August 12, 2019
The Proper 15C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 12:49-56 from the Lectionary Gospel; Isaiah 5:1-7 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 82 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Hebrews 11:29-12:2 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 121 (Lord’s Day 46)
Author: Scott Hoezee
In the television show “The West Wing,” White House deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman is shot during an assassination attempt on the President. He nearly dies and it takes months for him to get back to work. But one day sometime later, Josh loses it in the Oval Office, raising his voice to the very President no less. His friends are shocked. This seems out of character, shrill, vaguely out of control. And indeed it is: Josh is suffering from PTSD over the shooting months before. (You can see the scene in the first 2:40 minutes on this clip.)
I wonder if some of the people around Jesus that day as reported at the end of Luke 12 wondered if something was seriously wrong with Jesus. I mean, Jesus seems to lose it a bit here, going on quite the verbal tear. We practically need asbestos gloves or very thick oven mitts just to pick these verses up. This thing is white hot!
It is quite the capper for a chapter that is chock-full of all kinds of stuff. There are several different themes touched upon in Luke 12, a multiplicity of imagery, a parable thrown in for good measure, pastorally kind words about not worrying about our lives, and a smattering of even still more stuff. The Lectionary has spent three whole weeks in this chapter alone and for this Sunday we come to the end of it all. And it ends with a bang! Jesus here spouts off the kind of thing that could get a person labeled a lunatic, both then and now.
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?).
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?!
Who, after all, makes such choices . . . ?
Author: Stan Mast
This will be a hard text to preach in many settings. I’ve tried to imagine preaching it in my last congregation, a congregation of privilege located in a neighborhood of disadvantaged people. My church had a number of ministries in that neighborhood, because we understood our responsibility for the poor. A significant number of our members were social justice advocates. But Isaiah’s powerful words about social justice would be hard for some of our privileged people to hear and his equally powerful words about God’s judgment upon sin would be hard for some our social justice folks to hear. How can we preach this hard text so that the Gospel of Jesus Christ will be heard?
We certainly ought to try, because it is such an important summary of God’s dealings with his privileged Old Testament people, and it anticipates the Gospel message of Jesus’ dealings with his New Testament people in John 15 (vine and vineyard). Plus, its rich imagery and striking form make it a literary delight that should stimulate our creative homiletical instincts.
It begins with a love song—not about Isaiah’s love for God, but about God’s love for his as-yet-unidentified “vineyard.” The word translated “the one I love” is perhaps better translated “my friend.” God is Isaiah’s friend, so it might be more accurate to call this a friendship song.
In verse 1 Isaiah announces his intention to sing about a friend’s love for his vineyard, which is a little strange until we realize that vineyard is a symbol for bride. God is the bridegroom and the vineyard is God’s bride. He uses that imagery because it gives him a powerful way to talk about everything God has done for his bride.
God has showered his love upon his vineyard: selecting a fertile hillside where God’s vineyard was sure to produce bumper crops of delicious grapes that would ferment into the finest wine; cultivating the soil and clearing it of stones so there would be no impediments to growth; planting the very best vines guaranteed to yield the most healthy and tasty grapes; building a watchtower to guard the vineyard against human and animal invaders who would strip the vines of their precious fruit; erecting a hedge and/or a wall to keep those invaders out; digging a winepress or vat where the grapes could be processed into wine on the spot and stored for future consumption. God spared no effort or expense on this vineyard, so that it would be a complete success.
But this love song has a very unhappy last stanza. After all that loving attention and backbreaking work, God “looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.” God’s expectations for his vineyard were shattered. His highest hopes were disappointed. Instead of sweet smelling wine, the vineyard produced only stinking (the literal meaning of the Hebrew here) grapes, rancid, rotten grapes. All of God’s loving attention and intentions came to nothing; the vineyard stunk to high heaven.
Now the love song turns into a legal indictment, as God calls the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the rest of Judah to judge between God and his as-yet-unidentified vineyard. Was the failure of the vineyard God’s fault? “What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it?” Anyone with any common sense would answer that God had done everything necessary and possible to guarantee the success of this vineyard.
Assuming that the jury would agree with that conclusion, God asks the unanswerable question. Why? Why did it fail? “When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?” There is no good answer to that question, no good reason the object of God’s love would produce such stinking results. There is no good reason for rotten lives when God has done everything he could to produce rich wine.
When we think of it that way, God’s judgment on his vineyard is completely reasonable. The right thing to do was to completely demolish it. What more could he have done? Nothing. So, get rid of it. “Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard. I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled. I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briars and thistles will grow there.” And if that isn’t enough, “I will command the clouds not rain on it.” God’s love for his vineyard will be replaced by anger and judgment. And the vineyard will be no more. Or so it would seem.
