Pr. Joseph G. Crippen; Wednesday, 27 February 2013; texts: Hebrews 3:1-14; John 6:47-58
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
My family was not an outdoorsy family growing up. Our joke was that “roughing it” for my mother meant staying at a Holiday Inn where you had to call the desk for more toilet paper. So as I was involved in youth ministry as a young person and then a youth director, I found myself in a number of wilderness scenarios that I was not brought up for.
Some of the time on each of these trips it was a good experience. I’ve seen incredible beauty created by God in the Boundary Waters, northern Wisconsin, and the mountains of Montana. But every single trip I’ve ever taken, alongside those joys, and the grace of the fellowship with the group, was a level of misery that I never quite got used to. As much as I looked forward to such trips as a youth and an adult, I also dreaded them. Fear of animals tearing through the food, painful ground to sleep on, hiking through sleet or storm, and constantly being dirty, these are not attractive things for me. I’d still go on a trip like that now, but it will still have both those elements, I’m sure.
The both/and nature of my relationship with the wild is something the Scriptures seem to share. On the one hand, there is great joy in the creation and in what God has made, wonder at its beauty. On the other hand, the wilderness in Scripture is always a place of testing and difficulty, whether it was the Israelites wandering for 40 years or Jesus for 40 days. Not for nothing does the prophet Isaiah declare in words familiar to our Advent worship that when the day of the LORD comes there will be a great landscaping project in the wilderness, with valleys being filled, mountains leveled, and a highway brought through it (Isaiah 40). This image is one that repeats in several places in the prophetic witness, especially the idea of a safe, level highway through the wilderness of life, created by God.
What’s so helpful about this image biblically is that it is true about our lives. Our lives are both filled with the beauty of God and with struggles and trials, challenges and difficulties. It makes sense that when the writer to the Hebrews was trying to help the reader understand this, the wilderness wanderings of the Israelite ancestors came to mind as a parallel experience.
And so we begin today where we left off last week: we’re on a road in our lives, we are on a journey of faith through the wilderness. And what we learn is that for several reasons, this is not a bad thing at all. Even if it is challenging and difficult.
Hebrews reminds us today that Jesus is our Guide and he is leading us on the right road, difficulties notwithstanding.
Comparing Jesus to Moses, Hebrews tells us that as Moses went into where people were in bondage and led them to freedom, so did our Lord Jesus take on our slavery to lead us to freedom. Because Jesus is “worthy of more glory than Moses,” according to Hebrews, because he is the Son, we can be confident that following him will keep us on the right path.
And that’s a huge relief in the wilderness. There’s nothing worse than being lost and not knowing where to turn. Or to keep going along a path or road and keep looking for familiar landmarks or sights and not seeing them, and getting more and more frantic. This writer encourages us to trust the direction our Lord is going, the way he invites us to live, which will be further described later in this book.
But the comparison also reminds Hebrews of the failure of the Israelites to follow Moses, and their collapse in the wilderness that led to 40 extra years of wandering. Hebrews urges us to do better, to learn from them and not to turn from the living God. If we are journeying through the wilderness, let’s not go it alone as they did, we hear. Rather, let’s trust the One who goes with us to know the way.
And as Jesus teaches the crowds in John 6, trust that he provides the bread of life, the food we need for the journey. To seek the grace of his Body and Blood to feed and nourish us, and bring us to eternal life. The image of our lives as a journey through a wilderness, sometimes beautiful and sometimes harsh, is only helpful to us if we keep our eyes on Jesus and trust him. And so be faithful in ways the Israelites were not.
For Hebrews, the promise is clear: we are partners with Christ, if only we can hold our confidence firm to the end (3:14). And our confidence is in the Lord Jesus who goes with us on our journey.
And it seems that the point of this image is to encourage us in two ways.
First, to help us understand that our goal is better than the Promised Land – the freedom Christ offers is far greater and lasts to eternity. We are living our lives in a wilderness, walking with each other from slavery to the promised land. As we heard from Luther last week, all our lives are in transit, becoming what we are not yet, growing in the grace of the Spirit.
But there’s a big difference between our journey and that of the Israelites. They were literally traveling in the wilderness, going to a new home, the promised land. We, Hebrews says to us, are walking a wilderness life, but we are going to a new home that is in eternity with our Lord Jesus. We have a goal, as we read near the end of Hebrews: “For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (13:14).
So the joy of this life is that no matter the good or the bad, the pleasant or the difficult, we not only are living it with our Lord Jesus at our side, we’re also on the way to a life prepared for us beyond anything we’ve known here.
But second, the point of this for Hebrews also seems to be to encourage us in the midst of a life that feels like wilderness to appreciate the journey, to find in it a blessing because we are with the Lord. This is a letter, a sermon to pilgrims, this book of Hebrews, and is intended to encourage pilgrims to live in the joy of God on the journey.
We’re not sour, depressed people who only live for a hoped-for world to come. If that’s our only focus, we’re going to miss a great deal of the life God intends for us. For me on my wilderness trips, that was always my challenge, not to mentally and repeatedly count down the days until we got back and thereby miss all the grace and joy of the actual present.
This life is a good life, even if lived in between Jesus’ resurrection and the full restoration of all things. We are not what we will be, but we are on the way, and being on the way can be rich and surprising and grace-filled. Because we are fed by our Lord in the Meal of life for this journey, we are blessed with forgiveness and grace from our Lord, and we are given sustenance and joy by the Holy Spirit to become these new people.
And all of that is good and joyful, even if we’re walking in the wilderness. In fact, with our eyes on Jesus we can find this life delightful even in the midst of the most difficult times.
So, like all believers who have gone before us, we are on the road. But we are on the road with Jesus, which makes all the difference.
As we will hear in a few weeks from Hebrews, we are exhorted here to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:1b-2a). It’s a long road, filled with many bumps and bruises, surprises and joys, setbacks and easy stretches. But it is a road blessed by the grace of the crucified and risen One who goes with us and leads us to life.
And that makes the wilderness seem a lot less wild, and our journey one to look forward to rather than dread.
In the name of Jesus. Amen