Driven to Distraction
When this blog is published, we will be well into 2019. We will also be well into the season known in the Christian church as Lent. It is a time when people around the world turn their attention to Jesus. They reflect, often in the context of prayer and fasting, on what Jesus taught and especially what he accomplished through his death and resurrection.
If I am honest, however, I have to admit that I am having some difficulty getting into the season. My mind is ablaze with the controversies of our day (the push for LGBTQ rights in the United Methodist Church, the sexual abuse scandal in the Southern Baptist Convention, the uncertainty surrounding the presidency of Donald Trump, etc.) and with the seemingly intractable problems that confront our world (persecution of Christians in Cuba and elsewhere, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, Russian hostility to the United States and Europe, etc.). Moreover, my heart feels overwhelmed by concerns of a much more personal nature—the ever-present fear that I will never be anything but a personal and professional failure, the crushing weight of my flaws and sins, etc.
Addressing Our Angst
Perhaps it is precisely because I find myself in this moment of existential angst that I need to return again to those things that are most important. Perhaps it is precisely at such a time as this that I need to turn my attention to Jesus, “the founder and finisher” of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). And perhaps you have the same need. Perhaps you, too, find yourself in a moment of existential angst and need to lay aside the fears and burdens of life so that you can take upon yourself the yoke of Christ (cf. Matthew 11:29-30).
That is what we are going to try to do over the next four weeks. We are going to use the book of Hebrews, and especially its first two chapters, to help us shift our focus away from the perils and problems of life and to Jesus. Hebrews is so good for this task because its writer has been so careful in reflecting on who Jesus was and what his coming means for the world. The first two chapters only scratch the surface of all that the writer wants to say about Christ, but they give us plenty to think about as we seek to get our minds right for Lent.
So, let’s begin our work by looking briefly at Hebrews 1:1-4. Here is how I translated those verses for a sermon several years ago.
In the past, God spoke to the ancients by the prophets at different times and in different ways, but in these last days He spoke to us by a Son, who has become the heir of all things and through whom the universe was made. The Son was the radiance of God’s glory and an exact copy of God’s essence, having made all things by his powerful word. When he accomplished the purification of sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
There is more here than we have time to discuss, but it seems to me that three points are particularly important for us as we seek to lay aside the anxiety and burdens that so often characterize our lives.
- God has acted in a new and decisive way. God has always spoken to humans, but in Christ he addresses a message to them that is of a fundamentally different quality. The reason that it is so different is because the message did not come in the form of a speech-act, at least not as we commonly understand that term. It came in the form of a person, one who shares important characteristics with God.
- This person possesses unparalleled authority. His authority comes from the nature of his relationships with God and from the role that he played in creating the world (points to which we will need to return next week), but the writer also implies that this authority derives from his very nature. It is not surprising that, when Christians of a later era wanted to explain exactly who Jesus is, they borrowed language from these verses.
- This person “accomplished” something that no spokesperson for God ever could, “the purification of sins.” It is true enough that Moses was a prophet who made atonement for the people of Israel and taught a system of atonement to the priests. But Moses could not accomplish the permanent removal of sin from the people (as the writer of Hebrews will explain later). The work that Jesus did was unique.
Already we are reminded that Jesus is someone to whom we can look in times of trouble and in whom we can have confidence. His authority is exercised for our benefit, and his work meets our most basic needs. Just like the original recipients of this letter/sermon, we will still face challenges. The conviction that “Jesus is Lord” (to borrow language from Romans 10:9) does not change that fact. Nevertheless, the writer of Hebrews has taken an important first step in helping us re-evaluate the role that these challenges play in shaping our perception. Our challenges may feel like they are the most real thing to us. Indeed, we can be crushed by their immediacy and their urgency. But they are not, in fact, the most real things in our lives. Jesus is the most real thing that there is, and it is he to whom we must turn our eyes, in good times and in bad.