Looking To Jesus
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We’re coming to the end of our look at Hebrews. We have this great image of being like athletes running a race in a stadium. Arms up as we’re surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses in the stands. Waving at them as we come down the home stretch. Looking to Jesus as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith – the one in whom our faith is based. The pioneer of our faith. The original pioneer who has blazed the trail of this journey that we’re on, this race that we’re in. He’s also the perfecter of our faith – the one who works in us by his Spirit to make us complete, to make us reach the goal, to reach the finish line. From the beginning of Hebrews we have said that the answer to the issues that are plaguing this congregation – and indeed the issues that plague any group of believers in Christ – is Christ. So far all good!
If we’ve lived the Christian life for any length of time, however, we know that it’s not always like that. Life is hard. The Christian life is hard. Why is it so hard? What can we do in the face of hardship? Where should we be looking? Let’s look at our text this morning and see what God has to say to our hearts.
There’s a great line in Isaiah 40 that goes – “…those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up on wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” We like to think that if we wait on the Lord in all the many and diverse ways we wait on the Lord, that we will soar like eagles every day. Many days though it seems that we’re barely able to walk. We get tired. This congregation to whom the preacher is preaching is tired. Tom Long in his book on Hebrews puts it this way – “They get tired of the struggle, tired of fighting the problems in the city, tired of serving the needs of people who turn away without a word of thanks, tired of battling to keep the church school going, tired of making visits to people who are ‘shopping for a church,’ tired of battling their own addictions, their own cravings, tired of fighting off their own desire just to put down the plow and rest along the way. Why not let somebody else break up this rocky ground?”
I said a few weeks ago there’s a church near me, their sign says “Stop Suffering.” According to the preacher to the Hebrews we can expect to suffer for our faith. Wonderful things can happen in faith. By faith people conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection even. Not so wonderful things also happen. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death. They were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented… They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
Kind of goes against that whole “claim your blessing” thing doesn’t it?
The preacher started this chapter with the image of us running a race, our arms raised in victory as we reach the finish line – doing Usain Bolt-like moves, waving at all the people watching. It’s a wonderful image, this soaring like eagles. Sometimes though it’s all we can do to walk. Or limp. Or crawl maybe. As we’re on this race we can expect to face hostility. V3 “Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.” The Christian life is hard. Following Jesus is hard. Why? Because we suffer for our faith in him. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. Many people have though. Many people today are shedding blood for this thing. The metaphor has shifted here from a race to a fight. We are in a fight against the powers and principalities. We are in a fight against forces that would work against God and God’s purposes. In the midst of this fight we must remember that our fight is never against people. In his book Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller reminds us that our fight is never against people but that as followers of Christ we battle “poverty and hate and injustice and pride and the powers of darkness.” We will take casualties in this fight. We might be killed. We might be mocked. We might see relationships end. We might see our families turn their backs on us. We might get kicked out of trade guilds. We might not see the success in business that we see others having. We might feel like we’re missing out on fun.
Like children. When we’re suffering for our faith consider that God is teaching us like parents teach children. V 5 “My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him…” I must stop here a moment and say that these teachings are not a theodicy. Theodicy is the term used for the question of why we suffer. Why do bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people etc. That is a large topic and it’s one that I believe does not have a final definitive answer that we’ll know this side of seeing Jesus. You would never go up to a parent whose child has cancer and say “Well this is God’s way of disciplining you, or teaching you.” We’re talking about a very specific kind of suffering here, and it’s one that I question of myself if I’ve ever really experienced. You’ve heard me say that I don’t feel that I suffer for my faith, but maybe it’s because I’m comparing it to the way that others have suffered and suffer for their faith. Maybe part of my suffering is struggling with the Word every week. It doesn’t seem much in comparison but then I’m also always saying we should never relativize our sufferings. Maybe suffering for our faith is inevitable. I’ve been told to me to use this time of not suffering as a preparation for when I am. Perhaps these things are all tied up in this idea.
The idea is that when we’re suffering for our faith we’re learning. We may rail against the seeming injustice of it. Like a child. The preacher turns here to Proverbs 3 – “My child, not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him; for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.” God is teaching us because God loves us, like a parent teaches a child who does not know any better. It’s a sign that God loves us. As someone has said “The only children who are undisciplined are those who grow up unloved and abandoned.” Or those whose parents believe that in giving them free reign they are doing their children a favour.
