The Victor through Suffering

(Psalm 8, Psalm 22:22-24; Hebrews 2:5-18)

To listen to the sermon “Yet at Present” by the Rev. Scott Hoezee, to which this sermon and its author are heavily indebted—beginning from the opening line—go here.

“I read the news today—oh, boy.” So begins “A Day in the Life,” the closing track from the Sergeant Pepper’s album, one of the most influential songs the Beatles ever wrote. It’s a familiar reaction, isn’t it? On June 1, 1967, the day that album was released, someone picking up the paper might have read about civil war in Nigeria, or growing tension between Israel and its neighbors—the day before, the president of Iraq had declared, “The existence of Israel is an error which must be rectified. . . . Our goal is clear—to wipe Israel off the map”; instead, on June 5, Israel would respond with a sneak attack on Egypt’s air force, beginning the Six-Day War—and of course, there was always news from Vietnam, which by 1967 always seemed to be reported as bad news regardless.

Today, Israel is still threatened, though these days Iran is the big problem, and the looming bad news is that Turkey seems to be moving that way as well; we aren’t fighting in Vietnam, but Afghanistan just passed it as the longest sustained military conflict in our history, and the prospects there don’t look good; and of course, there’s always news from the Gulf of Mexico, as a blown-out oil well a mile under the water continues to spew while BP fumbles, and our government dithers and interferes. I read the news today . . . oh, boy. Oh, boy, indeed.

In the face of this, there’s a real temptation to just—not read the news today. Pull into our bubble, figure the rest of the world can do or not, and just make the best of our own little circumstances. There’s too much suffering out there; insulate ourselves from it, as much as we can. Just don’t think about it, unless you have to. Just go through life with headphones on, as Jars of Clay put it in a recent song; a friend of ours who’s a longtime flight attendant for United has commented, somewhat sadly, that people talk a lot less on flights now—as soon as the light goes off, the headphones go on, and most of the people on the plane disappear into their own little worlds, tuning out and ignoring everyone else. After all, isn’t it safer that way? After all, if you let someone else start talking, you never know what you might hear.

A lot of churches, you’ll find that sort of attitude in worship, too. It’s most visible in contemporary churches, not because there’s anything wrong with contemporary worship—I appreciate it, just as I appreciate the hymns, and there’s some truly great songs being written these days, and some great things being done—but simply because that attitude often drives contemporary worship leaders. Crank up the volume, crank up the tempo, generate lots of energy, get everybody whipped up—it’s a proven way of attracting people, in part, I think, because it lets hurting people pretend for a while they aren’t hurting. But those who are ready to deal with their hurt, or who could be, just get run over—there’s no room for that.

This isn’t just a “contemporary” problem, though, it happens just as easily if you sing hymns; the only differences are the volume and the tempo. Just do our little bubble thing, sing songs about how great God is and how blessed we are, read happy Scriptures and say happy things, eat cookies, and go home. It’s easy to do, and again, it feels good; and again, it leaves real issues unaddressed. One of the reasons I appreciate the traditional liturgy is that it took its form during a time when the church couldn’t pretend that everything was ducky-wonderful, and so if we take it seriously, it holds us to confront and to address the realities of sin and pain; it directs us to the fact that this thing we do isn’t just for us, but is part of our response as followers of Jesus to this “lost and broken world so loved by God” in which we live.

Of course, it’s completely true that God is great beyond the limits of wonder, and good beyond the limits of joy, and that we are blessed far more than we realize or deserve, and that we do have profound reason to rejoice deeply; but to affirm that in a way which is really true and which really connects with and takes into account the sorrow of our world requires us to understand that in a different way than we often do—and here, Hebrews has something profoundly important to say.

At this point, I need to stop and acknowledge my deep debt here to one of my favorite preachers, Calvin Seminary’s Scott Hoezee, whose Worship Symposium sermon a few years ago on Hebrews 2 has permanently shaped my thinking on this passage; I think the only other person who has comparably influenced my understanding of any piece of Scripture would be Dr. Kenneth Bailey on the parables in Luke. You see, the Rev. Hoezee caught hold of something in this chapter that I hadn’t seen before, and it is, I think, what makes the whole thing turn.

