November 09, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
We don’t mean to do it. But sometimes out of sheer distraction, we do it anyway. Your own precious child comes up to you and is excited to show you something and . . . you brush the child aside. “Not now please” or “Can you just be quiet for a bit?” And the light of excitement goes out from the child’s eyes like a swiftly snuffed candle. If you’ve ever seen that light go out—getting replaced by a fallen countenance and the deflated look that just says “Disappointment” loud and clear—then you know it’s a terrible thing to witness. If you yourself are the cause of the deflation and then see this, it hurts such that you want to make it up to the kid as quickly as possible.
Jesus’ disciples were generally not big city folks. They were fishermen and such from mostly small towns. But now in Mark 13 they are in Jerusalem and they predictably do the touristy thing of being wowed by the big buildings, by the Temple masonry work, by the sense of history that permeates the place. If they had had cameras, the shutters would have been snapping away wildly. You can imagine the Facebook status updates, the Instagram posts: “In Jerusalem—can’t believe the Temple’s grandeur!” “LOL: Peter, James and John mugging for the camera in front of the Temple Portico!”
But if they were hoping Jesus would click “Like” on such postings, they were sorely disappointed. Indeed, in our Lectionary passage from Mark 13 the disciples come up to Jesus like excited little kids. Their eyes are shining with wonder. “Master, get a load of this limestone block! Can you imagine the work it took to lift these one on top of the other?! This is really something isn’t it?!” For his part, though, Jesus turns a rather blank face their direction and swiftly deflates their enthusiasm with the words, “Impressive? Maybe. Shame about the impending destruction, though, because somebody is going to take those impressive blocks of stone and scatter them all around Jerusalem like a child’s Legos.”
Dumbfounded and deflated, the disciples say not a word initially. Later, when they are some distance from the city and overlooking the countryside from the Mount of Olives, a couple of them finally manage the gumption to ask the obvious. “Ummm, Master? That bad and nasty destruction stuff you mentioned earlier—any dates or timelines on all that we could know about?”
They ask a fairly simple question. In essence it boiled down to “When?” They also tucked into their question a bit more, asking basically if there would be any advance warning—you know, in case someone wanted to leave town before it all came crashing down around them.
The question may have been simple but the answer proves to be anything but simple. Because Jesus’ answer is not restricted to the 3 or 4 sentences we get in this relatively short lection of Mark 13:1-8. No, Jesus’ answer becomes Mark’s version of the Olivet Discourse and it continues on for nearly two dozen more verses, many of which contain imagery that is apocalyptic, a bit bizarre, and utterly sobering. But in the verses of just this lection, what Jesus basically says is that although wanting to know the when and the wherefore of all this is natural, worrying unduly about all this—and so being vulnerable to being snookered by false witnesses who claim to know more than they do about the end of all things—is definitely something to avoid.
If only more of us in the history that followed had taken Jesus’ advice more seriously! It’s an oddity of church history that some of the same people who try to take apocalyptic imagery the most literally (when huge swaths of it are surely figurative and allusive) refuse to take seriously the parts that plainly are literal and straightforward, as when in these verses Jesus warns his followers not to go down one rabbit trail after the next in trying to figure all these things out or in being alarmed by every pious Chicken Little who comes along and screams about falling skies and such.
But before we close out these reflections, let’s take note of one other thing that we preachers can perhaps help our congregations notice, especially since in 2015 this passage crops up on one of the final Sundays before Advent begins (replete with all the Hallmark over-sentimentalizing that too often accompanies all things Christmas these days). This passage can remind us that Jesus is often not quite what we’d expect. The disciples were just sure that Jesus—coming as he did from a small town in the outback as well—would be as wowed by the Temple’s grandeur as they were. But he wasn’t. Quite the opposite, in fact, because Jesus’ thoughts were bent on far more vital matters involving the salvation of all things (even as he doubtless could see in his mind’s eye a cross with his name on it in the next 4 days or so).
The Temple was important and, given its history in the covenant people of Israel, it stood for a great many vital facts about God and his people. But salvation was never going to come through that Temple but only through the incarnate Temple that just was Jesus’ own body. It would have to be torn to pieces, destroyed, before true salvation was going to come. Jesus knew this. And because he knew that—and because his eye was always on the big picture in ways most of us can scarcely ever even approximate—you could never be completely sure what Jesus was thinking or how he would react to a given situation.
