November 12, 2018
Author: Leonard Vander Zee
Digging into the Text:
We have just gone through a tumultuous election campaign in which one of the candidates banked on the theme of fear. He wanted us to see that our country is going to hell in a handbasket, and he was the one who will save us. Most of us have had enough of that. Now let’s think about something good, something wonderful.
That’s what the disciples are doing when they admire the large gleaming white stones of Herod’s temple. “Look Jesus, What a sight; what a wonder. Isn’t that impressive? And Jesus replies with his prophesy of doom. “You know what? In a little while, the whole thing will be a rubble, not one stone left on another.”
The disciples are sufficiently scared by all this; a little later they ask Jesus when this is supposed to happen. I suppose they are hoping to escape the mess. They want a little good news, some uplifting words. But Jesus doesn’t oblige. Instead, he tells them there is not escape.
“There will be any number of false messiahs who will try to lead them astray. They will say, ‘Trust in me. I will take care of you. I will make things better.” Don’t listen to them. Don’t believe them,” says Jesus. The fact is, things will probably get worse.
When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.
There has always been a brand of Christianity that makes it seem as though faith in God means he will smooth out all the wrinkles of our lives in the world. We are surprised and dismayed, and our faith gets shaken when things go from bad to worse, when bad things happen to good people.
You’ve probably seen those Allstate insurance ads where the bandaged, disheveled guy wreaks mayhem on unsuspecting people. Jesus tells us we can expect mayhem to visit us, it’s inevitable.
The biblical story is divided into two parts: this age and the age to come. In Jesus Christ, by his death, resurrection, and ascension the new age, the age to come has broken into human history. But for a time, a long time, it seems, these two ages overlap. While the age of decay and destruction stumbles along, the Kingdom of God is at work, often unseen and unheralded, beneath the surface of history.
There are wars and rumors of wars, disease, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and starvation. In the past century experienced a crescendo of violence, genocide, and tyranny. At the present time, it’s not unreasonable to predict an increase of unrest with stark signs of trouble to come. The technologies we all love because they promise to make our lives more “connected” can easily connect us with evils we want to avoid.
As I write this, I’m sitting in my lovely study on a sunny afternoon overlooking a ravine bursting with autumn color. I am thankful for it, but I cannot expect it to last. Winter is coming, and beyond that, the threat of global climate change makes me wonder what will happen to this delicate and intricate web of nature I love so much. I’m over 70 years old and in the autumn of life, which means I can expect that my life will grow more difficult, my powers will wane, and my body will succumb to disease and and finally to death.
Biblical theologians have been telling us for a long time that the gospel is deeply eschatological. It’s always straining forward as it moves its way through history. Congregations need to hear that, or else they are susceptible to the kinds of false messiahs Jesus warns about here. “Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.”
Those seductive voices can take many forms. One voice comes from within the church itself, the fairy tale of a prosperity gospel. Jesus did promise us a rose garden. If you just have enough faith God will heal your diseases, solve your problems, and prosper your bank account. The future is now!
Another voice comes from the career atheists who argue that the life in this world is meaningless. We are merely the product of random forces that have evolved from the primordial soup. Life has no purpose but whatever purpose we assign it. We are specks of dust in the vastness of space destined to live out our short momentary existence and then sink back into the soup. There are no values but those we invent, no purpose but what we dream, no God but what we make up.
That almost sound like Jesus’s message to his disciples in this text, but it’s not the whole message. There is one last phrase that changes everything. “This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” One of my daughters went through two miscarriages before she carried her first child full term. There were awful times of grief and loss, and even the full-term pregnancy was difficult. But that was all erased when she held that beautiful, healthy newborn in her arms.
Birthpangs. There’s a new world coming, and it’s already here! The Son of God has come into this world of death and sin and bore it on shoulders. Death has been defeated, the grave is robbed of its power. The powers of evil, mighty though they seem, a doomed to destruction. Sin is forgiven, nailed to a cross. A new community of love and peace is forming all over the world, and people filled with hope are humbly serving the world in the name of Jesus.
