Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Do you have a photo album? Do you ever look through the pages, remembering the people and events that shaped your life?

August 15, 2010

Second Reading
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Commentary on Hebrews 11:29—12:2

Do you have a photo album? Do you ever look through the pages, remembering the people and events that shaped your life?

There are pictures snapped long before you came on the scene: aunts, uncles, and your parents before they were all grown up. Then there is that picture of you on your mother’s lap or that vacation photo with your father in the background. There is graduation, the wedding, the first baby pictures. Then the cycle starts all over again. We gather up the memories and recall the people who stood by us in the good times and the bad.

That is what the writer of Hebrews is doing in chapter 11. He helps us look at our family snapshots in the gallery of faith: Remember those who crossed over the Red Sea. Remember Rahab, who welcomed the scouts. Remember those who marched around Jericho. Remember Sampson and Daniel, who shut the mouths of lions. Remember those who won strength out of weakness like Gideon and Esther. Remember those who were tortured, mocked, scourged, and tormented.

Why should we look at this photo album of faith and faithfulness? Because in looking, we learn who we are. We learn that we are not alone and that we are part of a family with particular traits and characteristics.

As we look at this remarkable family the writer of Hebrews sketches, we discover two portraits of faith. One portrait is full of images of triumph: conquering enemies, obtaining promises, shutting the mouths of lions, even gaining victory over death. But the other portrait is filled with images of suffering: public mocking, imprisonment, beating, stoning, homelessness, violence, and death. From the outside, the pictures and images are radically different, impossible to reconcile. After all, our culture says we are either successes or failures. But the writer of Hebrews mixes the categories because our lot in life is not a measure of our faithfulness.

The intermingled categories are a word of encouragement for struggling Christians. If we are struggling, and someone tells us that the true mark of faithfulness is suffering, we might despair. Must our suffering continue forever? If we are struggling and someone tells us that the true mark of faithfulness is triumph and victory, what hope is there for us? But the mixing of suffering and triumph gives us a word of hope: faithfulness shines both in suffering and in triumph, both in sorrow and in joy.1

So we learn that faith endures. Faith trusts God’s promises even when the present calls those promises into question. In the face of suffering, faith holds on and holds out because of the certainty of a future in which God has something better in store. Such are the lessons from our family photo album. We remember our company. We are not alone.

We remember our company, but we also remember our contest. We have a race to run. We are not mere tourists in this world, wandering from place to place, taking pictures, visiting landmarks, writing postcards, and then cheerily returning to the safety of home. We are runners in a race—not a fifty-yard dash, but a marathon.

As runners, we must lay aside every hindrance, even our ordinary clothes, for the purpose of the contest. And so the writer calls us to lay aside every sin that could trip us up or weigh us down. We summon our dedication and focus to pay the price.

But what do we do if all that does not appear to be enough? What if, despite a cloud of witnesses, despite that cheering section, despite our perseverance and sacrifice, we do not know whether we can hold out to the end?

The writer of Hebrews has one final word of advice. There is one more photograph for us to see, the final and most important one of all: “Let us run the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” Pioneer translates a particularly rich Greek word, archegos. The archegos is the author, the beginner, the instigator, the impetus, the trailblazer who goes before us. Here the writer has in mind the first namesake of Jesus–Joshua, son of Nun, who scouted out the land of promise. Just so, this new Jesus has been the scout, blazing a trail through all of human existence and tested in every way like all of us, yet finding joy at the end of the suffering of the cross.

But there is more. In the context of a race, the archegos is the team captain. In the Greek games, the team captain would run the race and then wait at the finish line to encourage his teammates as they followed in his steps.

Yet Jesus is not simply the pioneer; he is also the perfecter. Here the author of Hebrews has in mind a second namesake of Jesus–Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the first high priest after the exile. Priests perfect and complete what we lack, bringing us to our goal so that we may have full access to the presence of God. So Jesus not only calls us across the finish line but also fills in and fills out what is lacking in our faithfulness. He takes our incomplete faith and makes it whole.

So when our knees are weak and our hands drooping, when we feel worn out in the journey of faith, wondering whether we can hold on and hold out, we hear again this clarion call from Hebrews. We remember our company. We remember our contest, but above all, we remember our captain who has run this race and who beckons us home.

“O soul, are you weary and troubled?
No light in the darkness you see?
There’s light for a look at the Savior,
And life more abundant and free!
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in his wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace.”2

1Craddock, New Interpreters’ Bible.
2Helen H. Lemmel, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.”