Today we have domesticated all too much of the Gospel. Many in also the church think they have Jesus cased. We think it’s easy to figure out What Jesus Would Do, what Jesus would think, how Jesus would vote, what causes Jesus would support. And it’s not as though we have no idea whatsoever on such things as to some of what Jesus might think or do or say but it’s just that we can’t pretend to have it all worked out. The vision and work of God are always grander, always more startling than we know.
About the time we think we do have it all cased, we may bring to Jesus our prize cause or idea or project and like excited children lay it before him. Mark 13 reminds us, however, that when we do so, there is at least a chance that what we’ll get from Jesus by way of a response might just cause the looks on our faces to change rather swiftly!
In verse 5 (and this is repeated again at the head of verse 9, just beyond the end of this particular lection) Jesus tells the disciples to BLEPETE, to “watch.” Ironically, all through the history of the Church people have been “watching” for Jesus’ return, but so often this “watchfulness” gets translated into a kind of starry-eyed sky gazing whereby disciples scan the distant horizon for any and every sign that could get interpreted as some impending arrow pointing forward to the return of Christ. (Watch any number of Christian shows on cable and you will soon discover how every day’s newspaper gets WATCHED for any and every sign that could be twisted to fit some proof text in Ezekiel, Mark 13, or the Book of Revelation). Curiously, however, in Mark 13 Jesus’ use of “watch” has to do not with watching for the true signs of the end but to WATCH OUT that you do not get sucked in by any number of false starts or erroneous scenarios concerning the end of all things.
Some while back in a sermon, Barbara Brown Taylor related a story from her childhood when she was growing up in the American South. Every day after school Barbara and her siblings were supervised by an African-American babysitter named Thelma. Thelma was remarkable for how little she ever talked to the children. Each afternoon she’d sit in a rocking chair reading her Bible while the children did homework or played. If things got out of hand, all Thelma had to do was lower the Bible an inch or two, just enough for the children to see her eyes glaring overtop the old King James Version, and order would be rather quickly restored.
One afternoon, to the children’s surprise, Thelma engaged them with an activity. She told them to go fetch some blank sheets of paper and crayons. She then instructed them to draw their house: a classic southern home replete with a big pillared front porch, a nice lawn with some oak trees, and even a white picket fence. And so the children drew the house even as Thelma encouraged them to include as many details as they could. When the kids had finished their portraits, Thelma then said, “Now, I want you to draw fire comin’ down from the sky. Draw the fire lickin’ up the oak trees and the picket fence and the roof. Draw it that way ’cause that’s what’s gonna happen when the Lord comes back.”
Well this widened their eyes a bit. But what has stuck with Rev. Taylor in the years since then was not just that Thelma gave the children a backdoor eschatology lesson but that for Thelma this future fire was something to look forward to. Barbara and her siblings were too young and naive to appreciate the racial tensions in the midst of which they lived. They did not see their living in a nice house as something that might cause resentment on the part of others whose opportunities for a similar lifestyle were, at best, minimal. A fire of judgment which would one day by and by set all wrongs to right looked good to Thelma. But it felt like a threat to Barbara and the other kids. What looked like a new beginning to Thelma looked like the end of everything to the children.
That’s often the way of it, of course for folks like us who tend to lead comfortable lives. We’d just as soon avoid trouble and keep things neat and tidy. Some while ago had you walked along Central Park South in New York City, you would have seen a gigantic billboard advertising a new building then under construction. The billboard was probably half-a-block long and featured a soaring vista of Central Park. That is the view that a few lucky folks would have if they purchased the penthouse condominium units in this soon-to-be-completed skyscraper. If you had something like $3 million burning a hole in your pocket, then you, too, could secure a niche in the skies over Manhattan, far above the sound of taxi horns, well away from the sight of any homeless persons. But if you could afford such a luxury, would you be happy to have someone drawing the place on fire at the coming of the Lord? Would you be pleased to hear some modern-day Isaiah proclaiming that every dirty subway platform where the homeless sleep would be exalted even as every penthouse suite would be brought down to gutter level? Likely not. If you already believe that you are doing just fine, you don’t want the reversals of God’s fiery judgment.
