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There is much we don’t know about Hebrews. Who wrote it? When was it written? To whom was it written? Where did they live? The “To the Hebrews” part was added by the early church who were as much in the dark as we are. It might have been written largely for a congregation of Jewish Christ followers, though it might also be argued that early Christians generally had knowledge of (or were expected to have knowledge of) the Old Testament and Hebrew practices. It was traditionally ascribed to Paul but style-wise and biography-wise the book would seem to point to someone else. Barnabas and Priscilla have been suggested. Apollos has been suggested. The North African who was eloquent and well versed in the scriptures and spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus. We know that the author knew the congregation – wherever they were (Rome? Ephesus? Colossae?) – loved them and hoped to see them again. He or she loved them. He or she cared about them.
The preacher cared enough to want to preach to them. Because this is what the Letter to the Hebrews is. It’s not a letter per se. There’s no “From” or “To” at the beginning, though there is sign off at the end. It’s a sermon about holding fast to the faith which is theirs. Incredibly this sermon reflects a belief that sermons matter! It reflects a belief that for someone to come before the people of God with a message from God matters. There are some who might say otherwise. There are some who might say to sermonize is passe. That our attentions spans aren’t long enough anymore. That people don’t like to be preached at. This might have come about because of a lot of bad preaching! The writer to the Hebrews wishes to exhort. The writer believes that a sermon should be exhortatory - should encourage, should persuade, should console. I believe those things too. There are some who call what I’m doing right here the teaching moment, as if the sermon served a purely pedagogical purpose. Of course we learn things from writing and delivering and hearing sermons. Of course there is a teaching element. If we leave it there though I think we do preaching a disservice. One of the things I learned was that the Greek word for exhortation is paraklesis which means supplication, entreaty, encouragement, consolation, persuasive discourse. It also means a calling near, a summons, especially for help. As we begin our look at Hebrews friends, let us call God near…
Hebrews has long been thought of as kind of an odd book. It contains many well known and loved and memorized verses. Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need. Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. At the same time it’s filled with seemingly arcane details about priests and sanctuaries and sacrifices and references to people with names like Melchizedek. What are we to make of all this? Why are we spending the next 10 weeks looking at this book?
I believe that if we plumb the depths of this sermon, we will receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need. I’ve been increasingly interested in the rhythm of the traditional church year. The 50 day period between Easter and Pentecost is known as Eastertide. It’s a time to reflect on what the death and resurrection and ascension of Christ means. I think Hebrews is well suited to guide us as we seek to do this. It’s not a summons to faith per se, though the invitation to faith is there and is hopefully in all that we, as followers of Christ, say and do. It’s a summons to hold fast to the faith that is ours. It’s a summons to determine what a good and proper and fitting response is in light of who Christ is, what Christ has done, and what Christ will do. We don’t know to whom it was written or where they lived, but we know that it was a community of Christ followers who had been following Christ for a while. They’d undergone some hardship because of it. They were tired. “Tired” is the new “fine”. Or maybe it’s “busy”. In his book on Hebrews, Tom Long puts it like this: “His congregation is exhausted. They are tired – tired of serving the world, tired of worship, tired of Christian education, tired of being peculiar and whispered about in society, tired of the spiritual struggle, tired of trying to keep their prayer life going, tired even of Jesus. Their hands droop and their knees are weak (12:12), attendance is down at church (10:25) and they are losing confidence. The threat to this congregation is not that they are charging off in the wrong direction; they do not have the energy to charge off anywhere. The threat here is that, worn down and worn out, they will drop their end of the rope and drift away. Tired of walking the walk, many of them are considering taking a walk, leaving the community and falling away from the faith.”
In the face of this, what is the answer? The answer is Christ. We joke that we teach our kids that the answer to most any question asked in Sunday School or during our children’s time in church is Jesus. Jesus is the answer. “We all know that,” you say, and I ask, “Do we really?” Are our lives reflecting this seemingly easy answer? I say we because I’m right here with you. We’re talking about preaching and every preacher needs to put him or herself right with the people they’re preaching to. This is part of the reason I like to sit down here during our service, before the sermon, after the sermon if I can. Don’t ever think that I’m not asking these questions of myself friends. Do we really know that Jesus is the answer? As followers of Christ shouldn’t our whole lives be about coming to know the answer until that day when we see him face to face and we know even as we are known? Do not miss the one thing needful. We read in Luke 10 about a woman named Martha who lived in a certain village. She welcomed Jesus into her home. She was distracted by her many tasks. She became annoyed. Tasks can annoy us. People can annoy us, interrupting us, keeping us from the important stuff we have to do. “Do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” “Martha, Martha,” comes the reply, “You are worried and distracted by many things.” Can we identify? There is need of only one thing. One thing is needful. What was Mary doing? She was sitting at Jesus’ feet. She was listening.
Listen. Listen. If you want to be told what to do, listen to that command. How’s our listening going? It’s good. What’s God saying to you? It’s so so. It’s terrible. If you ever want to talk about how your listening is going I’d love to do that. You’re here because you have some level of interest in being a follower of Christ. Do we want to be Shema people? The Shema is the centrepiece of morning and evening Jewish prayer services. It starts like this – “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” You know the Bible and you know that Jesus repeated this as the greatest commandment and added “and your neighbour as yourself.” What we don’t talk about as much as how the Shema begins – Hear. Hear, O Israel. The word Shema means “hear”.
