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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Midweek Lent 2013 + Words for the Pilgrimage (a walk with Hebrews)

Week 1:  “Looking to Jesus”

Pr. Joseph G. CrippenWednesday, 20 February 2013; Texts: Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:1-4, 14-18; John 1:35-51

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

In June of 1520, Pope Leo X issued a papal bull condemning Martin Luther’s teachings, specifically 41 statements made in previous writings, calling them, among other things, “poisonous” and “offensive.” [1]  As we can imagine, Luther responded to these condemnations in rather forceful ways, including four separate documents where he addressed the specific charges.

In his fourth attempt, from March 1521, and the one he considered “smoother and simpler” [2], one of the articles he defends himself against is the condemnation of his claim that sin remains in people even after Baptism, a claim he made in the Leipzig debate in 1519.  He writes eloquently about how Christ and Paul both understand this, and part of his defense is that he understands our lives to be like the flour the baker in Jesus’ parable has, and the presence of the Spirit to be the yeast as the woman kneads the dough.  Our lives, for Luther, are made more and more like this leaven, this yeast, until, as he says, we “eventually [become] a bread of God.” [3]  He goes on to say:

“This life, therefore, is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise.  We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way.  The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on.  This is not the goal but it is the right road.  At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.” [4]

I find this conviction immensely important to my life of faith, and find that it addresses us as well in the modern day as it does in dealing with a theological dispute of 500 years ago.  Because whether or not we articulate a theology of baptism where it has wiped out sin in us for good and for all, we do tend to struggle with the reality of our lives as incomplete.  We do recognize that sin still pervades our existence.

We would like it to be different.  We would prefer to bypass the process of becoming the people either we hope to be or, as people of faith, we believe God hopes us to be, and simply be those people, now.  We get frustrated that even after forgiveness we find ourselves in sin again.  We get frustrated in our spiritual journey when it’s not going as well as we’d like.  We get frustrated at our attempts to be better people, to break habits, to change ways, attempts which seemingly fall apart all too often.  And we certainly get misled by others, who are also not completed, not perfect, and we tend to see their current, incomplete state as the final truth about them, and judge it accordingly.  We don’t have a lot of patience for the need for others to continue to grow and become, wanting them to be perfect to us right now.

This Lent we will be exploring this by way of the book of Hebrews, a book in the New Testament that is more a sermon than a letter, and one that we don’t often take much time to study.  The writer to the Hebrews had a deep conviction that saw life as Luther described it, as a journey, a process, a pilgrimage.  For the writer, part of that awareness is knowing where the pilgrimage will end, in the “city yet to come,” our heavenly inheritance.  But that’s not the main point.  In fact, rather than being a “pie in the sky” dream, this writer is intent on helping the reader discover the joy and grace of being in the pilgrimage right now, of living one’s life on a journey, of realizing we are “on the way,” not arrived.

So these five weeks we’ll be considering our pilgrimage of life, considering our lives as a journey through the wilderness, not as a bad thing, but as our reality, and we will see what this writer would have us see as important points on that journey.  And we begin with the One the writer to the Hebrews introduces as our guide and companion on the pilgrimage of our lives, our Lord Jesus himself.

We are led on our pilgrimage, says our writer, by the very Son of God, the imprint of God.

In this famous opening, we are told that “in many and various ways” God spoke to our ancestors by the prophets, but now in these last days God has spoken to us by a Son.  There is for this writer a central idea: that God is not unknowable but has been speaking to people from long ago and to today.  But now in Jesus we have direct communication unlike any before.

A large part of this book-length sermon is devoted to describing the superiority of Jesus to angels (a major concern of the original readers), to Moses, to all.  But here we see the pinnacle: Jesus is heir of all things, through whom all things were created, as St. John also has told us.  Even more, he is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.”  The image used here is like that of a die used to stamp out coins with the image of the emperor: Jesus is imprinted exactly with the being of God, Jesus is an exact image of the eternal God.

And so as a guide in the pilgrimage of life, we could ask for no better.  If we want to know what God thinks of us, we look to Jesus.  If we want to know where God would have us go, we look to Jesus.  If we want the definitive answer about God’s will and God’s intent, we look to Jesus.