1 Samuel 1:4-20
Author: Scott Hoezee
It’s curious how often the purposes of God move forward not just despite familial dysfunction but sometimes even because of it. We’ve got a load of dysfunction coming up in the Samuel story through the shenanigans of Hophni and Phineas—and Eli’s hand-wringing inability to do a blessed thing about it all. But we’ve got nettlesome family issues right in this opening chapter, too.
The funny thing is that you wonder how things might have gone differently were it not for the dysfunction. It is, after all, possible that sans Peninnah’s needling of her, Hannah might well have accepted her husband’s well-meant and endearingly sweet statement “Am I not better to you than ten sons?” Maybe Hannah would have said, “You’re right, dear! I have so much to be thankful for. I love you. You love me. We surely do have each other and that’s enough.”
But any chance of that happening was nixed through Peninnah’s snottiness. You can imagine how it went: Peninnah and Hannah are talking when suddenly Peninnah says something like, “Well, gotta run—little Jimmy is eager to have Mommy read that new book we bought the other day. But you know how that goes. Oh, actually you don’t, do you? Pity. Oh well! Catch you later!”
Or, Peninnah and Hannah are folding laundry and Peninnah keeps asking Hannah to help her fold the baby’s onesies and little outfits. “Could you help me, Hannah? Now, this is how you fold a child’s outfit. I have to tell you because, of course, you have no reason to know, do you?” Then Peninnah would smile sweetly, flutter her eyes, walk away. And Hannah would be left to grind her teeth just before once again bursting into tears and dissolving into abject sorrow over her infertile condition.
When she could stand it no longer, she took advantage of a pilgrimage to the Temple at Shiloh to beg for some divine help. Hannah’s prayer may well be among the most famous in Scripture but what we sometimes forget is that part of the source of her misery was the teasing she had endured from her husband’s other wife. That is striking to recall because it hints to us that the purposes of God are not thwarted by—and sometimes can even paradoxically take advantage of—the foibles, wrinkles, and downright sinfulness of the human condition.
This idea is furthered in this particular story when you notice the loopy mistake that Eli made in assuming that Hannah was drunk and babbling right there in the middle of God’s holy place. It was probably an honest mistake, though subsequent chapters will alert us further to the fact that old Eli was not the sharpest knife in the drawer. He tended to be, not to put too fine a point on it, a tidge on the slow side in terms of catching on to things or having the strength of character to react when he should have reacted.
Then again, given what we subsequently learn about Hophni and Phineas, Eli maybe should not be blamed for being on the lookout for drunken behavior—he’d seen altogether too much of it already. So Eli goofs, accuses Hannah of something bad, and then has to recant and back down. And maybe, just maybe, his blessing of Hannah and his priestly assurance that what she asked for would be granted stemmed at least in part from the fact that he was maybe overcompensating for his spiritual faux pas. You can imagine the color rising up Eli’s neck and up onto his face as he realized that the woman he had just accused of being a drunk was actually a pious soul who was pouring out her broken heart to God.
Eli, of course, has no clue as to what was the precise source of Hannah’s “great anguish and grief” because she does not spell it out for him. For all he knew she had been praying for the swift death of an enemy or that her husband would drop dead. He has no idea that she was asking for a son, much less that Eli himself would get saddled with raising the little guy once he was born and weaned. He had simply made a stupid mistake that embarrassed him and so maybe over-reached a bit in response as a way to compensate for the error.
Yet once again, out of this foible of the human condition—and from the flawed vessel that we soon learn Eli is—God manages to bring about something good in the birth of Samuel, who will go on to save Israel from itself and anoint its first two kings, the second of whom will be no less a towering figure than David himself.
It is strange how things go, even in the Bible. Anyone who thinks that the Bible presents straightforward stories in which the machinations of divine providence happen in miraculous ways the likes of which we could never possibly see in our world today had best pay closer attention to how things actually go in the Bible. The fact is that the work of God emerges from the cracks and fissures of ordinary people and their ordinary—and yes their sometimes tawdry—lives. Even some of the greatest movements of God’s plan of salvation happened as the result of people and events that were, all things being equal, fairly unhappy and unfortunate.