We had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Our parents taught us that it was not good to eat Count Chocula for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and that was good, because that was what we wanted to do. Our parents taught some of us that it was not good to be inside playing video games on a beautiful summer day when our cousin and best friend were over. True story. I’m about 12 and my cousin is visiting and he has brought her Atari. All I wanted to do was stay inside and play Atari. My mom comes into my room and tells us to get outside – it’s a beautiful summer day in the country and we do. Half an hour later I’m sneaking back into my room through the window to play more Atari. My mom hears us and I’m sure there were some sort of consequences and I learned that it’s good to mix it up and get outside! I thought it was a terrible injustice at the time. Of course. I learned. If we respected parents who taught us things that were to help us flourish because they loved us, how much more should we be willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live the life that he would have us live? The life that even in the midst of suffering for our faith causes us to learn more about Him.
The life that causes us to come ever more to resemble him too. They disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them. Parents teach children so that they grow up to like them, right? God teaches us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. In other words, God teaches us through suffering for our faith in order that we might come ever more to resemble him. That the family resemblance is evident.
Have you ever suffered for your faith? Are you suffering for your faith? What might God might want to teach us? If I consider myself and struggling with God’s word each week, I believe God is wanting to teach me to trust him, to depend on him, to lean on him, to turn toward him. What might it be for you?
While we struggle with these questions and struggle in our faith, we’re encouraged to remember to keep our eyes on the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. We’re talking about hope today, how we hope for things that are unseen. Hope requires patience. The preacher compares it to waiting for a harvest. V 11 – “Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” Kind of like what our farmers are doing now. We should try and get around farms or gardens as much as we can I think. We can miss these metaphors living in the city. Discipline later yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Discipline requires time. Learning requires time. Both time spent learning and the passage of time. Just like fruit requires time before it’s harvested. Just like any discipline requires time to learn. It might be said that this message can’t fly in our society with its need for instant gratification and quick results. I don’t think it’s hard to grasp though. Training for a sport requires time. There’s an ad in a local sporting goods store window that says “What you do in the dark will enable you to shine in the light.” Training to learn a musical instrument requires time. Part of hoping in what God is teaching us through suffering for our faith involves trusting that it will result in a harvest of righteousness. Paul called them the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees. The image here is not of triumphant runners in a stadium but more like the kind of runner I would be in a marathon. The kind that take however many hours and straggles in after almost everyone has gone home. Sore. Tired. Struggling. Following Christ, our lives are often like that aren’t they? The answer is not to drop out of the race. Make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed. Healing and rest and peace, in other words is not to be found in dropping out, but in staying in the race. Keep going. Keep moving together on that path to the celestial city that’s described later in this chapter, where the angels are having a party and God is and Christ is and the assembly of the firstborn is.
How do we do this though? How do we make straight paths for our feet when all we feel is our drooping hands and weak knees? Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. How do we do that? Let mutual love continue. We’ll look at this more next week when we finish Hebrews talking about chapter 13 and love. Pursue the things that make for peace. Let mutual love continue. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God. In other words watch out for each other. While we’re walking along holding onto the rope like kids in a walking school bus, look out for each other, especially when it looks like we’re having a hard time holding on. Because we’re going to have a hard time sometimes.
Because this following Christ stuff is hard sometimes. It doesn’t always feel like we’re running a race in a stadium full of adoring fans. Sometimes it feels like a fight. Or a wrestling match. These things can leave us damaged. No doubt when the preacher is talking about things being put out of joint he’s remembering Jacob, whose whole hip was put out of joint once when he wrestled with an angel and demanded a blessing. Blessings can leave us hurt. It’s not the end though. The end is always the promise. For Jacob was keeping in mind the promise that he was in a line of people that would be blessed and that would become a great nation through whom all the world would be blessed. This was worth some temporary hardship.
For Esau that temporary hardship won out. He forgot to keep an eye on the story he was in and sold his birthright because he was hungry. Esau became known in Judaism as a schlemiel. If anyone was going to mess things up it was going to be Esau. Don’t be like Esau. Don’t forget our inheritance. Don’t forget this rope that we’re holding onto because once you’ve forgotten it’s hard to come back.
So hold onto our hope. This life can be hard and we’re running and limping and walking and sometimes crawling and all the while Christ has taken hold of us. All the while we’re called to hold onto the rope together. All the while we’re heading toward that city where the angels are having a party and God is there and those who’ve gone before us are there and Christ is there and he’s with us as we go along. May our eyes be continually on this hope in all we say and do. May this be true for us all.