As President Obama so famously put it, words matter. The words that we choose and use matter. Words matter and when God speaks a word things happen. Genesis 1:3 speaks of God speaking and God has been speaking ever since. God speaking is the thing that matters and this is where the preacher to the Hebrews begins. He takes the situation that this congregation finds itself in and connects it back. “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways, by the prophets…” He connects them back to God speaking to Abraham, to Moses, to Samuel, to Isaiah, Amos, Joel… He calls them “our ancestors” because the preacher is in this too. Human history is a history of God making himself known. God revealing himself. The story that we find ourselves in is not one of humanity seeking God, wherever we are told to do that – in or outside of ourselves. The story that we find ourselves in is not one of us seeking enlightenment and let me tell you how you can go about that. The story that we find ourselves in is one of God speaking and this speech making a difference, having an effect. The sermon itself is an acknowledgement that words about God have an effect on us. This is why we gather together to hear God’s word. It forms us. From the beginning of this book we get the idea that this is a speech – a piece of oratory. “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways.” It’s like “Four score and seven years ago.” “I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.” “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will say, “This was their finest hour.” These words are not just to impart information. They’re to encourage, exhort, inspire, transform. God’s word has been spoken in many and various ways. As one writer puts it, “Amos is a cry for social justice. Isaiah had grasped the holiness of God. Hosea… had realized the wonder of the forgiving love of God”. God had spoken through people, through burning bushes, out of the whirlwind. Out of the silence.
Because sometimes it is out of the silence that God speaks. When God spoke to Samuel the word of the Lord was rare in those days. “The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.” (Amos 8:11) There’s a W.H. Auden poem called “Victor” in which the title character’s wife cheats on him. He walks out into the High Street, past a garbage dump on the edge of town. “Victor looked up at the sunset/As he stood there all alone;/ Cried: “Are you in Heaven, Father?”/ But the sky said, “Address not known.” Sometimes it seems like God is silent.
God speaks in the silence though. “But” – the preacher goes on. Everything always hinges on the “but”. The turning point of human history is in this Word. “In these last days, he has spoken to us by a Son…” The Living Word. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The living Word of God. The answer is Jesus. I want us to think about this as we take time this Eastertide to dwell on what it means that Jesus Christ was born and died and rose again and ascended into to heaven from whence he will come again. What it might mean for us to come to believe this, or to continue to believe this. “In these last days” has a double meaning. It means the age we’re in. The period in which we await Christ’s return. I think it also has an “at last” kind of meaning. Who doesn’t love “At Last”? My love has come along. My lonely days are over. The Messiah has come along. The one who is not only the heir of all things but he was also involved in the creation of all things. The first and the last. It seems that he said something like that about himself at one point! The Alpha and Omega. The reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being. The very nature of God walking around in the 1st century. The very one who sustains all things. The one in whom all things hold together. The one who’s reconciling work on the cross has meant what the preacher calls “purification of sins.” New life. Restoration. The restoration of all things – not only us but of all creation. The one who is sitting at the right hand of his Father on high right now making intercession for us. Pleading for us. Praying for us. The one who sent his Spirit to dwell in us and be a well of water in us gushing up to life eternal – and what is eternal life but what Jesus called it when he prayed to his Father – “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” We use images of Father, and Son and Holy Spirit not because an old man with a beard (or Morgan Freeman), a younger guy and a dove hovering around them, but because there is a depth of mystery to God beyond our understanding. I’m talking about the words we use and sometimes words fail. One writer describes the mystery of Christ like this: “...with him, and alone with him and those who still learn and live from and by him, there is the union of the clearest, keenest sense of all the mysterious depth and breadth and length and height of human sadness, suffering, and sin, and, in spite of this and through this and at the end of this, a note of conquest and triumphant joy.”
It’s thought that vv2b-4 made up an early Christian hymn, just like John 1:1-4. This seems fitting. I like to say that often it seems that truths like this are best expressed in art – in song, in painting, in poetry.
The opening ends with the reminder that Christ has ascended and has become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. There might have been some sort of strange angel theology going on wherever these people lived. The preacher expands on this over the next 10 verses. He never comes back to it though. It’s been said that perhaps the problem is not that this congregation thinks too much of angels but that they think too little of Christ. Christ is the answer. He’s the beginning and the end. Following him is a lifelong process of coming to learn what this means. Of pressing on in faith because Christ has taken hold of us. Of coming to know what it means to be his students, his pupils, his followers. We need to be listening for his voice in order to do this. Paul wrote famously that we walk by faith and not by sight. If we walked by sight alone it would be hard to believe that Christ is reigning. If we looked around at the world or looked at the depths of our own hearts by sight alone it’s not always pretty. The preacher to the Hebrews is reminding us that there is something beyond what we see. We need to listen. We need to hear the words over and over again. We used to sing a hymn that went “Sing them over again to me/Wonderful words of life/Let me more of their beauty see/Wonderful words of life.” Wonderful words about the wonderful Word will transform us friends. I believe that. May God transform us as we look throughout these weeks at these wonderful words of life about the one we call the most precious Word of life.