I want to begin a
series this morning on Hebrews, commonly known as the letter to the
Hebrews. The 24th book in your New Testament, not to be confused
with the Old Testament (because of the name). But it's not really
a letter, it's more of a homily. Nor is it really addressed
specifically to Hebrew people. So the name is a bit of a misnomer.
But before I read the
text for this morning, I want to give just a little bit of background on
what we know about it.
About the author, we
can't say a whole lot because we don't know who the author was.
King James attributes Hebrews to the Apostle Paul, but the letter itself
does not make that claim. That was a tradition that was added onto
it long after it was written. So we don't know who it was, it's
About the intended
audience, to whom or for whom it was written, we can't say a whole lot
either, because we don't know who that was.
About the context,
historical context in which it was written, we can't say much because we
don't know where it was written, or when it was written.
So in other words,
you know as much as scholars about Hebrews, which is "diddly-squat"!
But there are a few things we can say about it.
We do know, for
instance, whomever this anonymous author was, he was very well
educated. Hebrews is probably the most sophisticated, highest form
of Greek that we have in the New Testament. And what's more, it
shows that the author was very aware and likely educated in classical
We also know that it
was most likely written in the second half of the first century, roughly
about the same time the gospels were written. And that it was
written to address Christians in a very difficult time when the world
was increasingly becoming hostile toward the faith. And some were
doubting their faith, and hence the overall purpose of Hebrews is to
strengthen the community of disciples.
So with that in mind,
let me share with you this text from the second chapter of Hebrews:
Now God did not subject
the coming world, about which we are speaking,
to angels. 6But someone has testified somewhere,
‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
or mortals, that you care for them?
7You have made them for a little while lower than the angels;
you have crowned them with glory and honour,
8 subjecting all things under their feet.’
Now in subjecting all
things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we
do not yet see everything in subjection to them, 9but we do see Jesus,
who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned
with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by
the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
10 It was fitting
[right] that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in
bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their
salvation perfect through sufferings. 11For the one who sanctifies and
those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is
not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, 12saying,
‘I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters,
in the midst of the congregation I will praise
‘I will put my trust in him.’
‘Here am I and the children whom God has given me.’
therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise
shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one
who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15and free those who
all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.16For
it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants
of Abraham. 17Therefore he had to become like
his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a
merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a
sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18Because
he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those
who are being tested.
Speaking of temptation, I thought that
I might show an illustration for this theme from Mel Gibson's movie
"The Passion of the Christ" that depicts the suffering of
Jesus. But, that scene is terribly violent, and horribly
depressing. And what's more, it's longer than most of my
sermons. It's overwhelming, literally overkill. So I decided
When I was looking through some of the
images you can find online from the movie, I didn't even dare show
those. Just simply too strong.
But I thought of that scene because it
displays graphically what many if not most Christians believe:
that the suffering of Jesus must have been so terrible because he had to
bear all the sins of the world. And the theological word we
use for that idea is
hogwash, I mean, atonement.
Sorry, that just slipped out. Atonement. Which simply means
to make reparations for a wrong, for an injury. Religiously
speaking, it means the redemption of humanity through the suffering and
the death of Jesus for our sin.
So we have been taught that someone had
to atone for our sin to make us right with God. And that someone,
of course, was Jesus. And since our sins are so great, his
suffering, therefore, must have been absolutely terrible.
Now there's just 1 little tiny problem
with that idea. And that is, why would a loving God demand that
someone, anyone, bear that kind of suffering for our sin?
So I want to suggest to you another
possibility that helps to understand the suffering of Jesus without
making us guilty for it. And more importantly, that will help us,
I would hope, to lesson rather than to increase suffering in the world.
I love verse 10 in this passage when
the author says 'God did the right thing when he made Jesus perfect by
suffering'. And I'm so glad that the author has told us that,
because otherwise we might have thought that God did the wrong thing!
Gary Larson, the cartoonist who I miss
so terribly, had a wonderful cartoon depicting God as a game-show
And you can see the score is 1,065 to
zero, as the announcer says "Yes, that's right, the answer is
Wisconsin. Another 50 points for God! And, uh-oh, looks like
Norman, our current champion, hasn't even scored yet".
We don't entertain the possibility that
God could make a mistake. We assume that everything God does is
right, correct, all the time. But that does not mean that we
should never question God. From the cry of Jesus on the cross
"O Lord, O Lord, why have you forsaken me?", to the cry of
every parent who has lost a loved one in a tragic accident, or every
person who has seen a loved one die in tragic circumstances, and wants
to know 'why, God, why?'.
We have every right to question God and
to demand a reckoning, as did Job of old. Why is there so much
suffering in the world? Why must we always have the poor among
us? Why must there always be war and rumor of war? Why do
the good die young? Why is life not fair? Why, God, why?
And only when we ask those difficult,
hard questions -- challenging, yes, God, but also challenging our
assumptions. Do we find God, like Job, in the whirlwind? And
we see a glimpse of that larger reality, that larger truth that is
beyond the reality we know.
From my own struggles with such
questions, my own study and reflection, I have found that those kinds of
questions lead us not to conclude that God did the wrong thing, but that
very wrong is not the doing of God, whereas the right that is done by
God is what we so often have difficulty seeing.
One extreme example:
fundamentalist preachers and fanatic Muslims alike attributed September
11th to God. That God either willed it, or allowed it to
happen. As Pat Robertson said, God removed his protective hand
Pope Benedict tried to refute such
thinking in his unfortunately controversial address that he gave at the
University of Regensburg in Germany last month. His point, lost in
the furor over his comment on holy war and Islam, was that faith and
reason need each other to avoid such dangerous thinking. That
religion without reason too often results in violent fanaticism.
