to equip worshipers to live with an unwavering trust in the Lord.
Yet the psalmist recognizes that the world and culture in which she lives is very different from life in the “house” and presence of the Lord. So she begs the Lord not to carry her away with, that is, judge her with that sinful and sometimes bloodthirsty culture. Rebels come, after all, not with clean hands but with hands that are full of things by which they try to control both their circumstances and God.
Verse 11 provides an appropriate bracket to Psalm 26. It echoes, after all, verse 1’s reference to the “blameless life” in which the poet has and continues to walk. Mays notes that it reasserts the poet’s claim to walk with integrity. It reminds God that the poet’s devotion to and trust in God shapes his whole life. His life is consistent with his praise and proclamation. The poet’s life is, in other words, “of one piece.” It’s a life for which prophets like Amos and God’s Son Jesus call. It’s a life for which the Holy Spirit fully equips each of God’s adopted sons and daughters to live.
“Vindicating Michael” (Vindicating Michael) is a blog that claims to be dedicated to “vindicating Michael [Jackson] for the people who truly knew and trusted him.” However, it takes rather curious approach to doing so. Posts include a transcript of a 13 year-old plaintiff against Jackson as well as the summary of the complaint a mother made against Jackson about molesting her son. The blog’s graphic and disturbing descriptions seem to try to vindicate Jackson by blaming his actions on his unhealthy attraction towards boys. It also tries to shift at least some of the blame for Jackson’s behavior onto the parents who let their children interact with him.
That makes this blog’s plea a striking contrast to the psalmist’s plea for vindication. While the blogger seems intent on defending Jackson’s behavior, the psalmist claims to be innocent in his behavior.
Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12
Author: Stan Mast
In all the Bible studies I’ve been part of for the last 40 years, I can’t remember anyone exclaiming, “Let’s study Hebrews!” At least once a year someone will urge the group to study James, the focus of the lectionary last month, because “it’s so practical!” Hebrews is so… impractical, so theological in an Old Testamenty sort of way. I mean, who cares anymore about all these sacrifices and priests and ceremonies and rules? How can we possibly relate all of this Old Testament stuff to the 21st century?
As I pondered that, an old Coke commercial came to mind. “Coke has a better idea.” I don’t recall how Coke was supposed to be better, but that line stuck with me all these years. In the letter to the Hebrews, the author is basically saying, “Christianity has a better idea.” The word “better” occurs 13 times in Hebrews. The author explains in great detail (someone might say in excruciating detail) how Christianity is better than any alternative. Or, to be more true to our opening lectionary reading, “Jesus is better.”
The specific alternative in view in Hebrews is Judaism, probably because it was the former religion of the recipients of this letter. These were Hebrew Christians who were in danger of “drifting away” (2:1) from the Christian faith. Whether they were genuine Christians or counterfeit is difficult to discern given the infamous ambiguity of 6:4-6 and 10:26-31. Whatever the case may have been, the recipients of this letter were looking back at the attractiveness of their old religion with all it priests and sacrifices, ceremonies and laws, covenant and sanctuary. It all looked so glorious compared to the sparseness of the Christian faith, which was about, well, just Jesus. In the words of an old Paul Simon tune, they were “slip sliding away.”
So Hebrews is studded with stern warnings (5 in all) about the slippery slope on which these Hebrew Christians were walking. But the heart of Hebrews is not exhortative; it is indicative. You shouldn’t slip slide away because Christianity is better than anything else. It is better, not because its ceremonies or its regulations or its ministers or its ideas are better, but simply because Jesus is better. So, says 3:1, “fix your thought on Jesus.” The author lavishly illustrates the superiority of Jesus by reminding his readers of central features of Judaism and showing exactly how Jesus is better than anything Judaism has to offer. Sermons on Hebrews will be heavily Christ-centered, or we’ve missed the whole point.
But that’s pretty tough to pull off, given the thicket of obscure Old Testament references one must hack through in order to preach Christ clearly from Hebrews. Can you imagine preaching on Hebrews in a seeker friendly church, a church filled with young adults wearing jeans and sipping their lattes? Well, in fact, that’s probably where Hebrews belongs, though you will have to deal sensitivity with their built in post-modern opposition to any claims of superiority.
