Sunday, 18 August 2013

you are part of a bigger story Heb 11

The letter to the Hebrews was written to a group of people who had become discouraged. They were probably Jewish Christians living in Rome sometime before 70AD. They were probably feeling discouraged for a variety of reasons. There were likely divisions occurring within their own communities. They may have disagreed about the role of non-Jewish people in their community. Or, maybe they disagreed about their relationship with the greater culture, or a variety of other things. Maybe they were under the impression that Jesus was coming back right away. Maybe they were facing persecution from the Roman people, or maybe they were being criticized by their Jewish community for their belief that Jesus is the Messiah. There is no end to the list of things that could have led to their discouragement, and all these things and more were a part of what the early Church was facing. We sometimes glamorize that time, but it was not necessarily an easy time to be a Christian.
Most of us can’t imagine the kind of persecution Christians have experienced.  Even right now, there are Christians around the world who risk their lives for their faith in Christ, just as many Christians throughout history have done. We have it pretty easy by comparison. Our lives aren’t in danger by showing up here this morning.  We don’t have to hide from the government or our neighbours to worship at church. We do have challenges, but they aren’t those challenges.
We do still face discouragement.  We struggle in a quickly changing culture. It seems as though there are dwindling numbers of people who take Jesus seriously. Representations of Christians on TV are becoming increasingly negative and show us to be out of touch with reality, foolish, or even dangerous. Popular attitudes about Christians include words like “judgmental” and “hypocritical”. Christians are being shown picketing funerals and burning the Koran.     
A former head of Religion and Ethics at the BBC, Michael Wakelin, commented that, “in 1986, religion was certainly more high-profile on TV…I’m afraid the media do tend to treat religion as a problem, and only as a problem. In some ways, [it is] like only covering football from the point of view of hooliganism and never actually showing the game being played” (Bailey 186, 189).[1]
To be fair, sometimes we deserve the bad media attention. There are scandals that need to be exposed and people that need to be held accountable. Apologies need to be made and forgiveness needs to be sought. But, there has been a leaning to show Christians in a negative light. We are not being thrown to the lions by the Romans. We need to keep our perspective. What we experience is pretty mild, historically speaking. Mild, but still discouraging.
What perhaps leads to greater discouragement for us are the day to day issues we deal with. Like illness, family breakdown, anxiety, or the confusion we are presented with by having too much information blared at us and too many screens catching our eyes mixed with a lack of solitude to be able to hear ourselves think, let alone hear God’s still small voice. All these and more can lead to us being discouraged about who we are and about God’s presence in our lives.  
The discouraged Hebrews are drawn by their teacher into a bigger story- A bigger story than their present troubles. He gives examples of the lives of God’s faithful people throughout history.  Their lives were often marked by struggle against great odds. In the life of Moses we see Hebrew slaves face off with the Egyptian army. In the life of David we see him as a little shepherd boy facing off with the giant Goliath.  We see Daniel thrown into the lion’s den. We read about three young men thrown into a furnace at the command of the king because of their faith. We read about prophets facing off with death and giving parents their children back.
But, faith doesn’t always look like earthly victory. Some are tortured. Some are ridiculed, persecuted, imprisoned, or left homeless. Some are killed for what they believe- sometimes in horrible ways. Faith does not guarantee worldly success and victory. Faith means participating in a story that is bigger than you are, and that often means we don’t know the whole plotline. Sometimes we are a part of a victorious part of the plotline. Sometimes we are a part of a struggling and tragic part of that plotline and so we endure the suffering trusting that even though we might not see victory in our present life, we will be a part of the ultimate ending of the story.
The overall plotline of the big story is that in the beginning things were as they should be. Human beings had perfect relationships with God and each other and the rest of creation. It was beautiful and good, but all of that was damaged when human beings turned away from God and turned inward on themselves. Selfishness and pride entered the human story, but God did not give up on us. Eventually he chose Abraham and Sarah and worked through their family to reestablish a relationship with humanity. God worked over time and throughout history with this people to show them who he is and how to have a relationship with him. The culmination of God’s plan was the incarnation, when God showed himself to humanity as one of us through Jesus. Now the church is attempting to live out the consequences of the life of Jesus, empowered by God to transform the world and themselves so that they can reflect God’s image more and more perfectly in a life of never ending growth. That is the basic plotline of the big story.  
