Hebrews 10 31-39
We who speak about the Bible, either professionally in the classroom or amateurishly in the sanctuary, are always greatly pleased when our favorite passages come up on the schedule. It is a great pleasure to speak about our most beloved portions of Scripture.
Unfortunately todayâ€™s readings are not among them. Odd, quirky, cryptic, violent, freakish, threatening, clouded with imminent doom: what does one make of them?
To be sure, much has already been made of them; much mischief has been made of them. Predicting the end of the world is big business. Not only does it sell lots of badly-written novels, but it has even spawned a video game.
In the interest of spiritual formation I downloaded the demo of the new Left Behind video game. It turned out that they gave me a little guy who had to walk around the streets and target people for conversion. So I sent him up to some drab business man, and my little evangelist guy made expressive little computer animated gestures with his hands, while weird little wisps of spiritually significant smoke wafted off the businessman. It looked like the Vapor Action from the old cough drops commerical. In about seven seconds he converted, and his dark business suit changed to nice khakis and a sweater vest. Then he followed my evangelist guy around the streets like a puppy.
After I got about twelve converts (which by the way was really easy–seven seconds of Vapor Action for each one), they would all walk around in a crowd wherever I would send them, and whenever I gave them an order they would say in creepy robot unison, â€œWe cheerfully obey. The Tribulation Force is strong.â€
Then, when they get tired, you can click the Pray button, and they all stop and strike a religious pose, and their little blue health bar moves back up to full stamina.
It was nearly as exciting as it sounds.
I was hoping to get them armed and equipped to mow down their enemies in a hail of high-powered gunnery, but my attention wandered and also my boss came in the door. That was the end of the video game.
Yet more mischief has come out of these biblical texts. If you have ever been to Bible camp you know how sometimes they get the kids good and scared that Christ will return this very night, and everyone else in your cabin will be gone when you wake up, and youâ€™ve been left behind.
And perhaps the worst mischief of all is the approach that revels in doom and destruction, taking them as a promising sign that the end of the world is coming soon, and rejoicing at every earthquake, plague, and outbreak of war. What has our theology done to us, if it turns us into the kind of people who savor disaster, sorrow, and violence? Are disciples of Jesus supposed to be connoisseurs of worldwide suffering?
But we get the message of these texts wrong if we forget that we are reading other peoplesâ€™ mail. The book of Daniel, Hebrews, and Mark were all written to certain people at a certain time, with a need to hear certain things. Especially, they were written to people in the middle of chaos, or about to be. Daniel warns of a coming time in Israelâ€™s history when a particularly nasty Greek ruler by the name of Antiochus was going to set up an altar to Zeus in the Jewish temple. This is the â€œabomination of desolationâ€. For a Jew of that day, there was nothing worse that could happen. To have a pagan god worshiped in Yahwehâ€™s temple would have been taken as the clearest sign of defeat and abandonment by God. One would naturally conclude that there was no more purpose in following the ways of God, since all was now lost.
Likewise the readers of Hebrews were facing difficulties, and some were apparently wondering if this was all worth it. The writer reminds them that they have gotten through it before. And then he writes of the fact that God does indeed come with dramatic judgement and set wrong things right.
While we are on the subject of Godâ€™s judgement, we should point out that it is unlike human judgement. There are good human judges; there are good ones in this town, as a matter of fact. But all a judge can do is either punish or not punish. He can make a person pay, or go to jail, or go free. He cannot make the criminal sorry, or repentent. He cannot heal the victim of physical or emotional harm. And he does not have power to bring the victim and offender to forgiveness, reconciliation, and even friendship.
Godâ€™s judgement is not like this. He is not first of all concerned with revenge; he is first of all concerned with reconciliation wherever it can be accomplished. That is why Paul calls the gospel work the â€œministry of reconciliationâ€ and why Isaiah speaks of lion and lamb, natural predator and victim, keeping house together. It is meant to be an odd and surprising picture of the unexpected power of God to bring peace. And this is why the Psalms so often portray creation rejoicing at the coming judgement of God: it means that right relationships will be restored.
Still, what if people insist on evil? What if, after all reasoning and pleading, some still stubbornly diminish the image of God in themselves and in others through violence, the worship of created things rather than the Creator, and the refusal of forgiveness and reconciliation? What is God to do?
This is where the frightening language comes in: if God is serious about banishing evil from his creation, and if some refuse to be reconciled, there must be some kind of way God opposes them.
What it is exactly, and what it will look like, we emphatically do not know. It seems that the wild, picturesque, and frightening biblical language of judgement is meant to show the cosmic seriousness of judgement, and also to frustrate our morbid curiosity about it.
Jesus also warned his followers about trouble that was to come. Some scholars believe that his warnings apply to two separate events, one in the first century and one far in the future. I am not qualified to get involved in that argument, so I will only point out that about forty years after he spoke these words, the Roman army indeed came and destroyed the city of Jerusalem. Just like Danielâ€™s readers, the Christians who saw the city in flames would wonder if God had forgotten them. Jesus tells them in advance so that they might trust him.
So, since we are reading other peoplesâ€™ mail today, what can we make of these passages?
They are all warnings not to equate Godâ€™s faithfulness with our positions of comfort or power.
It is the most natural thing, when things go well, to look around and say that God is kind. When things go badly, it is also natural to look around and say that God is cruel. And it is most natural of all to hope that things will never go badly for us, and to worry that they will.
But they will. In this world you will have trouble. The world is beautiful and it is broken, and you will not get through the brokeness without bruises. I wonder if that is the meaning of Jesus weeping at Lazarus tomb. It was not a pantomine: the grief was real. But it was also to teach us that until God sets the world right, grief visit us. You do not need to go looking for it. It will find you.
Having opened all this mail belonging to others, we should open the Psalm as well, because this Psalm answers some of the anxiety that the other passages raise. Here we find the trust and contentment that eludes us, or me at least, much of the time. There are two lines that I find particularly helpful: David, the writer, is pleased and satisfied with the places where his boundary lines have fallen. Literally, of course, that means he looks over the property on which he lives or tends sheep or whatever, and says: I like it here. It is good to be here, today, doing this.
I read somewhere that some ancient Christian monks used to pray a simple one word prayer. Not â€œJesusâ€ or â€œHallelujahâ€. They prayed the word Today, by which they were asking for the gift of being present in the moment, not forever distracted by worries of tomorrow, simply enjoying or serving in the moment.
The other line is that he takes joy in the people, in â€œthe saints who are in the landâ€ as the NIV puts it. There is more to this than David being a people person. Just as one can rejoice in where the boundary lines have fallen, one can rejoice in the community into which one has fallen.
I rejoice in this community, in the people of Midtown who are in the neighborhood, in whom is all my delight. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.
I know that many of you have hungered for community and looked for it for a long time. You are welcome here, and you are welcome whether you believe all the things we believe or not. One way to find out if something is worth believing is to try it on for a while. Instead of dissecting the Christian faith in a laboratory, you might want to join us in serving the poor in the name of Jesus. See what it is like. See if it is turning you into the kind of person you wish you were. You may find that you need to belong to the community for a while before you are ready to believe. Take all the time you need.
Some are doubting whether the church can ever be anything but organized hypocrisy: you are welcome too. We will prove you at least partially right about the hypocrisy part, but since youâ€™re sometimes a hypocrite too, let us find forgiveness togther.
It is in the community of Jesus that we find encouragement to persevere, though the world is broken. In this world we will have trouble. But take heart: Christ has overcome the world.