Sunday, September 02, 2007

Seeing Unseen Things

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, NY
September 2, 2007 )Proper 17)
Primary Text: Hebrews 13

For the last four weeks we have been reading through the last four chapters of the Letter to the Hebrews. It is one of my favorite sections of the New Testament and, I believe, one of the most important sections for the church in our day.

This morning’s passage is a series of ethical instructions, a short list of important Christian practices that the writer believes are the eternal core of what it means to be followers of Jesus. They are, in the author’s words, “the fruit of lips that confess [Jesus’] name,” summarized by the last statement of the passage:

Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

I could certainly expound on these practices all by themselves, but I want to go back over the ground that has been covered these past four weeks, because that ground transforms this list from a “do this, this and this” to a full and rich way of life.

We began four weeks ago with the relatively familiar definition of faith at the beginning of chapter eleven,

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

This “definition” of faith is full of irony and paradox, especially for the modern-day Christian. How can you be convinced about things you cannot see? How can you feel assurance about things for which you can only hope?

The most important word in the definition for the writer is the word “seen.” It will be sight that is the predominant metaphor that will take us through the rest of the letter. Indeed it has been important from the beginning. In the first couple chapters of the letter, the writer introduces his or her[1] understanding of who Jesus is, emphasizing that he is more than a mediator or messenger of God like the angels. He writes that it is true that we do not yet see everything that God intends for us to see. But, he says,

… we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone (2:9).

Jesus was seen and he was, therefore, real, as was his suffering and death, and it is that verifiable reality—his sacrifice on behalf of others (including you and me)—that enables him to be the source of faith for us.

Every time the writer uses the word see, or even implies it, we should hear those definitive words ringing in our ears: “But we do see Jesus.”

Faith itself, the writer says, is “the assurance of things not seen,” but then he goes on to remind us of how our ancestors developed the ability to “see the unseen.” That’s what he really means by “the assurance of things not seen.” Faith, for him, is the ability to see the unseen.

He talks about the Creation, about Cain and Abel, Enoch, and Noah. Then he spends quite a bit of time on Abraham and Sarah, saying of them the most important part of his argument.

All these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and sojourners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland…Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them (11:13-14, 16b).

“Seeing the unseen” is something all of us have to do. Even the exemplar of faith, Abraham, had to do it. He “died without having received the promise.” He had indeed finally received a child with Sarah, but he did not see that child become the promise of “ancestors as numerous as the stars.”

“Seeing the unseen” is the ability to see “from a distance,” and not just with longing, but greeting. You only greet something that you can see, of which you are assured.

The writer than goes on to give more examples of this “seeing the unseen,” “greeting the promises from a distance:” Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses (on whom he also spends a little more time than the rest), and then out of nowhere, reminding us that this vision is for everyone, Rahab the prostitute. He then says, “I could keep going but there’s not enough time” to tell all the stories of people who saw more than they could see, right up to your own day and you yourselves.

Yet all of these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

In this faith business, this seeing the unseen, we are all equal, even with the greatest of our ancestors. We will all “be made perfect,” we will all see, we will all receive the promises, together.

Then his argument comes full circle. We all, he says have to

…run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (12:1b-2a).

He then talks a little about the reality of this need to persevere, to endure the inevitable trials of having faith, building up discipline in ourselves for this journey. He does not in any way sugarcoat the journey of faith or hide the temptation we all face to turn away from it. He himself doesn’t use the words, but he says basically over and over again, keep your eyes on the prize.

And what is the prize? What is the promise that we are looking for, that we are trying to train our eyes to see from a distance? That was the vision in last week’s marvelous passage.

He helps us see the enormity of it by contrasting it to Moses’ and the Hebrews’ experience at Mount Sinai. They were afraid then; even the great Moses trembled with fear. No, our vision is different. Our vision is not fear and trembling, but

... Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and innumerable angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and God the judge of all whose judgment has caused not fear but justice, and Jesus who offers a new covenant with God because his blood proclaims Good News (unlike the blood of Abel crying for vengeance) (12:22-24, my own paraphrase).

That is the vision that we see, that is unshaken, that consumes all our inability to see in the fire of God.

And so we come to this morning’s passage, almost out of breath with this vision of unseen things. It wouldn’t have been a bad thing to end the letter with this great vision. But the writer knows that he can’t let us stay there, because the vision is only the promise. Sooner or later we will experience life falling far, far short of that dream, so far short that we will be tempted to just forget it.

So in the meantime, he says, these are the things you do to keep the dream alive, to keep your eyes on the prize, to keep seeing unseen things, to keep the faith. What follows is my paraphrase of what he says.

Keep treating one another like family, even strangers, especially strangers, because sometimes those strangers are angels even though you can’t tell it. Remember those in prison, or being oppressed, even tortured, as if you yourself were in their place. Be faithful to the commitments you make, especially marriage commitments because they are as close to your relationship with God that you’re going to get in this life. Don’t let yourself fall into the trap of loving money and possessions more than anything else; find ways to be content with your life. You don’t have to be afraid; no one can take you away from God.

Find good leaders to imitate based on the fruit of their lives not necessarily their popularity or what they say. Jesus is the one thing that never changes, so keep focused on him. Don’t let anybody try to convince you to do anything but follow him and his sacrifice, even if that means other people, even religious people, think you’re crazy and an outsider. Jesus was an outsider.

Keep looking for the city that is to come. Don’t ever be satisfied with the one that is. Live right now as if you lived in that city that is to come. It’s really very simple: do good to others and share what you have.

And then the writer ends his letter with a blessing, as I will end this sermon.

Be the people who see the things that nobody can see, but are the truest things in the world: the God of peace, who raised Jesus from the dead, and made him the good shepherd of the sheep because of his sacrifice, will make us all whole and perfect so that one day we will see ourselves as God sees us, with the eyes of Jesus, the eyes of glory forever and ever. Amen.

Keep the faith, brothers and sisters. See unseen things.

[1] There are almost as many potential authors of Hebrews as there are commentators, but among them (at least since Adolf von Harnack proposed it in the early 20th century) is Priscilla, a colleague of Paul’s.

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