Proper 28, Year B
November 18, 2012
May the words I speak and the words you hear be God's alone. Amen.
We’ve come to the time of year when darkness is more prevalent than light. The days are shorter, the air is colder, and each morning it becomes more difficult to get out of our warm beds. The recent Superstorm Sandy and nor’easter have plunged many on the East Coast into darkness, thousands of whom remain without power to this day. This summer we experienced the worst drought in half a century. And on the horizon, there are “wars and rumors of wars”: Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Sudan, Iran (Mark 13:7). We might feel as if we are experiencing the “birthpangs” mentioned in today’s Gospel reading (Mark 13:8).
The recipients of the letter to the Hebrews are experiencing darkness as well. The letter is addressed to a community of Jewish and Gentile believers undergoing hardships, possibly even persecution. Written 30 to 60 years after Jesus’ death, it takes place in an era where to be a Christian means risking one’s life. Just think about what some of the earliest apostles go through: Paul and Peter travel all over, delivering the good news of Jesus Christ. In return, Paul is beheaded by the Romans and Peter is crucified--upside down. Before Christianity is made the official religion of Rome in the 300s, Christians are forced to choose between their faith or their lives. Surprisingly, many choose their faith.
Understandably, the community of believers receiving the letter is weary and disheartened, and many have stopped gathering or participating in worship. In response, the author of Hebrews is trying to lift up his audience’s spirits, to encourage them to persevere in the midst of tribulation. The author stresses that although it may appear that the darkness is taking over and hope is but a distant memory, actually the opposite is true. What we are experiencing is the in-between times: Christ has conquered sin and death, but the final victory remains to be seen.
Christ has conquered sin. Instead of sin clinging to us like a reappearing stain that must be scrubbed out again and again, we have been washed clean through the “single offering” of the incarnate Lord (v. 14). This does not mean that we shouldn’t own up to things that we’ve done wrong; it means that we don’t let our past mistakes take control of our life. Our hearts are “sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies are washed with pure water” (v. 22). Purified, we are now able to approach the world in a “new and living way” (v. 20).
Christ has conquered death. Being a Christian doesn’t mean that we escape adversity. We know this. But whatever struggles we go through, whatever hardships we face on earth, we know that this life is not the end. Because of Christ, death has “no dominion” over us (Romans 6:9). Our stories are not finished when we take our final breath; the epilogue will contain wonders too glorious for us to even imagine!
With this knowledge of our salvation, we are able to face even the darkest nights of the soul. This is exactly what the first Christians did. They could not keep this Good News of Jesus Christ to themselves; they were compelled to share it with the world, no matter the cost. Through adversity they found strength. They knew that they were not alone; their God had come down from heaven to “share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to [God]” (BCP 362). Christ walked the same dusty roads, he shared meals with friends and strangers, he experienced disappointment, failure, loneliness, heartbreak, and a violent death. And he did all this for us! With such a demonstration of love, in the words of a Christian hymn, “How can [we] keep from singing?” In one of Paul’s final letters, as he was sitting in jail, contemplating his imminent death, he wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).
So how do we respond to Christ’s amazing act of love? The author of the letter to the Hebrews suggests that since Christ has sanctified us, made us holy, we are therefore called to live a life that is holy. But what is a holy life?
A holy life is a life of confidence. Christ, in his death, defeated death. In the water of baptism “we are buried with Christ in his death...share in his resurrection...[and] are reborn by the Holy Spirit” (BCP 306). When we are baptized, our sins are forgiven (BCP 858). Rather than come to worship with our heads bowed and brow furrowed, the author of the letter invites us to let go of our fear and guilt, and live confidently with the knowledge of our salvation through Christ.
A holy life is a life of community: we encourage, excite, and sometimes nudge one another. In the baptismal covenant, we promise to break bread together, to repent when we “fall into sin...proclaim...the Good News of God in Christ...” love our neighbors, “strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP 304-305). We are able to do this with God’s help, and by helping each other. Sometimes that means speaking against the existing conditions: think Martin Luther King, Jr., writing to fellow Christian leaders in his Letter from Birmingham City Jail. Sometimes it means sharing successes. In a world where it seems like mostly bad things are happening and where Christianity seems to be growing obsolete, we come together as a community to recount tales of hope that inspire us to continue to love and do “good deeds” (v. 24).
A holy life is a life of hope. Living in in-between times is not easy. But the God who formed the earth and all creation, who brought the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt to the promised land, who healed the sick and calmed the stormy seas, who hung upon the cross to once and forever free us from sin and death--that same God will not abandon us. We are an Easter people; we live with the hope of resurrection, we know that death does not have the final word. Despite what is going on outside or what difficulties we face, we “hold fast” because we know that the one “who has promised is faithful” (v. 23).
Finally, a holy life is a life of anticipation. Although the stores may have gotten a jumpstart on Christmas music, in two weeks we begin the season of Advent, preparing for the arrival of the incarnate Lord in our midst. The light of Christ coming into the world pierces the darkness that threatens to consume us. But the birthpangs of a young Jewish girl in a crude stable are also a foreshadowing of the birthpangs announcing his return. We “see the Day approaching” when “Christ will come again,” and “we await his coming in glory” (v. 25, BCP 363, 368). In this in-between time, we face whatever comes our way, “approach[ing] with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (v. 22).
Until that Day comes,
“[Our] life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation
[We] hear the sweet though far off hymn
That hails a new creation:
Through all the tumult and the strife
[We] hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in [our] soul[s]—
How can [we] keep from singing?
(How Can I Keep From Singing? by Robert Wadsworth Lowry)
My Goddaughter and her twin brother making music