As I mentioned last week, the agenda of Hebrews is to drive home that there is no one greater than Jesus, no other savior, no one who can add anything to the work he’s done, and no alternative in which or in whom we can place any real faith. First, as we saw, he compares Jesus to the angels, and shows how he is greater than any of them, or than all of them put together; this was a rebuke to those tempted to worship multiple spiritual powers, and also to those who insisted Christians must still keep the whole Jewish law, for Jewish tradition taught that the Law had actually been delivered to Moses by angels. Now, Hebrews builds from there to argue that Jesus is superior to the Law, that he is a higher authority—indeed, that he is the highest authority, having been given all authority over everything that is—though not as king, here, but as its great high priest. That’s a very important point in Hebrews, and we’ll come back to it in the weeks ahead. For now, just look what he says about it.

He starts with Psalm 8, and does something very interesting with it. Obviously, part of the reason it’s here is that phrase “son of man,” which Jesus used as a title for himself, and thus he takes this psalm as referring to Jesus—and rightly so, though some argue otherwise. The real turner, though, comes a little further on. You see, in the Hebrew, Psalm 8 says, “You made him a little lower than elohim.” If you were here when we started off in Genesis, you may remember my saying that the Hebrew word for a god is el; the dual form, which would mean two gods together, is eloah; and the plural, for three or more, is elohim. This is the word Hebrew used for talking about the gods of the nations; it’s also the word it used as one of the principal names for God. And this is the word we have here in Psalm 8, leaving ambiguity as to what exactly the psalmist means.

Now, the NIV, like a lot of translations, passes the ambiguity on. The first Greek version of the Old Testament, though, didn’t: it reads “angels,” following the common interpretation of the time that the psalmist is stressing human inferiority and insignificance. Hebrews takes that and combines it with the understanding that this psalm is referring not to people in general, but to Jesus, and comes up with this: God made the Son of Man lower than the angels for a little while, but has now crowned him with glory and honor and put everything under his authority. And just to ram that home, the author doesn’t stop with the psalm, but adds: “And when he says everything, he means everything. No exceptions.”

Up to this point in Hebrews, then, we’ve had this great long soaring arc of praise to Jesus Christ. He is the radiance of the glory of God, he is the exact copy of his nature, he is the one who upholds the universe by his word, he sits at the right hand of the Majesty of the universe, he is eternal and his rule is without end, he is above every other being that exists, and he has been given full authority and power over all creation. It’s like the Hallelujah Chorus, building and building and building to that last triumphant, overpowering declaration of praise . . . and then, suddenly, there’s the pause, and just when you expect this crescendo to hit a full-throated climax, something to take your breath completely away, the author breaks off, and says quietly, “Yet at present we do not see everything subject to Jesus.”

Yet at present. As the Rev. Hoezee says, it’s a line with which every sane person in this world can agree—and if anything, an understatement. I read the news today, and did I see the world operating under the rule of Christ, acknowledging his authority? No, I saw wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and floods, starvation and terrorism, injustice and indifference, death and betrayal, and somehow encapsulating the tragic mystery of our screwed-up world, the ongoing story of a 7-year-old boy who seems to have vanished into the thinnest of air right from the hallway of his school. If you believe his stepmother anyway, and it looks like the police aren’t so sure they do. You may remember Time magazine during the Rwandan genocide of the ’90s quoting a missionary who declared, “There are no devils left in Hell. They are all in Rwanda.” Sure, there are good things, too, saints and revivals and works of light, but precious little to match the horrors we keep concocting. This is the news as we know it; as the late Rich Mullins put it, this is the world as best as we can remember it. Oh, boy, indeed; oh, heaven help us all.

No, Hebrews declares, at present, we do not see everything subject to Jesus, and all God’s people say, “No kidding.” And it’s not just out there somewhere, where so many don’t want everything subject to Jesus—we see it in our own lives, and in our families. We see people we love who desperately want someone to love and marry, and can’t find them, or desperately want children, and can’t have them; we see children turn away from Christ to go their own way, and we see marriages shattered by betrayal or starved by indifference. We see cancer run amok and infections that won’t heal, and if we’re honest when we look into our hearts, we see that the spiritual disease we fight is even worse.

Even in our own souls, we do not see everything subject to Jesus; instead, we see self-will and distrust, rebellion and pride, and the desire to want what we want when we want it. Oh, we fight those things, to be sure, they are not the whole story of our lives, and we know the Holy Spirit is at work in us . . . but they’re still there. God has placed all these things under Jesus’ authority; yet at present, most days, we don’t see it.

