December 5, 2010 Advent II
Hebrews 12:1-2, 12-17
Rev. Dr. David A. Davis
My family routinely makes fun of me because I cry on a fairly regular basis watching ESPN. It’s not that I shed tears when my team loses, or that I get so wrapped up in one game or another. It’s those human interest stories that run every now and then; real life stuff happening in people’s lives told about by this reporter or that; sportsmanship, courage, persistence, forgiveness. The softball players who carried an opponent around the bases after she tore her ACL, the young man with autism who got to play in the last high school basketball game of the season and made a bunch of three pointers, the little boy in Pennsylvania with an incredibly rare disease getting to play Little League as the whole town came out to watch his courage and strength. And there’s Dave sitting in front of his television all by himself, crying like a baby. My kids now look for this kind of thing on YouTube just to see if they can make me cry.
A few years ago, it was a high school cross country team. One of the kids on the team suffered from a neurological condition that was very debilitating, yet running was such an important part of his life. Running a cross country race on a changing and often challenging terrain is different than running in a meet on the track . The young man would often fall during races out on the course as he struggled to negotiate the path. He always finished the race, sometimes long after everyone else, often dirty and cut up from his falls. His teammates, both from the girls team and the boys team would finish their race and then run again; catch up to him and run with him. They couldn’t help him up if he fell; that would be a disqualification. But they were there with him when he finished. There wasn’t much fanfare or crowd reaction. It was just sort of the way it was. A few races near the end of the season had some from the opposing school team joining that last wave of runners. Listening to the various interviews in the video piece, it was pretty clear who was the most valuable member of the team.
I don’t remember every story that makes me cry, there’s too many of them. But there is something about the image of running a race a bit cut up and worn and bruised, something about the image of running a race while falling down time and time again, something about the image of running a race surrounded by a cloud of witnesses running alongside of you, there is something about the image of running a race that ought to stick in a preacher’s memory. Something that ought to register in the preacher’s imagination; kept there for those moments when the church is trying to wrap its collective head around, trying to capture or describe or write about or paint or point to the holy complexity and the sacred ordinariness of this journey of faith that we all share, this journey of faith to which we have been called. There is something about the image of running a race that ought to rise up a bit when the church is trying once again to do Advent.
Scholars describe the author of the Book of Hebrews as a preacher. When it comes to the literature of the New Testament, the book of Hebrews itself is best described not as a letter or a gospel narrative, certainly not as apocalyptic, but as a sermon. The Book of Hebrews; preacher and sermon. The preacher in Hebrews on the uniqueness of Christ: “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.” (1:3) The preacher in Hebrews on the authority and power of scripture: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until is divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (3:12) The preacher on the importance of learning the very basics of faith: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food.” (5:12)
The preacher in Hebrews, famously and quotably, on faith: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.” (12:1) The preacher on community and fellowship: “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (13:1-2). The preacher on marriage and money and food: “Let marriage be held in honor by all….keep your lives free from the love of money…..it is well for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by regulations about food.” (13:4,5,9)
And the preacher of Hebrews on the journey of faith. The preacher on the image of running the race: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” But the preacher doesn’t just stop there. The preacher’s image isn’t just there at the starting line. Stick with the preacher. “Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather healed.” When you’re listening to the preacher’s sermon in Hebrews you just can’t stop at the beginning with the cloud of witnesses, and the clinging sin and weight, and the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. The preacher’s imagination when it comes to the faith journey, when it comes to the holy complexity and the sacred ordinariness of this traveling faith of ours includes drooping hands and weak knees.
The race that starts with a bang and a call to perseverance soon becomes an exercise in limping along. Way too often, those who turn to the beginning of Hebrews, chapter 12, those who quote it, those who underline it, those who read it, those who hear it, we find ourselves stuck right at the starting line claiming victory, stopping somewhere in verse 2, missing completely that the preacher points a few miles down the road to those who are struggling, and falling, and limping.
One commentator writing about the Book of Hebrews suggests that this bible preacher is addressing a congregation that is just worn out. “They are tired” the commentator writes, “tired of serving the world, tired of worship, tired of Christian education, tired of being peculiar and whispered about in society, tired of the spiritual struggle, tired of trying to keep their prayer life going, tired even of Jesus…The threat to this congregation is not that they are charging off in the wrong direction…the threat here is that, worn down and worn out, they will drop their end of the rope and drift way. Tired of walking the walk, many of them are considering taking a walk” (Thomas G. Long) Or to say it another way, their hands are drooping and their knees are weak. Or as someone in my small group this fall put it rather clearly, if not bluntly, “it is just so hard, the call to live as a Christian. It is so hard!”
