*Sermon preached on 18 Nov 2018, at First Christian Church of Hampton, VA. These are challenging scriptures, but then they speak to challenging times… times that can rattle us and cause us to forget what truly grounds us in life, as those of faith. That is the nature of scripture, it is always relevant! Blessings, Vinson
Gospel of Mark 13:1-8 (New Revised Standard Version)
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
Letter to the Hebrews 10:11-25 (New Revised Standard Version)
And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,” and since then has been waiting “until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.” For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,” he also adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
It was not long after I had started as a student minister to three rural congregations, when on one sunny Sunday morning that Fall, I came up the steps of a Victorian gingerbread church, greeting the men all gathered there and shaking hands. It was then that one older gentleman said to me, “The Bible says you’re supposed to shave before you come into God’s temple.” I wasn’t if I’d heard what I thought, so I asked him to repeat what he had just said, and I had indeed heard correctly.
I stood before him with a close-cropped beard about like now, absent of my present-day white hair, thinking what had I walked into, but then I noticed the reactions on the others and I relaxed.
He was on his own, and over the course of the next three years he would say this again to me on more occasions. In those pre-Google days, sometime in my first year, thinking somehow I had overlooked an obscure verse buried in the 1100 pages of the Bible, so I finally decided to risk revealing that I didn’t have the Bible memorized.
I asked him where it was written about needing to be clean-shaven.
It was then that I discovered that he had contorted a verse from II Samuel into a rule that actually stood in contrast to the Levitical requirement to not shave – except as a sign of defeat or mourning. And so on more that one occasion, I had to restrain my sarcastic wit from a rejoinder twisting another of David’s acts into an axiom, one that would have done nothing for either of us.
Well, I kept my beard… except for the later 24-year stretch in the Navy.
It gets tricky sometimes, reading God’s Word, and doing so as to not impose our own understanding upon what is written.
WHY I BRING THIS UP
Yet, here stands this morning, the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, a letter unlike any others in the New Testament, with its challenge to live in hope, and more.
If there is any book more densely and eloquently written within the New Testament, than Hebrews, I don’t know which it would be. Written before the destruction on the Temple in 70 AD, since it refers to the ongoing sacrifices being offered by the temple’s High Priest, the Letter to the Hebrews does not identify its author, unlike the rest of the New Testament books. Some have wanted to ascribe it to Paul, but it isn’t his writing style, with its distinct theological thrust and spirituality. And, let’s face it, Paul was the “John Hancock” of his day, always making sure it was clear in his letters that he authored them as an apostle of Jesus Christ. No such signature line of his exists in this letter.
Even the ancient church historian Eusebius, writing in the mid-second century, only hazarded a guess that it might have been written by Bishop Clement, in spite of its different writing style than any of Clement’s existing letters of the late first century and other factors.
Hebrews may reflect, as one church historian has remarked, “a deliberate blackout more than a case of collective loss of memory.” So if it has also been speculated it was by Barnabas, who had accompanied Paul on missionary journeys, or Apollos of whom Paul spoke of… my money is on Priscilla, a clear leader in Rome. Given the preponderance of women disciples, prophetesses, and leaders denoted in the Gospels and Paul’s letters to the first generation church, and then their complete disappearance from the recorded scene after the death of the last apostle, all I can think of is a remark on the matter as a “conspiracy of anonymity in the ancient church.” All of this may be why one reason early Christian writers and historians noted its difficulty in being accepted as part of the Christian canon that would become the New Testament.
So what do we know…
We do know is that its audience was to Jewish Christians, likely a small home church in Rome, where there was a large Jewish population in the Diaspora.
We do know is that things were getting challenging for them. The Emperor Nero had arisen and public harassment, imprisonment, and confiscation of property had begun, and eventually it would include move toward martyrdom. It was darkening times, indeed.
We do know that of such times Jesus had spoken, as in our reading from Mark when he and the disciples were departing from the Temple complex. One disciple, impressed with the imposing structures, had said: “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!,” to which Jesus replied: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Winter was coming. There were no flames or Roman armies yet laying siege, but Jerusalem would indeed fall, and even the behemoth stones as much as 80-tons, would be thrown down.
It really can seem incomprehensible that great edifices and the societies they represent can be destroyed, and yet we may recall how 12 years ago amid the banking crisis the idea that they were “too big to fail” came crashing to earth along with our economy.
It really can seem incomprehensible that great edifices and the societies they represent can be destroyed, just as much as it is difficult to grasp the magnitude of the terrible fires currently sweeping through California, laying waste to more than 231 square miles of forests and fields, with two towns destroyed, almost 12,000 structures burned, something like 1,000 people missing, and 71 found dead… even as volunteers continue the tough task of sifting through ashes in search of others’ remains.
It really can seem incomprehensible that great edifices and the societies they represent can be destroyed, and yet we only have to look at how ours and how in a short space of time it’s been reshaped by the politics of some so that we appear to be an embittered land of plenty, one that perverts the goodness of our land and people into something to be subtracted from, lifting up those who would tear down and not build, destroy and not create, use up and not give…
– with immigrants cast as takers, instead of the builders whom they are;
– with non-Christians cast as unworthy, instead of honored as those also created in God’s image;
– with insurance for those with pre-existing health issues treated as not an obligation of our society, in a twisted form of victim-blaming;
– with students seeking a better life being held ransom, with loanshark interest rates making them all but indentured servants;
– with people of color finding themselves recast as somehow not worthy of the 14th Amendment’s protection, instead of people also endowed with the same inalienable rights as the rest of us;
– with environmental concerns as something to be cast aside in the name of profits, with land, air and sea polluted, as though the generations to come are owed nothing.
Yet, it is precisely against this incomprehensible, that we hear Jesus can say “Do not be alarmed,” even as he gives us these words of caution: “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.” As Paul wrote to Timothy in the 4th chapter of his letter, “ For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.” And so it is we now see such things as the heresy of the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” distorting scriptures and ignoring others to justify a theology and lifestyle of building bigger barns, while blaming those who suffer as somehow deserving of it.”
Yet, it is precisely against the incomprehensible, that the word of Hebrews calms us, saying: “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,” he also adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” We are empowered by His word, His hope, His love – to make this covenant apparent through the living of our lives, in contrast and challenge to the forces of confusion.
Yet, it is precisely against the incomprehensible, we are reminded “…let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Embedded in the Greek words in which this is written is the understanding that whether here on Sunday morning or wherever – we are ALWAYS a gathered community in Christ, for what is mistranslated as “church” in most English Bibles, isn’t something we go to, IT IS WHO WE ARE.. We as Christians, cannot forsake our assembly because we’re always assembled before God as those literally referred to as the “called out” of the community to become members of the body of Christ in the world.
So what do we make of all of this? Tucked into the rich words of Hebrews, the writer adds, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”
Every Sunday I enjoy looking upon the sailing ship in the stained glass, not just because I was a sailor, but because it’s a reminder of this congregation’s heritage rooted at one time near the shipyard. It reminds me of how in days past, sailors working the rigging of sailing ships would often have their knuckles tattooed with just two words on the four front-facing fingers of each hand: “Hold Fast.” A way to remember they weren’t going to let go, no matter what.