God’s Story, Our Story: Something Better
Preaching: Ken Eriks
Text: Hebrews 1:1-4, 11:1-3, 12:1-4
"Life is difficult." Those are the first three words of The Road Less Traveled, by M. Scott Peck. The root of most person's troubles, says Peck, lies in the fact they do not think life should be difficult. They resist the work which is part of life. "Life is difficult." The mature person accepts that fact and faces life with integrity, commitment, perseverance.
Perseverance was the challenge facing the readers of the letter to the Hebrews. Addressed to Christians near the end of the first Century, living day after day, year after year, awaiting the return of Christ; it is a challenge to "hang in there." Following Christ's resurrection, these Christians expected his early return. Years passed. Nothing seemed to change. Life plodded along. Caesar ruled. Believers lived, suffered, and died. Unbelieving neighbors taunted, or worse, ignored them. The race the Hebrews expected to be a short dash to glory turned into a marathon of excruciating length.
Like the Hebrew Christians we are called to follow Christ faithfully, day after day, year after year, even though our witness appears to have little impact on a deteriorating world. We race against weariness, disappointment, despair. We find the life of discipleship to be more difficult than we anticipated. Trials and temptations batter us like the incessant waves on a wind-blown Lake Michigan.
We see the violence, hatred, fear, and racial discord that wrack our nation. We observe a political process dominated by discord and disunity! We sense that the voices of compassionate Christians are being trumped by those that play to the baser instincts of humanity.
Like many New Testament letters, the letter to the Hebrews makes many important theological claims about Jesus—who he was and what he did—as it builds toward the more practical aspects of life in Christ. In this case, much of the letter builds toward Hebrews 12:1-3.
"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us 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. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.”
The central claim of the letter to the Hebrews is that Jesus is superior to every person, revelation, and religious practice that came before him. He is incomparable in his person and in his work.
The writer opens the letter with the assertion that, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors by the prophets; now God has spoken through the Son.” This Son is the full reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”
Jesus is the full text of the Good News that God has been declaring to the world for generations. He is the completion of God’s message to humankind. God’s story has been given full expression in the incomparable life of Jesus.
I highly recommend that you make time some day to read the first ten chapters of this amazing letter in which the writer makes this claim explicit. You will see that Jesus is the true temple—the person in whom God fully and completely dwells. Jesus is the true High Priest—the person that offered prayers to God for himself and his people while on earth; and continues to intercede for us now from the right hand of God. Jesus created a new covenant—a new life of promise and fulfillment for us with God—a covenant that is eternal and unfailing. Jesus is the perfect Lamb of God—the complete sacrifice for all the sins of all people for all time.
In Hebrews 12 Jesus is described as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Jesus is the person that supremely lived by faith. By faith, Jesus was willing to go to the cross—despising the shame—and ran the race faithfully to the very end. Jesus trusted that God loved him and wanted was best for him; that God was wise and knew what was best for him; and that God was powerful and could do what was best for him. The joy of one day being united with this God of wisdom, love, power and grace enabled Jesus to persevere.
John Ortberg tells the story of a friend named Sandy. Her life went smoothly for years. Raised in a Christian home, a graduate of a Christian college, she met and married a Christian man and began a career as a nurse.
Four years later, pregnant with her first child, Sandy’s husband told her he felt trapped and wasn’t sure he wanted to remain married. Two months later he left her. Sandy soon discovered that her husband had been unfaithful for most of their marriage. Through one of his affairs he contracted a sexually transmitted disease. When the baby was born it was clear she was the victim. Rachel was born anacephalic—with only a brain stem to carry out the functions of the brain. Doctors told Sandy that Rachel would only live a few days—weeks at the most. Weeks became months; months turned into years—more than three years, in fact.
Sandy’s life consisted of working eight hour shifts as a nurse—while a sister or friend stayed with Rachel—then working 16 hour shifts at home with Rachel. All the while Sandy knew she would never feel Rachel’s fingers grasp her hand, never see her first steps, never smile when she finally said mommy. She couldn’t even tell for sure if Rachel knew who she was. The only time Rachel seemed to respond at all was during her bath, when she uttered a low, cooing sound.
Sandy had many questions. “Why did this happen? Why didn’t God answer Sandy’s prayers for a healthy child? Why did Rachel have to live such a limited life? Where was God in all of it?” And yet, John Ortberg tells us that Sandy kept her eyes on Jesus and chose to trust God’s promises in the same ways that Jesus did—without answers, but keeping her eyes on the joy that was set before her—and this enabled her to persevere. Sandy chose to live by faith. Hebrews 11 describes faith in these words: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.”
