Strength for the Journey #1 (Hebrews 1:1-4)

[Note: This sermon was preached as a dialogue between John York and Rubel Shelly.]

John York: I’ve looked forward to this day for several months now, Rubel. We get to begin the sermon series from Hebrews that we’ve been preparing behind the scenes since early this year.

Rubel Shelly: Indeed! But before we read a text and launch the series, I’d like to take a couple of minutes to deal with some personal things. And the first of those is to let you know we missed you last week, when you were in Oregon because of the death of your grandfather. I’m sorry your family has lost someone dear to you. But I am also certain it meant a great deal to you that he wanted you to officiate at his funeral.

John: I’m deeply appreciative of everyone’s prayers and cards this past week, and my whole family appreciated the beautiful flower arrangement sent to the funeral. One of the gifts that come from such times for me is that I am the designated speaker for the family in those situations. It was therapeutic for me to hear all of the stories and then piece together Granddad’s life. He would have been 95 in October, so he lived a long, full life. He was amazing in so many ways. He didn’t start school until he was nine years old. He completed fours years of school in two years time. But the family business meant he had to quit when he was 11. He loved to read and he could do almost anything with his hands. He loved God; loved his family; loved being outdoors; loved gardening and fly-fishing. I will always remember his very deep bass voice when he led prayer at mealtimes or when I sat beside him in church. He was always singing an octave lower than the rest of us.

Rubel: Memories such as those are precious to re-live with family. And now I know where you got your love of singing – at least in part. Right?

There is also a second thing that needs to be addressed here as well. While you were away last Sunday, it was reported to me by someone in his Sunday School Class that John Mark Hicks had a few things to say about the then-upcoming Hebrews series. It was something to this effect: “You can come to my class and get the real ‘stuff’ on Hebrews, after hearing the ‘fluff’ out in the Great Hall each Sunday!” I just want you to know . . . that I came to your defense!]

John: What? Why, I had that same comment reported to me this week. And I must have understood it differently. I came to your defense!

Rubel: Uhhh, maybe that episode just proves again that each of us reads the world through his or her own lenses! And we occasionally need help to see things from a broader, fuller perspective. We human beings certainly do it with one another. We have our peculiar reads on the same event. Each of us tends to interpret the world far too narrowly – if not altogether egocentrically! Don’t you think there is something of that problem being addressed in the Epistle to the Hebrews? Don’t you think there were some first-century Christians who were giving a flawed reading to their life situation in relation to God’s activity among them? Wasn’t that narrow reading about to put some of them in a spiritually precarious situation?

John: Was it ever! In fact, some of them were already in trouble – and others were on the verge of serious jeopardy. They had started a spiritual journey with Jesus and were getting discouraged. Some had turned back, and others were looking over their shoulders. They were experiencing with Jesus what those Israelites whose story we read from Exodus last year had gone through with Moses out in the wilderness.

I fear one of the reasons Hebrews doesn’t get much reading time today is that the title itself and then all of the references to life in Israel tend to make us think this book doesn’t have much relevance to us. After all, most if not all of us come from a Gentile background. We’ve been told somewhere along the way that this material is written for Jewish Christians who are thinking about returning to Judaism. Or we’ve just tried to read the material ourselves and become thoroughly confused by references to strange people like Melchizedek and strange stories about the tabernacle and the whole sacrificial system of Judaism.

So it probably helps to clarify a few things about the background before we begin. First, the title itself is not original to the work, and seems to be based on the fact that the writer uses so many Old Testament references. But it’s curious that all the references to Jewish worship are to the tabernacle, not the temple. And while he anticipates that his readers are familiar with Scripture, they do not seem to be familiar with the contemporary worship practices in Jerusalem. All of that to say this: No one knows who wrote Hebrews, and we really don’t know who the original audience was. We know that the author has great rhetorical skills as a writer and we know from reading the material that he has crafted it as a sermon.

The opening four verses are a single sentence in the original language, filled with alliteration and other stylistic devices designed to grab the audience’s attention. The writer carefully balances exposition of Scripture with exhortation to call his readers to faithfulness at a time when they are either openly discouraged or increasingly apathetic about their faith. Whether these Christians come from Judaism or from the Gentile world of pagan religions and political identities, the transformation from old identity to new has come at a very heavy cost in their surrounding environment. The author wants them to be aware that the Creator of the Universe is actively involved in their world and their lives, contrary to what all of their detractors are telling them. Specifically God has acted in Jesus Christ to bring about their ultimate salvation and they dare not consider the option of leaving this final revelation for any other temporary identity or quick fix to their suffering.