But God isn’t done yet, because this vineyard is nothing but a figure of speech, a rich image in a powerful song. Like David listening to Nathan’s story about a rich man who robbed a poor man of his most precious possession, Israel has no clue that God is talking about them. But then God ends this love song/judicial proceeding with a blunt punch line. “The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight.” “You are the man!”
Before Israel can stutter their objections and excuses, God identifies their bad grapes, their stinking, rancid, rotten lives. I “looked for justice, but saw bloodshed, for righteousness, but heard cried of distress.” God’s identification of Israel’s sin is made more powerful by the word play in the Hebrew: “justice” is the word mishpat and “bloodshed” is the word mispah, while “righteousness” is tsedeqah and “cries of distress” is tseaqah. What I looked for and what I found may sound alike, but they are the exact opposite.
You have taken my love and totally distorted it in your lives. I wanted you to bear the fruit of justice and righteousness on earth, to exhibit and enact my justice and righteousness. That’s why I did all that for you. You have completely distorted my intentions, choosing to simply enjoy the privileges I gave you, rather than doing justice and living righteousness. And that stinks.
There are two great problems with preaching on this text. What, exactly, does God mean by justice and righteousness? And what does this ancient indictment of Israel have to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ today?
One scholar points out that justice is an abstract word and thus hard to define. Consequently, everyone knows what it means, and yet no one does. It is as difficult to define as “right and wrong.” Righteousness is, likewise, a word with a wide variety of meaning.
But the Bible, particularly, the Old Testament does give some specific content to these abstract words. Righteousness is more than right living; it has to do with having a right relationship with God. The New Testament, particularly Paul, teaches that we can have a right relationship with God only by God’s grace through faith in Christ. That right relationship with God should produce right relationships in society, relationships characterized by the kind of love God has shown us. That means that justice should flow out of that right relationship with God, because love wants the best for others. Justice has to do with fair and equitable relationships within a society grounded in the just will of the Lord.
That is why God contrasts justice with bloodshed and righteousness with cries of distress. And lest we miss the exact meaning of “bloodshed and cries of distress” we need only keep reading in Isaiah 5. The very next verses talk about greedy accumulation of property that leaves the poor even poorer, about wildly excessive living that wastes resources on the few, and generally godless living that ignores the work of God in the world. The God of justice and righteousness planted a vineyard in the world precisely so that his beloved people could exhibit and enact his justice and righteousness and make the world a better, more heavenly place. And it stinks when we don’t do that.
James Limburg minces no words. “To do justice according to the prophets is to take up the cause of the widow and orphan and poor and act as their advocate. The failure of leadership to act as advocates for the powerless caused once-faithful Jerusalem to become a faithless whore of a city.” And David Garber makes me squirm when he writes: “In congregations of privilege, this passage becomes a challenge. Are we using our privilege to produce the sweet wine of justice in our society? Or does our propensity to cower behind our privilege result in the stench of injustice that will ultimately repulse the God whom we claim to worship?”
That brings us to the second problem with this text. How do we preach this hard old text as Christian pastors? It seems so Jewish, so judgmental, so negative, so final. Well, we can begin by pointing out that God’s judgment is a last resort, not what God wants to do in his heart of hearts. God’s intention was to bless his people and through them to bless the world. It was only when they took his sweet love and turned his blessings into stinking lives that he finally “destroyed” them. God did not abandon his people; they abandoned him. Therefore, writes David McKenna, “God was justified in his decision to leave them to their own devices and let them suffer the consequences of their sin as the only way to redeem them.”
Those last words remind us of the Gospel. God’s punishment of Israel was not the end of them, even it sounds that way to us and seemed that way to them. Rather, God’s punishment of Israel was a hard step in their redemption and in the redemption of the world through them and through the Seed of Abraham. While sin always yields death of one sort or another, death does not get the last word in human life or in human history. God’s loving intentions will not be ultimately frustrated, even if it kills God. Which it did.
Yes, God will still deal harshly with his vineyard. Those branches that bear no fruit will be cut off and thrown into the fire. And even those who do bear fruit will be pruned so they can bear more. But God is harsh only because of his love for his vineyard and for the world in which he has planted it. Indeed, God is so loving that he not only plants and cultivates and protects his vineyard; he even became the vine (John 15).