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for.... Faith lives in confidence that even as life on the surface falls short of expectations and God's promises seem to go unfulfilled, God can still be trusted. Faith believes in advance what will only makes sense as we look back on it. Faith lives out of the assurance that, because God has defeated sin and death, someday, mourning and crying and pain will be no more. Faith hears the music of God’s future and dares to dance to it.
The writer adds: Faith is the conviction of things not seen. To the eye of faith the universe isn’t an aimless swirl of gas—it’s a gift of God's love sustained by God's providence and power. Faith is a way of looking at the world, others and ourselves, and trusting that, by God’s grace, there is more than meets the eye. Faith is the eye of the heart that allows us to see beyond challenges, difficulty, and trouble to another level of reality—the real presence of Jesus Christ.
Persevering over the long haul is not easy. The race is long. The potential for burn-out is great. There are long dry spells. But we can finish the race. Here is how Eugene Petersen renders our verses from Hebrews 12 in The Message:
Do you see what this means—all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means that we better get on with it. Strip down, start running—and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus who both began and finished the race we are in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything that came up along the way; cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility that he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!
The writer is encouraging perseverance—steadfast endurance—tenacious refusal to swerve from a goal. Perseverance is the determination to stay the course, to complete the race.
Frederick Nietzsche wrote, "The essential thing, in heaven and earth is that there be a long obedience in the same direction; and thereby results, and has always resulted.... something which has made life worth living."
According to the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, perseverance is a long obedience in the same direction. It is learning from Jesus and following Jesus, even when we don't feel like it. It is finishing what we begin. It is staying the course even when there appears to be little pay off, and God does not seem to honor our faithfulness.
Perseverance is possible if it is rooted in two things.
The first is captured by the opening words: "Therefore since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses...." The writer has in mind those whose faith and faithfulness is recounted in Hebrews 11. We are cheered on by people who know all about a long obedience in the same direction. Abraham waited 99 years for the gift of a son and a future. Moses led the people forty years, yet did not personally enter the Promised Land. They serve as witnesses that perseverance is possible. I remember a sermon that JB preached many years ago in which he pictured this cloud of witnesses doing the wave, cheering us on.
As important as this cloud of witnesses is for our perseverance there is someone more important. We look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Jesus identified completely with us. He was tempted to accept short-cut solutions. People wearied him as they weary us. He dealt with lack of understanding. Jesus knows our struggles.
Through it all Jesus persevered. He was tempted to turn from death—but instead, faced the cross. God raised him victorious over all that threatens our faithfulness. Jesus is alive. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus is at work in our lives and this community of faith.
At the point of our weariness, God surrounds us with a great cloud of witnesses to encourage us. When we are tempted to quit we look to Jesus, pioneer of our faith, perfecter of our faithfulness. By Christ's power and presence alone will our life in Christ be a long obedience in the same direction.
We persevere because we know that the heart of God beats with the music of love. As we live by faith in Jesus, our story is incorporated into the much bigger story of hope and transformation that God is authoring.
Alan Paton, the South African author, at one point wrote, "Life has taught me not to expect success as the inevitable result of my endeavors." He said this after using his writing skills and his reputation to try to rid South Africa of Apartheid. All his life he lived toward that goal. He spent the last years of his life under house arrest, but never gave up.
Toward the end of his life he wrote, "Life has taught me to seek sustenance from the endeavor itself, and leave the rest to God....There is only one way to live: giving your best while trusting God to use our lives to serve God’s purposes.” Paton's faithfulness, his ability to persevere, paved the way for an end to Apartheid in South Africa.
Jesus is God's human voice inviting us into a life of faith and faithfulness. Jesus is God's hand holding our hand. Jesus carries our prayers to the throne of God. Because of Jesus, access to the Living God and all the joys of heaven are not attainments to be achieved—they are gifts to be received. Jesus comes along side us to lead us home.
Jesus is here this morning, just as he was there for the readers of the letter to the Hebrews. He encourages us to live with boldness born of resting in God’s grace. By his blood he promises that the discordant themes of our lives will one day be blended into the harmony of heaven. He is eager to escort us into the vast expanse of wonder and joy awaits us. Jesus sustains us on a lifelong journey in this life, and he brings us into a life lived in right relationship with God, and he ensures that our stories will ultimately be caught up into God’ story.
Certainly what happened to Sandy and Rachel is a tragic story, but it isn’t the whole story. The truth is: through all the twists and turns, God is at work, gathering up their story into the divine story. One day Sandy and Rachel will be together again.
Like the readers of the letter to the Hebrews, like the great cloud of witnesses, like Sandy and Rachel, we will persevere toward something better—toward someone better. Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith; the one who knows us by name; the one loves us in our sin; and the one who works toward our transformation waits to welcome us with open arms.