But. But, says the author, this is not the last word. At present, we do not see everything subject to Jesus—but: we see Jesus. We see Jesus. And who is the Jesus we see? We see the Jesus whose crown of glory is a crown of thorns, who is honored for accepting dishonor—we see the Jesus who’s been reading the same news we read, and who not only observed our deepest tragedy, but lived it. We see the Jesus whom the world trampled under its feet; indeed, Hebrews affirms, that is exactly why God has now put that same world under his feet. We do not see Jesus distant and glorious, majestic and awe-inspiring to the point of being terrifying—we see him as he was made like us in every way and bore every grief and temptation we bear.

Indeed, as C. S. Lewis pointed out, he was tempted far worse than we ever are, because we only go so long and then we break; he never broke. Satan hit him with everything he had, and Jesus took it all and stood fast under suffering far greater than anything we could survive. And of course, he didn’t survive it; his victory required that he accept suffering to the point of death, and beyond—and he accepted that suffering, and so won that victory, for us. He did it so that he could pay the penalty for our sin, a penalty beyond all our resources and abilities put together to pay; and so that in so doing, he could set us free from our slavery to sin, and bring us out from under the dominance of death, which together were a bondage we could never have escaped, no matter how hard we might try. This is the victory he won; this is how he won it; this is the Jesus we see, and no other.

And in truth, how else could it be? We keep looking for God to win victories the same way the world does—but we have plenty of politicians and plenty of generals already; is one more of them, even a better one, really going to help? Is not the Jesus we actually see, the one who experienced the sorrow and agony of our world to its shattered-glass depths, who bears its marks deep in his being—isn’t this Jesus the Savior we truly need? Everyone else who claims authority in this world does so in some way on the basis of power—whether as brutal as a military coup or as gentle as a majority of the popular vote; Jesus receives it on the basis of sacrifice and suffering. They claim it for themselves; he claims it, in a very real sense, for us.

The one to whom God made this world subject is not some distant conqueror, mighty warlord, or calculating politician; he isn’t someone who just wants everything to run smoothly with no complications, and never mind what happens to individuals in the machine. No, he’s the one who grieves as we grieve for the sister who is addicted to meth, for the brother who has just been abandoned by an unfaithful wife, for the father who has Alzheimer’s and the mother whose husband no longer remembers her, for the daughter who longs to have children and cannot, for the son who has declared his hatred of God and started wearing pink triangles and rainbows.

No, with the eyes of this world, we do not see all things subject to him, not on this tortured, fractured planet of myeloma and Alzheimer’s, terrorism and murder, deformity and death, war and betrayal; but with the eyes of faith, we can look at the cancer clinic and the dementia unit, at the battlefield and the funeral, and at every other place where people sin and people suffer—which is everywhere—and we see Jesus. Because Jesus is there, bringing reconciliation, redemption, repentance, and healing. This is the gospel, not that Jesus is striding through the world preventing the bad people from causing suffering, but that when suffering comes, he is in it with us, working through it for our good, to bring us his victory—and that he is enough. He is enough for us now; he is enough for us for always.

No Rivals

(Psalm 2, Psalm 110:1-4; Hebrews 1:1-2:4)

When I graduated from Hope College, up in Holland, Michigan, in 1996, I was very pleased to have gone there—and not just because that’s where I met Sara. It’s a great school, and not just academically; my professors weren’t just names and lectures, but people I knew and could depend on, from whom I learned a lot outside of class as well as in it. I grew spiritually because of the chapel program, and made many wonderful friends; and it was interesting, when we visited this past April, to find that every single professor we talked to remembered us—even the one we’d only known as the father of a friend. As pleased as I was then with my choice of college, though, I’m even prouder to be a Hope grad now; during a time when many colleges have suffered great losses economically, and when many once-Christian schools are running away from the faith as fast as they can, Hope is weathering the economic and spiritual storm amazingly well. Wonderful things are happening there, and the folks tasked to lead the ship have the right vision to see that continue and grow.

Which is probably what one should expect from a school whose symbol is the anchor. You can’t spend any time at all around Hope without seeing it—the big anchor at the old entrance to campus, the anchor on the college seal, the anchor on the school’s more informal logo. It’s all over the place—and for good reason. The school was founded in 1854 as the Holland Academy, the work of one of the great figures in the history of the Dutch community in America, the Rev. A. C. Van Raalte; and in his dedication speech, he declared, “This is my anchor of hope for this people in the future.” From that line the school would ultimately take both its name and its symbol, and a profoundly important piece of its identity.