In the Orthodox tradition, the church buildings are typically built with a huge dome above. And in that dome there is typically an icon of Christ Pantocrator, ruler of all. Each week, as they come to worship, it is entering the kingdom, joining the worship of heaven where they sing to the Lamb that was slain: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”
Isn’t that what worship is all about? We gather each week to enter the kingdom, to live into the future. We sing our songs of praise, we lament our losses and pains, hearts stirred by the Word of God, anticipating the wedding feast of the Lamb at the Eucharistic table. Then we are ready to go back into this dying world, this age of decay, to live as God’s redeemed people who are pilgrims, sojourners, and servants in this world of pain, while we are marching to Zion.
Please Note: Advent and Christmas 2018 Resources are now available on CEP: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/advent-2018/
Preaching the Text:
1). At the end of her story “Revelation”, Flannery O’Connor offers a vision of the future of God’s kingdom. Mrs. Turpin, the main character, is an opinionated, petty aristocrat in a small southern town. She had everyone classified, from (in her words), “the “[blacks] and white trash” on the bottom, on up to the nice Christian ladies like herself on top.
But something shocking happens to her one day in a doctor’s office that turns her world upside down. I won’t tell you what it is; you’ll have to read the story. At the end of the story we find Mrs. Turpin, humbled and shaken, leaning on the rail of a hog pen, contemplating this new revelation of herself. She experiences a glimpse God’s coming kingdom.
There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dark…. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast hoard of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of [blacks] in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.
And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those, who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right….They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away….In a moment the vision faded, but she remained where she was, immobile.
At length she…made her slow way on the darkening path to the house. In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”
2). Children’s book author Katherine Patterson (“Bridge to Terebithia”) once said that all the great stories have a plot line that can be described in three words: Home, Adventure (always including pain and suffering), Home.
If you think about it, all the great epic stories fit that framework, from “The Lord of the Rings, to Star Wars, to Harry Potter. But it’s also the plot of the story of God, the Bible, from creation, through the pain of redemption to new creation.
3). A fine short and easy read for this week might be Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved). Bowler, a young theologian teaching at Duke Divinity School, who studied and wrote about the “health and wealth gospel” in America, was diagnosed with incurable cancer. This book puts those two realities side by side, and sheds another light on Jesus’s insistence that lots of bad seemingly meaningless things will continue to happen in our lives as “birthpangs” of the new creation.
1 Samuel 1:4-20
Author: Stan Mast
As we inch ever closer to Advent and another new church year, the Lectionary introduces us to yet another woman who loomed large in the history of redemption. In the contemporary climate of concern about women’s rights and the abuse of women, it is uncanny that the writers of the Lectionary should have long ago designed this year to end with a focus on Esther and Ruth and now Hannah. Furthermore, Hannah is not just a woman; she is a barren woman in the line of Sarah and Rachel and Elizabeth and, then, the ultimate woman who gave birth miraculously, the Virgin Mary. Each of those women gave birth to sons who would play world changing roles in the drama of salvation.
Hannah’s son, Samuel, was the key figure in a major transformation in Israel’s history, the move from the judges to the monarchy. Israel was faced with two crises that threatened its very existence. The more obvious was the threat from the outside posed by the Philistines. The more serious was the threat from the inside caused by the immoral behavior of the sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, who were in charge of worship at the house of God (verse 3). The military crisis caused the Israelites to demand a king who would lead them in battle. The spiritual crisis of corrupt leadership stood in the way of solving that military problem. Change was needed in Israel if it was to survive. To put it in ever starker terms, unless there were some major transformations, the Kingdom of God on earth would cease to exist and God’s great move to save the world would be stopped.
In our reading for today, “God begins Israel’s transformation in this time of crisis not with great men and events, but with the distress of a barren woman. Such a beginning reminds us of the unlikely paths God’s grace often takes, and it signals to us that the coming Kingdom itself is to be understood as the gift of divine grace.” (The New Interpreters’ Bible) But the beginning of this story doesn’t feel like grace. It feels like the exact opposite.
