Hebrews 12:1-3 – Wednesday of Holy Week

As for us, we have this large crowd of witnesses around us. So then, let us rid ourselves of everything that gets in the way, and of the sin which holds on to us so tightly, and let us run with determination the race that lies before us. Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, on whom our faith depends, from beginning to end. He did not give up because of the cross! On the contrary, because of the joy that was waiting for him, he thought nothing of the disgrace of dying on the cross, and he is now seated at the right side of God’s throne.

Think of what he went through; how he put up with so much hatred from sinners! So do not let yourselves become discouraged and give up. (Good News Translation)

“If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete.”

Viktor E. Frankl

We are moving, step by step, inexorably to the cross of Christ. Along the way we will face opposition, ridicule, misunderstanding, and betrayal. We will be befuddled and feel confused. The path of discipleship is not easy.

And yet, on this Holy Wednesday, today’s New Testament lesson informs us that all the suffering of Christ was motivated and animated because of joy. 

The road to the cross, along with the cross itself, is painful, in every sense of the word. None of this tortuous suffering seems joyful, at all! There’s no definition, in any dictionary, of joy including severe spiritual anguish, bodily harm, and emotional shame. Joy isn’t remotely mentioned when talking about betrayal from someone close to you.

Jesus did not relish the pain. He was no masochist. Pain with no purpose is nothing but tragic despair. Rather, Jesus clearly understood what the end of his suffering would accomplish: the saving of many lives.

It is most necessary that we do not try to sanitize Christ’s death.

Although many beautiful crosses can be found in stores, the cross of Jesus was anything but lovely to look at. It was bloody. The cross was a harsh implement of torture and execution, meant to expose the condemned to public shame.

Trying to make sense of this great sacrifice on our behalf can be difficult. No earthly illustration or word-picture can begin to adequately capture the idea of vicarious suffering. Perhaps, then, we may understand the necessity of discipline, effort, endurance, and yes, pain, in order to accomplish a goal. We know from agonizing experience that the realization of our most important goals requires a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears. 

In a former life I was a cross country runner (back far enough for Sherman to set the way-back machine). Whenever I was running on a road or a golf course, I would sometimes get that very nasty and sharp pain in my side while running. It is called a side cramp, or side stitch. 

If you have never experienced such a cramp, the pain feels like an intense stabbing, as if someone were taking a knife and twisting it inside you. Runners know there’s only one thing to do when this occurs: Keep running through the pain, and then it will subside in a few minutes. To stop running only exacerbates and prolongs getting over the hurt, not to mention losing a race.

Jesus endured the cross knowing he was going to experience terrible excruciating pain. He also knew that avoiding the shame and agony would only make things worse; it wouldn’t take care of the problem of sin. 

Jesus persevered through the foulness and degradation of the cross for you and me. All of the wretched pain was worth it to him. Christ did not circumvent the cross; he embraced it so that the result would be people’s deliverance from guilt and shame, death and hell. 

The end game of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross was joy over deposing the ruler of this dark world and obliterating the obstacles to people’s faith.

Suffering often does not fit into our equation of the Christian life. However, it needs to. No suffering, no salvation. Since Jesus bled and died for us, it is our privilege to follow him and walk with him along the Via Dolorosa, the way of suffering. 

Holy Week is a time to reflect and remember on such a great sacrifice, and to consider our Christian lives in the face of such great love. On this Wednesday, allow yourself to feel the bittersweet experience of simultaneous pain and joy – the very real bitterness of seeing the Lord crucified, along with the exultation of joy over being washed clean by the blood of the Lamb.

Gracious Lord Jesus, I give you eternal thanks for your mercy toward me through the cross. It is a small thing for me to follow you even it means great suffering on my part. My life is yours. Use it as you will, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Hebrews 2:1-9 – Pay Attention

We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.

It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But there is a place where someone has testified:

“What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    a son of man that you care for him?
You made them a little lower than the angels;
    you crowned them with glory and honor
    and put everything under their feet.”

In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (New International Version)

In my line of work as a hospital chaplain on a behavioral health unit, I frequently deal with patients who have brain disorders. Many of them, including many in my own family, have Attention Deficit Disorder (A.D.D.). Many people believe this to be a disadvantage.

Yet, I have noticed that since their brain chemistry doesn’t have a good filter for sifting all the stimuli they hear each day, many A.D.D. folks are quite intentional about picking out the voice they want to hear and engaging with it. Whereas others might take this for granted, the patients in my life know the value of creating the skills to pay attention.

The ability to pay attention and listen is necessary for a successful and sustainable Christian life.