A few years ago pollsters like George Barna told us that there are some 8 million young adults out there who no longer attend the church of their youth. They have drifted away to something that looked better. Probably another 8 million are still sitting in traditional churches like the one I served for the last 22 years, wondering if they should stay. Seeker churches are filled with people on the edge of that slippery slope, maybe slip sliding away, or maybe slip sliding back in. Then there are all those “nones” out there, who claim no religious affiliation at all, often because they never had any to begin with. How can we attract these drifters? Hebrews gives us the heart of any missional strategy. Show them Jesus in all his superiority. Most of these slip sliders are turned off by the church and organized religion. So, help them by fixing their thoughts on Jesus.
The problem, of course, is that Hebrews presents a world so unlike the 21st century that it seems downright bizarre. How can a 21st century preacher translate the heavily Jewish character of Hebrews into something that a biblically illiterate Gentile congregation will see as relevant? Particularly vexing is the whole idea of a high priest offering an atoning sacrifice for sin. That is an utterly foreign idea for folks who don’t even have a sense of guilt, at least not with respect to God. So why would they need a sacrifice to atone for that guilt? And what on earth did a high priest do back then that we need today? This is foreign language to many seekers, and even to churched folks who spend their days watching CNN and reading People magazine. So, the courageous preacher will have to spend some time on those overall subjects.
How can we get seekers to tune in when we deal with such ancient and arcane subjects? The same way we preach anything from this old Book—by showing how the Bible ties into people’s fundamental needs. So in preaching on Hebrews, we look for the deep universal needs to which the culturally specific text speaks. So, for example, in our reading today, the author refers to glory again and again, beginning with the glory of Jesus and concluding with the glory of his followers with lots of glory references in between. Everyone yearns for glory, but few of us ever get it. We were created to be glorious as the image of God, but we’ve fallen short of that glory. Only Jesus can satisfy our hunger for glory.
Given its theme, it is not accidental that Hebrews starts with a burst of high Christology, perhaps the highest anywhere in the Bible. And it’s not surprising that it starts with an extended comparison which immediately begins to show that Jesus is better. Note the parallels: In the past/ in these last days; God spoke/ God has spoken; our forefathers/ us; through the prophets/ by his Son; at many times and in various ways/ 7 magnificent ways in which Christ is superior.
I need to make a little aside here. At the heart of this comparison is the idea of progressive revelation. God spoke then, God has spoken now. What he said back then was and is true, but what he has said here and now is better, because in this, his latest speech, God has spoken his last Word, the Word that is incarnate. There is no need for further revelation; “what more can he say than to you he has said.” Given the prominence of sects and cults and world religions that claim ongoing direct revelation, it is important to hear this message from Hebrews. We don’t need more revelation, because Jesus is the sum total of all God has to say. As F.F. Bruce said, “The story of divine revelation is a story of progression up to Christ, but there is no progression beyond him.”
The absolute sufficiency of Christ is demonstrated in this dazzling display of descriptive phrases in verses 2 and 3: “whom [God] appointed the heir of all things, through whom he made the universe, the radiance of God’s glory, the exact representation of being, sustaining all things by his powerful word, provided purification for sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” There are seven, count ‘em, seven ways (it seems unlikely that the divine number seven is accidental in a heavily Jewish letter) in which Jesus is better than anything or anyone that might claim our religious allegiance. This prologue sums up the argument of the whole epistle, particularly in those last two phases. He “provided purification for sins” and “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty.” This magnificent Christ is the great High Priest whose work is done. He sat down, because “it is finished.” Therefore, we have absolutely no need for any other priest or sacrifice or ceremony or religious observance.
But the author is not finished extolling the superiority of Jesus. Indeed, he has only begun. He continues by addressing the subject of angels, which might strike us modern readers as peculiar and irrelevant until we recall the postmodern fascination with spirituality, including all varieties of spiritual beings and forces. A world that will not believe in the God of the Bible is eager to believe in all kinds of lesser spiritual realities. I recently had a literally hair raising experience counseling a young woman who had visited a real haunted house and found herself obsessed (not possessed) with an alternative spirituality. I had to tell her what the author of Hebrews says. As real as such spiritual beings may be, Jesus is superior. They are merely servants of God; he is the Son.