The grand story of God’ gracious transformation of Israel begins with a sad little family drama. The Lectionary skips over the first three verses, but they set the stage for everything that follows. Here we learn about the location, the family tree, the complicated marital situation, and, most important, the barrenness of Hannah. They were just a normal Jewish family (except maybe for the extra wife), living out their lives in a faithful covenant way.
Every year they went up to the sanctuary in Shiloh to offer their sacrifices to Yahweh. We’re not told if this journey was in fulfillment of God’s requirement that every Israelite annually attend the celebration of at least one of the three major festivals, or if this was just a private family service of thanksgiving for blessings given by God. Most scholars think this was the annual Feast of Tabernacles which occurred at the time of harvest, when Israel remembered their time of living in tents in the wilderness and also celebrated God’s provision in the harvest. It was a time of thanking God for his past deliverance and for the present fruitfulness of the land.
But it wasn’t that for Hannah. Not only did the celebration of harvest leave her feeling unfruitful, but also her rival wife made fun of her childlessness. As they sat at the post-sacrifice meal, the other woman received enough food for her and her multiple children, while Hannah sat alone. Her loving husband tried to make up for it by giving her a double portion of meat, but that only drew attention to her plight and egged on her bitter rival who couldn’t help but notice that Elkanah loved Hannah more.
Year after year this bitter tragedy kept replaying in Hannah’s life. Year after year she went up to church only to learn that church made it worse. Her rival piled on mercilessly. Hannah wept bitterly and went on a hunger strike. Her well-intentioned husband only made matters worse with his clueless questions. “Why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted?” And then the quintessential husbandly gaffe, “Don’t I mean more to you than 10 sons?”
Then, one year Hannah did something different. After the post-sacrifice communal meal, she stood up and entered the Temple (actually the Tabernacle), passing by Eli the priest as she walked in. Like Naomi in our last two readings, Hannah “in bitterness of soul, wept much and prayed to the Lord.” She knew that “the Lord closed her womb (verses 5 and 6),” so she prays that he will now at last open it. Like Naomi, she feels forgotten by God, ignored by God, even mistreated by God. So she prays, “O Lord Almighty (literally, Yahweh of Armies, implying great power to do the impossible), if you will only look upon your servant’s misery, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but give her a son….” This is a model of honest, heartfelt, direct, passionate, bold prayer.
And she adds a vow. If you give me a son, I will give him back to you; “then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life.” She ups the ante by binding this boy to a lifelong Nazirite vow that made his commitment to Yahweh even more unbreakable. This is the vow that would change Israel’s history and, indeed, the world’s condition. Samuel’s complete dedication to serving the Lord would enable him to stand up to Eli and his corrupt sons, select Saul as the first King of Israel, condemn and dethrone Saul for his sin, and champion David as Israel’s greatest king. Samuel spoke and acted for God as long as he lived, and Israel and the world were the better for it. The vow of a barren woman became the Word of the Lord for Israel.
For a woman who wanted a son as badly as Hannah, such a vow seems incredible and even cruel. Her desire for a son seemed to be the center of her life. Now here she swears that if God gives her the desire of her heart, she will give him back to God as soon as possible. What kind of mother is that?
She is more than a mother who understands the hackneyed saying that “all our children are simply on loan from God.” She is a woman whose life is really centered on God. She attributed her barrenness to God; she prayed to God; she made a vow to God; she is blessed in God’s name; and she gives her son to God. As her song in the next chapter of I Samuel makes powerfully clear, she believes in a sovereign God who controls everything. In words that foreshadow Mary’s Magnificat, Hannah sings of a God who “send poverty and wealth; he humbles and exalts.” Even in her most bitter moments, Hannah remembers that God is God and that God is Yahweh, the covenant One who is committed to bless his children. So, she willingly gives back to the God who has given his all to her.
Eli doesn’t have such a high opinion of her, at least initially. Her bitter tears and her mysteriously moving mouth convince Eli that Hannah is a sad drunk, probably from over imbibing at the communal meal after the sacrifice. He has seen it before. He rebukes her and urges her to kick the habit by getting rid of her wine. But when she protests that she was only praying, pouring out her soul to Yahweh, Eli does an immediate pastoral reversal. Instead of condemning her, he blesses her with a priestly benediction that reversed her mood and her life. Her tears dried, her face no longer wore the marks of misery, and her appetite returned. Clearly, she believed what the old priest had said.
She was right in her faith. Upon returning to Ramah (a town that will know its share of tears after the birth of the Messiah), Hannah welcomes Elkanah to her bed. In direct answer to her prayer, “The Lord remembered her… she conceived and gave birth to a son.” And in direct acknowledgement of God’s role in this birth, she names her son Samuel, which sounds like a Hebrew word that has to do with asking. “This is what I asked for. This is a result of Yahweh hearing my plea, because I asked Yahweh for him.”
Our text ends there, leaving out Hannah’s fulfillment of her vow, bringing a very young Samuel to serve in the Lord’s house, and singing her great song about God’s sovereignty. We are simply introduced to Samuel here, learning of the miraculous origin of this pivotal figure in Israel’s history. What are we to make of this reading? How shall we preach it?
Many preachers have made much of Hannah’s character, using this text to urge today’s women to be as honest, vulnerable, direct, and strong as Hannah. Her bitterness over her hard luck lot in life and her faith in the sovereignty of God present a great model for women struggling with their own issues in a godless world. Other preachers have focused on her passionate prayer in the temple. This is how we should pray when we are in distress—not politely with carefully chosen words, but from the heart with powerful emotions and ragged words. Still other preachers point to her vow and her willingness to dedicate her son to God from the very beginning. This is the kind of motherhood we need today—God centered women who raise their children for the Lord. What a different world it would be if there were more Hannah’s. Who knows how the world might change if we raised more Samuel’s.
While these homiletical approaches to this text are plausible and practical, I don’t think this story is in the Bible to teach those kind of lessons. This is not about moral lessons; it is about salvation history, about the way God used unlikely people and unhappy circumstances to work his sovereign will in saving the world. Even as the author of I and II Samuel was clearly teaching Israel about the mighty acts of God that changed the course of Israel’s history, so we should preach on this story as part of the Gospel. Hannah is a type of Mary, a channel of grace to the world, from whose womb would come a man who would change Israel, even as Jesus changed the world.
That emphasis on God’s world-changing grace in Jesus Christ can be applied to our own lives when we are barren and bitter. Out of Hannah’s misery came the mediator who would affect the greatest change in Israel’s history (after the Exodus and the return from Exile). Out of Mary’s misery came the Mediator who would save his people from their sins. In our misery, we trust God to remember us, answer our prayers, and send His Son to deliver us.
Please Note: Advent and Christmas 2018 Resources are now available on CEP: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/advent-2018/
In the late seventies, Lewis Smedes wrote a memoir of his life called, My God and I, which goes all the way back to his childhood in Michigan in the 1920’s and 1930’s. His family immigrated from the Netherlands and Smedes’ father died when he was very small, leaving his mother with four children. He was told that as the undertakers carried his father’s body out of the house, his mother moaned in her native Frisian, God is “zoo suur (so sour).” Subsequently, what a hymn calls “the sweet hour of prayer” was never sweet in their house. He found himself weeping whenever they met with God as a family for prayer. Meeting with God seemed to be a sadness for his mother, too, whether at home or in church prayer meetings. Though Smedes could not understand her native language, he could recognize her sobs and tears and heaving. (Quoted in Goldingay’s commentary on I and II Samuel.) For Hannah, too, the hour of prayer was initially sour, though eventually sweet.
In a comment that struck me as painfully relevant to the current political scene in the United States, one scholar pointed out that the twin crises in ancient Israel were intertwined. The moral corruption of Hophni and Phinehas and the military threat from the Philistines could not be fixed independently. In fact, this scholar pointed out that the crisis of leadership had to be corrected before Israel was ready to deal with the Philistines. As long as those immoral men were leading the country there could be no resolution of the international crisis. God got them out of the way, brought a better but still flawed Saul onto the scene, and finally, in David, crowned a leader who was a man after God’s own heart. Then the Philistine situation could be dealt with.
Author: Leonard Vander Zee
Commentaries. Sometimes they are a wonderful help to the preacher, sometimes they are a hindrance. I looked through a few commentaries on this Psalm, and came away somewhat more confused than when I started.
Commentaries often try to figure out the background of the Psalm in question. Who was the author? What was the occasion? What sort of liturgical background does it have? Is this pre-exilic or post-exilic? These are all good questions, and, perhaps, they are even important in their own way.
It’s just that sometimes they seem to miss the point. And I can’t see myself regaling the congregation with the various theories about its original setting, or testing their patience on whether, for example, the “holy ones” of verse 3 are actually holy, or are religious syncretists. I’ll have them either sleeping or rebelling before I’m half way through.
Why? Because that’s not the way we read Psalms, not even we preachers. We read them for their strong words of faith, their honest questions, their crushing laments. We take confidence in their depictions of God’s goodness, strength, compassion, and kingly rule. More than that, we read them as our own Psalm; the words become our words, not the words of some long ago figure at a far-off time and place.
I noticed that a number of commentaries either ignored or skimmed over the fact that both the apostles Peter (Acts 2: 34-38) and Paul (Acts 13: 35) directly linked the last verses of Psalm 16 to the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. In fact, the apostles combed the Psalms for every possible way in which they might refer to Jesus life and death. This might be an opportunity to do a little teaching on that remarkable way of reading the Psalms (or the whole Old Testament for that matter.
David is one of the key figures in the Old Testament. The story of David is the longest single narrative in the whole Bible, stretching all the way from I Samuel 16 when he is anointed by Samuel through his death in I Kings 2. Despite his obvious faults, he is the quintessential king. And right from the beginning, David and Jesus are closely linked in the gospels. He is the “Son of David,” the one promised in the God’s covenant with David that a descendant (son) would sit on his throne forever. (II Samuel 7: 12-17, Luke 1:32) So, David is deeply associated with the Psalms (he wrote at least some of them) and he is deeply associated with Christ as the “son of David.”
That remarkable relationship made the Psalms the most quoted book in the New Testament. It was the text for many of the apostle’s messages, as well as the main Old Testament reference in Paul’s epistles.
This may not fit the modern hermeneutical principles of many biblical scholars today, but there is an increasing realization that we need to make room in our hermeneutic for this way of recognizing Christ in the Psalms, and throughout the Old Testament for that matter). The Bible is a deeply mysterious book that does not yield easily to our principles and methodologies. We need to learn to read it more humbly on its own terms, and with a reverence for the Holy Spirit’s deep involvement.
The Psalm begins with a plea for protection, but as a whole it reads like what we today would call a testimony. The title from the Septuagint calls it a Miktam of David. We don’t really know what a Miktam is; the term is used here, and in Psalms 56-59, and they are all associated with David, often with some experience in his life. Some scholars (yes we need them!) find an association with the word and a carved stone stile made in commemoration. If that’s the case, this “stile” is a personal testimony of David carved in stone.
As mentioned above, verse 2 is often understood as a contrast to the opening testimony. The “holy ones” as translated by the NRSV, are then seen as other pagan gods who are worshipped by “syncretists” alongside the God of Israel. That, in turn, gives rise to verse 3, a warning against choosing other gods. From that point on, the Psalm resolves into a pure testimony to personal faith in God, now Jahweh instead of the El in verse 1.
In verses 5 and 6 the Psalmist then recalls the early days of Israel when God led them out of slavery in Egypt and into the promised land “flowing with milk and honey.” The Hebrew words translated “portion” and “boundary lines” are also used in Joshua for the dividing of the Land to the tribes and households of Israel.
The Psalmist now uses those words as part of a personal testimony of his relationship with God’s and God’s providential care.
The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
I have a goodly heritage.
These words are often read as one’s personal heritage, such as upbringing in the faith or in the church. But notice that the writer begins by saying “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot.” The focus is on the Lord rather than on the various aspects of the heritage. The “heritage” is not so much the particular circumstances or familial gifts of the testimony, but the Lord himself. In other words, even when things are not so “pleasant,” when the Lord is his chosen lot.
In verses 7 and 8 the Psalmist gives testimony to the central place the Lord has in his life.
I bless the Lord who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart instructs me.
I keep the Lord always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.
The Lord gives counsel, the one who dwells not only in heaven, but in the human heart, gives instruction. I am struck by the very intimate and personal aspects of this relationship. In many Psalms, like Psalm 119, the counsel comes through the Law of the Lord. While not denying that, here the Psalmist seems to highlight the more personal and immediate aspects of the Lord’s counsel and guidance.
I wonder to what extent we are willing to leave room for this kind of immediate and personal guidance from the Lord. It can seem dangerous to rely on it exclusively, but to deny it altogether pushes the Lord, the Spirit, out of personal experience.
Finally, those famous words that are taken up into the apostolic testimony to Jesus.
Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices;
my body also rests secure.
For you do not give me up to Sheol,
or let your faithful one see the Pit.
You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
It is one thing for us to have glad hearts and rejoicing in our souls, but the Psalmist goes farther — “My body also rests secure.” This reminds us that the Bible is anchored not in heavenly or spiritual truth, but in creation. Our relationship with God is not only spiritual, but also physical, not only with our souls, but with our bodies. God’s salvation is aimed at the whole creation.
We may sometimes talk in terms of the body/soul dichotomy, but ultimately the Bible insists on the bodily reality of human life. We are not complete human beings apart from our bodily existence. As the Creed proclaims: “I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”
The most terrible aspect of death for the Psalmists is separation from God. Psalm 115:3 acknowledges that it is not the dead who praise the Lord, death silences them. Therefore the ultimate hope for the Psalmist is that God will not give him up to Sheol, the place of the silent dead. The Psalmist cannot imagine that his deep bond with the Lord can be broken, even by death.
However tenuous this faith may have been for the Psalmist, it becomes the cornerstone of God’s saving power in Jesus Christ. In Acts 2, Peter’s great Pentecost sermon reaches its climax with a meditation on Psalm 16.
Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying,
‘He was not abandoned to Hades,
nor did his flesh experience corruption.’
This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.
The “professional atheists” like Harris and Hitchens like to tell us that we have evolved out of a primordial soup by a meaningless and purposeless material process, and we will sink back into it when we die. Yet, the hope for life beyond the grave is graven into human consciousness as far back as we can go. It was always woven into human religious sensibility.
The bottom line message of the Bible is that God will not abandon us to death. David’s son and God’s Son, our human brother, has conquered the grave, torn open the bars of Sheol, and overcome the advancing weakness and corruption that plagues our existence.
The Psalmist (David?) sings in hope:
You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
David’s son declares:
“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. (John 11: 25-26)
Please Note: Advent and Christmas 2018 Resources are now available on CEP: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/advent-2018/
Preaching the Text:
A couple of quotes from C. S. Lewis’ Miracles,
The New Testament writers speak as if Christ’s achievement in rising from the dead was the first event of its kind in the whole history of the universe. He is the ‘first fruits,’ the pioneer of life,’ He has forced open a door that has been locked since the death of the first man. He has met, fought, and beaten the King of Death. Everything is different because He has done so.
To preach Christianity meant (to the Apostles) primarily to preach the Resurrection. … The Resurrection is the central theme in every Christian sermon reported in the Acts. The Resurrection, and its consequences, were the ‘gospel’ or good news which the Christians brought. (Miracles, ch. 16)
Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25
Author: Doug Bratt
Hebrews 10 may please both those who proclaim and those hear the Lectionary texts from Hebrews who feel like saying, “Enough of all that talk about Jesus and blood already. Just tell us what to do.” After all, after almost endlessly teaching us about Jesus and his work, this week’s text finally teaches us what it means to follow Jesus.
Not, however, before returning for what may seem like the 100th time to Hebrews’ theme of Jesus’ superiority to Jewish religious practices. So why does the Preacher go back over the same ground yet again? Perhaps partly because his readers are considering risking their well-being by giving up what God has given them in Christ. They’re thinking about walking away from Jesus and back to their old faith.
To remind his readers of to what they’d be returning, the Preacher notes that Jewish priests had to keep doing the same sacrificial work over and over again. There wasn’t even any place in the old sanctuary for them to sit down and rest from their work because their work was never done.
Yet that’s a problem with religion. You’re never done because you can never do enough. In that sense, Christianity is not a religion. After all, it’s not a way for God’s adopted children to establish a right relationship with God. Of course, God’s people sometimes treat Christianity as a way to make God happy. We sometimes assume you have to think do or say just the right things to connect to God.
As a result, as Will Willimon notes, religion, including a form of Christianity, can be a one-way ticket to fatigue. After all, just when God’s children think we’ve got it figured out, someone comes along and says, “What about this?” Or, “Have you considered that?” Or at about the point the church has worn us out, it comes along and asks, “Will you teach this?” Or “Organize that?” And there we go, off chasing our religious tails again, trying to get right with God.
The Bible calls Jesus’ followers to receive God’s grace with faith in Jesus Christ. The Bible also calls Jesus’ followers to respond to that grace by doing things like praying, loving our enemies and caring for the poor. Yet none of those acts establish a relationship to God. After all, in Jesus Christ, God has already established a loving relationship with God’s people.
So God’s adopted sons and daughters don’t have to stand or run to do anything to connect to God. Since when Jesus “had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God,” so can you and I. We can get off the religious treadmill of trying to chase the right beliefs, words and actions.
In verse 19 the Preacher says since God has already graciously connected himself to us, we dare do what no faithful Jew would ever dare to. We can enter “the Most Holy Place” that is the symbol of God’s presence among God’s people. In the older Testament’s time, only the High Priest dared to do that, and he dared do it only once a year.
Now, however, says Hebrews’ Preacher, God’s sons and daughters don’t have to be afraid of God. Of course, because God is so holy and majestic, we don’t approach the Lord casually or carelessly. Yet because of Christ’s finished work, we can let God draw us near to himself.
It can be easy to forget what an amazing claim the Preacher makes here. He’s insisting God’s people don’t have to avoid the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of everything that is created. Because of Christ’s finished work, we can draw close to God the way children approach their loving parent.
Hebrews’ Preacher offers several ways God draws God’s adopted sons and daughters close to himself. Of course, if Jesus’ followers don’t look closely enough at why we do them, they may seem like just more steps on the religious treadmill.
On top of that, some non-Christians often do some of the same things to which God summons God’s people. That’s the second reason why Hebrews’ author returns again in our chapter to Jesus’ identity and work. Hebrews’ Preacher wants to remind Christians that our doing of those things are responses to God’s connecting us to himself in Jesus Christ.
The Preacher says God invites God’s adopted sons and daughters to draw near to God as those who know God has baptized and forgiven them. Of course, baptism is only a visible sign that God has graciously forgiven you and me so that for Jesus’ sake we’re acceptable to God.
On top of that, God invites Jesus’ followers to draw near to God clinging to God’s promises. Of course, Jesus has already waited more than 2,000 years to keep his promise to return. What verse 25 calls “the Day,” Christ’s second coming, still hasn’t happened.
Yet since Jesus is faithful, his adopted brothers and sisters can trust his promises to usher in a day when justice will flow down like a roaring waterfall. When death and pain will die. When no politicians or voters will scream at or even lecture each other. When everyone will have a place to live and enough food to eat. God’s people don’t know when God will finally keep all of those promises. But we cling tenaciously to our hope for what the Apostles’ Creed calls “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”
God invites God’s adopted children to draw near to God with what verse 24 calls “love and good deeds.” Those who proclaim and hear Hebrews 10 may be surprised to think of that not as, first of all, a way to get close to each other, but as a way to get close to God. Yet the Preacher insists that when we do things like love our enemies and care for creation, God somehow draws us closer to himself.