He said "God is not pleased by bloodshed. Whoever would lead
someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly
without violence and threats of violence".
Do you hear that challenge, the
challenge that comes to us? And the importance for us to reflect
seriously on the relationship between God and suffering. For
suffering that is caused by God, if caused by God, can be no more good
than suffering caused by anyone else. But God can work through
suffering. God can even bring redemption out of suffering, bring
good out of it.
Amidst that enormous tragedy on Sept
11th, we saw true beauty and heroism such that the symbol for God's
presence and action on that fateful day was not the collapsing
buildings, but the police officers and the firefighters rushing to help,
often to their own death.
Such never compensates for the
tragedy. But it does give us hope that death will not be the last
word. And so we see in the sacrifice of those public servants,
just as we see in the sacrifice of Jesus, acts of God are not those that
take lives, that add to suffering, that cause pain or make war, but
those that enhance life, that bring beauty and joy and hope to our
Thus the suffering of Jesus was not
perfect because of its intensity or its enormous pain, but because it
completed the humanity of Jesus. It made him like us. In
other words, Jesus suffered as we suffer. His suffering was not
just for us, it was with us.
And so I suggest to you instead of
seeing a-tone-ment as the primary way to interpret the death of Jesus,
we see it as at-one-ment.
In other words, that through his
suffering and death, Jesus is at one with us and we with him.
Therefore, that our sin is not the cause of his suffering.
Does that make any difference?
Let me suggest to you 3 possibilities.
First of all, shifting the emphasis
from a-tone-ment to at-one-ment is more than just a shift in
syllables. Interpreting the meaning of Jesus' passion and death as
at-one-ment is fundamentally a different understanding. A-tone-ment
essentially says if Jesus hadn't gone to the cross, if he hadn't given
his life for us, then we could not be forgiven. We would therefore
deserve to suffer if not for that sacrifice of Christ. I think
that that's wrong. That's just plain perverted theology.
At-one-ment says that the suffering of Christ was not necessary at
all. God would still love us, and forgive us, the same if Jesus
had lived to be 100. We did not cause Jesus to suffer -- it was
the imperial power of Rome that caused him to suffer. We did not
make Jesus die -- we have enough guilt in our lives to add that.
It was the collaboration between religious power and political might
that caused his death.
Jesus chose the way of the cross as a
purely voluntary act of love and justice rooted in his solidarity -- his
at-one-ment -- with the suffering of humanity. His suffering, as
the one totally innocent, was the ultimate protest against the power of
empire and the rule of oppression. His death was God's
"no" to the rulers of this world. As we read in verse 14
of this text, that is why Jesus became one of us -- he died to destroy
the devil, who had the power of death.
If nothing else, we should learn from
the example of Jesus that suffering which is not born of love, which is
not voluntary, which is inflicted upon others, cannot be and never is
the will of God. Therefore, when we as a nation condone the use of
torture and suspend the right of Habeas Corpus (a basic principle in
English common law and democratic jurisprudence for over 400 years,
which protects the rights of those imprisoned to have their case
considered in a court of law), when we abolish that basic human right,
we can hold whomever we like for as long as we'd like without any
protection against cruel and inhuman treatment, the very soul of our
nation and the spiritual strength of our heritage is lost. And we
will be a country with only military power and no moral authority in the
world. And I fear that day.
As Garrison Keillor wrote in his column
condemning the vote of Congress just a couple weeks ago on that issue,
he said: "If the government can round up someone and never be
required to explain why, then it's no longer the United States that you
and I always understood and our enemies have succeeded beyond their
wildest dreams. They have made us become like them".
That is the opposite of at-one-ment.
Instead of becoming one with Christ, rising to the way of God, we have
become one with our enemies, stooping to the way of evil.
That leads me to the second way that
at-one-ment makes a difference. At-one-ment emphasizes our
connections over our individualism. It's not just between us
individually and God, it's between us collectively and God. The
lesson of global warming, that
we reflected on a couple of weeks ago, is precisely that. We
are all in this together. It's not one nation against another
nation, it's not Republicans against Democrats, it's not black against
white, it's not Christians against Jews, it's not Muslims against
Hindus, it's all of us together.
I think that point was made beautifully
in our video last week when a mother talked about how being a mom
changed her. This intensity of a feeling of connectedness that she
felt with all mothers who grieve for their children. Whether they
be American soldiers or Iraqi citizens who are killed in that war, or
wherever. To identify with them is to be at one with them.
The Amish demonstrated this so beautifully, and unfortunately
tragically, when they befriended the family of the killer of their
children. And took her food, and brought her into their community
of love and forgiveness.
Finally, at-one-ment emphasizes our
connection with God, not our separation from God. Marianne
Williamson says it so well in that quote that was used in the delightful
family movie, "Aquila and the Bee" (if you want a good,
wholesome movie, get that movie, it is just a wonderful, delightful
movie that warms your heart). At any rate, in that movie, they use
this quote, but they never cite the source of the quote -- it comes from
Let your light
shine. Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our
deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond imagination.
Remember what the author of our text
says? God has put everything under our power and has not left
anything out of our power. We are powerful beyond
imagination. Williamson continues:
It is our light more
than our darkness which scares us. We ask ourselves – who are we to
be brilliant, beautiful, talented, and fabulous. But honestly, who are
you to not be so? You are a child of God. Your playing
small doesn't serve the world. We were born to make manifest the
glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us,
it's in every one of us. As we let our own light shine, we consciously
give other people permission to do the same.
Followers of Jesus, be one with our
Lord. Let your light shine to the glory of God.