*Preached at First Christian Church of Hampton, on 18 August 2019. As the late William Barclay put it, “The honour roll of history is of people who chose to be in God’s minority rather than with the world’s majority.” It is an honor roll of the known and mostly unknown, who have found gratitude for the life God gives. -Vinson
Letter to the Hebrews 11:29-12:2 (New Revised Standard Version)
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace. And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets — who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented — of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Dad was a “photobug” with Ektachrome, the slides are now scattered among my siblings and me. He wasn’t much for the old style photo albums like my Mom, and once or twice a year Dad would get out the slide projector and away we would go. I think the best slide show of all was when Dad took photos of my dog Peanuts for my Mom who made up for her music classes a marvelous story of my dog trying to figure out who and what she was. Given she was a pretty homely combination of Dachshund and Chihuahua, it took a lot of slides and a lot of music.
Photos nearly ALWAYS elicit a story… about a pet… a person… a funny or a sad adventure. They are about life as, they stir remembrances. Having scanned countless old family photographs and organized them, at times it is amazing to see what traits and characteristics pass through the generations. It’s like when my daughter was three, Julie wanted to see what I looked like without my mustache again. She had only seen me without it for a few days, at the end of Chaplains School in 1993. Having finally reunited our family as I had immediately deployed, she now wanted to decide if I actually looked better without it. So I muttered and shaved it off. A week went by and our daughter, all of three, then said to me one day that I needed to regrow my mustache. I asked her why, to which she responded, “Daddy, it’s your nose, it’s too big without it!” Besides our daughter being rather observant, it’s also very clear that I have my Grandmother Miller’s nose, just like my Dad did, and at last it finally found a face it has fit on the best: our son! Ah… family legacies!
WHY I BRING THIS UP
Humor aside, in a sense, the words the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews are really much like a spiritual family photo album, albeit one that isn’t descriptive of physical traits but of the spiritual courage even amid darkness of an untold cast of spiritual forebears. In this lineage, we find our own humanity… and counsel for the lives we live as followers of Jesus.
So it is that the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews elicits remembrances of those in the long story of successive generations of faith, whether those listed in the verses previous to today’s reading – such as Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses – as much as those in our reading who came after the Exodus, like Rahab who welcomed the scouts sent by Joshua, Sampson whose strength honored God, Daniel who shut the mouths of lions, Gideon who was a just and valiant warrior, and Esther who skillfully maneuvered to ensure the survival of the exiled people of Israel.
But because the span of faith is also made up of those unknown to us, the author acknowledges the nameless and extensive list of those who found themselves tortured, mocked, scourged, and tormented for and while holding faith in God. I suppose this is an irony of the Letter to the Hebrews, as the one book in the New Testament that bears no author’s name, with attempts all the way back to the 3rd century, of ascribing it to Paul, even though its writing style is vastly different than his own… and Paul was always VERY clear as to putting his name what he wrote! There is actually good reason to suspect it was written by a woman and when the early church moved away from prominent roles for women, if such a name was associated with Hebrews, it may well have disappeared. The leading theory is that it was written by Priscilla of Rome, one who had been expelled along with other Jews by order of the Emperor, ending up in Corinth and making missionary journeys around the Mediterranean, before finally returning to Rome. Personally, I think this makes the most sense, but again – this is looking at what facts do exist and fitting them together in a rather incomplete puzzle.
Nevertheless, one can only imagine how with each name, there was that air of recognition with their story coming to mind and resonating, just as much as our long-gone family members and friends. Maybe it is just as well that in this journey of faith as Hebrews lists a veritable “Who’s Who” of the Old Testament laying the foundation for the fullness of God’s promises in Christ our Lord, that the author remains unknown! And, if there are the names of those like Abraham or David or Daniel that have the “wow” factor, this mix of the honored also includes Rehab, a Canaanite women whose description is one of an innkeeper who ran a brothel [see Joshua 2:9-13] and yet who along with her family is brought into the people of Israel… becoming mother of Boaz who married Ruth, great-grandmother to King David and some 30 generations later… the so many greats-grandmother of Jesus [per genealogy in Matthew 1]. This is no accident of scripture, but the potent reminder to not dismiss anyone, including ourselves, as being part of the long narrative of God’s redemptive work over the millenniums.
