Grace and Peace to you from him who is and who was and who is to come,
Nobody knows for sure who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews, but most experts think it was written around 70 AD and that the author was addressing Jewish converts to Christianity who knew the Old Testament and were tempted to go back to their old faith, or else make the Christian gospel conform to Jewish understanding of the law. None of this applies to us, but Christians have loved and respected Hebrews for almost two thousand years because of the profound way it discusses the person and nature of Christ. The author wrote that Jesus is sufficient and supreme as the one who reveals God and brings his grace to us.
The verses we read a few minutes ago describe in a few sentences what it means for us that God himself took on our flesh and blood. Hebrews offers powerful arguments and strong encouragement to stick with Christ.
To help us think about this text, let’s suppose we’ve received a letter from a friend who has moved to a new city. This friend writes first of all that their family hasn’t been going to church, because they haven’t found a warm and friendly congregation. It’s obvious they haven’t stumbled on St. Peter’s yet.
We reply in a cordial way that we may attend a certain congregation because we like the people there or because our family has roots there, but these aren’t the main reasons we go to church. Jesus is, and His Heavenly Father calls us to spend time with him. He sets the example for us. He attended worship faithfully during the years of his ministry in Israel. When we come to church, we meet our Lord.
Our friend also writes that work has been going well, and the family is happy. The church doesn’t seem necessary. What’s more, some people at our friend’s new job make fun of folks who practice the Christian faith. These people are highly intelligent. Maybe they have a point. There are, moreover, many approaches to faith. Our friend wants to experiment.
We reply that social pressure can be powerful, but we don’t have to give way to it. Every Christian is tempted at times to drift from the faith. What holds us is our understanding of who Jesus is.
He is God, who became flesh and blood. He made himself lower than the angels and took on our mortality. He calls himself our brother. He lived as we do, though in perfect obedience to his Heavenly Father and without sin. He knows what makes us joyful and sad. He knows the weaknesses and strengths of each one of us. He understands what we want. He knows what we’re afraid of and what we need. He acted on behalf of humanity throughout his ministry, and especially when he died on a cross and took the sins of the whole world on his own shoulders and died to make the payment we owe. He redeemed the whole world from sin; he defeated the devil; he calls everyone who trusts in him his sister or brother. He makes balanced, steady, joyful, confident living possible for everyone who sticks with him.
Our friend includes news of the day in the letter and tells us, with a touch of pride, that the children are enjoying school, they spent two weeks in the mountains to end their summer vacation. Our friend is looking ahead to a promotion at work and even more money coming in and says again that they have a few good friends and work associates who will be offended if they attach themselves to the church.
We think for moment before we respond to this part of the letter because we know we’re likely to turn our friend away from us with what we’re about to say, but we decide it’s important to be true to God’s Word. We write that life in the world is like a roller coaster, up one day, down the next. Not one of life’s material blessings comes with a guarantee of permanence. Friends may come and go. Institutions rise for a while and then drop down with a crash. Wise people stick with Jesus, who carries us through the ups and downs. He protects us from the influence of the devil, who rules the world. Faith in him brings countless blessings. He rewards folks who stay with him and who let the light of faith shine out, like the people at St. Peter’s.
We mention, too, a subject we don’t often talk about – the reality of death, which comes to everyone. The Bible teaches us that God created the human race to live in harmony with him forever. But our first parents sinned when they surrendered to the serpent’s temptations, and everyone since then has fallen into sin, and God’s Word teaches us that the wages of sin is death.
We say we’re glad that life is going well for our friend, but we hope the family aren’t trying to create a kind of earthly immortality by building up a pile of things to leave behind them. That won’t solve the problem of death that frightens so many people and puts them in lifelong bondage, as the author of Hebrews says. Jesus does solve the problem of death, however. He broke through the grave not just for himself but to bring the hope of eternal life to everyone who receives him.
We point out to our friend that the fear of death crushes our souls and turns us into slaves, while Jesus makes us free. He strengthens and enlarges our souls. He gives our lives meaning. He makes us brave.
We finish our letter and send it off. We aren’t surprised that a long time goes by – months and months – before we hear from our friend again.
Then a letter arrives. Our friend admits reading our letter quickly and putting it away, because it wasn’t what the family wanted to hear just then. Life went along smoothly for a while, then they struck a rocky patch. The company our friend worked for began to lose money and had to lay off workers. “Then there’ve been illnesses,” our friend writes, “especially my mother-in-law, who’s come down with a heart disease and that news has hit us all hard. I took out your letter and read it several times, especially where you reminded us that Jesus conquered the fear of death for us. We started going back to church again for a while and reading the Bible. I would have written sooner, but other things have come up. One of our sons has got into trouble with the law. I haven’t been able to find work, and I’ve developed a cough that won’t go away. I had a minor traffic accident yesterday. I can’t imagine what will come next. I don’t know how I can possibly cope with the troubles that have landed on my doorstep. It isn’t right, but I’m starting to think that God has stopped protecting us. Maybe he’s even picking on me. I feel like giving up. Can you help me?”
This is exactly the sort of question we know how to answer, but we take a moment or two to think. We don’t want to shoot from the hip. We have another look at the passage from Hebrews. We write to our friend that when Jesus shared our flesh and blood, he didn’t take on just the good side of human life. He also took on our suffering. He knows what it means to be alone, to be scorned, and to be hungry. He also knows what it’s like to be tempted. You recall that Satan tempted him in the wilderness and again in the Garden of Gethsemane, just before he was arrested and taken to trial. “My soul is very sorrowful,” he said. We remind our friend of the anguished prayer he offered. “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” He is well-qualified to be our savior, because he suffered as we do, even in the temptation to turn away from living with God, and yet he overcame – by the strength of God that was in him.
We tell our friend that he strengthens everyone who believes in him to overcome the temptation to drift away from the faith. He will steady our friend and carry the family through this rough period. He will refresh and strengthen their faith. He will wipe away their sins and declares them to be clean and pure. He will make them ready for his return.
We close our letter by saying that we wish for our friend the salvation that God has prepared in the presence of all people and the peace that Jesus brought when he came to save mankind. We invite our friend to trust that Jesus will grant our wish. In his name we rejoice and give thanks. AMEN.The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