Today we start our sermon series on the book of Hebrews. This is an interesting book of the Bible that we don’t talk about very often, and so we need to first go through some background of this book: what little of it we know, that is. In some older Bibles, you may see the book of Hebrews attributed to the Apostle Paul. But, when we compare this book with the letters that we know that Paul wrote, we find that Paul very obviously did not write this. Everyone has a style of writing, and Hebrews doesn’t look like anything that Paul previously wrote. The use of language is also very obviously not Paul’s; while Paul’s Greek was good, Hebrews has the most sophisticated Greek of any of the writings of the New Testament. The concerns addressed in this letter are not the concerns of any of Paul’s previous letters. And finally, we have no name on this New Testament work, whereas with Paul’s letters, he always put his name at the beginning of the letter. Hebrews is, therefore, not one of Paul’s creations. But, whose is it? That we don’t know. There have been many guesses made; for example, one guess is a man named Apollos who appears in the book of Acts, because Acts says that Apollos was “an eloquent man, well-versed in the Scriptures” and this would definitely fit the book of Hebrews. But we just don’t know for sure.
We also don’t know who Hebrews was written to. There is a clue at the end of the book, which contains greetings from “those from Italy,” which would suggest that the author’s companions may be saluting their friends back home. So, it’s very possible that this book was addressed to Christians in the city of Rome. What we can gather from this book is that the audience that it was addressed to was a congregation who had experienced persecution for their faith and that was getting discouraged because God’s promised kingdom had not yet come. The best guess on the date of this work, based on the writing and the theological concepts developed here, is sometime between 60 and 95 C.E. These were not the very first Christians who followed Jesus in person; they were second and third generation Christians. And so, because God’s kingdom had not come as soon as was expected, some were slipping away from the group and the congregation was declining in numbers. And those that remained were getting tired, wanting to remain faithful, but perhaps being tempted to also drop away from the congregation. Does that sound at all familiar to you? The author of Hebrews is writing to remind them of who this Jesus is in whom they have placed their faith and is encouraging them to persevere even when the going is tough. And so, one final note about Hebrews: this isn’t so much a letter as it is a sermon. Yes, that’s right: your pastor is going to preach several sermons on different parts of a very long sermon that has become part of our Holy Scriptures.
So, let’s begin at the beginning, which someone has told me is a very good place to start: “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.” I mentioned before how this book uses very sophisticated Greek, and the Greek here is no exception: it reads polymeros kai polytropos palai,” which literally means “In many fragments and in many fashions in former times. . .”. And I like that image of God speaking in fragments. How many times in our lives does it seem like God speaks to us in fragments? When we are wrestling with a decision and we pray to God for guidance, we don’t always get a clear answer. We get a glimpse here of what might happen if we decide one way, or a flash there of what were to happen if we were to decide the other way. We struggle as we listen for God’s voice. Here the author of Hebrews is telling his congregation that, long ago, God spoke in this way to their ancestors through the prophets: through fragments and glimpses of who God was, but that now God has spoken more clearly through the Son, Jesus Christ. And how, exactly, did God speak to us through God’s Son that was so much clearer than what God said through the prophets?
Well, let’s think of it this way: the various Old Testament prophets had different specific details in what they spoke to the people, depending on the time they lived and the situation that was going on. But no matter the different contexts that the prophets had, their messages all came down to the same thing, as spoken in Micah 6:8: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with your God. You would think those words would be clear enough. But evidently not, because we still struggle with what those directives from God look like in our present-day context. And we still struggle to see the face of God. So, God the Father sent the Son, Jesus Christ, and it is in him that we clearly see the face of God. And it is through Jesus and his teachings that we most clearly hear what God wants.
The writer of Hebrews continues, saying that Jesus “is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being”. To better understand what that means, I would like each one of you to find a coin and look at who is on it. If you pulled out a penny, you have an image of Abraham Lincoln; if you pulled out a dime, you have an image of FDR; if you pulled out a nickel, you have an image of Thomas Jefferson; and if you pulled out a quarter, you have an image of George Washington. The way that these presidents are accurately stamped on our coins is the same way that God stamped God’s image on the Son, Jesus Christ. When we look at Jesus, we see God.
And how do we see God in Jesus Christ? The writer says this, “When he [Jesus] had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” We see God in Jesus Christ not because Jesus waved his hand and everyone believed in him—we know that’s not true. Rather, we see God in the face of Jesus Christ who went to the cross to die for our sins; that’s what the writer is talking about when he says that Jesus “made purification for sins”. We see God in the face of the suffering of God’s Son on the cross; we have a God who understands what it means to be human and to suffer pain with us. But that is not the only place that we see God in Jesus Christ. The author of Hebrews also tells us we see God in the Jesus who was resurrected from the dead and now sits at God’s right hand. This is who we worship, and this is the person in whom we have faith.
I find it interesting that the person who wrote this work named Hebrews, when faced with a struggling, declining, congregation, started out not by urging the people to feed more of the hungry or to go out and talk to more people, but rather, began with reminding the people of who this Jesus was in whom they believed. The writer of this letter, or rather, this sermon, started with teaching the people theology, the very basic stuff of their faith. When I switched us over from the Revised Common Lectionary to the Narrative Lectionary, the series of readings that we are hearing on Sundays now, this is what I was hoping to do: to take you all through the arc of how God spoke by the prophets through many and various ways, to the coming of God’s Son, Jesus, the one in whom we have placed our faith. Now that we’ve been doing this for a couple of years, I can see a difference, but we still have a lot of work to do. As someone else has pointed out, we are good at meeting needs in the community, but we are not so good at telling other people about Jesus. And perhaps part of the reason for us not being so good at sharing Jesus with other people is that we have lost the wonder and the awe of this Son of God whom we worship. We have become so distracted by what’s going on around us—our congregations declining—that we have focused too much on that and what we can do to stop it rather than keeping our eyes on Jesus.
So, what is the solution? What are some ways we can keep our eyes on Jesus? Well, every one of us should be in a regular Bible study of some sort. Our combined Salem and St. John’s study meets Thursday mornings at 10. There is an adult Sunday school class after worship at Salem and before worship at St. John’s that you can be a part of. Trinity has an evening adult Bible study on Tuesdays at 6:30 p.m. There are ample opportunities among our four Lutheran churches to learn more about God and discover the great, wonderful, awesome love that sent Jesus to us. Another thing we can do is be more regular attenders at Sunday morning worship. I know that sometimes life gets in the way and we can’t make it to worship. But if you are traveling, try to go to worship with a congregation in the area where you are. And in our personal lives, let’s make time for devotion and prayer. These are just some examples of how God can strengthen us in our faith and give us a renewed energy to go out and tell others how wonderful this Jesus is whom we worship.
In a way, it’s comforting to know that congregations in the second and third centuries were already having problems holding together, and that a preacher heard their calls for help and responded by reminding them that the one whom they worshiped knew what it was like to be human, gave himself up to death for us, and then rose from the dead. And it still rings true for us two thousand plus years later. If we run around doing good things for the community but do not remember why we do these things and who we worship, then we are no better than the Lions Club or the Kiwanis Club and then perhaps our congregation deserves to die. But if we are firmly rooted in the one who created the worlds, the one who is the reflection of God’s glory and the imprint of God’s very being, then everything that we do will flow from that love and we will reflect that love to those around us. Therefore, let us not forget who we are and whose we are as we seek to do God’s will in the community around us. Amen.