The consequence of not developing such competency is that we will drift away – our minds will wander and allow other competing voices to overwhelm the singular voice of Jesus. Taking salvation for granted may subversively set us up for spiritual failure.

Whenever we think we already know about Christ’s person and work, we neglect to really pay attention. Bad idea.

Assuming we are paying attention is not the same thing as actually doing it. Assumptions create a slow drift away from truth. Therefore, we need continual reminders of Christ’s redemptive events. 

We must avoid the precarious position of being lost in a sea of competing voices.

We need an intentional plan for paying attention – without assuming we will be focused. Here are a few ways of daily mindfulness so that we will not become S.A.D.D. (Spiritual Attention Deficit Disorder):

  • Read Holy Scripture each day with a combination of standing and sitting, reading silently and out loud.
  • Hold a cross or other Christian reminder in your hand and feel free to fidget with it.
  • Journal your thoughts in a notebook.
  • Set a consistent time and place for spiritual reading and prayer.
  • Use different translations and versions of the Bible to read.
  • Go outside occasionally and pray while walking.
  • Focus on your breathing, and consider using breath prayers (i.e., Breathe out: “Speak Lord.” Breathe in: “I am listening.”)
  • Drink some coffee, tea, or something soothing, and picture the comfort of Christ coming into your life.
  • Be aware of distractions and acknowledge them without judging yourself.
  • Observe the Christian Year and the Daily Lectionary.

While some might argue that observing Lectionaries, the Church Calendar, Christian seasons, and worship liturgies are vain repetition, I insist otherwise: We are in grave danger of not paying attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. 

Like a beach-goer on the lake drifting on her flotation device far out from shore, we can be unaware of how far we have strayed from our spiritual moorings.  If the passion and death of Jesus can only get a shoulder shrug and a “meh” out of us, there is a real problem.

Forming habits of worship, fellowship, service, and piety are essential to deliberately maintaining attention to Jesus. Perhaps if we all felt S.A.D.D. we would be more intentional about grafting reminders and practices into our lives.

Ignorance does not come from a lack of education; it comes from a failure to pay attention to the most important things in life.

God pays attention to us in a special way, different from all other creation. As the only creatures for whom the image and likeness of God resides, we have an innate sense of connection with the divine. Paying attention to things, especially to what Christ has secured for us through the cross, reflects the God who is continually observing humanity.

May your contemplation of Christ and his redemptive events of incarnation, holy life, teaching, death, resurrection, and ascension be always fresh and continually meaningful.

God, as You speak through scriptures, whispers, dreams, circumstances, nature, and people in our lives, help us to pay attention to Your voice. May we hear You in the many ways You communicate. May we pay attention to the important and the urgent and may we choose wisely. May we live attentively today.

Hebrews 10:10-18 – Out with the Old, In with the New

Because Jesus Christ did what God wanted him to do, we are all purified from sin by the offering that he made of his own body once and for all.

Every Jewish priest performs his services every day and offers the same sacrifices many times; but these sacrifices can never take away sins. Christ, however, offered one sacrifice for sins, an offering that is effective forever, and then he sat down at the right side of God. There he now waits until God puts his enemies as a footstool under his feet. With one sacrifice, then, he has made perfect forever those who are purified from sin.

And the Holy Spirit also gives us his witness. First he says,

“This is the covenant that I will make with them
    in the days to come, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their hearts
    and write them on their minds.”

And then he says, “I will not remember their sins and evil deeds any longer.”So, when these have been forgiven, an offering to take away sins is no longer needed. (Good News Translation)

As I sit at my computer, easily keyboarding my thoughts, it is almost inconceivable to me that I made it through my undergraduate college days in the early 1980s with a manual typewriter and notetaking with the old-fashioned pen and spiral notebook.  No cell phone, no tablet, no electronic devices aiding me through my education. Typewriters are now obsolete, along with corded dial telephones and wringer washers.

Yet even more incredible is the complete replacement of an old mundane system of ritual sacrifice to a religion of the heart in which God remembers the people’s sins no more. This is such a radical change that it would be like having self-cleaning dishes or total speech-to-text “writing” of “papers.” 

The new order of things described in Hebrews is so much more than a labor-saving device; it is a completely different system that leaves the old system obsolete forever. That is what Jesus Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice did on our behalf.

We live in a New Covenant era in which God has put divine laws on our hearts and written them on our minds. No typewriter, no computer, no keyboard necessary, because the blood of Christ has introduced a seminal change in how we relate to God. 

There is now a thorough forgiveness that no longer requires any labor, ritual, or work. Indeed, it is finished. Now, we have the privilege and opportunity of living into the new reality graciously provided for us. It is an era of great peace, joy, and goodwill.  It is so good that it would be absolutely ridiculous to go back to the old way.

