Monday, August 12, 2019

Thank God For Hebrews 11

Last week, I went to the beach with our family. This week, as I begin to think about a sermon for Sunday, I feel a strong desire to go back to the beach and hide for another week. Have you seen these lessons? "And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard...I will make it a waste." "They burn it with fire like rubbish." "I came to bring fire to earth, and how I wish it were already kindled." One of the challenges of mid-summer preaching is monotony. Sometimes it feels like Jesus has said the same thing for four weeks in a row. This week, though, we have another mid-summer challenge--the apocalyptic Jesus and his angry words. Although I still have some time to find hope in the midst of these challenging readings, at this point, I'm mostly thankful for Hebrews 11.

I'm not sure that a sermon (or blog post) on this passage is helpful. Maybe it's better to just read the words a second time. Picking up where we left off in church yesterday with Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Jacob, who "desire[d] a better country, that is, a heavenly one," we read of saints who fought battles, ruled peoples, stood up to tyrants, and displayed God's might. The list of their accomplishments is overwhelming. As we read this passage, it is actually hard to stay focused on the words and not let your mind swirl around in image and recollection. "Yet," as the author says, "all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect."

That's a bold and potentially problematic theological statement--that all of those saints of God who came before did not receive the ultimate prize because the ultimate prize is something in which we all must share. That is how the Christian author interprets the accomplishments in faith of our spiritual ancestors. Keep in mind that the word "perfect" means "finished" or "complete." God's work can't be finished in their day, in other words, because that work still needs to come to us. The author does not mean that in a halfhearted, our-faith-is-better-than-yours way but in a Christocentric expression of genuine admiration.

Their faithfulness, which the author celebrates, is exemplified in their willingness to commit to God and God's work while still knowing that that work would not reach its fulfillment in their lifetime. "Therefore," the author continues, "since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us." We see the work of God reach its fullest expression in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of God's Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus is the "pioneer and perfecter of our faith." We focus on him as we pursue our own faithfulness.

There is such hope and encouragement in these words--not only because of their positive tone but also because of the way in which the author incorporates faithfulness from the Jewish tradition into a Christian story. Yes, there is a supersessionist bent, but it's hard to be a Christian without either ignoring Jesus' Jewish identity or ignoring the uniqueness of the Christian faith. Still, in an important way, this passage is not critical of the Hebrew saints as being mere shadows of the fuller faithfulness to come. It seeks to celebrate their faithfulness fully in their own day and marvels at how those who put their confidence in God did so without ever seeing God's promises fully completed. On a Sunday in which there's not a lot of hope to be found in the lessons, I'm thankful for the hope that Hebrews gives us. I don't know whether that will come out as a sermon, but at least I know there's more to this coming Sunday than judgment.

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