Fix Your Eyes on Jesus: Sermon on Heb 12
December 16, 2010 § 4 Comments
Note: This sermon was a revision of a rough draft which I intended to preach in my homiletics class. After the revision was done, it was agreed that the original “rough” draft actually preached better, so I used it instead. This version—a fairly significant departure from the original—is probably better suited for the eye than the ear, so I have chosen to post it here, in all its unpreachable glory.
Also note: I am well aware that my semi-frequent posts (rants?) about preaching leave my sermons rather open to criticism. I have no idea to what extent my sermons reflect my ideas about preaching. I may find that my theology of preaching contributes more to my homiletical weaknesses than strengths, at which point I may be compelled to reevaluate it.
We often talk about ‘following Jesus’—but what does that mean? I’m sure you all remember those four letters that changed how we thought about this for a while: WWJD. What would Jesus do? This was our paradigm for following Jesus. We tried to do what we thought he might do in our situation. When someone rubbed us the wrong way, we thought, WWJD?, so we tried to be nice. When we were tempted to sin, we thought, WWJD?, so we tried to resist. When we saw someone being mistreated, we thought, WWJD?, so we tried to step in. We wore bracelets to remind us to always ask ourselves, what would Jesus do? So is this the answer? Can we reduce following Jesus to following his example?
In Hebrews 12, the writer begins by comparing our Christian life to a race or a marathon. He says that we know what direction to run by fixing our eyes on Jesus. He says, “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 the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right and of the throne of God” (12:1-2). This is one of those classic “underline” passages. It speaks to us with force and clarity. When our Christian walk feels more like an endurance-run than a casual stroll, this passage encourages us to keep it up.
It also seems to equate Christian living with following the good examples of Jesus and the faithful men and women of old. “Since you are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses”—in other words, remember that you are surrounded by the faithful, so be faithful. “Looking to Jesus, . . . who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God”—in other words, look what Jesus did, and look at the reward he got. So should we conclude that following Jesus is about following his example?
The first clue that there’s more going on in this passage than a mere exhortation to follow Christ’s example is that Jesus is called “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2, NRSV). The word ‘pioneer’ implies that Jesus didn’t just lead the way, he established a completely new way. We are told to travel along this way, as runners of a marathon who diligently follow their course. And how do we know what the course is to follow? By looking to Jesus. But the question always is: How do I look to Jesus? Where is he?
1. The Ascended Jesus
Fix your eyes on Jesus. Where do we look? Hebrews 12:2 tells us that Jesus is now sitting at the right hand of the throne of God. So we look to his ascension. We know that death could not hold him, and that he has indeed gone to be seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Can we follow him there?
If we borrow the imagery that has been used throughout the book of Hebrews, we might think of this in terms of entering the Tabernacle. Following Christ into the presence of God is a movement out of the world the sanctuary. Fixing our eyes on Jesus means looking where he stands, into the inner-chamber of God’s presence, the place that used to be dark but now has been illuminated by Christ.
Now we can imagine the trail that Christ blazed for us. Combine the race imagery with the Tabernacle imagery, and we can picture a road that runs from the world into the camp, through the camp and into the courtyard, through the courtyard and into the Holy Place, and finally it runs behind the curtain, into the Holy of Holies. Hebrews teaches us that Christ is indeed in that most holy place, a place so near to God that the earthly version was merely a hint and a shadow of it (Heb 9:24). So Christ is there, mediating the new covenant and performing the office of high priest on our behalf in a way that human high priests never could. So when we fix our eyes on Jesus, we look into the Holy of Holies. Our course remains certain so long as we keep him in view, and our destination is the very presence of God. So, when we get there, have we reached the end? Is the sanctuary the finish line?
Without a doubt, the book of Hebrews, from chapter 1 all the way to chapter 10:18 has been drawing us into the sanctuary. It has shown us how Christ is the way to true fellowship with God. That Christ is the perfect high priest, the better mediator of a better covenant. Theologically, the movement has taken us from the world, through the camp, and into the tent. And in the tent we find that the veil has been torn away. That in Christ we stand in the presence of the living God with confidence.
But this trek isn’t easy. We are constantly burdened by sin, which weighs us down and tangles us up. Why is sin such a big deal? Because following Jesus leads us into the very presence of God. Think about all the cleansing rites that the high priest had to go through before he entered into the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle on the Day of Atonement. Hebrews describes this in 9:6ff.: “the priests go continually into the first tent to carry out their ritual duties; but only the high priest goes into the second, and he but once a year, and not without taking the blood that he offers for himself and for the sins committed unintentionally by the people” (cf. Lev 16). Even when he went behind the curtain he had to burn enough incense to produce a cloud, which protected him from direct contact with God (Lev 16:12-13). Jewish tradition even holds that they would tie a rope around the ankle of the high priest before he went in, just in case he was impure in some way and was struck dead by God’s holiness. So, even though we have a better high priest, a perfect high priest who stands in the very presence of God, our sinfulness is still a big problem. In Christ we are already holy. But we are not yet holy. That’s why sin will trip us up as we run the race into the sanctuary.
