Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
14th of August, 2022
‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.’
Last week I said that the two readings, from the prophecies of Isaiah and the Gospel according to Luke, were either encouraging or terrifying depending on where we sat as we heard them. This week’s reading from the Gospel according to Luke is, I think, simply terrifying. Although we are hearing it months after Good Friday we need to remember that today’s reading is something Jesus says on his journey to Jerusalem to be killed. It is his death to which Jesus refers when he says, ‘I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!’ As I have said before, when we hear the anger in Jesus’ voice in this part of the Gospel, we need to remember that context. The day of judgement is at hand and time is running out, yet those around him cannot interpret the present time. Jesus has little patience for the merely curious and the hypocritical. At any moment their lives could be demanded of them, as his is about to be demanded of him.
As we hear Jesus warning that he has come to bring division, to set family members against each other, we know that this would already have happened in the lives of some of those for whom Luke was writing. Those who believed in Jesus as the Messiah and followed him in the Way could already have faced exclusion from their families for their faith. In a deeper sense, in a world in which nothing was more important than the ties between family members, Jesus is reminding his followers of the new family created by faith. He has already said of his own family, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’ (Luke 8:21) It is one of the series of reversals that see the powerful brought down from their thrones and the lowly lifted up (Luke 1:52); the poor blessed and the rich full of woe. (Luke 6:20-26) Rather than being a place of shelter and safety the family, the household, will become a place of division.
What is the fire that Jesus wants to kindle? Earlier he had condemned James and John for wanting to bring down fire on a village of Samaritans that rejected him. (Luke 9:51-56) Now Jesus wants to bring fire to the earth. Is the difference that the fire Jesus will kindle is not punishment? Might it be the fire of the Holy Spirit that will baptise the disciples at Pentecost? Maybe it is the refiner’s fire that will purify the disciples until they prove themselves to be silver and gold. (See Malachi 3:3) Whatever the fire, those who hear Jesus have no excuse for not taking his speech seriously – and neither do we.
The Letter to the Hebrews may have been written to a community that had experienced division and fire for following Jesus, but we are not sure about that because we know almost nothing about the nature of this letter. It has traditionally been known as ‘the letter of Paul to the Hebrews,’ but it is not a letter, Paul did not write it, and we have no idea where the ‘Hebrews’ in question were living. Whoever ‘the Hebrews’ might have been, the letter tells us that they were experiencing struggle and loneliness, mocked by the surrounding pagans. To encourage them the author provides them with a summary of their history, a description of ‘faith’ as the people of God have demonstrated it. This list of their heroic ancestors shows them that no matter what they may be experiencing, they are never alone.
You may need to be reminded who Gideon, Barak, and Jephthah were. I certainly had to look up their stories in the Book of Judges. Had I been writing this list I would have replaced Barak with Deborah, because it is Deborah who calls Barak to lead the people of God against the armies of General Sisera of Canaan. When she does, ‘Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” And she said, “I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.”’ (Judges 4:8-9) While Barak leads ten thousand warriors against the armies of Canaan it is Jael who kills Sisera in his tent by driving a tent-peg into his head with a hammer as he lies sleeping. (Judges 4:21-22)
Gideon is called to lead the armies against the Mideonites although, as he tells the angel of the Lord, ‘My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family’. (Judges 6:15) As an exemplar of faith he demands a lot of proof before answering God’s call, laying a fleece on a threshing floor, and first demanding that overnight dew be left on the fleece alone, while all the surrounding ground remains dry, and then on the second night that the fleece remain dry while the dew moistens the surrounding ground. God obliged, and so Gideon eventually agreed to lead God’s army. (Judges 6:36-40)
Finally, we have Jephthah, who ‘made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt-offering.”’ When he had defeated the Ammonites and returned home the person who came out of the doors to greet him was his daughter, his only child. When Jephthah told her of his vow it was she who said that he had to fulfil it. And so, after giving her two months to wander on the mountains and bewail her virginity, Jephthah killed her. (Judges 11:30-40)
Commentators do not know why these particular people were chosen as examples of faithfulness. I am not sure that I would have chosen Gideon or Barak or Samson or David, and I certainly would not have listed Jephthah as an exemplar of faithfulness. Maybe they were deliberately chosen so readers were not discouraged by hearing only of impeccable examples of faith whom it might have seemed impossible to emulate.
After naming these people, the author turns to the activities of other faithful ancestors. At first, we get a list of triumphant, successful outcomes of faith. Our ancestors ‘conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.’ Then we have a list of those whose faith was demonstrated by faithfulness when times were hard: those who were tortured, imprisoned, killed, persecuted. These stories could have come from any time in Israel’s history. The reference to people being sawn in two could have referred to Isaiah, who according to tradition died this way. In between the list of the triumphs and the list of the sufferings we have something that includes both, women who received their dead by resurrection – probably referring to the two women whose sons were raised by Elijah and Elisha.
Some of us might find the first list, which includes in its examples of success the conquering of kingdoms and being mighty in war, difficult. I certainly do. Terrifyingly, white Christian nationalism is apparently on the rise in the United States, and the situation there is difficult to enough to make some American preachers worry about preaching this week’s lectionary readings. I do not think we need to worry in Australia that Christians will seek to conquer kingdoms and become mighty in war, but throughout history and in some places even now there have been Christians who have done just that. Others might find the second list, with its description of suffering because of faith, equally hard to accept. That the life of faith could lead to the faithful being ‘destitute, persecuted, tormented’ would certainly puzzle those who believe in the prosperity gospel.
The author does not imply that one life of faith is superior to another. He simply reports on what has always happened. For some faithful people, everything goes well, and they triumph; for others, their faith is shown in their endurance in times of tragedy. The author is clear that both the victorious and the unfortunate lived lives of faith. Examples of both are offered to the Hebrews to reassure them that whatever happens to them, they are not alone. Whether they experience triumph or tragedy, ancestors in the faith have been there before them. The same is, of course, true for us.
Although these great ancestors had been commended for their faith, the author writes, none of them had received what was promised because ‘God had provided something better’. That something better is, his readers know, Jesus. These heroically faithful ancestors have not been made perfect without those to whom the letter was first written and all those who have followed; faithful people, generation after generation, holding fast to each other and to faith. We are all part of the same one unbroken cord of faith that stretches from the beginning of time to the end. These valiant ancestors have not been perfected without us, just as we will not be perfected without them.
These heroically faithful ancestors, the writer says, are gathered around the Hebrews, and so also around us, as a cloud of witnesses. Suddenly we are no longer looking back at Israel’s history. Now we are in a Greco-Roman stadium, on the race track, with our ancestors cheering us on from the stands as we ‘run with perseverance the race that is set before us’. And our ancestors in the faith are not simply the crowd cheering us on. They are also the previous runners in the relay race in which we are now participating. They have finished their part, but their race cannot end without us finishing our lap. And we can only do that if we keep our eyes on Jesus, ‘the pioneer and perfecter of our faith’.
Today’s readings do not provide the gentle encouragement on which I prefer to preach. Today’s liturgy contains the word ‘love’ nine times, but it does not appear in either of the readings. And yet, as your minister, of course I am going to end with encouragement anyway. As one of my favourite saints, Julian of Norwich, wrote: God ‘did not say, “You shall not be perturbed, you shall not be troubled, you shall not be distressed,” but he said, “You shall not be overcome.”’ That, I think, is what the writer is saying to the Hebrews with his history of their ancestors in the faith and that, I believe, is the security that Jesus offers us even when his words are at their most troubling. As I say again and again, God is always with us and so, ultimately, we have nothing to fear. Thanks be to God. Amen.