We must also take note that in all of these images, there are those of both triumph and of suffering. Hebrews stands, therefore, in opposition to the assertion that one’s fate while on earth is a direct reflection of one’s spirituality. I think this is important, as those who live in a culture that bandies people about as winners and losers, successes or failures – blaming the victim and lauding the victor. This misses the larger truth, as written in Hebrews, for some “…did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth” [Hebrews 11:13].
I suspect that the folks who first heard the letter read aloud to them were very needful of this encouragement, in an age when there was excessive pressure upon them to renounce their faith in Jesus as the Christ, and thus return to their former lives as Jews. In the words of the late William Barkley:
“The intermingled categories are a word of encouragement for struggling Christians. If we are struggling, and someone tells us that the true mark of faithfulness is suffering, we might despair. Must our suffering continue forever? If we are struggling and someone tells us that the true mark of faithfulness is triumph and victory, what hope is there for us? But the mixing of suffering and triumph gives us a word of hope: faithfulness shines both in suffering and in triumph, both in sorrow and in joy.”
But what if what’s next doesn’t seem close enough, and the cloud of witnesses, our perseverance, and our self-sacrifice just seem to come up short?
What if we aren’t so sure we can hold out to the end of the race, as in our humanity, fatigue sets in with the finish line a mile too far?
Having learned faith is about endurance as much as anything else, trusting in God’s eternal promises even amid circumstances that make one wonder if the promises are true, what if we just fear coming up short?
In the face of suffering – however suffering is experienced, including the sense of just being disconnected – how does faith nevertheless hold on for the certainty of a future in which God has something better in store?
We may well be full of such questions, each perhaps worthy of an extended and lengthy answer, but instead the writer of Hebrews holds up one last photo to us, the most important one, saying “Let us run the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” [Hebrews 12:1]. Pioneer is the translation of the Greek word, “archegos” – a word for author… beginner… instigator… impetus… trailblazer. In the Greek games which are a cultural reference for the author writing from Rome, the team captain would run the race ahead of the team being the encouragement to his teammates as they followed in his steps.
For the first hearers of the Letter to the Hebrews it would have reminded them of Joshua, son of Nun, who scouted out the Promised Land for the people of the Exodus. Now, it is Jesus who blazes a new trail through all of human existence and tested in every way like all of us, “Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame” [Hebrews 12:2]. The one who carries us the distance we cannot attain – in his joy.
For the first hearers of the Letter to the Hebrews it would have also reminded them of Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the first high priest after the exile, who came before the full presence of God, the needs of the people. Now it is Jesus not only calls us across the finish line, but comes before God on our behalf, completing us where we lack that our faith may be whole. Thus, when we feel the wear of the journey of faith… when we wonder: Can we hold on? Can we make it? There is THIS word… that what we cannot do, Jesus has already accomplished.
So what do we make of all of this? I missed the broadcast, but Jacque was thoughtful enough to send me the link of the thoughtful comedian Stephen Colbert talking with Anderson Cooper, whose mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, recently died. Colbert was 11 years old when he lost his father and brothers in a plane crash, with Cooper being the same age when his own father died and his brother committed suicide. Reading aloud something Colbert said of himself on another occasion, that he “had learned to love the thing I most wished had not happened,” Cooper kind of choked up. Clearly grieving hard the death of his mother, which reawakened those earlier losses, Cooper asked of Colbert, who not infrequently alludes to his Christian faith and can quote scripture as well as any preacher, whether he really believed the quote from Tolkien that “what punishment of gods are not gifts?”
A gentle smile crossed Colbert’s face and he replied:
“If you’re grateful for your life …not everybody is and I’m not always, but it’s the most positive thing to do, then you have to be grateful for ALL of it. You can’t pick and choose what you’re grateful for.”
It was how, Colbert went on to share, he had discovered suffering is the one thing which affords us the deepest connection with other human beings… to his wife… his children… perfect strangers… and ultimately with God.
Colbert then added a few moments later,
“That’s the great gift of the sacrifice of Christ, is that God does it too. That you’re really not alone.”
Sources: William Barclay. Daily Study Bible: Hebrews. (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1976). Relevant. “Stephen Colbert’s Deeply Moving Conversation About God and Grief Is Required Viewing.” 16 August 2019, accessed on 17 August 2019 at: https://relevantmagazine.com/culture/stephen-colberts-deeply-moving-conversation-about-god-and-grief-is-required-viewing/?fbclid=IwAR38hFICkSDC_6QZLoUCQKLWYdxN6w46a_2lCm09h2ghRjyn7nD88Yzbfyc