In the Year B Revised Common Lectionary, this reading from I Samuel 1 is paired in the Gospel with Mark 13:1-8 and Jesus’ words about how even the tragedies of life in this world (like wars, rumors of war, and earthquakes) somehow manage to be—in God’s sovereign hands—things that portend the birth of something new and good and not merely the death of all that we have ever known.
That’s good news for all of us who are able to fess up that our own lives are hardly straight lines that always move in the direction of the godly and the good and the pious. Of course, this is no excuse for sloppy living or behaving like a witch such as Peninnah (or for being as foggy as Eli) but it does provide a light of hope that our lives can still be vehicles for good, for the providential working of God.
It’s also a nice reminder that the plans of God are flat out not going to be thwarted. Not now. Not ever. Not by us. And not by our sometimes nasty neighbors or crotchety family members. I Samuel 1 is a lovely story for lots of reason. But just behind the loveliness and the lyric nature of God’s work are a lot of other things that are quite familiar to us as inhabitants of a broken world filled with people who can make our lives pretty miserable at times. We can see ourselves in this picture. Thankfully the Holy Spirit helps us to see God in that picture, too.
At one time or another, some of us have perhaps been tempted to pray for “a sign.” Maybe a few of us have been not just tempted to pray for a sign but we have petitioned God to show us something tangible that will help us make some big decision. “Oh, Lord, if she really is the right one for me, then let her call me in the next fifteen minutes!” “Dear God, if you want me to take this job, then give me some kind of sign so I’ll know–give me a thunderclap, a beam of sunshine, something to show me the way!”
Mostly it doesn’t work like that, of course. We’re even a bit suspicious of people who claim that God talks directly to them just about every morning at breakfast. Even if some ostensible sign is claimed by someone, we’re more likely to chalk it up to coincidence than direct divine intervention. “I was sitting in my car asking God for a sign and suddenly the light turned green! See!” Well, no, most of us wouldn’t see much in that.
Surely very few, if any, of us have ever recommended that people seek God’s will for their lives by letting a Bible fall open, plunking down an index finger, and taking a cue from whatever verse you happen to find. It is said that once there was a person who wanted to know God’s will and so he flipped open the Bible, blindly jabbed his finger at the text, and then read the verse, “And Judas went out and hanged himself.” Since that didn’t seem to provide quite the direction he was looking for, he tried again, this time plunking down on the verse, “Go and do likewise”! All in all, not a very spiritually mature way to operate!
Of course, there are Bible stories that seem to lend credence to the idea that God operates through the doling out of special revelatory signs. Gideon had his fleece. Abraham saw a flaming torch once. Moses had the burning bush, and even I Samuel 1 seems to provide a kind of miraculous sign when Eli tells Hannah her prayer will be answered. And so on one level you could look at this story and conclude that this is another one of those “special” Bible stories that shows how God used to work in the lives of key biblical characters, even though he mostly doesn’t work that way for us anymore.
But if we look more closely, the working of God in even this story is a bit more mundane than we think. St. Teresa of Avila who once noted that “Christ dwells among the pots and pans.” It was Teresa’s way of saying that if we don’t bump into Jesus in the run of a typical day, we maybe won’t run into him much at all.
Thomas Merton once tried to make a similar point when he observed that a spiritual life is first and foremost just a life. If you want to be a holy or spiritual person, you need to be a person first, and what’s more you need to be the very specific person God already created you to be. The “spiritual” part of being a Christian is not way out there somewhere beyond the horizon waiting for you to arrive. It’s here, it’s now.
1 Samuel 2:1-10
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
(NOTE: The Revised Common Lectionary occasionally substitutes an OT reading for a Psalm, as is this case on this particular Sunday in Year B)
While I Samuel 2:1-10 is not part of the book of Psalms, it’s like a psalm in that it’s a song of praise and thanksgiving offered to God. Since Hanna was unable to bear children, she’d vowed to give back to God any son God graciously gave her. So when God gives her a son whom she names Samuel, Hanna fulfills her vow by giving him back to God so that he can serve the old priest Eli in the house of the Lord. In that context, perhaps after bringing her son to God’s house, she sings our text.