In a recent essay in The Christian Century, pastor and professor Craig Barnes vividly and movingly describes a pastoral visit to see one of the saints of the church. It’s one of those visits where someone who is no longer alert or oriented is able to sing an old hymn or two. She even knew second and third verses, the pastor writes. “I try to sing them along with her, but my memory fails as she continues to make her declaration of faith through these historic lyrics.” The title of the essay is “Closing Hymns” comes with a double meaning as the reader is left pondering in Craig Barnes words, “a faith strong enough to carry us all the way home.” Those lyrics, those texts, represent for him, “the great faith of apostles, martyrs. Mystics, reformers, and countless ordinary saints of the church who have already faced everything we could possibly face. When an old servant of the church is dying” he writes, “she needs the communion of saints cheering for her as she finishes the race. That is what the scriptures, historic creeds, old hymns and spirituals provide because they were all born out of heartache and suffering.” Or out of dropping hands and weak knees.
Finishing the race may not be the hardest part when it comes to the faith journey. Like when you land on a college campus and your world view is blasted open and your intellect stimulated and challenged like never before, and the faith journey still goes on. Or when life in your extended family seems to take one blow after another, not just for weeks, but for months; enough that friends say things like “I can’t believe one more thing could happen to you”, and the faith journey still goes on. You lose a mentor in life, an irreplaceable role model, the one who was always there and always knew what to say, knew when words weren’t necessary, and this race still goes on. Your kids have grown and the empty nest isn’t in your house, it’s in your heart, the nature of every relationship you have, including the one with God, has changed way more than your willing to negotiate, and the race just keeps going. You have the chance after college to travel a bit and see the world; and the eye opening experience of poverty and injustice so rocks your world, including faith shaking to its very core, and the faith traveling goes on. You long ago decided that the perceived simple faith of your parents and grandparents with easy answers and clear cut opinions wasn’t going to work in the world where you live, but four decades later amid all the ambiguities, all the grey area, all the answerless questions, you have yet to find anything of any depth and purpose to replace that childhood foundation, and still the race just keeps going. A few of us are running, most of us have to settle for limping along. It can be so hard, this life of faith.
Drooping hands. Weak knees. Yearning for a level path, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed. Still running, maybe walking, with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Christ Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Looking to the promised presence of God along the way. Advent isn’t a season. It’s way of life; as the children of God cry out, yearn for, cling to the promise that God shall break in, shine forth, be there, every wobbly step of the way. That commentator who writes about the Book of Hebrews, he points out how striking it is, that when speaking to such a weary, worn out, exhausted congregation, the preacher doesn’t appeal to organization management or leadership training or conflict management or rewriting the mission statement or changing the worship style. The preacher all through the Book of Hebrews points to the nature and the meaning of Jesus Christ. He practices what he preacher; looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Standing before a congregation full of weary faith travels, the preacher points to the very essence of the promise of God. Emmanuel. God with us.
A few years ago at one of the Christmas Pageants here at the church we discovered in a rather disruptive and shocking way that Jesus had left the building. At one point in order of worship for the pageant, the ageless baby doll is replaced by a real life actor or actress playing the Baby Jesus. Mary and Joseph and all the others, then, at the end of the pageant strike a tableau as the children of the congregation are invited to come forward for a closer look. Well, at one point early on, let’s just say that Jesus was a bit fussy. During the singing of a hymn the real mother of God stepped up and took the baby from the teenage Mary who, herself was not all that happy at that point. Mother and child exited stage left, presumable for some comfort, maybe to eat a bit, a pacifier, something. Those of us in the expectant crowd figured Jesus would, as they say, come back again before the singing of that last hymn where the joyful crowds come forward.
But Jesus never appeared. The well-worn baby doll was not even tossed in for the stand in, or cuddle in role. We found out later that not only did Jesus and his mother and father, go, (as the bible says) home by another way, they went home right away. The holy family had had enough.
So back here in Bethlehem, child after child came forward to see Jesus, to look for Jesus, they knelt and they stood on tiptoes, they edge in and edged out, they turned around, they looked back at their parents. This great cloud of witness, not just here in the chancel, but there in the pew, and out there, and out there.
We couldn’t talk about that pageant around here for years. But you might as well learn at an early age that there are moments in this faith journey that are hard, things that don’t turnout as expected, and times when God seems distant, even absent. You can learn at an early age that there is this crowd of us, this cloud of witnesses looking for, crying out for, claiming, clinging to the promise of Christ Jesus, Immanuel, God with us.
Children of God, when you find yourselves just plain worn out by it all, limping along, your hands are drooping, your knees are weak….look to Christ Jesus, and the promised presence of God.
Advent isn’t a season, it’s a way of life. As the children of God cry out, yearn for, cling to the promise that God shall break in, shine forth, be there, every wobbly step of the way.
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