And by staying connected to the Vine, we can do the impossible—bear much fruit, even the fruit of justice and righteousness in a world dying for both. “I am the Vine and you are the branches. If a person remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing (verse 5).” In verse 16 of John 15, Jesus summarizes Isaiah 5 for us. “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last.” We are loved and chosen not merely unto privilege (though the benefits are vast), but unto abiding fruit (both the pursuit of justice and righteousness and the grafting of changed lives into the Vine).
One way to help contemporary folks sympathize with God’s disgust over “stinking grapes” is to talk about how disgusted many social justice advocates are with the problem of the stinking piles of refuse, garbage, waste that accumulate in our landfills and, alarmingly, in the center of the Pacific Ocean. We are appalled and frightened at the prospect of a world choking on its own waste. Natural and manufactured things intended to help and nourish humanity have become a threat to society. So it was with Israel and so it is with the church today. God intended to bless the world through his people. Who can blame God for being upset when his blessing turns into a stinking mess? And who can’t help but praise God for his gracious response to the mess, namely, sending his own Son the stinking pile of death called “the Place of the Skull?”
Author: Scott Hoezee
What are we to make of Psalm 82? Who are the “gods” that get referred to multiple times? If you as an orthodox believer are convinced there really are no other gods beyond the God and Father of Jesus Christ, then these references to other gods may be a bit unsettling. But as I read and then re-read this psalm, it occurred to me that there may be a way of interpreting this that not only accords more with our modern sensibilities but that may reflect the original intent of this poem even in its own day.
Could it be that the psalmist had his tongue embedded firmly in cheek when he referred to “gods”? Might he have been thinking of people on this earth who fancy themselves as de facto gods? It certainly looks like the psalm is directed at rulers of nations who have an opportunity to—and a responsibility to—administer their realms with justice and with equity for all. Maybe this is even directed at rulers of Israel who, all too often in Israel’s history, failed to uphold God’s holy laws and his blueprint for how life was to go in Israel among God’s chosen people.
After all, there is no missing in places like Leviticus and Deuteronomy a consistent focus on what we sometimes refer to collectively as “the anawim.” This is that class of people who were vulnerable in the ancient world and it usually consisted of that well-known triplet of the widow, the orphan, and the alien. Women without the protection of a husband in a patriarchal society, children without the protection of any parent whatsoever, immigrants and strangers from other countries who could so easily fall between the societal cracks: God again and again urges Israel to pay special attention to these people. They required extra, special care.
One thinks of the quintessential, triply doomed biblical figure of Ruth. She was a widow, a de facto orphan, and a non-Israelite alien from Moab. The deck was stacked against Ruth and so when she opted to return to Bethlehem with her bereft mother-in-law Naomi—herself now a vulnerable widow—the prospects for Ruth were bleak. The odds of her being raped were far greater than her being protected or led to a fine new husband one day. Her chances of starving to death were far greater than having someone take pity on her and provide her with loads of grain. Only because the man Boaz actually kept God’s law making special provision for widows, orphans, and aliens did Ruth not only survive but thrive and even find herself in the family line that would one day lead to no less than the Messiah. (If ever you needed an example of how great things can come when someone actually follows God’s decrees, Ruth is it!)
Sadly, Boaz was the exception and not the rule in Israel, including when it came to the behavior of some kings and many other leaders in the religious hierarchy. These are the people who perhaps fancied themselves to be “gods” in their own right. They had power. They had money. When they said “Jump!” people dutifully responded “How high?” And so as with most anyone who concludes he is all-but divine, these people also concluded they could make up the rules as they went along. Hewing to God’s dusty old laws from Leviticus did not apply to these gods. Indeed, the charm of fancying yourself to be a god is precisely that you decide you are the one in the position to make up the laws of the land. And nine times out of ten the laws such gods make up tended to benefit those same gods. (This is also the charm of idolatry in any form: in history very few people have ever invented a god who then went on to make life harder for the person inventing the deity. No, no: false gods tend to be pretty easy to serve, they tend to bless what the idolater is already doing. False gods shop were you shop, live where you live, vote the way you vote and so on. False gods never trouble the waters in one’s life.)
So the psalmist of Psalm 82 sees these would-be “gods” roaming the earth and throwing their weight around and making up highly convenient laws for themselves and calls on them to stop. Raise your sights higher. Get put back into your proper place. Lift up your eyes to the true God of the cosmos, to Yahweh himself, and then do what he says, starting with how the anawim get treated in any nation and most certainly within Israel itself.
But before the poet finishes his diatribe against these would-be gods, he also issues a dire warning: you can fancy yourself to be a god all you want but at the end of the day, you will die. You will discover that the one rule you cannot change or override is the one that says mortals perish. And then you find yourself falling into the hands of the true God of all things and those who refused to serve that God in this life—especially on account of deeming themselves to be divine—may discover that what comes next is not very pleasant. As C.S. Lewis once suggested, those who in this life refused ever to pray the line “Your will be done,” may find a God who says “Very well, then: YOUR will be done. You wanted nothing to do with me in life and so I can arrange it so you will have nothing to do with me after death, either.”