Yet even as Hanna celebrates the birth of her son, she “rejoices” (1) not, as we might expect, in Samuel, but in the Lord. After all, as Walter Brueggemann notes, “It is Hanna’s joy but Yahweh’s power.” Hanna’s song highlights that mighty power. She sings of how God has lifted her horn high, probably referring to the strength God has graciously given her to conceive and bear a child. Hanna also sings of God’s salvation of her as well as God’s weakening of her enemies. What’s more, Hanna sings of God’s supreme strength and stable source of security.
This first part of her song invites those who preach and teach it to reflect on our own sense of both strength and weakness. It’s tempting, after all, for us to ascribe our health, wealth and wisdom to our own strength. It’s easy for all worshipers to forget that we’re all, in one sense, “infertile;” we’re naturally weak and unable to completely provide for ourselves without God’s care and blessing.
Brueggemann notes that Hanna sings not only of God’s power to transform, but also God’s willingness to intervene on behalf of those on society’s margins in transformative ways. That’s critical to understanding God’s work in our world. After all, the power to transform without a commensurate willingness to intervene would be what Brueggemann calls a kind of “haughty transcendence.” On the other hand, a willingness to intervene without an accompanying power to transform would be little more than a kind of sloppy sentimentality.
Yet while Hanna sings about this wonderful divine combination, she doesn’t actually sing this song to God. Her words are about, not to the Lord. While verse 1 calls our text her “prayer,” she seems to speak it to other worshipers and her fellow Israelites. In it she scolds people for their arrogance. After all, while they may talk both proudly and arrogantly, God alone, she insists, both completely knows people and evaluates their actions.
However, God also, Hanna adds, acts in ways that are consistent with that perfect insight. The Lord, notes Brueggemann, is neither deterred by human resistance nor overly impressed by human actions. In fact, the very laws of nature that God created don’t even necessarily deter God.
As Jennifer Green points out, we often think of the world as a closed, static place that relentlessly moves along on its own. Hanna, however, speaks of the world as the place where God is both willing and able to intervene in order to transform what God creates, including human lives. After all, if an infertile woman can have a child, who knows what else God can and will do?
In fact, verses 4-8a list some of those things God is willing and able to do. They relentlessly speak of God’s great “reversal” of human “fortunes.” Those verses use a lot of fairly familiar imagery to point forward to what, in fact, happens not only in the rest of Samuel’s books, but also in human history. God, after all, not only gives Israel a king; God also causes relatively tiny and powerless Israel to flourish in the world. Eventually, however, God again reverses relatively powerful Israel’s fortunes, largely shredding her and reducing her again to virtual powerlessness.
After all, God is not only incomparably holy and reliable; God is also incomparable in the attention God pays to people on society’s margins. So while the “reverser” of verses 4-6 remains anonymous, we infer that it’s the Lord who knocks down mighty soldiers while lifting up fallen ones. It’s the Lord who reduces the full to hiring themselves out for food while making hungry people full. It’s also the Lord who gives infertile people children while causing fertile parents to pine away. In fact, as Brueggemann points out, these verses speak of a complete reversal of fortune. It’s not that the both hungry and well-fed will be full and that the infertile will join parents in having children. It’s that the hungry and infertile will be full and “fertile,” while the sated and “fertile” will assume the bottom the needy once occupied.
Now if that’s not disconcerting, then perhaps nothing is. After all, many preachers and teachers of I Samuel 2:1-10 as well as our hearers are those who are well-fed and at the “top” of the chain. The idea of God somehow reducing us to hunger, poverty and other deprivations isn’t only disturbing; it may also be offensive. So those who preach and teach this passage to others who are also at “the top of the heap” must be prepared to deal not only with their own anxiety, but also that of worshipers.
Hanna explains why God causes these great reversals of fortune. She sings that God doesn’t just create everything that is created; God also cares for what God makes. God didn’t just set the earth “on its foundations.” God also sovereignly ensures that that those foundations, as Brueggemann notes, keep the creation from sinking into chaos. God does that, in part, sings Hanna, by providing for God’s children and silencing the wicked.
So people don’t flourish because we’re so strong or somehow “lucky.” We flourish only because God graciously causes us to flourish. God, after all shatters those who oppose the Lord. So those who somehow try to make it on their own struggle. God gives strength, not only to God’s adopted sons and daughters, but also to the king who is God’s anointed one. In other words, those who rely on the Lord finally receive the strength they need.
