Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 18, 2019
Hebrews 11:29-12:2 Commentary
It sometimes seems like human nature to long for heroes. Today, however, it’s difficult to find heroes to whom we can steadily look up. The bright lights of things like 24-hour cable networks, YouTube and social media expose even the most famous people’s moral spots and wrinkles.
So it may seem nice to have a text like that which the RCL appoints as this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson to turn to and read. Many Christians have even come to call the people on its list the “heroes of the faith.” These are remarkable people who lived by faith. They’re just the kind to whom Jesus’ followers can really look up today, right?
God has graciously provided a spiritual home for me in the Christian Reformed Church in North America for virtually all of my 61+ years. So I can think of a few Christian Reformed “heroes.” I remember Sunday school and catechism teachers, youth group leaders and schoolteachers, coaches and, yes, maybe even a few pastors.
I gratefully remember Christian Reformed people like Don and Rosemary, Jane and Dirk, Joanne and Evan, and Clarence and Jake too. They walked by faith, teaching and leading me in ways that led me to look up to them.
Yet when we take a careful look at our heroes, we see more than a few moral warts and wrinkles. Consider Abraham. “By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country…” (11:9). Yet he also lied about his wife’s identity and fathered a child by his wife’s servant whom he then sent into the desert to die.
If that’s not enough, consider Jacob. He “blessed each of Joseph’s sons as he lay dying” (11:21). Jacob also, however, swindled his brother out of his share of the inheritance … and then tricked his dad to boot.
The Lord commended these people, according to verse 39, “for their faith.” People like Abel and Enoch, Isaac and Moses were, after all, capable of great acts of trusting obedience.
Yet while, as my colleague John Rottman (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels, Eerdmans, 2001), from whom I borrowed heavily for this Sermon Commentary notes, those “heroes” are certainly not “evil” people, many of them succumbed to temptation in public and destructive ways.
Yet our modern heroes aren’t morally cleaner than those biblical ones. I admired my fifth-grade teacher a lot. Though he had a strange obsession with isometric exercises, he was a smart person who knew a lot about many things, even sports. Yet I’ll never forget seeing him outside of church one Sunday evening. There he stood … smoking.
Yet some moral flaws cause even more widespread damage. A 2007 article in The New York Times described the large numbers of Hispanic immigrants who, while they went to church in their homelands, no longer do so in the United States. While those whom the Times interviewed gave a number of reasons for this, many cited the misconduct of priests.
How many people didn’t have a Christian who was a beloved uncle, admired cousin, or even loved mother who betrayed our most intimate trust? How often haven’t our Christian friends or even family members hurt us deeply? How often haven’t even church leaders done things that shamed God and scarred God’s adopted sons and daughters?
Yet Jesus’ followers don’t have to look much farther than our own hearts to see deep flaws. We are, by God’s grace, like Abraham and David, capable of great Christian faith. Yet we also know our own moral weak spots, whether they’re a tendency to lie like Abraham or manipulate people like Jacob. God’s beloved people may even have intimacy vulnerabilities like David.
So those who proclaim this Epistolary Lesson want to help those who hear us remember as well as thank God for that great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us. Yet if we’re to strip down to our running clothes and run the race that is the Christian life, we’ll have to look somewhere else for our role models. If God’s adopted sons and daughters want to keep following Jesus in the race marked out for us, we’re going to have to look for Another Hero.
Fix your eyes, says our text, on Jesus (12:2). Christians who are looking for someone whom we can wholeheartedly imitate fix our eyes on Jesus. Those who are looking for someone who has already run the race marked out for us fix our eyes on Jesus. Those who long to keep running the race God has marked out for us fix our eyes on Jesus.
Hebrews’ author invites Jesus’ followers to run the race that is the Christian life with “perseverance” (12:1b). Our Christian lives are, after all, more like the Boston Marathon than a 100-metre dash. They require endurance. The One who is best able to provide that for us, insists Hebrews, is Jesus. He is, after all, what the NIV translation of the Bible calls “the author” (2), what others call “the pioneer,” of our faith.