Rubel: From our shared point of view on this material, that is exactly why John and I have chosen to preach – or “fluff,” if you prefer – Hebrews for you this fall. We intend to preach it under the theme “Strength for the Journey.” John has explained the situation of the first readers of this material – I should probably say “hearers” rather than “readers,” and we’ll say more about that shortly. But is their situation essentially different from our own? Or that of believers from any time and place?

At one level, hardly any section of the New Testament seems more removed from a church in Nashville in its post-9/11 world of postmodernity, Wall Street gyrations, and geopolitical apprehensions. Why should we be reading a 2000-year old epistle that is so heavy and forbidding that it challenges the best of biblical scholars while we have so many down-and-dirty problems of real life in our faces? Isn’t there something more relevant to preach than an old piece of literature filled with allegorical interpretations of the furniture of the tabernacle? That tries to make something significant out of a mysterious figure named Melchizedek who had nothing more than a brief cameo appearance in the Old Testament? That depends on so many puns on Greek names and words that get lost in our English Bibles?

Obviously John and I don’t think Hebrews is a waste of our time or yours. No, most of you don’t read Greek and may initially be mystified by some of the book’s literary flourish. But John Mark will help you figure out their meaning. Be sure to get to his class early – and sit near the front. All right, enough harassment of our dear brother! For all of us who are going to partner to teach this material from pulpit, in classes, and through small-group discussion agree with this view of the epistle:

Its fundamental description of Christian believers as a pilgrim people with a sure guide in Jesus Christ and a definite goal in the heavenly city, in need of faith for the journey they undertake, rings true in every generation where discouragement and distractions threaten such faithfulness.[1]
The original Christian teachers and preachers believed that theology mattered. That it was worth more than pop psychology. That it was a preferred alternative to the breeze of the day that was blowing through the philosopher’s academy or across the theologian’s writing table. Guess what. We believe the same thing still. The shepherds of this church, our Counseling Center, our teachers of both children and adults, and these two preachers believe that the best thing we can do to help people weather the storms of life is to help them sink deep roots into the literature, theology, and relationships that can be gotten hold of only through a worldview controlled by Holy Scripture. What you believe about Jesus makes all the difference in how you see yourself and your prospects.

John: One of the reasons we’re preaching through this material is that, by design, Hebrews was a sermon in the first place. Our author is a preacher, blending Scripture and exhortation to challenge his audience. But I think we read all of these Scripture references sometimes as though this preacher was the first to string proof texts together to make a point. I think there is a big difference, however, in his use of texts and what we sometimes have done. He does lift texts from different parts of the Old Testament and string them together. But he has a particular lens through which he reads them all.

When we talk about proof-texting today, it is almost always in a discussion about human activity or right ways of thinking. As likely as not, we think of a knock-down verse that lets us win an argument. The writer of Hebrews reads texts through the lens of God’s revelation of himself in Jesus. All of the texts sooner or later are intended to point us to Jesus or are to be read and heard through the advent of Jesus. That’s your point, Rubel, about the importance of theology. The writer believes that what God has now revealed in Jesus changes everything in Scripture, just as it changes everything in our lives. It is that theological foundation and that lens for reading Scripture that empowers his exhortations to faithfulness on the journey.

Rubel: John and I have agreed that there are three central points we want to emphasize throughout this series that stand out in bold relief in the opening lines of this “word of exhortation” to Christians both ancient and modern. Let me read the verses, and we’ll name those three central certainties to faith that we believe tie Hebrews together.

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs (Heb. 1:1-4).
John: First, hear that preacher then and these preachers now affirm that God is at work in this world – appearances to the contrary notwithstanding! Much like our own times, the writer of Hebrews and his audience are not accustomed to daily miraculous experiences that make God’s presence in our world glaringly obvious. These people are not first-generation followers. None of them saw Jesus; apparently they are not accustomed to the miracle-working of the early apostles and leaders. Like us, the activity of God in their world is apparently more subtle. When the social world around them seems to be doing just fine without God or when they seem to be suffering and ridiculed and excluded from the materialistic successes around them, they could decide that God really isn’t active. Their faith has cost them a great deal in the social setting in which they live. They could decide to just blend back in, find their identity in the social structures and material world around them. Or they could believe that God has acted in Christ in ways that have eternal import for their lives.

Rubel: Second, see how quickly that preacher got to Jesus in introducing his sermon. How does God work in our world? Through Jesus! Yes, he has always cared about and paid attention to our needs. He has desired to be in communication with us from the start. He spoke to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. He talked to Abraham through angels and in bodily form. He came to Joseph and Daniel in dreams. Oh, he even raised up a string of prophets to give a more general word to people – Moses, Deborah, Isaiah, Amos. But we weren’t getting his point. We were garbling the message. We were fighting over words and their interpretation.

So heaven pulled out all the stops and God chose to enflesh his message in a Son. Love became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. In the mind of the unnamed writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Jesus is the final and unanswerable proof that God not only knows about our human plight but cares for us with love that knows no boundaries. Jesus isn’t almost divine but “the exact imprint of God’s very being.” He isn’t trying to come up with a remedy for sin but “made purification for sins” and sat down at God’s right hand. He isn’t as good as God’s other servants and messengers but has inherited “the name” that is “more excellent than theirs.”

John: This preacher-writer of ours can’t say enough about Jesus! He strings together a series of seven descriptors for him that anticipate the all-important, incomparable role assigned to him in this sermon-epistle. In fact, the writer actually breaks into song in the latter part of verse two as he describes Jesus. Listen again to the words: “He has spoken to use by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” Much like what we saw in the prologue to the Gospel of John, Rubel, our writer wants us to know that when we see Jesus we see God! God has revealed himself in these last days through Jesus. Everything else we see in this material world must be seen through the lens of Jesus’ own person. Everything that we humans are called to believe or act upon must flow out of that vision.

Rubel: He is determined that we should see everything coming together in the Son. So the author of Hebrews spends far less time defending – even identifying – himself as qualified to address the problems of that time and place or in analyzing and solving their faith dilemmas than in getting their minds off themselves and onto Jesus. What a strategy for our time as well!

So, tenderly, lovingly, with great pastoral concern and care, the writer of Hebrews brings his readers face to face with the central issue: Is Jesus the Son of God or is he not? Is he the great Antitype of all Jewish ritual and sacrifice and the high-priestly Mediator of the new covenant whom the prophets had predicted? Or is he only a man? The choice is plainly stated in 10:39: “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.”[2]
I don’t even know how to name – much less evaluate and fix – what is wrong with our world, with you, or with me. But I do know Jesus. Because of him, the struggle is bearable. The same Holy Spirit who raised him from the dead lives in us and will raise us at the last day. And if we can just keep our too-easily-distracted hearts fixed on him . . .

John: And that is the third point we are going to try to make ring in your ears from Hebrews: God is still at work in his church today. Scripture – all of Scripture – is still the tool of the preacher for helping God’s people to identify divine activity in our world and in our lives.

Hebrews is the perfect follow-up to our study this summer, Rubel, because this writer believes his audience also needs to return to what we dubbed “The Jesus Project.” If they understand how God has acted in Jesus for their benefit, they will not become disillusioned or simply slip out the back door never to return. No more looking around at what other people have or don’t have in their lives or churches or backgrounds. No more apathy or fear that somehow God isn’t paying attention to their losses of honor and identity and place. No more consternation because other people seem to be getting away with it while they suffer unjustly.

Rubel: I get the impression that the preacher-writer behind this piece of literature wanted his hearers-readers to believe that God really, really did love them – and that there was both a point to their struggle and strength for their journey. Yes, life was hard for them. Yes, their faith was being challenged. Yes, the thought of going back to a more-familiar and less-demanding lifestyle (i.e., pre-Christian or non-Christian lifestyle) had occurred to them. But if he could just convince them that God truly loved them, that Christ’s life and ministry had been for them, and that the beleaguered community of faith was where the Holy Spirit was pouring out his presence and power still, he believed he could give those people hope for holding on. They could find strength for the journey. I think it was Philip Yancey who said: “I find it much easier to accept the fact of God incarnating in Jesus of Nazareth than in the people who attend my local church and in me. Yet that is what we are asked to believe; that is how we are asked to live.”

John: Could that same message be needed by anyone who will hear us preach over the next few months? Without a doubt, there are some of you here this morning who almost didn’t come. Perhaps the pain and defeat seem so great that you’re not really sure there is a God who loves you. Perhaps life is so full of other commitments, so many other pleasures and pursuits that money can buy, so many other tempting offers for your time this morning. Perhaps you almost didn’t come because your church energies have been focused on right church doctrine, and you’re pretty sure those Woodmont Hills people have lost their Church of Christ identity. The writer of Hebrews has a word of encouragement and a theological anchor point for all of those scenarios. In these last days, God has revealed himself and made his desires for you and me known. Let’s put all of that other stuff aside, put all the trivial pursuits aside, and see Jesus! He is the measure of God’s love, for the original audience in the first century and for anyone in need of strength for the journey today.


[1] Paul J. Achtemeier, Joel B. Green, and Marianne Meye Thompson, Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature and Theology (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), p.465.
[2] Ray C. Stedman, Hebrews (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), p.13.

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