Eventually, of course, Mary sings a song that sounds a lot like Hanna’s. In Luke 1 that “infertile” woman magnifies the Lord because God has been as mindful of her “humble state” as God was of Hanna’s. God, after all, hasn’t just given Mary a child. God has also caused other great reversals of fortune.
The Revised Common Lectionary pairs I Samuel 2:1-10 with Mark 13:1-8. There the gospel writer describes the crises that are famines, earthquakes, wars and rumors of wars. It suggests no mighty buildings or institutions, not even lofty societal status, can protect people from such crises. All of them eventually come crashing down, experiencing their own reversals of fortune. Only by God’s grace can God’s people prevail in such crises.
Those who preach and teach I Samuel 2 will want to explore when and how God reverses such fortunes. We see it, of course, in Israel. How else do we see it in Jesus’ own ministry? How have we seen it in Christ’s Church? How do we see God reversing such fortunes even now? And how might God carry that reversal out most fully in the new creation?
The concept of reversal of fortune has proven to be a fertile one for movie producers and writers. Among many examples of that is the 1983 movie, Trading Places. In it the Duke brothers frame Dan Aykroyd’s wealthy character for robbery, drug dealing and adultery. They also bail Eddie Murphy’s poor street hustler character out of jail and install him in Aykroyd’s former job as the managing director of their commodities brokerage house. This results in a reversal of fortune between Murphy and Aykroyd’s characters.
Among the interesting results of this reversal is the way each character quickly adapts to his new position in the hierarchy. Aykroyd’s character quickly becomes a desperate person who does nearly anything to survive, while Murphy’s quickly adopts the smarmy characteristics of a well-healed snob.
This might provide those who preach and teach I Samuel 2 an opportunity to reflect on the way reversals of fortune may affect even those whom God raises to the “top” of the scale. This would also serve as a good reminder that God doesn’t raise those near the “bottom of the heap” because of their superior character, but because of God’s grace.
Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25
Author: Stan Mast
Comments and Observations
All right! Enough already! For what seems like the 10th time, the author of Hebrews comes back to his theme that Christ is better than the whole system of the Jewish faith (a theme that will seem politically incorrect to many a contemporary reader and listener). He covers the same ground again and again, and the reader (at least this one) begins to get a bit impatient. You made your point already. Why keep hammering on it?
Because our writer is alarmed, very alarmed.
As I’ve said repeatedly, his readers are considering a decision that will put them in eternal jeopardy. If they walk away from Jesus Christ and return to their old Jewish faith, they will lose everything they had in Christ (Heb. 10:26-31). Verse 31 says it all. “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” That is what will happen if they loosen their grip on Christ. So, our author appeals to them one last time with a very clear picture (verses 1-18) that puts the exclamation point on his argument. Then, he gives the great “so what” with a simple “therefore, since… let us….” (verses 19-25).
The picture he paints focuses on the two words, stands and sat. (verses 11 and 12) Those words are at the heart of the now familiar contrast between Judaism and Jesus: every priest/this priest, day by day/for all time; same sacrifices that can never take away sins/one sacrifice for sins. The new point is that all of those priests had to keep standing at their posts, performing the same work over and over. There was no chair in that old sanctuary, no place for those priests to sit down and rest from their work. There was a table and an altar and candlesticks and a basin, but no chair, because those priests were never done. Jesus sat down, because his work was done. And he sat, not in an ordinary chair in the sanctuary on earth, but on the throne at the right hand of God (Rev. 5:6), the place of highest honor and authority in the universe. The work of atonement is completed; there is nothing left for Jesus to do. “[B]y one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” (verse 14)
Those last words of verse 14 are significant. They suggest the “already, but not yet” of salvation. The work of atonement is finished; we are at one with God. Through Christ’s sacrifice we are completely right with God, “made perfect” as verse 14 puts it. But there’s still a lot of work to be done in the universe and in us. Jesus and his redeemed children still have enemies, the last of which is death. Those enemies have been defeated at Calvary in a spiritual version of D-Day, but Jesus and we still wait until their complete subjection at history’s V-Day, when they become his footstool (verse 13).
