Like His Brothers and Sisters
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Last week we talked about how the preacher to the Hebrews starts where we always must start. With Christ. We talked about the congregation he was preaching to. How they were tired. How they were in danger of drifting away from the faith. How it was ceasing to make a difference in their lives. We talked about how Christ is described by the preacher as the beginning and the end, the creator of the worlds and the heir of all things. The imprint of God’s very being. The sustainer of all things. We talked about how the words that we speak and hear make a difference. The divinity of Christ was stressed – Christ sitting down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. The preacher has taken us to soaring heights. It’s like listening to a hymn on a pipe organ, chords ringing out, massed choirs singing.
This morning he takes us to the depths. To Christ’s humanity. To Christ’s suffering. To Christ’s dying. Let us examine this passage together this morning friends and see what God has to say to our hearts. Let us pray.
Straight Belief Straight Action
Therefore, we must pay greater attention to what we have heard. Verses 1 to 4 in our text make up a kind of aside. A kind of parenthetic “this is what this all means in our lives.” This is the question that we constantly want to ask right? What does all this stuff mean in our lives? What do these beliefs mean? How do they work themselves out? These are questions that we should be posing to ourselves and to one another all the time. The term we use for belief is “orthodoxy”. The one for what we do or what beliefs look like is “orthopraxy”. Literally “straight belief” and “straight practice”. Both orthodoxy and orthopraxy are important. Sometimes we separate them or we put more emphasis on one over the other. “It’s all about what you believe.” Or “It’s most important what you do.”
There’s not supposed to be a dichotomy between the two. I often say there is an element of mystery to our faith. There are things that need to be held in tension. We should never try to create dichotomies though. We should never hold up things as being in opposition to each other where they’re not meant to be. There is no dichotomy between belief and practice – between faith and works. They should both be operative in our lives. I wouldn’t even say they’re two things that have to be held in balance. They inform each other. Our beliefs inform what we do. What we do informs our beliefs, our theology – what we think about God. If you’ve been on a mission trip, for example, you may know how that affected your beliefs or what you knew about God. I talk about going to Bolivia and seeing the unity that we had with Bolivian Christians. This bond in the Holy Spirit that transcended language and culture. This unseen thing that we shared that was visible in our interactions. Beliefs and practices working in concert with one another. I’ve talked in the past about wanting to know more about what it means to see Christ in the faces of downcast, the outcast, those who are suffering. I’m not sure that I always do but believing Christ’s words in Matthew 25 makes me want to keep looking.
Our beliefs and our actions, working in concert with one another. In v 1 we have this call to action – “Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.” Now maybe it’s just me, but if you said to me “Now make sure you pay attention” or “Pay attention to me” it’s pretty much a good guarantee that I won’t pay attention. Maybe that’s just my contrary nature, and if that doesn’t resonate stick with the translation that we have in our NRSV Bibles and pay attention. There is an image here though that we miss in this translation, though it’s picked up in the second half of the verse. The Greek word that’s been translated “greater” means “more than is necessary” or “exceeding abundantly.” The word that has been translated as “pay attention” is a word that can mean “turn the mind to” – so “pay attention is good. It was also used to describe a ship coming into port. In other words make sure that we’re bringing the ship into port with exceedingly abundant care. I like this nautical image a lot. It still works 2000 years later. I saw a show recently about a guy who spent some time on a tug boat at the Port of New York and New Jersey. He said at the end that in this age of technology we live in, massive quantities of good are still shipped the way they were 2,000 years ago. Over 3 million shipping containers a year at this one port. Bring the ship safely into port. Be very careful about this. Watch that we don’t drift away from it. One of my favourite songs right now is called “Ship to Wreck” and asks “Did I build this ship to wreck?” talking about a relationship. It goes “And good God, under starry skies we are lost/And into the breach we got tossed/
And the water's coming in fast”. We’re the ships and we weren’t built by God to wreck. Be careful about bringing the ship into port successfully in case we drift.
Let me just say something about drifting. This whole time in Hebrews we’re talking about pressing on. We’re talking about listening. We’re talking about remaining faithful to the one who is faithful. When we’re talking about bringing the ship into port or being moored or anchored to Christ, we must always keep in mind that we are able to cling to Christ because he is clinging onto us. In Philippians 3:12 Paul writes “I press on to make it my own (the goal – the port in our image), because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” The Psalmist does the same thing when he sings “for you have been my help/In the shadow of your wings I sing for joy./ My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.” Upheld by thy righteous omnipotent hand. Hear this friends. This is what’s going on. God is holding onto us. We believe that and that means we can sing for joy in the shadow of God’s wings no matter what.
There are things for us to do. Of course there are. The preacher to the Hebrews will preach about them and we’ll talk about them over the coming weeks – encourage one another, don’t harden your hearts, provoke one another to love and good deeds, don’t neglect to meet together, encourage one another. There are things for us to do. When we talk about these things it must be in light of who God is and what God has done in the person of Christ and what God does in the person of God’s spirit who is with us today.
