A word of rest for God’s wandering people: Hebrews 4.9-16

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June 11, 2013 by jmar198013

This summer in my church family we are basing our Wednesday evening devotionals off the book of Hebrews. Last week, I spoke from Heb. 4.9-16. Below is an expanded, edited version of my remarks.

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You see, therefore, that God’s people have a sabbath of rest still in store for them; to attain his rest means resting from human labours, as God did from divine.

We must strive eagerly, then, to attain that rest; none of you must fall away into the same kind of unbelief. God’s word to us is something alive, full of energy; it can penetrate deeper than any two-edged sword, reaching the very division between soul and spirit, between joints and marrow, quick to distinguish every thought and design in our hearts. From him, no creature can be hidden; everything lies bare, everything is brought face to face with him, this God to whom we must give our account.

Let us hold fast, then, by the faith we profess. We can claim a great high priest, and one who has passed right up through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God. It is not as if our high priest was incapable of feeling for us in our humiliations; he has been through every trial, fashioned as we are, only sinless. Let us come boldly, then, before the throne of grace, to meet with mercy, and win that grace which will help us in our needs. (Heb. 4.9-16 Knox)

It may be that to our ears these words are but a confusing mish-mash of images. The writer assures the congregation that a sabbath rest remains in store for them. Then she* veers into an ominous-sounding warning: God’s word will slice you up like a sacrificial lamb. From there, she swings back into a word of assurance: we have a high priest in the heavens who has experienced the same humiliations and trials we all must endure. Okay, you could weave a decent sermon out of any of these points. I want to say to the writer of Hebrews, Speak to us in a straight line! Linear logic! Pick a topic and rest there! It is difficult for me, and I am sure it has been for some of you, to grasp what Hebrews is trying to say. I confess at times that I find her letter to be a jarring train wreck of disparate images. I perceive that the writer is trying to tell us something of vital importance, but I have trouble figuring out what it is.

That’s probably not entirely–or at all–the fault of the writer. After all, we have to remember that whenever we read the New Testament epistles, we are reading someone else’s mail. We’re only getting one side of the story. But if we pay attention we will find that the writer leaves a bread crumb trail for us to follow. If we follow the trail, we can find the way into what Hebrews is trying to say.

The bread crumb trail here is when the writer promises that God’s people have a sabbath of rest still in store for them if they don’t fall away into . . . unbelief. Follow this trail. The church addressed by Hebrews is a church on a journey, and this journey is not necessarily one they would have chosen for themselves. Hebrews was written to a wandering people, a people who have been made refugees in this world because they walk with Jesus.

Now, it should not have surprised the letter’s recipients that they were wandering. These were Jewish Christians, and their Israelite ancestors had been wandering people. Indeed, the story that God instructed them to tell about themselves began: My father was a starving Aramean. He went down to Egypt, living as an immigrant there with few family members, but that is where he became a great nation, mighty and numerous (Deut 26.5 CEB). After the frail nation had escaped their slavery in Egypt, they wandered in the wilderness for a generation. Even when they settled in the land of God’s promise, their waywardness eventually led them to be divided, conquered, and sent into exile. The history of Israel has always been a story of persecution, displacement, and searching for a home.

The author of Hebrews wants these wandering people of God to recognize that it is no different for the church than it has always been for Israel. To walk with Jesus means being often unwelcome in this world. Unwelcome people are pushed out and become refugees and wanderers. Some of the Jewish Christians the letter to the Hebrews addressed were beginning to wonder if they had been wrong to wander off with Jesus. Maybe Jesus wasn’t worth being homeless and persecuted over. They may have been considering wandering off from Jesus, back to their old lives, back to the normal they had known. Hebrews assures those who hear its message that Jesus is the way home. God’s people have a sabbath of rest still in store for them so long as they don’t fall away into . . . unbelief.

In response to the growing doubts among some in the congregation about whether or not Jesus was worth the wandering, Hebrews gives these Jewish Christians a history lesson. Hebrews reminds them that God’s people have always been a wandering people, but that wandering is not always aimless. Hebrews also reminds them that when they left the slavery of Egypt, there were some who wanted to return there—and the consequences were grave. In the verses immediately before our passage, Hebrews says: We also had the good news preached to us, just as the Israelites did. However, the message they heard didn’t help them because they weren’t united in faith with the ones who listened to it. We who have faith are entering the rest. As God said, And because of my anger I swore:They will never enter into my rest!” (Heb.4.1-3 CEB) They died stranded in the wilderness because they did not trust God’s promise of home. Hebrews reminds her hearers that all who wander are not lost, but it is possible to be both. Hebrews exhorts them to place their trust in Jesus, the hope of rest and an end to their wanderings.