There is work to be done in us, as well. We have already been made holy (verse 10), but we are also being made holy (verse 14). We are positionally holy; in Christ we are perfect in God’s sight, complete saints. But we need to become personally holy; in our own lives we must grow in holiness, because we are still sinners. We have received holiness in Christ; we need to achieve holiness in our lives.
But there’s nothing we need to do to get right with God. After he made the once for all sacrifice of himself for our sins, Jesus sat down at the right hand of God. There is no need for any other sacrifices to be made. By his blood our sins have been forgiven. “And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin.” With those words, Hebrews concludes the case against Judaism. They are the final nail in the coffin of that whole sacrificial system given by God himself. All of those sacrifices pointed to the Christ who would offer himself. Now he has, and all of that system, meaningful and helpful as it was, is done. The death of Christ was the death of that sacrificial system; “there is no longer any sacrifice for sin.”
“Therefore….” Here comes the practical point our author has been aiming at all along. Now that you have understood the indicative of what Christ has done, here’s the imperative of what you have to do. You don’t have to atone for your sins; Christ has done that. All you need to do is accept his work by faith. An old definition of faith is helpful here. Faith is “the hand of a beggar reaching out to take the riches of a king.” Hebrews challenges its readers to maintain their grip on those riches, rather than letting them go and returning to that old system of sacrifice.
He breaks that challenge into five parts, five calls to action introduced by “let us” in the NIV. Here’s a helpful way to picture what verses 19-25 say. Think of those five calls to action as the five fingers of the hand of faith. All of them are necessary for a solid grip on the salvation achieved by Christ and received by faith.
But before he issues these calls to action, our writer once again summarizes the benefits of believing in Christ, in order to encourage them to act. You can and must do these 5 things because you have access to the Most Holy Place and because you have a great High Priest who has authority over the whole house of God.
No ordinary Jew would ever presume to enter the Most Holy Place in the temple. As we have seen repeatedly in Hebrews, only the High Priest could do that, and he could do it only once a year under strictly regulated conditions. No one is holy enough to waltz into the presence of The Holy One of Israel. But says verse 19, we have confidence (boldness, parresia) to enter the Most Holy Place. A new way has been made into the presence of God, not the way of animal sacrifice, but the way of Christ’s blood. In an obvious reference to the heavy curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place, the curtain that was torn from top to bottom at the climactic moment of Christ’s crucifixion, Hebrews says mysteriously that the body of Christ was the curtain through which we enter into the presence of God.
We don’t have to solve that mysterious word play to get the meaning. Every believer in Christ has direct access to the very presence of God; we don’t need some human priest, or some animal sacrifice, or some elaborate ritual. That’s because, we already have “a great high priest over the house of God.” We don’t need any other. Therefore, we can do the five things he calls us to do. And we must, or we’ll lose our grip on the salvation purchased at such cost.
The first command here was the hardest for an orthodox Jew, even as it is today for a traditional Catholic or a guilt ridden Evangelical or a secular agnostic. “[L]et us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.” If the scene at Sinai in Exodus 20 is any indication, the typical Jew was afraid to approach God directly. “When the people saw the thunder and the lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance….”
They were wise to do so, but here our writer says that a new day has come. Now, we can draw near to God with confidence because of Christ. But, adds our text, remember that God is God, not your ole buddy. We can draw near if we have a sincere heart, if we have full assurance of faith, if we’ve been sprinkled with the blood of Christ so that our conscience is clean, and if we’ve been washed with water (probably a reference to baptism).
As we preach this, we’ll need to be careful not to turn those four things into rigid conditions for approaching God. Will God refuse to hear us if, for example, we are having a crisis of faith and we’re not so sure at the moment? Or is it really true that God will receive only the baptized at the throne of grace? We have free access to God because of Christ, not because of our qualifications. But if we want to draw near to God in prayer, so that we experience and enjoy his nearness, we must do so in sincere faith relying completely on the cleansing of Christ symbolized in our baptism. Think of such prayer as the index finger on the hand of faith by which we maintain a firm grip on our salvation.