This may not be a cheery message and so when we preach on it, it would be well to emphasize that the true God we serve is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. There is grace available with this God, there is mercy abundant. There is a reason why you should want to serve this God and not fancy yourself a god in your own right: because the true God really is powerful to save. This God wants to save you, has made a road to salvation possible by grace alone. Abandoning yourself to this God is not a bad thing. Indeed, it is profoundly good. It gives life.
In his pitch perfect, best-selling novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe adroitly encapsulated and captured the spirit of the 1980s and particularly of the upwardly mobile “yuppies” who cashed in on that decade’s atmosphere of greed and acquisition. Stock market speculation, stock futures, junk bonds: it was all there for the taking.
Wolfe depicted these corporate and stock market titans as inhabiting a world of deeply beveled oak paneled board rooms, mahogany tables, leather sofas, gilded everything—it all screamed “Money!” And as they sat around in these wealth-soaked environments Wolfe noted that they considered themselves to be no less than “Masters of the Universe.” Or perhaps as the poet of Psalm 82 would put it: they strutted around as though they were themselves no less than gods!
Author: Doug Bratt
It sometimes seems like human nature to long for heroes. Today, however, it’s difficult to find heroes to whom we can steadily look up. The bright lights of things like 24-hour cable networks, YouTube and social media expose even the most famous people’s moral spots and wrinkles.
So it may seem nice to have a text like that which the RCL appoints as this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson to turn to and read. Many Christians have even come to call the people on its list the “heroes of the faith.” These are remarkable people who lived by faith. They’re just the kind to whom Jesus’ followers can really look up today, right?
God has graciously provided a spiritual home for me in the Christian Reformed Church in North America for virtually all of my 61+ years. So I can think of a few Christian Reformed “heroes.” I remember Sunday school and catechism teachers, youth group leaders and schoolteachers, coaches and, yes, maybe even a few pastors.
I gratefully remember Christian Reformed people like Don and Rosemary, Jane and Dirk, Joanne and Evan, and Clarence and Jake too. They walked by faith, teaching and leading me in ways that led me to look up to them.
Yet when we take a careful look at our heroes, we see more than a few moral warts and wrinkles. Consider Abraham. “By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country…” (11:9). Yet he also lied about his wife’s identity and fathered a child by his wife’s servant whom he then sent into the desert to die.
If that’s not enough, consider Jacob. He “blessed each of Joseph’s sons as he lay dying” (11:21). Jacob also, however, swindled his brother out of his share of the inheritance … and then tricked his dad to boot.
The Lord commended these people, according to verse 39, “for their faith.” People like Abel and Enoch, Isaac and Moses were, after all, capable of great acts of trusting obedience.
Yet while, as my colleague John Rottman (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels, Eerdmans, 2001), from whom I borrowed heavily for this Sermon Starter notes, those “heroes” are certainly not “evil” people, many of them succumbed to temptation in public and destructive ways.
Yet our modern heroes aren’t morally cleaner than those biblical ones. I admired my fifth-grade teacher a lot. Though he had a strange obsession with isometric exercises, he was a smart person who knew a lot about many things, even sports. Yet I’ll never forget seeing him outside of church one Sunday evening. There he stood … smoking.
Yet some moral flaws cause even more widespread damage. A 2007 article in The New York Times described the large numbers of Hispanic immigrants who, while they went to church in their homelands, no longer do so in the United States. While those whom the Times interviewed gave a number of reasons for this, many cited the misconduct of priests.
How many people didn’t have a Christian who was a beloved uncle, admired cousin, or even loved mother who betrayed our most intimate trust? How often haven’t our Christian friends or even family members hurt us deeply? How often haven’t even church leaders done things that shamed God and scarred God’s adopted sons and daughters?
Yet Jesus’ followers don’t have to look much farther than our own hearts to see deep flaws. We are, by God’s grace, like Abraham and David, capable of great Christian faith. Yet we also know our own moral weak spots, whether they’re a tendency to lie like Abraham or manipulate people like Jacob. God’s beloved people may even have intimacy vulnerabilities like David.
So those who proclaim this Epistolary Lesson want to help those who hear us remember as well as thank God for that great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us. Yet if we’re to strip down to our running clothes and run the race that is the Christian life, we’ll have to look somewhere else for our role models. If God’s adopted sons and daughters want to keep following Jesus in the race marked out for us, we’re going to have to look for Another Hero.