The writer to the Hebrews invites his readers to find themselves in this larger story. If they thought only in terms of their own personal story- only in terms of their individual lives- they might only see tragedy. However, the heroes of our faith see themselves as a part of this larger story and through that perspective they obtain the courage to stare down lions and face impossible odds. Even if that means their own death. It might mean victory, but it might mean suffering as well.       
Jesus was very aware of the big story. He is our ultimate example of faith. His faith led him to victory, but also through suffering. He brought his friend Lazarus back to life. He walked on water, and turned water into wine. Jesus’ faith allowed him to do amazing things, but it also led him to be rejected by many of his own people and ultimately to die a torturous death on a cross. The end of the story is resurrection and victory, and that is his promise to us too. In the midst of our suffering we are to have faith in his promise to us. The end of the story is victory even if we are called to endure suffering.
Saints live knowing they are a part of God’s big story. Even though they don’t always know what part of that story they are a part of. Their faith connects them to that story, and faith can lead us to endure in the midst of suffering or to victory in the midst of impossible odds. God’s people have been called to both- they are called to both.  
Faith can lead us to very different places. It can lead us to endure in the midst of all kinds of struggles. By faith, Dietrich Bonhoeffer opposed the Nazi program. By faith, Francis of Assisi left a life of privilege to enter a life of prayer and of service to the poor. By faith, Francis Xavier left a comfortable life in Europe and his family to share God’s love with those in Asia who had never heard the name of Jesus. By faith, William Wilberforce helped to end the slave trade in Europe. By faith, St. Patrick returned to the people who had enslaved him to show them the love of God. Our faith connects us to this same story, but we all have different parts to play in this story.
Being faithful to this big story means sometimes looking a bit strange to others. The story our culture tells about what it means to be successful doesn’t always line up with the Big Story God has told us. The saints can look odd and out of tune with the world’s story, but that’s because they are a part of a different story. The German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a part of a different story than the story the Nazis were telling. When we find ourselves in that position we may be called to endure suffering. The Hebrews, who this letter was directed at, were attempting to be faithful to a story that was drastically different than the story of the Roman Empire. This was the source of their discouragement. You are being called to live a different story than our culture is telling us. Our culture is telling us a story about comfort, wealth, security, recognition, self-interest, consumerism, and fulfilled desires. Jesus is calling us into a story about love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.    
I have been speaking about the big story that we are being called to be a part of, but the writer to the Hebrews uses a different metaphor. He (she?) is speaking about a long distance race rather than a story. It is a race that has been set out by Jesus. He marked the path, and he ran the race before us. We follow his steps in the dirt. Sometimes we are running up a muddy hill and sometimes we are running down a slow decline on a beautifully wooded path surrounded by the scent of lilacs. Sometimes we get our second wind and sometimes we are asking why we are doing this at all. Sometimes our sin weighs us down. Our own selfishness or our apathy can act like weights tied to our ankles, and like boulders that block our way. The writer encourages us to keep running and to not give up. Jesus hasn’t given up on you so don’t give up on him- keep running. Keep praying- keep serving- keep worshipping. The writer imagines us running this path and the sides of the track are packed with all the saints from every generation cheering us on- Abraham and Sarah, and Francis and Clare, and Mother Theresa, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. A massive cloud of those who have run the race before us and who have seen that the finish line makes it all worthwhile.           
So keep running, and know that you are not alone. If you are discouraged know that you are in good company. If you face impossible odds, know that you are in good company. If you are tired and weary, now that others have faced that cross before you and are now cheering you on. You are a part of a bigger more beautiful story.

Bailey, Michael. “Media, religion and culture: An interview with Michael Wakelin.” Journal of Media Practice 11.2 (2010): 185-189.

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