Yet we naturally prefer to let someone else do that sometimes-hard work. So Hebrews’ Preacher challenges us to strongly encourage each other to do things like mentor vulnerable children, share the gospel, feed the hungry, and pray for our leaders.
Finally, however, God invites God’s children to draw near to God by what verse 25 calls “meeting together.” While we usually think of that as meaning we should go to church, the Preacher doesn’t actually say that. He simply calls Christians to meet together. So he may have in mind Christians meeting together not just for worship, but also for fellowship, food, study and even service.
After all, God has graciously adopted us into God’s family. God has transformed you and me from God’s enemies into God’s children, and from strangers into siblings. So when Christians meet together, we come to a kind of family reunion.
Yet Hebrews’ Preacher insists meeting together is more than that. When we meet together, as Tom Long notes in his commentary on Hebrews* to which I owe many ideas for this Starter, whether it’s a high mass or a prayer service, whether in a cathedral or house, with hundreds of other Christians or just two, God draws us close to himself.
Yet even preachers understand why some people give up that habit. We get that worshipping by ourselves on a mountain trail can seem far purer than meeting with the motley bunch that shows up in church on Sunday. On top of that, as a colleague notes, “we just get tired in worship and … of worship.”
What’s more, as Long points out, there may be more drama on TV, nicer people at Starbucks and a better view at the beach than in church. And no one in those places will try to twist our arms into giving money, serving on committees or teaching Sunday School.
Yet we profess that when God’s adopted sons and daughters let God draw us near to himself by meeting together, remarkable things happen. We do what we will, by God’s grace, do for all eternity. We practice for that day “When every knee should bow in heaven and on earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.”
Yet when we meet together, especially for worship, God also catches us up in a mysterious heavenly drama. As God draws us near to himself, we’re somehow caught up into the great choir of angels and saints who are also worshiping God. Of course, sometimes you have to squint pretty hard to see that.
*Long, Thomas G. Hebrews. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1997.
I once heard about a story that Fred Craddock told about an older man named Will. I no longer remember how I heard the story or in what context Craddock told it. But I recount it here because it speaks so well to the eschatological nature of the worship to which Hebrews 10 summons God’s people.
Craddock told of how when he was a boy, his parents would make his siblings and him dress up every Saturday night. Neighbors would then sit in Craddock’s living room to read the Bible and sing songs like “Bringing in the Sheaves” from old hymnals.
When Craddock asked his mother why they had to do this, she said, “We don’t live close enough to a church actually to attend. But some day we might live close enough to a real church and so for now we’re practicing.”
One neighbor who came every week was a man named Will. Craddock once asked him, “Have you ever been in a real church?” “Hundreds,” was Will’s reply. “What’s it like?” “Well, I’ll tell you,” Will answered. “First off, don’t go by appearances. ‘Cuz sometimes you’ll see some little old white clapboard church up on cinderblocks out in the middle of nowhere and maybe the shutters are sagging a bit and all. But don’t go by that. Because sometimes God disguises his goodness — he hides his best stuff in little old no-account places like that. But you just go inside one of those and you’ll see.”
“See what?” Fred pressed him. “Well, when you look up at the ceiling, you’ll see it’s a deep, deep blue. And the stars shine and the angels sing and . . . well, you’ll just have to see for yourself some day, young man!”
Fred and his family attended Will’s funeral in one of those little churches God had cleverly “disguised.” But when Fred got inside, he was disappointed. It was nothing like what Will had promised. The paint was peeling. No stars shone. No angels on display.
But then, remembers Craddock, the worship service started. The choir began singing and swaying. The congregation joined in and all of a sudden, somewhere in the middle of all that singing and swaying, Fred looked up. “And the ceiling was blue. And the stars were shining. And ministries of angels sang Will to his rest.”