Monday, November 02, 2015

Not Losing Hope

Not Losing Heart
Hebrews 2:1-10, 14-15[1]
We are taught from an early age to finish what we start. Some of us may do better than others, but perseverance is a virtue that is impressed upon us in many ways. We have all kinds of slogans to reinforce it, slogans that may haunt us. But for all that, the fact of the matter is that at some point in life, all of us will feel like giving up. As Ernest Hemingway puts it so pointedly, “the world breaks everyone.”[2] Of course, Hemingway was not known for his optimistic outlook on life, but it would seem that in this he has captured a bit of truth. Our lives unfold in ways we never imagined, and sometimes the circumstances are so burdensome as to break our will to persevere. We all at some time in our lives find ourselves losing heart.
The situation behind our Scripture lesson from Hebrews for today is one that applies very well to this theme. The Letter to the Hebrews was written to encourage a group of Christians to hold onto their faith, and not lose heart.[3] We don’t really know who they were, but we can detect some of what they were facing. First, for those who may have been Jewish, it would seem that they had converted to faith in Jesus the Christ in a time when the leaders of many Jewish communities had decided to shun anyone who took such a step. So they were very likely cut off from their friends and perhaps even their families by their decision to follow Christ. In some cases perhaps they were forced to leave a community of faith that had been the center of their lives.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t all they had to endure. These were Christians who lived in Greek and Roman cities. Again, it was a time when their Greek and Roman neighbors began to shun them and even at times attack them for their faith. Whether they were Jewish or Greek or Roman, they were ridiculed for believing that a man who had been executed as a criminal could possibly be the Savior of the world.[4] They were thrown out of their trade guilds and stripped of their livelihoods because they refused to offer sacrifices to their patron gods. They were seen as the enemies of society and branded atheists because they wouldn’t worship the pagan deities.
Needless to say, their lot in life was not an easy one. And in the midst of that kind of pressure, it is evident from the Letter to the Hebrews that they were losing heart. How could they not have grown weary from the constant barrage of opposition? I’m not sure we would do much better. In fact I might not hold up as well as they did. I don’t think it’s hard to imagine some of the questions that haunted them. Where was God in the midst of their suffering? Had they done the right thing by embracing Jesus Christ as their Savior? If they had, why were they suffering so?[5]
The one who wrote to these struggling people tried to encourage them to hold firmly to their faith and not to lose heart. It was his conviction that their faith could see them through, and that there were some very good reasons not to give up. In our lesson for today, I think the main point is that no matter what their sufferings might be, they had a friend and even a brother in Jesus who would stand beside them no matter what. In the first place, Jesus was not only willing to be “made lower than the angels,” but he also took on “the suffering of death” for them (Heb. 2:9). There was no suffering they could experience that he did not know. And he took on that suffering to show them that he was not ashamed to take his place among them as their brother (Heb. 2:11).[6]
More than that, the lesson says that he not only humbled himself by sharing “flesh and blood.” Rather, he took it on so that he could set them free from what may have been the greatest fear they had—the fear that they would lose their very lives because of their faith in Jesus. And because they faced that fear, Jesus passed through death to the victory of the resurrection in order to show them that he had destroyed the power death held over them.[7] There was no suffering he was not willing to bear as their brother and friend, not even death itself. And so the Scripture says, “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested” (Heb. 2:18).[8]
I think one of the hardest challenges we face when we’re tempted to lose heart is the feeling that we’re all alone. That’s the sentiment of Hemingway’s outlook on the world. His famous quote continues, “The world breaks everyone, and afterwards many are strong at the broken places.” And I know that’s true, as many of you do. But that wasn’t all he said. Like many before and after him, his was a view that ultimately life is tragic, senseless, and ruthless. And when you look at some of what happens to people in this world, it can be hard not to lose heart and lose faith and embrace that kind of despair.
But our Scripture for today gives us at least one reason not to lose heart and faith: no matter what this life may throw at us, no matter how much we may be disappointed, no matter how much the world may break us, we have someone who knows what it’s like. We have someone who is always willing to stand by us in our hardships as our friend, and even more, as our brother. Because his is a spiritual friendship and a spiritual presence, it’s not always obvious to us. But the Scriptures reassure us time and time again, that Jesus is here among us, as a community and individually. In your darkest moments, he is only a prayer away. That prayer may not bring much relief at the time. But the promise is clear: when we feel like we are losing heart we have a friend and a brother who is always with us to encourage us and support us and strengthen us.



[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/4/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE. An audio version is available at http://hickmanpresbyterian.org/sermons .
[2] Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, 267. The full quote is, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” Unfortunately, many who quote the first part of this passage use it as a statement of hope, while Hemingway clearly did not intend it in that way.
[3] Cf. Anchor Bible Dictionary, s. v. “Hebrews, Epistle to the,” by Harold W. Attridge, p. 100. Cf. also Thomas G. Long, Hebrews, 3, where he says that “the threat here is that, worn down and worn out, they will drop their end of the rope and drift away. Tired of walking the walk, many of them are considering taking a walk, leaving the community and falling away from the faith.”
[4] One of the most (in)famous examples is the “Alexamenos Graffito,” an image that depicts a Christian named Alexamenos worshiping a man with the head of a donkey hanging on a cross, with an inscription, “Alexamenos worships his god.” Cf. http://gospelsmuseum.div.ed.ac.uk/exhibits/show/10/the-alexamenos-graffito .
[5] Cf. Long, Hebrews, 28, where he argues that part of their problem is a theological one: “Everyone can see the shame of Jesus’ death; what we cannot see is how Jesus’ death brings life.” He adds (p. 33), “If we do not have a ny coherent conviction about how God is restoring the broken creation and how our prayers and our efforts are incorporated into this divine action, … then we eventually lose heart, lose energy, and lose faith.”
[6] Cf. Barnabas Lindars, Theology of the Letter to the Hebrews, 39–40, where he discusses the author’s emphasis on Jesus’ humanity. He says that one of the reasons for this is to stress Jesus’ solidarity with humanity.
[7] Cf. J├╝rgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 182, where he says that the fellowship of Christians is on the way to “the annihilation of death in the new creation of all things. Only then will ‘all tears be wiped away’ and perfect joy unite all created beings with God and with one another.” And yet, at the same time he can also say that we already have a taste of this new creation by virtue of the resurrection of Jesus (ibid., 254): “the day of Christ’s resurrection is the first day of the new creation.” As Long observes wisely (Hebrews, 37), this is the “truth about Jesus that must be heard,” that is, through the gospel, but cannot yet be seen.
[8] Cf. Long, Hebrews, 42: “Jesus is made perfect in that suffering joins him completely and empathetically to the human condition. Through his pain Jesus becomes a ‘brother’ to every other human being, and this is a radical theological point. The Preacher is saying that when the gaze of the eternal Son of God encompasses a criminal on death row, when the glorified Son sees a homeless woman crawling into a cardboard box to keep from freezing in the night, when the Lord of all sees a man robbed of dignity and purpose by schizophrenia, when the divine heir of all things sees a mother weeping over the death of her child or a man battling the last savage assault of cancer or the swollen body of a child slowly starving to death, he does not see a charity case, a pitiful victim, or a hopeless cause. He sees a brother, he sees a sister … .”

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