So we begin consideration of our journey of life with the credentials of our Guide on that journey.  And the importance to us is pretty high.  We may not be tempted to worship angels, but there are lots of guides, lots of authorities, lots of influences in the world we can be tempted to follow.  The writer to the Hebrews urges us to follow the true authority, the true influence, the true guide.

But as we hear from the start of the second chapter, we not only need to remember Jesus’ credentials.    We need to pay attention to him, too.

There are doubtless few of us who need to be reminded of Jesus’ importance as the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, our Lord and Savior.  But Hebrews urges us to pay attention to what we know.  Otherwise we might “drift away.”  And this seems to be a very important point.

If in fact we are journeying through life, on a pilgrimage, and we don’t listen to our Guide, we’re going to get lost, or worse.  If you’ve ever taken a wilderness hike, or a trip through the mountains, or the Boundary Waters, and you’ve never been in that place before, your guide is absolutely critical.  If she tells you not to step in a certain place, you’d be wise to listen.  If he tells you not to eat a particular plant, by all means don’t eat it.

And so it may seem obvious, but in fact it isn’t: if we believe Jesus to be our Guide in life, we would do well to pay attention to him.  To follow what he says, do what he commands, live as he lives.  To seek in all things to better know where Jesus would have us be, how Jesus would have us walk, what Jesus would have us do.

Ultimately, it’s the only way to keep from being lost on the pilgrimage, or getting spiritually sick, or falling by the wayside.  Keep your eyes on Jesus, Hebrews says.

But there’s one more thing about our Guide we’re supposed to know.  And that is, he’s done this pilgrimage before.  You wouldn’t want to follow a guide who’d never taken that trail or experienced that wilderness.  And this is our best hope and grace in our Lord Jesus.

Hebrews says he had to become like us in every respect, be tested like us, so he is able to help us when we are tested.

In the second season of the television show The West Wing, there’s a scene in the Christmas episode where one of the President’s staff, Josh, is dealing with post-traumatic stress.  His boss Leo, the chief of staff, tells him a story to let him know that he will always have a job with him, no matter what.  Leo’s story goes like this:

“This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole.  The walls are so steep he can’t get out.  A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you.  Can you help me out?’  The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole, and moves on.  Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole – can you help me out?’  The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole, and moves on.  Then a friend walks by.  ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me – can you help me out?’  And the friend jumps in the hole.  [The] guy says, ‘Are you stupid?  Now we’re both down here.’  The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.’ ”

That’s the great gift of our Lord.  He’s been down here before.  And he knows the way out.  We walk on a pilgrimage of life, becoming the children of God we were meant to be, and it’s a challenging, difficult journey.  And on this first step of the journey, we start by learning that Jesus, our Guide, has been here before.  He has faced all we faced, “testing,” as Hebrews calls it, temptation, suffering, fear, anxiety, even death.  And he has risen from the dead and come to lead us to life.

This is the great promise of Hebrews: we have a Guide who is like us in every respect, and at the same time the very imprint of God’s being.  So he not only knows where we need to go, he’s been down that path and suffered what we will suffer.  And he becomes for us not only our Guide, but our faithful friend at our side all the way, helping us as only one who has lived like us can help us.

And so we continue on our pilgrimage with this hope.

“We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way.  The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on.  This is not the goal but it is the right road.”

This is the right road.  And we know who is going before us and beside us.  And so we do not fear, but look with joy to this journey, reveling in the pilgrimage itself because of who is with us.

We hear his voice saying to us, as to his first disciples, “Come and see.”  And so, we go.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

[1] Introduction to Luther’s Works, vol. 32; p. ix, copyright © 1958 Fortress Press.
[2] Introduction to “Defense and Explanation of All the Articles;”  Luther’s Works, vol. 32, p. 5, copyright © 1958 Fortress Press.
[3]Martin Luther, “Defense and Explanation of All the Articles, March 1521;”  Luther’s Works, vol. 32, p. 24, copyright © 1958 Fortress Press.
[4] Ibid, p. 24.

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