Fix your eyes, says our text, on Jesus (12:2). Christians who are looking for someone whom we can wholeheartedly imitate fix our eyes on Jesus. Those who are looking for someone who has already run the race marked out for us fix our eyes on Jesus. Those who long to keep running the race God has marked out for us fix our eyes on Jesus.
Hebrews’ author invites Jesus’ followers to run the race that is the Christian life with “perseverance” (12:1b). Our Christian lives are, after all, more like the Boston Marathon than a 100-metre dash. They require endurance. The One who is best able to provide that for us, insists Hebrews, is Jesus. He is, after all, what the NIV translation of the Bible calls “the author” (2), what others call “the pioneer,” of our faith.
God’s only natural Son Jesus agreed to become a human being, to live among us and suffer the punishment we deserved for our sins by dying on a cross. He was even somehow made, according to Hebrews 2:10, “perfect” through that intense suffering. And after God perfected him through that suffering, Jesus became, according to Hebrews 5:9, the “source of” our eternal salvation. He’s the one who by his life, death and resurrection graciously places his followers in a faithful relationship with God.
Jesus also knows all about the need for perseverance. He, after all, endured the torture of suffering throughout his life. Jesus even “scorned,” that is, refused to let the cross’ shame intimidate him. Yet as Rottman notes, this Jesus isn’t content to put us into a proper relationship with God but then let us limp toward the finish line of our Christian lives on our own. No, Christ, by his Spirit, never stops working to improve our relationship with God and each other.
Having taken away our guilt and forgiven our sins, Christ works on the power of sin in our lives. By his Spirit he works to break the power of things like sexual immorality, hatred, jealousy and envy over us. The Spirit works to break the power of things like racism and discrimination in our society. The Spirit then replaces it with what Rottman calls a “whole fruit basket” of things like love, patience, kindness and self-control. The Spirit even makes those Christ-like virtues more and more prominent as Jesus “perfects” our faith.
What’s more, as Jesus works on us as individuals, he also transforms his whole church, including our local churches and denominations. We remain, of course, far from perfect. Yet God graciously uses us to bring himself glory and to bless the people around us anyway.
The January 24, 2007 issue of the Hattiesburg (MS) American featured a story about a victim of Hurricane Katrina. Pamela Bolar’s damaged home was too expensive to be renovated and too historically important to be torn down. So authorities deemed it a total loss. Hattiesburg’s United Way put her case into what they call a “miracle pool.” Its spokesman said of this group, “If a miracle comes along, we’ll pull the case out and do something with it.”
So Ms. Bolar and her two teenaged daughters moved into a cramped mobile home and waited for a “miracle,” praying for God’s intervention. God did graciously intervene, providing such a “miracle.” Ms. Bolar says, “It’s just like a big house coming down from heaven to me.”
Actually, it came from the Lord through a church. The Orland Park (IL) Christian Reformed Church wanted to build a new home for a hurricane victim and asked the United Way for an appropriate partner. After a local church donated some land and a construction company cleared the land and laid the foundation, volunteers from Chicago moved in. People built the skeleton of a new home in just a few hours. Two more teams came in successive weeks to finish the building.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the American government approved various Christian groups and agencies for soliciting funds to rebuild. Even our national leaders recognize in some way that Christ’s church is doing good things.
So those who proclaim Hebrews 11 and 12 want to help our hearers celebrate Christ’s ongoing work in even the remote corners of his Church. Yet Christians look somewhere else for our heroes. His adopted brothers and sisters always point people away from us and toward the author and perfecter of our faith. After all, by his Spirit, Christ alone empowers us to respond to his great faithfulness with faithful obedience.
Mickey Mantle was among the best baseball players that ever played the game. Most experts, however, agree that he might have been one of the two or three greatest players ever had he not spent most of his life in the “fast lane.”
Mantle once said, “If I had known I was going to live so long, I would have taken better care of myself.” After all, his family history, as Rottman notes, suggested that Mantle would die at a young age. His father and grandfather had both died of heart attacks before they reached the age of 40. Friends said that because he was afraid of the death that he assumed would come to him at a young age, Mantle lived recklessly.
Several days after he received a transplanted liver, Mickey Mantle held a press conference. He knew that he was largely responsible for the illness that had ruined his liver. Mantle also knew that some people still regarded him as a hero. “Look,” he told anyone who’d listen, “I’m an example alright – an example of how not to do it.” Near the end of his life Mantle told people, “Don’t live like I did. If you’re looking for a hero,” he basically said, “you’ll have to look somewhere else.”