Second, “let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.” These Jewish Christians were thinking of going back, back in time to the old ways. No, says Hebrews, you have to look forward, forward to the final fulfillment of the promises of God. Yes, it’s been a while since Jesus was here and especially since he promised to come back. So, I know you wonder if he ever will, or if this delay means that the whole thing is just a dream, a myth, a lie. What you have to do now is hold unswervingly to the hope we profess. The One who promised to return is faithful. The One who was faithful in fulfilling all of those Old Testament ordinances will be faithful in fulfilling his final promise. If you give up that hope, your grip on salvation will weaken. Think of that as the middle finger on the hand of faith.
Third, “let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good works.” A key part of keeping the faith is to act on your faith. If faith and hope are the index finger and the middle finger of the hand of faith, then love is the ring finger. You can’t keep a firm grip unless your faith and hope go to work in love. So let’s think hard about how to spur one another on to love and good works. As a psychologist friend once said, “It is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.” To keep your grip, you have to do acts of love. As you live your Christian faith and hope, you won’t be looking back at the old ways of Judaism.
Fourth, “let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing….” Clearly, the writer is talking about “going to church,” going to the place where Christians meet in order to strengthen their faith, hope, and love. Indeed, the word “meeting together” comes from the root word synagogue. In order to maintain a strong grip, you absolutely need to keep meeting together, as the early church did in Acts 2. In Hebrews we are into the second generation of the church, and already people are forsaking that primitive practice.
Indeed, some were in the habit of “skipping church” already. Maybe they thought they already knew the gospel and thus possessed the salvation given in Christ. So they didn’t need the routine of gathering together. Or maybe they were busy with other things, or exhausted from a full week, or attracted by recreational activities, or intimidated by the pressure of non-church going friends and family. These folks were the vanguard of today’s millions who believe in Christ, but don’t go to church, thinking that it isn’t really necessary. But already back then, at the beginning of the Christian church, our writer knew that if they stopped gathering together, their faith, hope and love were in jeopardy. Think of this as the opposable thumb of the hand of faith. The fact is that we cannot maintain our faith, hope and love on our own. We need the support of the rest of the Body of Christ if we are going to keep our grip.
Finally, “let us encourage each other….” This is a sort of appendage to the previous word. Gathering together is helpful for faith if we encourage each other during that time together. Now, there’s a sense in which simply being together is an encouragement. After a week out in the world where it seems that very few follow Christ, it is heartening to gather with a bunch of folks who do follow him. But if we simply walk in and walk back out with no human contact, we miss much of the strengthening power of corporate worship. Interaction between Christians in the setting of worship is crucial in keeping our grip. Sharing our faith, expressing our hope, and showing our love as we gather together will encourage us to hang on.
All of these things are necessary for our perseverance, especially as the Day of Christ’s return draws nearer (verse 25). Our writer makes that point because that Day had delayed so long. The first generation of believers was dying off by now. They had heard the word about his return directly from Christ or the angels or the apostles. But he hadn’t come yet, and these second generation Christians were perhaps facing a crisis of faith over that delay. So Hebrews reminds them that there are signs that his coming is near. You should always do these 5 things, “and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
How did they see it? Perhaps in the recent trouble in Jerusalem that culminated in the destruction of the Temple. Perhaps in a subtle increase in the pressure of persecution. We see the approach of the Day in the “signs of the times” trumpeted in our newspapers. The point of our writer is that this is not the time to loosen your grip on salvation. You’ve held on this long. Don’t let it go now. This is an important word for our moment in history, when there are so many challenges to the Christian faith. Now, especially, is the prime time to wrap all five fingers of the hand of faith around what you have in Christ. As millions are drifting away from the church, hang on for dear life.
The horrifying videos of hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming out of the Middle East into Europe where they hope to find a new life reminded me of those millions of Jews who lost their lives in Europe during the Holocaust of WW II. Hitler named his effort to rid the world of the Jews “the Final Solution.” Thank God that it wasn’t. And thank God for his Final Solution to all the bloodshed of human history. Christ’s blood was shed to restore God’s Shalom. The fact that we don’t see that Shalom yet makes it hard to hang on to our faith. That’s why it is so important to keep preaching the same old thing the way Hebrews does. God’s Final Solution has already been accomplished and it is being accomplished, so hang on to Christ.