So, slow down enough in this season to connect or re-connect with a most wonderful truth: Jesus Christ came to save sinners. Gratitude for our salvation from sin, death, and hell, recognized and acknowledged each day, helps to stave off living in the past.

Continually looking at a bygone era as the good old days probably wasn’t, in reality, near as great as it’s remembered. That’s because when things are hard in the present, we often reflexively retreat into the past, cherry-picking some good memories, then constructing a mental narrative without all the bad stuff which actually went along with it.

Instead, in this Advent season, Christians purposely focus upon and remember God’s merciful descent to live among humanity. Christ lived, died, rose from death, and is alive – interceding for us continually. Past and present come together in the person of Jesus.

The Word became flesh and blood,
    and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
    the one-of-a-kind glory,
    like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
    true from start to finish. (John 1:14, MSG)

The good news of Christianity is that we are gloriously forgiven and redeemed because of Christ, given for us, the once for all sacrifice for sin.

May this season be full of grace and wonder for you, as you pilgrim to the manger and adore Christ the newborn king.

Saving God, you have completely taken care of the sin issue once and for all through the blood of your Son.  Forgive me for my predilection to retreat into old obsolete ways of trying to earn peace and joy, instead of adopting the new, which sometimes seems almost too good to be true.  Thank you for deliverance and new life in Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Hebrews 10:32-39 – Believe, Be Patient, and Remember

Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.

You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For,

“In just a little while,
    he who is coming will come
    and will not delay.”

And,

“But my righteous one will live by faith.
    And I take no pleasure
    in the one who shrinks back.”

But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved. (New International Version)

Sometimes we get stuck in our troubles. We might get lost in adversity and cannot see either how we got here or a way out. This is hopelessness. Without a confident expectation of better days ahead, while in the throes of difficulty, a failure of faith can too easily happen.

To realize better days, it’s important to remember the earlier days. I’m not talking about living in the past and wishing it were the 1950s again with Beaver Cleaver across the street. This is not about believing that the past was the good old days, and the present is no good. Rather, I’m referring to remembering the ways we endured and persevered with joy in past experiences.

The original Christian recipients of the message of Hebrews needed to recall the various ways they stood firm and tall in their faith, despite the adversity. They were insulted and persecuted, showing solidarity to others in similar situations. They were attentive to prisoners and sought to meet their needs. And they actually responded to the confiscation of their property with joy because they knew there was more than this present life.

God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.

James 1:12, NLT

The believers needed to reconnect with their purpose, with their why. The reason they had such incredible attitudes while enduring hard things is because they were pursuing heavenly treasure. Their earthly possessions were merely temporary things, not of eternal value. It is people who have eternal value, and the believers willingly focused efforts in helping others.

However, the Christians eventually, over time, lost their focus and could only see the pain and the difficulty. They became disconnected with their purpose. And so, they were in danger of losing their faith and becoming utterly hopeless.

Remember what God has done for you. Affirm what is right, just, and true. Embrace faith and patience. That’s what the prophet Habakkuk did. And his resilience helped to bring proper perspective to present troubles.

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope.”

Reinhold Niebuhr

Habakkuk was distressed over the corruption of his fellow Israelites. So, he complained to God about it. God responded by informing Habakkuk that judgment was coming to Israel through the Babylonians. This was neither what Habakkuk expected nor wanted. The prophet grumbled even more because the Babylonians were more corrupt than the Israelites. “The Babylonians need judgment, too!” believed Habakkuk. 

Habakkuk struggled to come to terms with what God was doing, and not doing. Finally, he concluded the matter by reconnecting with his faith: 

Even though the fig trees have no blossoms,
    and there are no grapes on the vines;
even though the olive crop fails,
    and the fields lie empty and barren;
even though the flocks die in the fields,
    and the cattle barns are empty,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord!
    I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!
The Sovereign Lord is my strength!
    He makes me as surefooted as a deer,
    able to tread upon the heights. (Habakkuk 3:17-19, NLT)

One of the most significant faith experiences we can ever have, is to come to the point of complete trust in God so that our happiness is not dependent upon good circumstances. The truth is that the Christian’s joy and spiritual security is independent of what is going on around us. Even though situations might be difficult and even evil, believers can still rejoice because we do not need everything to go our way in order to experience happiness.

Faith, patience, and joy are neither cheap, nor easy. It requires daily affirmations of faith and patience. It requires remembering. There is a reward ahead if we persevere to the end.

We can remain patient, express faith, kindle hope, and remember necessary things whenever we stop doing unimportant things which do not add value to our ultimate goals; be mindful of those things which are most important to us; and move through life at a pace of hope, not anxiety.

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen.