+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Sometimes I think we Christians have an “Old Testament problem”. That’s not true of all of us, of course, and it’s not true all the time, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that at least some of the time, we find ourselves struggling with the Hebrew Scriptures. At the most basic level, we modern and post-modern people tend to favor what is “new” over what is “old”, and so the way we’re accustomed to talking about the two testaments tends to lead us to prefer one over the other. On another level, because we think so highly of Jesus – for reasons that are both obvious and perfectly valid – we tend to think more highly of the parts of Scripture that refer more directly to him. By the same token, I think we find the descriptions of “church life” in Paul’s letters and instruction about the Christian life to be more compelling because they seem more applicable to our lives. When it comes down to it, I think the Old Testament gets short shrift in our thinking because we find it more difficult to connect with the stories of the people of Israel.
As people who sometimes have an Old Testament problem, we would do well to pay attention to what’s going on in today’s reading from Hebrews. That’s because we find in chapters eleven and twelve a compelling case that the Hebrew Scriptures are much more relevant to us than we often think. Far from being filled with stories about people whose experience with God is too distant from us, the Old Testament is brimming with stories about people whose lives are surprisingly similar to ours. The people highlighted in today’s reading are not extraordinary characters, but ordinary people who responded to God’s call on their lives and who found their lives transformed by that call. Some of these stories are more familiar than others: Abraham and Noah generally get more airtime than Abel and Enoch, and Jacob’s life is recounted in much more detail than Isaac’s or Sarah’s, and yet all of them are lifted up by the writer of Hebrews as examples of faith to be emulated.
Scripture records nothing about Abel except that he gives a sacrifice to God, and that his brother Cain kills him because he is upset that Abel’s sacrifice is found to be more acceptable than his own. The only things we learn about Enoch are that he was born, that he had some children, and that one day he was simply taken up to be with God. These two individuals don’t appear to do anything remarkable, and yet their stories are remembered because of how God was involved in their lives. We know more about the others – Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob – and what we learn about them is not that they are particularly remarkable people in themselves, but that they are chosen by God – sometimes despite themselves and their questionable characters – to fulfill some part of God’s purpose in the world, and that they respond in faith to the call that God places on their lives.
It’s important for us to note that the kind of faith they display is not simple or easy or convenient. It is a trust in God claimed over and over again amid the peaks and valleys of their lives – like the trust shown by Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob, who step out in pursuit of promises whose fulfillment is long-delayed, leaving much behind in the process. It is a trust that God is able to bring the ordinary out of the extraordinary – as in the cases of Abel and Enoch, whose lives are mysteries that nevertheless testify to God’s care and concern even for those who are virtually unknown. It is a trust that echoes through the centuries, a trust that forms an unbroken chain linking us with those ancestors who heard God’s voice in many and various ways, a trust that carries us through times of uncertainty. It is a trust that lives in us because it has been passed down from generation to generation and continues to be strengthened by the Holy Spirit’s presence within us and around us.
It’s that last point – the point about this trusting faith that lives in us as much as it did in these noteworthy ancestors – that is perhaps the most remarkable. The writer of Hebrews is not merely trying to connect us with our forerunners in faith. He is making the claim that our lives are the continuation of a story that goes back to the beginning. Just as the stories of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, and yes, Jesus, bear witness to God’s activity in the world, our stories bear witness to the fact that God is still speaking, still present to those who are being tested, still listening to and responding to the cries of the world, still receiving the prayers and praise of our earthly worship in the heavenly sanctuary. There’s both challenge and promise in that reality. The challenge, of course, is that we’re called not just to talk the talk – that is, to say or believe the right things about God in Christ – but to walk the walk (or, to use the metaphor in chapter twelve, to run the race). The nature of discipleship, after all, is to follow, and Jesus isn’t standing still. The promise, on the other hand, is that we’re not responsible for blazing the trail on our own. The path has already been forged by Christ and well-worn by countless saints who have walked it before us. More than that, the great cloud of witnesses who have already completed the course are now cheering us on from the sidelines, encouraging us by their own example, and pointing the way to the finish line where Christ awaits.
I started out today with the claim that we in the church sometimes struggle with an Old Testament problem. That’s a problem we need to face head-on, because next week we’re going to be diving back into the Old Testament part of the Narrative Lectionary. From September through mid-December, we’ll be making our way through the Hebrew Scriptures. Beginning with the Garden of Eden and moving through the words of the prophets, we’ll be exploring how God has moved in the lives of ordinary people to make the extraordinary possible. We’ll continue to see how those stories reverberate into our present and reveal the character of a God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. We’ll find our own stories mirrored in stories that were written centuries ago and worlds away. Most importantly, we’ll be blessed by the knowledge that God’s love and mercy and grace reach across time and space to envelope us and inspire us to be God’s people in the world even as they were poured out upon our ancestors in the faith. As we begin that journey anew next week, let us pray that our “Old Testament” problem might be transformed into an appreciation for God’s Word – a word that speaks from Genesis to Revelation and is always relevant! Thanks be to God! Amen.