What Matters to God

A sermon preached on July 13, 2019 at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho

Hebrews 1:1-4

I was on the Oregon Coast for a few days this past week, attending a writing retreat with 16 other writers working on novels or memoirs.

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Lovely Manzanita, Oregon

I’m working at a memoir about my experiences with adoption, but I’ve had trouble figuring out how to start my story. Do I begin at the beginning of my life—a time I don’t have words to recall? Or do I start when my first son was born? Or when I met my birth mother? Or when I got my DNA test and found out I didn’t know as much as I thought I’d known?

So many places from which I could enter my own story to tell it.

Jennifer Lauck, the author leading the retreat, advised us to read great books and watch lots of movies, always observing how the author tells the story. And so I started The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, a book I’d read before, many years back. The first line kicked me in the gut, especially as I thought about the story I have yet to write:

“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”

Graham Greene made the choice to write his novel looking back to the affair of the title. We know the affair is over before we have read a page. And I’m hooked. I want to know more, and why, and how, and who.

As I was preparing for this sermon, it occurred to me that the author of Hebrews also had to make a choice as they sat down to write the letter. How to tell the story of Jesus? Where to begin? On the cross? In the manger in Bethlehem? With one of his teachings? One of his miracles?

Where would you begin to tell your story of Jesus?

The Hebrews author chose the moment, the scene, to frame his story of who Jesus was in relationship to God, to the angels, to creation itself.

“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 starts his story with God, and connects what he has to say with what we’ve already heard from our ancestors and the prophets. And then the hook—in these last days God has spoken to us by a Son.

We don’t know who wrote Hebrews. The Greek is different than Paul’s. There is a possibility that it was written by a woman, maybe Priscilla, because the name of the author has been removed from old manuscripts. And if a man had written it, would they have removed his name?

It’s likely that this letter was written to Christians in Jerusalem, who had converted from Judaism, possibly encouraging them in the face of persecution. It seems people were going back to Judaism, rather than facing trials for being Christian. This letter uses imagery that would be familiar to 1st century Jews to help them better understand and support their new faith. It is a letter to encourage, to call people back to their higher ideals, to connect them to their own story.

Jesus is portrayed as a high priest, as well as the son. A mediator between us and God.

If the author were writing it today, they would probably use different terms to illustrate who Jesus was. Hebrews has language in it that may seem unfamiliar to our 21st century sensibilities—high priests and angels— but I hope we can still hear the beauty in it.

The amount of time the author of Hebrews spends proving to us that Jesus is more than an angel suggests that people were likely saying Jesus was just an angel.

Similarly to how a restaurant doesn’t have to put up a sign that says “no shoes, no shirt, no service” if they haven’t had people showing up without shirts and shoes and expecting to be seated.

I don’t spend much time thinking about angels, but 1st century people would have. The ranking of the heavenly host may not interest us, but if you had grown up thinking about God, with his angels below him, you’d likely be trying to figure out where the son of God fit in the corporate org chart. All the talk about the angels is a way of asking, Is Jesus a senior vice president, or is he a regional manager?

For the author of Hebrews, Jesus wasn’t just a guy, or even a divine messenger (angel), sent to proclaim good news. He was the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being. He was present at creation.

And he was human too, knowing what it is to live a human life.

Later in  the End of the Affair, one of the characters is sitting in a church. She’s not a religious person, and wasn’t raised in faith, but she keeps being drawn toward God, and then away from him, a divine magnetism she can’t resist. Here’s part of a scene when she has taken shelter in a church during a rain storm.

“When I came in and sat down and looked round I realized it was a Roman church, full of plaster statues and bad art, realistic art. I hated the statues, the crucifix, all the emphasis on the human body. I was trying to escape from the human body and all it needed. I thought I could believe in some kind of a God that bore no relation to ourselves, something vague, amorphous, cosmic, to which I had promised something and which had given me something in return….” (p. 87)

I wonder what this character would make of the book of Hebrews. She’d likely love its focus on Jesus as divine reflection and be troubled by its focus on the human body she was trying to escape.

In chapter 2, the author cites Psalm 8 to ask, 
‘
What are human beings that you are mindful of them,*
   or mortals, that you care for them?’

As important as it is to acknowledge that Jesus is an exact reflection of God, it is equally important to acknowledge that he is an exact reflection of us too. “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested”, it will say in chapter 2.

In Jesus, we can recognize our own suffering, and be called to something greater than our suffering. Called to someone who can sit next to God on our behalf.

“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”

Sometimes it seems like the story of faith is already written, and finished. Jesus lived. He died. He was raised from the dead. The end.

The Book of Hebrews reminds us God’s story has no beginning or end. We all enter into it, and begin to connect it to our lives. The story isn’t finished, even if the author uses a lot of language and imagery from the past to tell the story. Long ago God had spoken to our ancestors….but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.

Jesus, himself, is God’s word, speaking to us today. And speaking to our embodied existence, today.

God’s word cares about the bodies around us. Your health, your neighbor’s health—matter to God. Lack of affordable housing for people in our community—that matters to God. People seeking shelter and safety in our country being detained in centers, often separated from other family members—that matters to God. Raids are being done across the country this weekend, by our government, against people—not because they have committed crimes, but because they do not have the right immigration status—that matters to God.

These men in a cage matter to God. They should matter to us too.  (image from CBS News)

Of course, what the government is doing on a large scale at our border is something we all do, every day, as we live our lives.

We categorize people into ‘other’ status so that we don’t have to worry about them. The guy on the corner asking for money must have made bad choices that led to him begging on the corner, we think to ourselves, as we drive past, not knowing how or if we should help. The person who listens to the tv news we hate becomes just part of a category of ‘rabid partisans’ for the wrong team, as if we aren’t all partisan in our own way.

The author of Hebrews would remind us that God’s love and concern extends even to the people who watch the wrong news, who make different decisions than we would, who worship in other churches or other faith traditions. In our embodied, complicated, messy, beautiful lives, we are all connected to each other.

In chapter 13, we’re told:
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.

The author of Hebrews reminds us the embodied lives of people should matter to us, because they matter to God. And we mattered enough to God that God chose to come to live in a human body that suffered, and celebrated, and danced, and ate meals with friends, and spoke against injustice.

As we read through the Book of Hebrews, I invite you to notice the ways Jesus is described, and the ways we are called to care for each other because of who Jesus is, and because of who God is. And as we go about our lives this week, remember the bodies you meet embody God’s love for us, and are speaking God’s story to us today.

Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets. In these last days, God has spoken to us by a son.

God is still speaking. Are we listening to the lives of others to hear what God is saying to us?

The story continues. Let us live it out in love and hope. Amen.

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