God’s only natural Son Jesus agreed to become a human being, to live among us and suffer the punishment we deserved for our sins by dying on a cross. He was even somehow made, according to Hebrews 2:10, “perfect” through that intense suffering. And after God perfected him through that suffering, Jesus became, according to Hebrews 5:9, the “source of” our eternal salvation. He’s the one who by his life, death and resurrection graciously places his followers in a faithful relationship with God.
Jesus also knows all about the need for perseverance. He, after all, endured the torture of suffering throughout his life. Jesus even “scorned,” that is, refused to let the cross’ shame intimidate him. Yet as Rottman notes, this Jesus isn’t content to put us into a proper relationship with God but then let us limp toward the finish line of our Christian lives on our own. No, Christ, by his Spirit, never stops working to improve our relationship with God and each other.
Having taken away our guilt and forgiven our sins, Christ works on the power of sin in our lives. By his Spirit he works to break the power of things like sexual immorality, hatred, jealousy and envy over us. The Spirit works to break the power of things like racism and discrimination in our society. The Spirit then replaces it with what Rottman calls a “whole fruit basket” of things like love, patience, kindness and self-control. The Spirit even makes those Christ-like virtues more and more prominent as Jesus “perfects” our faith.
What’s more, as Jesus works on us as individuals, he also transforms his whole church, including our local churches and denominations. We remain, of course, far from perfect. Yet God graciously uses us to bring himself glory and to bless the people around us anyway.
The January 24, 2007 issue of the Hattiesburg (MS) American featured a story about a victim of Hurricane Katrina. Pamela Bolar’s damaged home was too expensive to be renovated and too historically important to be torn down. So authorities deemed it a total loss. Hattiesburg’s United Way put her case into what they call a “miracle pool.” Its spokesman said of this group, “If a miracle comes along, we’ll pull the case out and do something with it.”
So Ms. Bolar and her two teenaged daughters moved into a cramped mobile home and waited for a “miracle,” praying for God’s intervention. God did graciously intervene, providing such a “miracle.” Ms. Bolar says, “It’s just like a big house coming down from heaven to me.”
Actually, it came from the Lord through a church. The Orland Park (IL) Christian Reformed Church wanted to build a new home for a hurricane victim and asked the United Way for an appropriate partner. After a local church donated some land and a construction company cleared the land and laid the foundation, volunteers from Chicago moved in. People built the skeleton of a new home in just a few hours. Two more teams came in successive weeks to finish the building.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the American government approved various Christian groups and agencies for soliciting funds to rebuild. Even our national leaders recognize in some way that Christ’s church is doing good things.
So those who proclaim Hebrews 11 and 12 want to help our hearers celebrate Christ’s ongoing work in even the remote corners of his Church. Yet Christians look somewhere else for our heroes. His adopted brothers and sisters always point people away from us and toward the author and perfecter of our faith. After all, by his Spirit, Christ alone empowers us to respond to his great faithfulness with faithful obedience.
Mickey Mantle was among the best baseball players that ever played the game. Most experts, however, agree that he might have been one of the two or three greatest players ever had he not spent most of his life in the “fast lane.”
Mantle once said, “If I had known I was going to live so long, I would have taken better care of myself.” After all, his family history, as Rottman notes, suggested that Mantle would die at a young age. His father and grandfather had both died of heart attacks before they reached the age of 40. Friends said that because he was afraid of the death that he assumed would come to him at a young age, Mantle lived recklessly.
Several days after he received a transplanted liver, Mickey Mantle held a press conference. He knew that he was largely responsible for the illness that had ruined his liver. Mantle also knew that some people still regarded him as a hero. “Look,” he told anyone who’d listen, “I’m an example alright – an example of how not to do it.” Near the end of his life Mantle told people, “Don’t live like I did. If you’re looking for a hero,” he basically said, “you’ll have to look somewhere else.”
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