How can we just “lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely”? The answer is Christ. We can run this course because he pioneered it. He is the pioneer of our faith because he is the perfecter of our faith. He is the only Israelite to have obeyed with perfect obedience, to go the whole way. We stand before God with confidence because he stands before his Father with confidence. We are not yet holy, but we are already holy in him.
We should assume the expectation is that we will stumble, that sin will continue to trip us up. Yet we fix our eyes on Jesus and run with perseverance the race that has been set out for us, the race that we run along the track that Christ laid out for us. We fix our eyes on the ascended Jesus, our Lord who mediates in the true Holy of Holies, looking behind the torn curtain into the Most Holy Place, and Christ our light shines in that darkest of places. And we do indeed arrive. We stand in the very presence of God. That’s what the writer of Hebrews is going to such great lengths to demonstrate. So, is that the end? If Jesus is the finish line, then does the race end in the sanctuary?
2. The Incarnate Jesus
Fix your eyes on Jesus. Where do we look? Looking up, we see that Jesus is in the sanctuary. But looking down, we see that he is also in the manger, that the ascended Lord was first the incarnate Lord. We see that before Jesus left us to be with his Father, he left his Father to be with us. Yahweh, the great I-Am, left his heavenly dwelling to be Emmanuel, God-with-us. We too must continually leave the sanctuary as people-of-God to be people-in-the-world.
It’s easy to think of this path that we run as the one that takes us away from the world. That with our eyes fixed on Jesus, our progress on the way surrounds us with more and more walls—the walls of the courtyard, and the walls of the Holy Place, the curtain of the Holy of Holies—until at the end, we find we are in an enclosed space, just us and God, with multiple barriers set up between us and the world.
But is this the course that Christ took? If our movement follows the movement of Christ, does it end after we have entered the sanctuary and shut the curtain behind us? No, if Jesus was the forerunner of this race, if we run the road that he established, then we need to turn on our heels and follow him back into the world. It can’t only be about a movement from the world into the sanctuary. It must also take us from the sanctuary into the world.
If we’re following Christ, then we should look at the course he took. The book of Philippians sums up his movement well: “[Christ], though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8). Christ’s movement was from heaven to earth, from God to the world, from complete and perfect fellowship with his loving Father to complete and utter rejection by the people he created. This is also our path. We had come into the sanctuary and expected to hear the words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant,” but instead we hear, “Come, follow me!”
The course we run with our eyes fixed on Christ doesn’t end by taking us out of the world and into the sanctuary. That is only the beginning. Ours is also the path of humiliation, self-emptying; it is the path that leads us out of the sanctuary, through the courtyard, out of the camp, and back into the world. When the writer of Hebrews tells us to look to Christ, what does he say? “Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart” (12:3). Why would he say that if the Christian life was about being safely nestled in the inner-room of God’s presence? No, he assumes that, just as Christ endured hostility from sinners, so must his followers endure such hostility. This is precisely because the path of Christ leads right back into the world.
Here we have an odd tension: the theological movement of Hebrews takes us from the world into the sanctuary, but the social movement takes us from the sanctuary into the world. And this has always been the call. When God called Abraham, he said, “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. . . . and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:2-3). The blessing was never intended to exist for its own sake. God sought to draw near to all humankind through his relationship with Israel. Israel was to be a “kingdom of priests”, the mediator of God’s covenant with all humanity. But because the people could not remain faithful to God on their own, God fulfilled his covenant in the most surprising way. He became one of them and was obedient in their place. He became the faithful Israelite. Christ has taken us into the sanctuary that we might live faithfully in the world.
Faithful living in the world has never been easy. We have just heard about the great heroes of faith in the previous chapter. They are acclaimed because they were faithful, and their faithfulness is praiseworthy because faithfulness is difficult. Along the way we struggle. We struggle with our own sin as we enter the sanctuary of the ascended Jesus; we contend with the world’s sin as we enter the world of the incarnate Jesus. After a while, we simply start to lose steam. Why should we keep fighting? Why should we keep running?
It is this struggle that we are told to “endure for the sake of discipline” (12:7). This constant desire to give up, whether because our sin seems too strong or because our faith seems too weak. Listen to the words of Hebrews:
Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children. Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (12:7-11)
The problem is that sin is a real struggle, that human sinfulness is an undeniable fact of life, and that this fact continually comes up against the fact that we are made new in Christ. It’s made all the worse because the church is enduring both an internal and an external struggle. The world looks on and ridicules us or even persecutes us; but even within the community, we struggle with sin and encounter the rebuke of God’s word. We are rebuked in the sanctuary, because we stand before a holy God; and we are rebuked in the world, because our faith is perceived as foolishness. We hear the world’s No to our faith and we hear God’s No to our sinfulness.
The problem is that sin is a real struggle. We are both sinner and saint. This means that Christians are conflicted, and we tend to experience this conflict as suffering. But here we are given a new perspective. This conflict should be seen as discipline rather than suffering. Suffering speaks of an angry God that wants revenge, but discipline speaks of a loving father who wants to shape and grow his children into wholeness. He calls us to faithfulness precisely because he loves us so much.
