The week before I went on holiday, I talked to you about the Epistle to the Hebrews. In fact, we’ve now been reading ch. 11-13 of Heb for 4 weeks. It is an early piece of the NT, written in the latter half of the 1st century by an anonymous writer who was obviously formed by the teachings of St Paul, but wrote using a very different style and rhetoric. The purpose of this “letter” – more of a homily, really – was to exhort his or her community, likely that of new converts from Judaism, to persevere in their faith in light of the hostility of the world, in which they were starting to be “strangers and foreigners” (ch. 11). They might have resided in Jerusalem, or had moved to Rome only to endure persecution from Nero that was much worse than the ostracism of their former synagogues. To this end, the writer reinforced the idea of faith as the true source of courage, but only insofar as it is understood in terms of a broad story of promise, reaching all the way back to their ancient ancestors, as opposed to each individual life.
We find at least two lists of pioneers of faith among the NT writings: the one in Heb 11 which we read before I went away, and another in the genuinely Pauline letter to the Romans. Both authors see faith as inseparable from obedience. But while to St Paul faith is a means to justification, to the author of Heb, faith is also a means to endurance. To him or her, faith is more ambiguous. It may lead, on the one hand, to amazing victories; as when the faithful safely crossed the Red Sea and entered Jericho, while those without faith perished in deep waters and under the trampled walls. On the other hand, the faith of the Maccabean martyrs, to whom we seem to have an extra-canonical reference here – unless it is to the Neronian or other instance of early, sporadic Christian persecution – did nothing for them by way of protection, but only gave them courage in the face of torture. Furethemore, while some of the heroes were kings and judges, others were people marginalized by them: women, widows and prostitutes, and homeless. The author commends their faith, but few if any of these faithful heroes were flat, one-dimensional characters. E.g., Jephthah murdered his daughter, and Samson and David’s romantic relationships drove them to shameful decisions. Like us, they both sinned and showed faith, and the only reason they even had faith was because God gave it to them. Sometimes, as Christians, we look at the kings and prophets of old, the observers of the Levitical sacrifices, and the ones who periodically turned to the worship of the golden calf, or Baal, or natural phenomena, and think of them as ignorant pagans. Heb is a good reminder that it is the New Covenant which is superior to the Old, not the new believers that are more intelligent or faithful than people of earlier civilizations.
Be that as it may, the superiority of the new kind of a relationship with God offered by the New Covenant should not lead us to another extreme: that of dichotomizing God herself as one “of the OT” vs. “of the NT” (as though there is more than one God!). It is indeed tempting to emphasize either judgment/holiness or love/mercy, and each theological tradition leans to one extreme or the other. Some might speak of Jesus as a friend, and decline to read the OT because it is “full of violence,” and “its God seems capricious”. But in doing so, don’t we also miss out on the sense of God’s awe-inspiring nature that the OT images of fire, whirlwind, and earthquake convey? Indeed, as CS Lewis put it, “God is not a tame lion”! Yet, the God of OT is also playful, and easily amused by the creatures, as we read in the psalms; he will bear his people on eagle’s wings; she will teach them to walk, as a mother does. That’s why we hear Jesus also refer to God as the mother hen, and the prodigal’s father. This is another reason why it is so useful to observe the ways in which the 1st century writers apply the scriptures with which they were raised as Jewish believers. What description of God speaks more powerfully to you - strict or playful? And what is your response?
Indeed, what is the right response to God’s invitation into his presence? At times irresistible, and at other times, hard to discern? At the end of the day, we, humans, have been the same all through the centuries. And our God has been the same for eternity - the only one Creator, who continues to speak the universe into being and sustains it by his Word. But a different kind of a relationship between us and God - that is what we do see in Christ. Heb shows that Jesus was certainly not the first man to receive the gift of faith, but he is shown to be the first to embrace its ultimate fulfillment as eternal life in heaven. That is what the words “the author and perfecter of our faith” mean. Jesus was not only the first finisher of the course that we must all “run with perseverance”, but he is also both its designer AND its goal. The race is certainly a long-distance one, and what counts as victory is counter-intuitive. One real-life racing example comes from the 2010 international marathon in China, in which an athlete saw a disabled competitor, a double amputee struggling to drink water, and she chose to run alongside him from 10-38K, helping him drink at all of the aid stations. This caused her to place 2nd and forgo the $10,000 prize. But, she taught the world that day that to her, being compassionate was more important than winning one of the major races of her career. What could we teach the world as we huff and puff along our own life’s journeys?
Like our forerunners in faith and modern-day examples, let us continue to imitate the stance of true self-giving, which was, in fact, Jesus’ own main training and racing approach. If we do, all else will flow: obedience to God, forgiveness and love, thanksgiving and praise. As we read in today’s ch. 13, love and worship are inseparable. Let’s keep this in mind over the coming week, as we now return to worship, which may itself be understood as a sacrifice – one of “praise, and thanksgiving”. Amen.