August 7, 2013 by jmar198013
This summer where I worship, our Wednesday evening devotionals have been focused on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Tonight I got to speak again in the rotation, and this is what I said.
This summer we are learning from the letter to the Hebrews how to exalt Jesus.
Hebrews is a sermon, really. And it’s preached to a church in the midst of hard times. A church of Jewish believers who have come to believe that God’s purposes for Israel—and for the world—have climaxed in the person of Jesus Christ. These people have left everything to follow Jesus. In this way, they are like their forefather Abraham, who was called from his home and family by God to go to a land he knew nothing about. God’s claim on his people has historically made them refugees in the world. Still does, really, if we say amen to God’s claim on us. Following Jesus just might ruin our lives.
These Jewish believers were suffering persecution for their faith. And by persecution, I don’t mean not being able to pray in public schools. I don’t mean they were told to take down the nativity scene in front of city hall. I don’t mean that their friends laughed at them for going to midweek Bible study instead of that scrimmage game. I mean they were losing friends and jobs and property. I mean they were living under the threat of violence. I mean that there were people in their neighborhoods who wanted to firebomb their places of worship and lynch their leadership.
These people were homeless, harassed, and humiliated because of Jesus. And some of them didn’t know if they could hold out much longer.
I suspect that some of them may even have taken their situation as a sign that God had abandoned them. That perhaps they had been mistaken to follow Jesus. Maybe Jesus was wrong. Maybe God really had forsaken Jesus on that cross. Maybe the resurrection was just a group hallucination provoked by overwhelming grief.
Hebrews is a sermon for a people reaching the end of their rope. It teaches God’s people to exalt Christ, but it does so in a very particular way. It tells us to look at someone who has been thrown out of polite society and publicly executed in the most shameful way possible. And we are supposed to look at this man and believe that he is God’s Son, and that God is speaking through him. We are supposed to believe that God created the world through this crucified man. We are to see in this crucified man the light of God’s glory and the imprint of God’s being who maintains everything with his powerful message. We are told that his shameful death cleanses people of their sins, and that this crucified man is now sharing a throne with God. That’s the first three verses of the letter or sermon to the Hebrews. And whatever else we say about this sermon, whatever we learn about exalting Jesus from it, is determined by that. This crucified man is God’s final word.
Last week, we heard from Hebrews 11 about the faithful saints of Israel. We heard about some of them by name, but the preacher of Hebrews also relates the stories of countless others unnamed. These were people who endured awful things because of God’s claim on them. These were people who had not heard God’s final word in the person of Jesus, but trusted God’s promises. Hebrews 11.36-40 says some of these people:
experienced public shame by being taunted and whipped; they were even put in chains and in prison. They were stoned to death, they were cut in two, and they died by being murdered with swords. They went around wearing the skins of sheep and goats, needy, oppressed, and mistreated. The world didn’t deserve them. They wandered around in deserts, mountains, caves, and holes in the ground.
All these people didn’t receive what was promised, though they were given approval for their faith. God provided something better for us so they wouldn’t be made perfect without us.
The preacher of Hebrews is reminding the congregation, “This is how it goes with God’s people. The things you are suffering are the sorts of things that often come upon God’s people.” What’s different now is that in the person of Jesus, God has entered into the suffering of his people. He has skin in the game—literally. When Jesus was kicked out of town and thrown under the bus—the bus being a Roman cross—he was affirming and redeeming the suffering of all God’s people. And his resurrection vindicates that suffering and abuse and deprivation. The crucified and resurrected One is the meaning of history. Our wandering, our hunger, our pain, our exclusion, our deaths—they are not the final word. Jesus is the final word.
Tonight I want us to reflect briefly on Hebrews 12.18-24. These words are strange and strong. Before we listen to this movement of the sermon, I’d like us to pause to ask ourselves one question: If we had people confiscating our property and threatening our families because we follow Jesus, how could these words comfort us?
You haven’t drawn near to something that can be touched: a burning fire, darkness, shadow, a whirlwind, a blast of a trumpet, and a sound of words that made the ones who heard it beg that there wouldn’t be one more word. They couldn’t stand the command, If even a wild animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned. The sight was so frightening that Moses said, “I’m terrified and shaking!”
But you have drawn near to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, heavenly Jerusalem, to countless angels in a festival gathering, to the assembly of God’s firstborn children who are registered in heaven, to God the judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous who have been made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks better than Abel’s blood.
Wow. Just wow. That awful God of Sinai! Those who heard God on that mountain were so terrified at his voice that they begged him to stop talking. Please God—not one more word!
But God has spoken another word—a final word—and that word is Jesus. God spoke from Sinai with earth-shaking power. From the cross, he speaks through the weakness of a Son who bleeds and dies. Hebrews says that Jesus’ sprinkled blood speaks a better message than Abel’s blood. What could that mean?
Abel was the first victim, murdered by his brother Cain. And when God confronted Cain about it, he said to him, The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. You are now cursed from the ground that opened its mouth to take your brother’s blood from your hand (Gen. 4.10-11). Abel’s blood cried out to God for vengeance. For justice. But Abel stayed dead. And Cain was spared. He even went forth with God’s protection on him.
These events cast a dark shadow over history. Questions lingered: Is this what God is like? Does he ignore the cries of the victim? Does he abandon his people to die?
The voice of Abel’s blood continued to echo through history.
Like Abel, all those people in Hebrews 11—those named and those unnamed—suffered at the hands of the violent. They wandered half-naked and hungry, they were harassed, they were tortured, they were killed for sport. And yet all those people refused to believe that God just leaves his people to die, or ignores the cries of victims. This is the faithfulness for which they were praised: they stubbornly refused to believe that God forsakes his people or his world. They continued to trust that God was with them, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
Jesus’ blood speaks a better word than Abel’s because while Abel’s blood cried out for vengeance, Jesus’ blood cries out for mercy. Abel’s blood speaks of sin and injustice and violence. Jesus’ blood reveals the justice and peace of a holy God. The word spoken by Abel’s blood alienated the sinner—from God, from other humans, from the earth itself. Jesus’ blood is able to reconcile the sinner to God and to others, and to make a home for the outcast. The word of God spoken from the cross judges our history, but it also redeems it.
The cross and resurrection of Jesus is the meaning of history. God had not abandoned Abel. Neither had God forsaken those who were taunted and whipped; who were put in chains and in prison; that were stoned to death or cut in two or murdered with swords; who went around . . . needy, oppressed, and mistreated; who wandered around in deserts, mountains, caves, and holes in the ground. They were all gathered into Christ, vindicated by his death and resurrection. Their faith in God and God’s goodness was justified.
The preacher of Hebrews wanted the congregation to know that God had not and would not forsake them, either. In the person of Jesus, God had joined his people in experiencing poverty, homelessness, humiliation, being taunted and whipped, and being put to death unjustly. And Jesus’ resurrection is God’s sign forever that he does not abandon his people. Gathered into the cross and resurrection , we are joining those saints of Hebrews 11, the righteous who have been made perfect, on a pilgrimage to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, heavenly Jerusalem. There we will join with countless angels in a festival gathering for God’s firstborn children who are registered in heaven. That’s the word of the God who speaks from the cross. God has not abandoned us. That’s the final word.