A one-two (three-four) punch

hebrews-logoMany commentators have observed that Hebrews is more of an oral document than a literary one, more sermon than epistle. Its introduction is not the beginning of a letter but rather a Christological shot across the church’s bow. The argumentation throughout the book is tight and this has wooed many an interpreter down many a rabbit trail to the loss of the coherence of the book and the sermon series.

To avoid such deviation, it is helpful to remind oneself that the author’s goal was the encouragement of his readers, a readership that clearly faced some measure of persecution and was in danger of falling away from the faith. Attending to this one can observe a deft pastoral hand in the first four chapters, in particular.

After the scintillating introduction, the author engages in an extended comparison of Jesus and angels on the basis of several Old Testament texts. As Creator, Son and Sovereign, Jesus is superior to the merely ministerial angels. This comparison, however, is in service of an exhortation made clear in 2:1-4. If falling away from the word brought by angels resulted in severe penalties, how much more so the superior Word that has come through the Son. In short, the ‘application’ of the author’s first ‘sermon’ is a warning: Don’t drift from the Word! We might call this encouragement of a negative sort.

However, the remainder of chapter 2 (5-18) continues themes from chapter 1 concerning sonship, sovereignty, and angels. Once again citing the OT, the author stresses the similarities between his readers and Christ. Christ shared in our fate and our flesh so that we might share in one family and in one future. That future is the fulfillment in Christ of the psalmist’s prophecy that God will put everything under the feet of the s/Son of man (Psalm 8). Whereas the angels compared unfavorably with Christ in chapter 1, humanity compares quite favorably. So much so that one upshot of the passage is that humans are superior to angels (2:16), not just Christ.

But again, this OT exegesis and theologizing is in service of a practical application and encouragement. Because Christ has shared in the full experience of humanity, he can be a faithful high priest for us. That is, Christ understands (2:18). We can call this encouragement of a positive sort.

Putting the two chapters together, we see the author offering a wagging finger of warning followed by a brotherly hand on the shoulder.

The author repeats this one-two punch of warning followed by encouragement in chapters 3 and 4. Having established the pattern, the flow of argumentation in chapter 3 is more cryptic than in chapter 1. Here he compares Christ to Moses rather than to the angels. Though both faithful in their callings, Christ is superior to Moses in a way similar to his superiority over angels: Moses is a faithful servant; Jesus is a faithful Son.

Once again the author turns to the OT and quotes from Psalm 95 concerning the failure of the wilderness generation to enter the promised land. Because they tested God with their faithlessness in times of testing, God swore that they would not enter His rest. The author brings application from this to his readers by pointing out that it was the very generation who had experienced the ‘salvation’ from Egypt that fell away and failed to enter the land. The argument is similar to that in ch. 1: if those who fell away from the faithful servant-leadership of Moses did not enter God’s rest, how much more will we not enter his rest if we fall away from the Son-leadership of Jesus? This is another warning, another negative encouragement.

However, as ch. 2 developed the themes of ch. 1 in a positive direction, so ch. 4 continues the themes of ch. 3 in an encouraging direction. Playing off of the Psalmist’s use of the word “today”, the author makes the case that there is a rest superior to the one offered the Israelites in the promised land. He sets this rest before his readers’ eyes as a motivation. The argument is that while the Israelites were motivated by a good rest in the Promised Land, we are to be motivated by the superior, eternal rest that God offers us in Christ. That greater rest should invite greater obedience. This is a positive encouragement to live into our greater calling.

If one imagines these as a series of sermons, one can appreciate the pastoral concern that the author of Hebrews brings to his listeners by speaking rich, biblically reasoned words of warning rooted in the Old Testament, and following them with even deeper words of encouragement rooted in the person and work of Jesus.

Prayer: It’s not rocket science

I517udw6am2l-_sy291_bo1204203200_ql40_n his interesting book Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World, Mark Miodownik examines the science and history behind many of the most common objects of our daily experience: glass, steel, cement, paper, chocolate, etc.

One of the main questions he asks is: “Why do these materials have the properties they do?” He often takes the investigation to the molecular level to explain why steel bends and why chocolate tastes and feels so good as it melts in your mouth. Today’s scientists understand why materials are the way they are with a precision never before known. It is impressive and fascinating.

