Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 14, 2022
Hebrews 11:29-12:2 Commentary
Hebrews’ author devotes most of chapter 11 to an exploration of what it means to live and die by faith. But he doesn’t call his readers to “fix their eyes” (12:2) on any of the people we sometimes “heroes and heroines of the faith.” Hebrews’ author only invites his readers to “keep our eyes” on Jesus.
It was an invitation that I had to learn as a young preacher. I mentioned to one of my mentors that I was considering a sermon series on the heroes of the faith. I told him that I might offer people like Noah, Abraham, Joseph and even Rahab as great examples for members of the church I pastored to imitate.
My mentor gently but firmly responded by reminding me that while Hebrews’ author spends much time exploring those heroes’ faithful walk before God, he doesn’t command his readers to imitate any of them. In fact, this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson offers only three imperatives. In Hebrews 12:1 the author says, “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out before us.” What’s more, in verse 2 he adds, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
So while Noah “in holy fear … built an ark to save his family” (11:7), Hebrews doesn’t call us to focus on him. Hebrews’ author summons Christians to keep our eyes on Jesus. What’s more, while “By faith … the prostitute Rahab … welcomed [the Israelite] spies” (11:31), Hebrews doesn’t call us look to her example. It invites us to look to Jesus.
God commended for their faith people like Gideon, Samson, Samuel, and those who suffered unspeakably for their faith. Yet while Hebrews invites its readers to consider them a part of the great cloud of witnesses to our lives, it doesn’t command its readers to focus on them. It, instead, summons us to focus on Jesus.
After all, while those adopted sons and daughters of God proved themselves to be faithful, they were also deeply flawed. While Moses, for example, by faith chose to be mistreated by people, he also forfeited his place in the land of promise by failing to obey God. While the people of Israel passed by faith through the Red Sea, they also almost immediately rebelled against the God who had rescued them from Egyptian slavery.
Those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson may want to add contemporary examples of the moral failures of otherwise faithful Christians. Beloved church leaders’ public and blatant abuses of their power, for example, provide plenty of examples of such sinfulness. That makes them poor role models for Jesus’ friends.
So we don’t fix our eyes on any of those flawed heroes or heroines of the faith. We, instead, fix our eyes on Jesus. Christians who are looking for someone to wholeheartedly imitate steadily look not to other Christians, but to Jesus.
God’s people who are looking for someone who has already finished the race God had marked out for us stare not at other people, but at Jesus. Those who wish to keep following the racecourse God has laid out for us concentrate not on other friends of Jesus, but on our friend Jesus.
Some of Hebrews 12’s portion of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s imagery is that of running a race. It invites God’s dearly beloved people to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and … run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (1). While it doesn’t explicitly assign running a race imagery to Jesus, it does at least imply that Jesus too ran the race the Father had marked out for him. He, after all, figuratively “ran” from Bethlehem all the way to Golgotha’s cross, and then out of the tomb and up to God’s right hand.
Hebrews 12:2 describes something of how Jesus “ran that race.” In Tom Long’s words (Hebrews, Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), Jesus “endured the disgrace and pain of the cross, ‘disregarding its shame’.”
Long goes on to note how that shame had two components. First, crucifixion was one of Rome’s instruments of capital punishment. Jesus didn’t get the privilege of dying of old age surrounded by his loving family. The most perfect person who ever lived was, instead, executed as a common criminal who the Romans and their collaborators deduced posed a serious threat to human society. Jesus died a most shameful death.
But the Romans also connected death by crucifixion to public exposure and humiliation. Its victims didn’t just suffer the mockery and judgment of the people who walked past them. They also dangled on a cross and slowly died while completely naked.
It was, in fact, such a degrading ordeal that, as Long (ibid) notes, executioners sometimes placed a hood over the head of people who were being crucified in order to give them at least a shred of dignity. Jesus, however, was offered no such dignity. The Romans didn’t hood him. They gave him no relief from his public humiliation.
Jesus, however, in Eugene Peterson’s Message’s paraphrase, put up with the cross’s shame. He never lost sight of the heavenly realm where God was bringing him. As a result he willingly absorbed but also disregarded all the indignity and humiliation the Romans and their collaborators could dish out.
This is the rejected but faithful and now ascended Jesus on whom not just individual Christians, but also Christian worship fixes its eye. This is the humiliated but perfectly obedient and now reigning Jesus on whom any proclamation of the gospel relentlessly fixes its eyes.
But this is also the Jesus on whom his friends concentrate as we run the race that is our life before God and our neighbors. Long (ibid) writes, “When we see the disciplined, loving, strong, and faithful way Jesus ran the race, we are motivated to lace up our running shoes, to grasp the baton, and to sprint for the finish line. The only thing that would cause us to ‘shrink back’ is our old problem of weariness. The race is hard, our muscles are tired, and we lose heart.”
Hebrews’ advice for weary runners is that we see our weariness and humiliation as God’s discipline. God is graciously using the challenges of the race that is the Christian life to shape Jesus’ friends more and more in the likeness of our Best Friend. So we push through our humiliation and exhaustion in pursuit of our goal that is being in God’s glorious and eternal presence in the new earth and heaven.
Mickey Mantle was among the best baseball players who 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 John 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 own 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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