Sunday, October 4, 2015

We See Jesus-A Sermon for Pentecost XIX

“As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.  But we see Jesus.”
Hebrews 2:8-9

It’s been a heavy week, hasn’t it?  The Russians have launched extensive bombing raids in Syria, massively escalating the civil war, with numerous civilian casualties expected.  News continues to surface about the extent of Volkswagen’s emissions switch scandal, with maybe more than 11 million cars effected worldwide.  Several drug companies have admitted to massive price gouging, with one pill used to treat cancer and AIDS patients rising from $13 to $750 per dose. 

And of course, there was another mass shooting, this time at a community college in Oregon, the 294th shooting this year.   It was a shooting in the kind of place where things like that don’t happen, except there aren’t any places like that any more.  We don’t know all the details yet, but eyewitnesses reported that events unfolded in a distinctive way.  The shooter stormed into the classroom with an agenda.  He wanted to know who was a Christian.  And our brothers and sisters who stood firm and confessed our faith, those who claimed to be one of us, he shot them point blank. 

“As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.”  We believe of course, that the Bible is God’s Word to us, but if we’re honest, it sometimes seems like a word from long ago and far away.  But not this week.  Not this word. 

 One of you remarked to me the other day that there has been quite a lot to pray about this week.  There have been so many reminders that the world is broken, that the power of sin is real and destructive.  The “evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God”[1] —we have seen them this week, not yet subject to the prince of Peace, the king of love. 

But we do see Jesus.  And when we see Him, equal to the Father, crucified for us, risen victorious, seated at the Father’s right hand—when we see Him, we know what will surely be.

The Epistle to the Hebrews is a sermon intended for people living in anxious times, people who are overwhelmed by the chaos that surrounds them and in need of a reminder of what God has truly promised. 

The Biblical scholars think that Hebrews was written right around AD 70, the year that the Romans crushed a Jewish nationalist revolt in Palestine, destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and expelled thousands of Jews from their ancient homeland.[2]  That crisis changed Judaism forever.  It also resulted in a decisive break between Christians and Jews.  The earliest Christians, of course, were all Jewish.  The Book of Acts describes followers of Jesus who worshipped in the temple, preached in synagogues and kept the laws of the Old Covenant. 

But this moment of national crisis was a time for drawing lines in the sand.   More radical Jewish groups, like the Christians, were expelled.  A new Biblical canon was drawn up.  And a series of daily prayers, the Eighteen Benedictions, were widely distributed.  The twelfth of them was specifically directed at the Christians.  “Let the “Nazarenes” and the heretics,” it read, “be destroyed in a moment. And let them be blotted out of the Book of Life and not be inscribed together with the righteous.

This epistle to the Hebrews is a message of hope to those people, the Jewish Christians newly cursed by their friends and neighbors, cast out of the synagogue, trying to make a life for themselves in the face of hostile words and physical violence.  The author would note later in his message, that some of them had “drooping hands” and “weak knees.”[3]  He describes others who had forsaken the assembly.[4]  Out of fear or disillusionment they were abandoning the way of Christ altogether. 

Because at some point it becomes hard to hold fast to the faith when so much evidence seems to point in the other direction.   When your fellow Jews all seem to turn against you, surely you must ask yourself: Can I really be sure that He is the promised Messiah?  Does He really fulfill all those ancient promises? Do I know for certain that the apostles really saw Him in that Upper Room three days after his death? 

We read the headlines today.  I pray that none of us aspires to an assassin’s notoriety.  But maybe we ask ourselves other questions.  Does it really make sense to tell the truth and suffer for it when so many seem to profit from lies?  Is decisive violence really more effective than the messy process of making peace?  If I was in that classroom and they asked me if I stood with Jesus, wouldn’t I just look the other way?

How do you answer questions like that?  What do you say to people who stand at the crossroads of faith and despair?  You can try to minimize the drama of the situation, of course, or urge a kind of stoical resolve—best not to get your hopes up, this too shall pass.  You can concede that the other side has its reasonable points as well, that we’re best not to be too dogmatic about these things.  You can offer emotive reassurances, saying that God is with us in our confusion and pain, that He’s politely sympathetic, even if He doesn’t seem to be leading us out of it in any particular direction.

Or then, you could write something like the introduction to the Epistle to the Hebrews.  You could set forth Jesus Christ as God’s final and decisive Word, the One who holds the future in His nail-scarred hands.  “We do not yet see all things in subjection to Him, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death.” 

We do see Jesus.   And who is He?   In a majestic sentence, a perfectly turned classical period with seven alliterative phrases, the author describes Jesus in the most exalted terms possible.  He is the splendor of God’s radiance and bears the very stamp of His image.  He created the world and sustains all things.   He became lower than the angels, one of us, emptied of His glory to make purification for sins.  And yet now, He has been exalted to the Father’s side, enthroned in glory with all things subject to Him.  The author traces what one commentator has called “the parabola of salvation”[5]—Christ’s eternal majesty, His humiliation and then His glorification, the certain path assigned to Him and to all who belong to Him. 

For we are His brothers and sisters, the “many sons” of the Son of Man, who will surely reign with Him then as we suffer with Him now.  Jesus  knows our pain, for He has borne it also.  He sympathizes with our confusion and doubts, for He has faced them too.  He has gone down even to death with us.  But He does not leave us there.  He promises that where He is, there we shall be also.  We will share in joy of the Father’s presence.  We will see an end to pain and cruelty, hunger and injustice.  The kingdoms of this world will become the Kingdom of our God and of His Christ, human life transformed to become what we have so longed for but never found here.  Because He is there, in majesty, for us.  Because He has gone ahead so we may follow after, because He is our pioneer.   We see Jesus, and we know the end of the story, though all the world denys it—and it what a glorious end it is.  Wesley’s great Easter hymn perhaps says it best:
   Soar we now where Christ has led
   Following our exalted head.
   Made like Him, like Him we rise
   Ours the Cross, the grave, the skies.[6]

Christ is the source of salvation, the one who holds the keys of destiny.  His way of joy, peace and love will finally triumph.  He is the new and better way, the fulfillment of the hopes and dreams of all nations.  The Epistle to the Hebrews will go on, in lessons we will read over the next two months, to recount just how Jesus comes as the climax of Israel’s story.  These troubled Jewish Christians do not need to forsake God’s faithfulness to their ancestors, because Christ fulfills the meaning of the temple.  He alone can keep the sacred law of God in its fullness.  He has made a new and eternal covenant that brings to fruition all that was hoped for on that great day when the mountain shook and God’s voice announced the precious commandments. 

The author shows, you see, an openness to those troubling questions raised by the leaders who had cast out the Christians from the synagogues.  He is willing to listen and engage with those who turn against the Christian message.  There’s remarkably little bitterness and impatience in anything he writes. 

He faces the questions, he hears the doubts, but the author of Hebrews is unshaken by them.  He has complete confidence that Christ is the world’s only hope, that Christ will complete what He has begun at Calvary and the empty tomb.  “We do not yet see everything in subjection to Him, but we see Jesus.”  In those troubling days, that was enough.  May it be enough for us as well.

[1] Holy Baptism, The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 302.
[2] c.f. for what follows, MacLeod, David.  “The Finality of Christ: An Exposition of Hebrews 1:1-4.”  Bibliotheca Sacra.  162 (Apr-June 2005), 210-230.
[3] Heb. 12:12.
[4] Heb. 10:25.
[5] Long, Thomas.  Hebrews.  Interpretation Series.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997., 39. 
[6] Hymn 188, (Hymnal 1982), “Love’s Redeeming Work is Done,” verse 4.

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