Hebrews brings up the subject of angels, not so much because the Jewish faith worships angels (though there might have been an offshoot movement that was obsessed with angels), but because angels were involved in the giving the Law to Moses (2:2). As mighty and important as angels are, Jesus is mightier and more important. So, our author concludes, “if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation [as that accomplished by Jesus Christ, the great High Priest].” This is the first of the five warnings about “drifting away.”
The author continues this angel theme with a reference to Psalm 8, in which the son of man was “made a little lower than the angels….” This is the first of three rapid fire and incredibly complex arguments designed to prove, once again, the central theme. The thought goes something like this. In Jesus, you have someone who is bigger, better, more effective than anything any religion or philosophy or lifestyle could ever offer.
First, says our author, consider this. Even though Jesus was the Son of God, God made him a little lower than the angels in his brief stay on earth, so that, after his stay was done, God could crown him with glory and honor and put everything under his feet. While it’s true that we can’t see everything under his feet at the current time, we do see Jesus crowned with glory and honor precisely because he suffered death. He will restore the glory of creation one day and crown you with glory and honor, too. Isn’t that incredible? And you want to leave him for that old religion?
Second, consider salvation in another way. Picking up on that idea of crowning us with glory, the author describes the inglorious death of Jesus like this: “it was fitting that God, to whom and for whom everything exists, should make the author of our salvation perfect through suffering.” This was the only way it could have been done; it was fitting, appropriate, necessary that the Son of God had to suffer death. Yes, he was the perfect Son described in his seven fold glory earlier. But to become our perfect Savior, he had to suffer all we suffer. Only then could he be the perfect High Priest, able to represent an imperfect people to a Perfect God. Isn’t that incredible? And you want to leave him for that old religion?
Finally, consider that the work of Jesus transforms us from mere mortals, a little lower than the angels and sinful to the core, into brothers and sisters of Jesus, members of the family of God. In Jesus you can be not merely servants of God who obey his Law; you actually become sons and daughters of God who are loved for Jesus sake. Isn’t that incredible? And you want to leave him for that old religion? Jesus is the perfect Savior who has changed you and is changing the whole world.
This opening reading from Hebrews reminded me of that recurring scene from my favorite childhood TV program, “The Lone Ranger.” After my hero performed another act of derring-do, he would gallop off toward the horizon, and someone would call out, “Who was that masked man?” That reminded me of that famous scene from that wonderful movie, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” After successfully robbing multiple banks, Butch and Sundance are fleeing into the wilderness, doggedly pursued not by some ragtag posse from the nearest town, but by an obviously professional posse wearing white hats. After their most ingenious but ultimately unsuccessful efforts to evade the white hats, Butch and Sundance turn to each other with the same question. “Who are those guys?”
Those two scenes are contemporary illustrations of the identity question that dogged Jesus. From John the Baptist’s initial exclamation, “Behold the Lamb of God…,” and Nathanael’s cynical response to the claim that this Nazarene is The One, the question of Jesus’ true identity echoes through the New Testament. We hear it after Jesus first sermon in his hometown, after Jesus stilled the first storm on the Sea of Galilee, at Jesus’ trial before both the Sanhedrin and Herod, even in the Garden after his resurrection. Jesus himself asks it after months of teaching and healing, “Who do you say that I am?” The Prologue of the Gospel of John gives the most theologically seasoned response to that question, though the great soaring Christological hymns of Colossians 1 and Philippians 2 are close seconds.
That’s why it is so surprising that this comparatively late Epistle to the Hebrews should be so occupied with that once settled question. But that question is the focus of this letters, because the second generation Jewish Christians to whom it is addressed were tempted like every new generation to find something better than the same old thing passed on to them by their parents. The author of Hebrews knew that there was nothing better, so he begins his complicated letter with this forthright answer to the age old question. Who was Jesus really? The answer makes all difference in the world.