“This is my anchor of hope.” In saying that, Rev. Van Raalte was drawing on the book of Hebrews, specifically Hebrews 6:19-20, which declares our hope in Christ to be “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul”; he wasn’t putting his faith in the institution, but in Christ. The institution of the school would be an anchor of hope because it in turn would be anchored in Christ, and only for as long as that remained true; and by the grace of God, so far, it has.

Of course, that hasn’t been without struggle or conflict; there are plenty of people who would like to see Hope anchored in something other than the historic Reformed understanding of the Christian faith. Some of them are even on the faculty, legacies of a previous administration that didn’t care about this so much. That’s really not surprising, because we all face the temptation to put our hope in something other than Christ, to find our soul anchor in anything but him; the world tells us that we can’t possibly put our faith in someone we can’t hear or see or touch, that there are far more sure and certain anchors for the soul than Jesus. Money, perhaps; a college degree, or maybe even a graduate degree; personal relationships; there are a great many things we value, and it’s easy to put our trust in them instead of in Jesus, to hope in our bank account or our marriage, our résumé or our children, instead of in Christ. It’s easy because we have some control over those (though not as much as we think we do), and we just find it easier to put our hope in our own work than in the work of someone we cannot control.

This is an age-old temptation, and we see it right here in Hebrews, because it’s the temptation the letter was written to address. We don’t know who wrote this letter, or to whom, and in fact that knowledge was lost very early on; but we can see clearly why it was written. Whoever the author or authors of this letter may have been, they had one single overriding concern: to demonstrate beyond any conceivable room for argument that Jesus Christ is superior to anyone else and anything else, that there is no one and no thing else in whom it makes any sense at all to put our faith and hope and trust. Christ alone is our soul anchor, he alone is our anchor of hope, and he’s the only anchor that will hold through the storms of life. He has no rivals; he never has.

This overriding concern, this overarching theme, is what we’re going to be focusing on for the next number of weeks as we spend time going through this book—which is a difficult book if you’re not familiar with it, because it draws heavily on the religious culture of the first-century Hebrews, which is thoroughly alien to us. Even so, the book’s main focus is very clear in our passage this morning, right from the very first verses. “In these last days, [God] has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of the Father’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.” And off the book goes for a while to talk specifically about that aspect of Christ’s superiority, that he is above all other spiritual powers.

We also see, in this passage, something about the structure of the book. Hebrews isn’t just saying all these things about Jesus so we know them, after all, but because the author wants to encourage people to put their faith in Christ and Christ alone, not in anything else, not in anything additional. With Paul’s letters, what you typically get is a long theological section and then several chapters of application, but Hebrews doesn’t work that way. Rather, what we see is a repetitive structure in three parts.

First, the author makes part of his case for the uniqueness and supremacy of Christ—in this passage, the argument that Christ is superior to angels. Then he applies that. Here, that application is quite brief, in chapter 2 verse 1: because Christ is superior to angels, and thus his message is superior to any message ever delivered by angels—which, as he reminds his hearers in verse 2, is no small thing—then we need to pay more careful attention to the message of the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ. We need to take that message seriously and respond appropriately, so that we don’t wind up drifting away and putting our faith and hope in anyone or anything else. Having said that, then comes the third part, the warning: if you ignore the only salvation God has offered, which is given through Jesus Christ alone, the only result will be ultimate and absolute disaster, with no hope of escape.

The key thing to understand here, though, is that this warning isn’t rooted in punishment—indeed, it isn’t really about punishment at all. It’s more like a sign reading “Bridge Out Ahead.” If you see a sign like that and insist on ignoring it and going around the barricades, unless there’s a cop sitting right there to stop you, you aren’t going to be punished for ignoring the sign; you simply won’t be able to get across, because there’s no bridge there to get you across. And if you insist on trying to cross it anyway, you won’t be punished for that, but you will suffer the consequences of trying to do the impossible: you’ll have an accident. That’s essentially what Hebrews is talking about in the beginning of chapter 2. It’s not that God is just waiting to punish you if you try to do things your own way—it’s that Christ is the only way, and if you put your hope in anyone or anything else, you are trying to cross the canyon where there is no bridge, and so you will inevitably fall.

But if you will hope in the Lord, he will never fail you; you may stumble, but you will not fall. The one who is the radiance of the glory of God and who upholds the universe by the word of his power is the one who upholds us, for he is the one who purified us from sin and now intercedes for us before the throne of heaven; no one and nothing else can save us, no one and nothing else could ever be enough, but he is enough, and he has done it—and he will never fail you. He is faithful who promised.