At least as fascinating (to me at least), is the fact that humans figured out how to manipulate these materials long before they had the skills and equipment to examine what was happening at the smallest level. Long before we could understand the complex changes that are involved in the formation of steel from iron and carbon, sword-makers had developed the processes necessary to make steels of varying strength and flexibility. The same can be said for chocolatiers, bakers, and experts in any number of other fields. In the absence of precise scientific knowledge, humans were still able to develop impressive results with a variety of materials.

There may be a spiritual lesson for us in this. Our modern, scientific environment has trained us to expect precise explanations for most phenomena. We may not ourselves know the explanation but we trust someone does and could find the information if we needed to. (Just google it!). This expectation is frequently frustrated when it comes to spiritual realities. How does prayer work? How do miracles happen? Is there really a spiritual realm? The absence of satisfactory, precise answers to these questions disappoints the modern mind.

But as the examples above illustrate, the absence of detailed knowledge of a reality at the most precise level is not a barrier to fruitful use of that reality. We don’t need precise, technical knowledge of steel-making to benefit from steel or even to make it! The same is true of the spiritual disciplines and particularly prayer. We don’t need to know precisely how prayer works for prayer to do its work in our lives.

To be sure, we may desire deeper knowledge of these realities, much as ancient bakers may have wondered why some loaves turned out and others didn’t. But it can be freeing to know that our knowledge—or lack thereof—is no barrier to our benefitting from these divine gifts.

You can’t have it both ways

A further thought from Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern.

He spends considerable time exposing the clever way so-called modern thinkers both undermine nature and reify it. On the one hand, they are quick to denounce religious activities as being the projections of humans on nature rather than inherent in nature itself. On the other, they maintain that certain features of human society are ‘natural’ and therefore, unassailable. (Latour calls this the “double denunciation.”) (51-53)

In the first denunciation, objects count for nothing; they are just there to be used as the white screen on to which society projects its cinema. But in the second, they are so powerful that they shape the human society, while the social construction of the sciences that have produced them remains invisible. 53

It’s a clever trick and one can see it on display in contemporary culture. Two examples will suffice.

1. We are told both that sexuality is fluid and that genders are social constructs. On the other hand, we’re told that certain people are ‘born’ one way or the other. 
2. We read the reports that men are programmed by evolution to disperse their sperm as far and as widely as possible and that males are naturally more aggressive. Meanwhile we discourage sperm-spreading sex (use protection!) and encourage college men to attend seminars on taming their masculinity. 

And both of these points illustrate one of Latour’s broader points. He begins the book by pointing out that in spite of modernity’s supposed interest in segregating the spheres of science, politics, and ethics, “hybrid” issues (Latour’s term) proliferate. There is no tidy separation science and ethics or science and society. Grand social and political movements are being made in the areas highlighted above alternately appealing to science to shape the policy or the politics to fund the science.

In a dry and weary land

518era9qecl-_sx331_bo1204203200_In his book The Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan chronicles the soul crushing reality of the Dust Bowl. The book is depressing and thought-provoking, equal parts cautionary tale and testament to human perseverance.

He narrates that after years of drought, when rains did come it was hardly helpful.

It rained fast and furious, but the water hit bone-hard ground and drained to long-dry indentations in the earth, filling ravines until they rose in a muddy torrent and smashed sheds and took a horse and then disappeared. It was as if it had not rained at all. 230

Might what is true of soil be equally true of souls? Might neglect and circumstance so parch a person’s soul that the refreshing rain of the grace does as much damage as good? I believe so and it stands as a lesson to ministers of the Word. What might this look like?

When someone has been cut off from life-giving truth from the Word and relationships with others, when truth comes they may not be able to receive it. Rather it may run swiftly through their minds only compounding the damage done by their drought. This could be in the form of reinforcing self-condemnatory thought patterns or highlighting what they already perceive to be their insensitivity to God’s presence and grace.

What can be done? Slow and steady rains are needed. Grace and truth must be ladled out consistently and in small quantities rather than unloaded in sermonic downpours. Ministers should be sensitive to the possibility that people in this condition are not helped especially by the sermon or the small group; the rush of water is too great. Rather, simple, personal watering of their souls is the remedy. In time they will be ready to receive the heavier rains.