Reading Hebrews – Christ the King

Christ Enthroned (Book of Kells)

Christ the King 2018
Rev. Doug Floyd
Hebrews 12:18-29

This week marks the end of the church year and in some sense the end of time as we know it. There can be a fear associated with the end of time as though time is running down, running out, and all things falling into disarray. We often see this end of time picture in post-apocalyptic stories and films. This week I watched “Testament,” a 1983 film that shows life after a nuclear attack in a small California town. It does not focus on the enemy or even a direct view of the attack but only the impact upon the people and relationships in the town. The town dwindles down throughout the film as people die from hunger or some undiagnosed sickness. The final shot shows a mother and two boys sitting in the dark.

Whether the world falls apart as a result of disease, war, alien invasion, or a meteor, the end result usually leaves a few survivors battling for existence. These survivors face hunger, violence, scarcity of supplies, or other problems. Sometimes the survivors divide into competing tribes that represent different extremes such as cultish behaviors, totalitarian forms of governance, nomadic survivalism, or other challenges. Lois Lowry’s novel The Giver and subsequent novels explore the variations of these dehumanizing cultures. Many church-inspired end-time books and films have followed a similar path. When people think of the end, they tend to think of situations where a few humans struggle to live in terrible conditions.

The Biblical picture of the end is glory: all creation bowing before the King. Even those who lived and fought against the Gospel are bowing down and acknowledging Jesus as the King. In our Daniel text this morning, we see Jesus Christ ruling as the Ancient of Days with all the enemies of God crushed under his feet and every nation and people serving him. The Psalm proclaims this Lordship over all creation. I substituted the Hebrews passage for the lectionary passage of Revelation 1, which describes a picture similar to Daniel with all the earth beholding the King of Glory. In the Gospel reading, Jesus declares that his kingdom is not of this world. Finally our Hebrews passage is consistent with this image but it describes it as a present event as we come before Mt Zion and behold the Jesus the King of Glory and God the Father surrounded by innumerable angels in festal gathering, the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect.

This ending is very different from a world where everything is falling apart. In fact, you could say that this gives time a sense of counting down to something quite glorious and spectacular instead of descending and dehumanizing.

Returning to the idea of typical post-apocalyptic story, I think they simply portray extreme versions of what we already see all around us. In fact, there are multiple times through history when we see humanity reduced to it’s lowest level battling for survival. Whether it is at the lowest point of the dark and cataclysmic 14th century or it is the highest point of Roman glory.

In Augustine’s City of God, he takes on the myth of the ancient Pax Romana and demonstrates that the pre-Christian Roman culture was still a bloodthirsty empire that lusted for violence and delights in finding horrid ways to torture people to death. This same culture marginalized the Christian community, imprisoned some people, took their property, and even tortured and killed some of them for sport.

The writer of Hebrews is encouraging a group of Christians trying to survive in this Roman culture that does not share their faith. They are living as refugees in their own cities. Throughout the letter, he encourages them not to lose heart, not to grow bitter, not to abandon the precious gift they’ve received. He focuses their eyes upon Jesus, the author and finisher of their faith.

Though they may feel weak and abandoned, they are not alone. Jesus knows their suffering intimately and personally and is interceding for them in the midst. History is filled with stories of people who have walked in the same path they now walk. These great saints across the ages were often struggling and frail as Chase reminded us last week, and yet the Lord was working in and through them to reveal His glory. All the saints of God are bound together in Christ, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. The writer of Hebrews holds a vision of heaven as a place, the homeland where the saints are headed and the places where the angels dwell with the Lord of Glory. But it is also future a time, an age to come. Both images that of a celestial place and that of an age breaking in around us are used to encourage the believers to persevere, to keep the faith, not to lose hope.

The first 12 chapters of Hebrews draws upon ancient stories and psalms and the life of Christ offer a theology of hope that perseveres through suffering, struggle, discouragement, and weariness. The final chapter sketches out what that might look like in day to day living. For instance, consider Hebrews 13:1, “Let brotherly love continue,” then he proceeds to offer practical expressions of that love with stranger, those in prison, with men and women around us, with money, with leaders, and even with life in the surrounding culture. Hold that picture in mind for a moment as I return to the post-apocalyptic stories of humans struggling to survive in a world where time is running out.

These stories give us mirrors or glimpses into the human tendency to live for self and survival above all else. They still ring true in our own culture surrounded by wealth and privilege. Privilege does not remove the dehumanizing aspects of sin.

These images of time running out and humanity battling for survival could be one way culture remembers a different more ancient story. Time ran out when humanity turned from God and was expelled from the garden. Since that time our tendency has always been to build cities of Cain that are rooted in bloodshed and oppression. That are built from the blood of Abel.

Abel’s blood and the blood of the righteous cry out in places of human oppression, enslavement, corruption, and defilement. Romans 1 through 3 suggests that this human defilement is not simply found in war zones or trouble spots around the world, but it found in good old hometown USA. Romans 3 invites us all,

“None is righteous, no, not one;
11  no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
12  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
13  “Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14  “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
15  “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16  in their paths are ruin and misery,
17  and the way of peace they have not known.”
18  “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (ESV, Ro 3:10–18)

The writer of Hebrews addresses a group of Christian grown weary from the sin and oppression on all sides. Instead of being dragged down by the worst of people around you, or by the inner struggles you face of weariness and even bitterness, he says look as Jesus. Cry out to Jesus, Behold the greater promise and the greater work of Jesus our Savior and King. He points them ahead to a kingdom that is coming both from above and from the future. This kingdom of Jesus will transform every aspect of the world where you live. Don’t lose heart.

In this redeemed picture, time is not running out but moving toward fullness in Jesus Christ. In fact, we can say that past, future and present are bound together in Christ. Time and space are both brought into the full movement of love in and through Christ.

The writer of Hebrews points backwards and says, Remember all the people who went before you. Yes they battled fear and frustration and failure. Yes, they grew tired, fought bitterness and heartache, faced death, and often felt abandoned and they pressed on in hope. Their witness to God’s faithfulness in the midst of struggle should encourage you even now. Then with all these saints, he points back to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith who actually looked through the cross to the joy of the Lord. There can even be a joy in the midst of suffering and loss.

Then he reminds them that this kingdom is not lost in some far off, half-forgotten future. This kingdom, this promise is breaking in even now. Unlike the terror of facing the Holy God at Sinai, they can now face the same holy God in his glory with hope and joy. For you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Heb 12:22–24).

The community of people hearing the words of Hebrews have lost all status in their culture and live as refugees in their world. These same people are citizens of the city of God. Even now they and we are surrounded by a host of heavenly voices praising God in the goodness and glory. Even now they celebrate that the blood of Jesus cries our mercy, mercy, mercy.

Caught up the mercy and grace of God, the people are God are becoming living, walking witnesses to the kingdom of Heaven, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to the mercy and grace of God. So that their lives and our lives might become a living prayer “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

And as the people of God step out into the culture with this encouragement from the past and the future, they live in the love of God even now. Bearing witness to His lovingkindness through acts of kindness to the weak and weary. Bearing witness to His holiness by their lives of purity and truth. Bearing witness to His order by submitting to authorities and to one another in love and kindness. Bearing witness to His faithful love by living into the pain of those suffering and grieving around us with His gentle grace.

The people of God do not grow enamored by this world that truly is passing away, but are fixed on his kingdom that is breaking in all around us even now.

14 For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. 15 Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. 16 Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. Heb 13:14–16.

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