Why are we sons and daughters of God? We learn that back in 2:11: “For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” He goes on to say, “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil. . . . Therefore, he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people” (2:14, 17). We are children of God because the one Son of God has called us his brothers and sisters. He has become one of us. Because God made himself human, when we stand in the presence of Christ, we stand in the very presence of God. But because God made himself human, when we stand in the presence of Christ, we stand in the midst of the world. The path we take from the world into the sanctuary is the very path that Christ laid out from the sanctuary into the world. We stand at the entrance to the Tabernacle and Christ says, “Come, stand in the presence of my Father and Lord.” So we step behind the torn curtain and Christ says, “Come, stand in the presence of my brothers and sisters.”
The ascended Jesus leads us into the sanctuary. The incarnate Jesus leads us into the world.
3. The Crucified Jesus
Fix your eyes on Jesus. So which is it? When we follow Jesus, are we being led into the presence of God or into the presence of the world? Where do we see him? Where do we look? When we looked to the ascended Jesus, we were led into the sanctuary. When we looked to the incarnate Jesus, we were led into the world. Now we must look at the crucified Jesus. We look at the one of whom we once shouted, “Crucify him!” and the one who said to his Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” There on the cross, he hangs, rejected by the world, and even, for a moment, by God. Can we follow Jesus here? Do we dare to fix our eyes on the cross of Christ? Can we bear the rejection of the world and the rejection of God? Drawing near to Christ, we suffer the world’s rejection of his holiness. Drawing near to Christ, we suffer God’s rejection of our sinfulness.
I think this is the author’s central concern of this particular passage. He has already gone to great lengths to demonstrate how in Christ we are free to enter the sanctuary with confidence. How Christ stands behind the torn curtain and beckons us to join him. He has reminded us that Christ has come into the world, become one of us. That he has called us his brothers and sisters and therefore his Father calls us his children.
But what happens when we cannot see the ascended Christ or the incarnate Christ? What happens when all we can hear is God’s No to our sinfulness and humanity’s No to our faithfulness? If we run this race with our eyes fixed on the cross, where will we end up?
Fixing our eyes on the crucified Jesus, we are led to share in his utter rejection. We who bear the joy of salvation must also bear the shame of the cross. Yet we are told to persevere. Why? Because Christ did. And because he has done so, he has taken his place at the right hand of God. We too, must “go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured” (Heb 13:13).
When we are going through a time of struggle, a time when the world offers us no peace and God seems to have turned his face away from us, we fix our eyes on the crucified Jesus. Not because this lessens the struggle. If anything, sin and suffering are only darkened under the shadow of the cross. For as our eyes gaze upon our dying saviour, we know that Christ has taken even this on himself—that he has confronted the depths of our sin, that he has already struggled on our behalf, that our current struggle is our solidarity with Christ in his suffering.
4. The Risen Jesus
Fix your eyes on Jesus. Where do we look? Looking at the ascended Jesus, we thought we were headed into the presence of God. Looking at the incarnate Jesus, we thought we were headed out into the world. Looking at the crucified Jesus, are we lost? We have moved from the world into the sanctuary, then from the sanctuary into the world. Now we seem to have been pushed out of both. Is this the last word?
By no means! The whole of the book of Hebrews, from 1-10:18, has been drawing us into the sanctuary. It has shown the insufficiency of the old covenant to accomplish the cleansing of sin and the freedom to stand before God, that as long as the tent was standing, there was no way into the sanctuary (9:8). It demonstrates how Jesus Christ, the priestly king, has made a sufficient, once-for-all sacrifice for sin, and that through him, we can enter confidently behind the curtain. That through Christ, we can enter into the very presence of the living God. But then we are told that since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, go and be faithful! We are brought into the Holy of Holies that we may be sent back out into the world. We have been drawn from the world into the court, from the court into the tent, from the tent into the holy place. Yet when we get there, Christ shoves us right back out into the world. Peering through the torn curtain in the Holy of Holies, we see that Christ has already blazed a trail out into the world. This is the path we run. We run through the curtain, past the altars, out into the courtyard. In the court we see a great cloud of witnesses—Abraham is cheering, Joseph is waving his coat like a flag, Moses is pounding his staff on the rocks, yelling, “Go, go, go!”—and we follow the trail right out into the world. We see Christ, standing out in the world, saying, “Come.” We look back, and see Jesus in the sanctuary, saying, “Go!” We look next to us, and see that Jesus is running alongside us, saying, “Let’s keep it up!”
But in the world we encounter struggle too. We who need constant reminder that we are accepted in Christ need also to be reminded that we are rejected because of Christ. The scandal of the cross means Christians will always in some sense bear the disgrace of the name of Jesus. Yet Christ came into the world. He left the Holiest of Holies to come to the deepest, darkest corners of earth. But he did so that he might unite God and the world. The crucified Jesus is also the resurrected Jesus. And at the end of the age, the new heavens and the new earth will be established, the holy city, the new Jerusalem will descend and we will hear: “‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ And the one seated on the throne will say, ‘See, I am making all things new’” (Rev 21:3-5).