Sermons That Work

Hebrews and the Gospel…, Proper 15 (C) – 2010

August 15, 2010

Hebrews and the gospel this week! Read them again when you get home. Then read them again and again – maybe every day this week – because if we could really understand and then take to heart these two passages, we just might be convicted enough to open ourselves to the fire of the Spirit and then to bring that fire to our church.

Jesus uses that exact image: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” He’s speaking to his disciples – the ones who would have to take up his mission and message and make it known to the rest of the world. Can you hear his frustration? “What stress I am under until it is completed.” Jesus knew he would not be among the people much longer. Those religious leaders of the time, who had lost a real sense of faithfulness, were already wondering how to get rid of him. Their fire had long ago gone out and their hearts were set on their own glory and not the glory of God.

That’s what can happen. The people who stopped reading their scriptures with fire in their hearts and a passion for knowing they were made in the image and likeness of God got self-centered, forgot about loving their neighbors as themselves, and turned their backs when the going got tough.

Jesus threw some harsh words at them. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” That doesn’t sound like our pal, Jesus. Not peace? Can he really mean that? He then gives a list of all the folks who will be divided against each other, and it’s hard to swallow. Will children be against their parents and maybe worse, parents against their children?

And then he called his followers hypocrites. He told them they could interpret nature’s signs well enough, but they couldn’t interpret the present time. That “present time” is the kingdom of God that he, Jesus, came to make clear and vibrant on the earth. He wasn’t seeing it happen.

We need to remember that the Gospel of Luke was not written for our ears. It was written for that time and for those who were just learning about what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. The gospel writer was most likely addressing a gentile audience in a time when people who turned from their pagan religions to become followers of Jesus would most likely have caused division even in their own families. We know historically about the Christian persecutions that happened in those times, and we need to understand that this gospel was written to establish Jesus as Messiah, to show that he has authority over all things, and that his teachings and message were for all God’s people, Jew and gentile alike.

Jesus wasn’t saying that he wanted division to come to God’s people, he was just saying that he knew that there would be those who would turn their backs not only on him, but on those who followed him. Jesus died so that we might have life and have it to the fullest, remember. Jesus’ frustration may well have been that he dearly wanted God’s people to live out the two great commandments, to be happy and at peace, to care for the poor and needy; and as he didn’t see it happening, he cried out in anger.

That said, don’t get comfortable. We read scripture every week not just to hear about our past, but to reflect on what they have to say to us. Would Jesus have something different to say to us if he walked into our churches today?

If we’re honest with ourselves, we’d have to say he might just have to say the same thing. Aren’t households divided against each other still? Sometimes those “households” are groups of people or nations. Has peace really come to the world yet? Even in places where peace seems to reign on the surface, selfishness, hate, division, cruelty, and ignorance still grasp at the souls of God’s people. We’re often no better than the religious leaders of Jesus’ time who imposed impossible laws on the people but did not follow those laws themselves. We still see the clouds and predict rain, so to speak, but we don’t know how to live in the kingdom of God. We might not even believe it’s here.

So, what do we do? Are we to be as frustrated as Jesus was? Is there hope? After all the centuries that have passed from Jesus’ time to ours, shouldn’t we have learned something?

Yes, we should. And fortunately, yes, we have.

Look at the letter to the Hebrews. The author sings the praise of those who did get the message and acted on it. Look at the list of what these people did: through faith they conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, and put foreign armies to flight. Pretty impressive, really, and these were folks in both the Old and New Testaments – God’s people, full of the fire of God’s spirit. Women were praised for their faithfulness. Martyrs were praised for their courage. Those who were ill-treated and hated for their passion for God were praised.

We don’t have to think very hard to name people in our own time we can add to this list. There are of course, the named ones: Oscar Romero, Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa, Katharine Jefferts Schori. But there are also the ones who aren’t famous – those people who have been our mentors and teachers, those who have taught us to be faithful. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who help us grasp Jesus’ message in many, many ways. We, too, should count ourselves part of that great cloud. Don’t forget to consider every day not only the ways you could be better, but also the ways you were indeed an example of what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God. It’s critically important for us to accept God’s gift of the Spirit and to know with absolute certainly that we are bearers of God to the world with every breath we take.

So, let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God where we too will sit one day.

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Christopher Sikkema