Hebrews 4 offered hope to their hearers then, and they do for us today—hope for those of us who wander as refugees in a hostile land; and those who wander from the path Jesus has pioneered for us back to the ways of the world. That hope is promised in two ways, and both name ways of Jesus’ presence with us. Jesus is the living and active Word from God from whom nothing is hidden. This penetrating Word brings a threat of judgment; but every threat turned inside out is a gift. Jesus is the Word from God that stands in judgment of the rebellion that comes from unbelief; but Jesus is also the Word from God that vindicates faithful obedience in the face of trials. This is because all of history is determined by Jesus. The letter to the Hebrews begins by revealing that Jesus was the word through whom the universe was made and by which it is sustained. The author writes: Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Hebrews 1.1-3 NRSV). What this means is Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are an embodied promise from God about how the universe works. To walk with the Word which spoke the world into being is to go with the grain of the universe, even if it feels like we are catching all the splinters. Jesus too lived as a wanderer, one who was rejected by the very world he had created. His wandering led him to the Cross, but God vindicated his wandering and violent death in this world by raising him up to be our great high priest who passed through the heavens. Our journey through this world is leading us home with Jesus, who is God’s promise for us.

Although Jesus’ presence as the penetrating Word of God with us imparts a threat of judgment that may scare the devil out of us, it is because Jesus is the discerning Word that he is also a high priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses because he was tempted in every way that we are. When such a priest pierces us with judgment, it is a judgment that suffers with us. To be so judged is to be given a gift, because this judgment tells us our lives can be otherwise. Near the end of his life, in a Nazi concentration camp, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross . . . and that is precisely the way . . . in which he is with us and helps us . . . only the suffering God can help us.” The suffering God who can help us is embodied in the figure of Jesus, who, as Hebrews will write elsewhere offered prayers and requests with loud cries and tears as his sacrifices to the one who was able to save him from death. He was heard because of his godly devotion. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience from what he suffered (Heb. 5.7-8 CEB)

That Jesus was tested as we are but was without sin meant that he lived with wandering, with poverty, with hunger, with being unwelcome, with being harassed and murdered, but he remained faithful. He did not let any of these turn him back. Hebrews invites its hearers—and those of us who hear now—to trust Jesus because he has proven himself faithful by his suffering. And Hebrews invites its hearers—and we who hear today—to be loyal to the God who has proved his loyalty to us on the Cross of his Son.

Jesus goes with us and before us as God’s Word of promise and as the high priest who has suffered and offered himself as a sacrifice on our behalf.  Hebrews went on to write that Jesus learned obedience from what he suffered.  After he had been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for everyone who obeys him . . .  It’s appropriate for us to have this kind of high priest: holy, innocent, incorrupt, separate from sinners, and raised high above the heavens. He doesn’t need to offer sacrifices every day like the other high priests, first for their own sins and then for the sins of the people. He did this once for all when he offered himself (Heb. 5.8-9; 7.26-27 CEB)  Why do God’s wandering people need to hold on tightly to this word? Because in our journey we may be tempted—as the Jewish Christians to whom Hebrews was written were tempted—to believe that God has abandoned us. Those Moses led out of Egypt in the long ago were often fearful that God would leave them stranded in the wilderness. Jesus is God’s promise to us in our wanderings: The one who suffered and died to make this way for you will never abandon you in the wilderness.

Hebrews trains us as a wandering people to exalt Jesus because he is God’s promise of rest and homecoming to us. Since he is both the Word by which the world was created and is sustained and our empathetic high priest, he gives us confidence to continue our journey, to live in the tension between God’s present and God’s future. For the shape and meaning of history—of all presents and of the future—are determined by him. This gives us confidence for our present sojourn and hope for an end to our restless wanderings, when we find our rest in God because of Christ’s faithfulness.

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*Sometimes just to be ornery, I like to claim that Prisca wrote Acts based on the arguments of Adolf von Harnack and later Ruth Hoppin. In real life, I don’t actually care who wrote Hebrews. Whoever they were, they were a smart cookie. Also, that introduction is completely new–I didn’t speak it when I presented this. I would never drop a bomb like that on an unsuspecting congregation.

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