We must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it. We must pay attention to our ship so that we don’t drift away. I would posit that the danger for us is not that we wake up one day and decide that this whole Jesus thing or God thing or Holy Spirit thing (if we’re being Trinitarian about our drifting!) is no longer for you. Like most relationships that end it’s a gradual drifting away. A gradual stopping of the things that once kept you close. The danger has always been there but perhaps the currents are stronger today. There are a lot of voices that compete for our attention. There is a lot of information available to us. I think a great challenge for us today, particularly our young people, is how to sort through this information when the collected written works of the world are pretty much being carried in your pocket or bag. Like anything this can be a very good thing or a very bad thing. The danger is the drifting. The thing to be paid attention to is bringing the ship into port. Not wrecking.
Because if people wrecked when they didn’t listen to the law that was given on Mount Sinai, how much more so will they wreck if they neglect so great a salvation?
What is this salvation? It’s God’s great restoring reconciling redeeming plan. If you’re following Christ you’re caught up in it. It was declared at first through the Lord. We love the way he did in it Luke 4 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has annointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sigh to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” It was attested by those who heard him and God added his testimony by signs and wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, distributed according to his will. This is an unbroken chain that reaches all the way to us. Who attested these things to you? David C. Read of Madison Avenue Presbyterian in NYC put it like this – “One of the reasons I believe in the Resurrection is that my mother told me. And to this day a strong element in my belief is the number and quality of the people who told me.” To whom are you being called and enabled to attest these things? What signs and wonders has God worked in your life? How has God changed you in ways you know could not have come from within yourself?
The preacher next employs a trick beloved by preachers everywhere. It does away with the need for a footnote. I do it all the time. As someone once said. As someone once wrote. He turns his attention to Christ and says “But someone has testified somewhere ‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals that you care for them? You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honour, subjecting all things under their feet.” This is a reference to Psalm 8 which is about humanity. God made humanity a little lower than angels and subjected all things under their feet, but as it is (v 8) we do not see everything in subjection to them. Things went wrong. Things went terribly terribly wrong. Sin and death entered the world and sin and death stalk our world. I don’t have to draw a picture of this, I know.
The NRSV changes the word for gender inclusivity’s sake but the Hebrew asks “What is man that you are mindful of him? You have made him for a little while lower than the angels.” The preacher is turning the Psalm into one about Jesus Then the preacher names the one that we’re clinging to for the first time in our passage. But (v9). The turning point. We do see Jesus. The preacher takes this Psalm and applies it to Jesus and says “for a little while was made lower” because that is the movement that Jesus made. This is why we get so excited at Christmas. This is why we sing things like “Infant Holy Infant Lowly/For his bed a cattle stall/Oxen lowing little knowing/Christ the babe is Lord of all.” Keep the Christmas spirit going year ‘round! Frederick Beuchner (another Presbyterian!) describes it this way for those who believe in Christ – “Once they have seen him in a stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of man. If holiness and the awful power and majesty were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too.” May we keep looking for it.
We need to proclaim this and we need to listen to it continually because, as someone has said, faith comes from hearing. We do not yet see everything in subjection to him, do we? We walk by faith and not by sight. This was Paul’s message to the Corinthian church. This doesn’t mean that we go around oblivious to our surroundings. Oblivious to people’s needs. It means that we see through eyes of faith. We see with one eye continually on the unseen thing. On Jesus who has been crowned with glory and honour because he has suffered death.
This was fitting, says the preacher. Christ’s suffering and death was fitting. “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.” This word for pioneer can mean founder, or originator. The word for perfect means to carry out completely, to finish. Why? Why did the plan have to include Jesus suffering and dying? We can never say completely. I think part of it comes back to this talk of angels. Angels aren’t people. They don’t suffer. They don’t die. We think of them appearing with flaming swords and bursts of light. You can’t imagine an angel being hungry or thirsty. You can’t imagine an angel being beaten up. Made to look like something less than human.
So it was fitting that he become one of us. Donald Miller has a great analogy in his book Blue Like Jazz where he compares Jesus to a member of a hostage rescue team, who goes in for the rescue and the hostages are too afraid to move. They’re too used to captivity. He sits down with them. Puts an arm around them. Gets up and leads them out. Humanity has often had an idea of a remote god or gods. Up there, beyond us. Remote from suffering and pain. This is what happens when we make God in our image, I suppose. We would like to be remote from suffering and pain too. Avert our eyes. Turn our faces away. There is no suffering with which our Jesus is not familiar. He himself was tested by what he suffered and all he did was keep his eyes and his ears on his Father, even to death.
He’s our merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God. This is the Christ that we serve. The preacher will go on an extended talk about this and we’ll look at what this means too. Christ as our great high priest. This is the one who calls us brothers and sister. This is the one who says “Here am I and the children whom God has given me.”
We’re those children friends. This is the one who holds us in his right hand. The one of whom the Psalmist sang “My soul clings to you.” May God grant that we’re careful in bringing our ships into port, paying attention to what we have heard, what we are hearing, what we will hear, about the great salvation of which we are a part. God grant that this is true for us all.