Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Hebrews 1:1-9 Letter to the Hebrews: God Has Spoken by His Son
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
The Son Is Superior to Angels
For to which of the angels did God ever say,
‘You are my Son;
today I have begotten you’?
‘I will be his Father,
and he will be my Son’?
And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,
‘Let all God’s angels worship him.’
Of the angels he says,
‘He makes his angels winds,
and his servants flames of fire.’
But of the Son he says,
‘Your throne, O God, is for ever and ever,
and the righteous sceptre is the sceptre of your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.’
One day during my chaplain training, I found myself in the neonatal intensive care. I was talking to a nurse I knew well. She had pulled me aside and pointed to three very tiny babies, each in an incubator. They were all very early... born at 24 or 25 weeks. The nurse was worried, not just about their health, but also about their families. Being a parent is already hard, even if your baby is healthy and full term. These little ones were going to need months of expensive and time-consuming medical care. After spending time with these families, who were just beginning to wrap their heads around caring for their babies, and looking pretty overwhelmed, the nurse told me that she was so unsure about how things were going to go. Looking at the scary and hard present, it was difficult for her to be optimistic about their future.
I don’t remember everything I said to her that day. We only talked about 10 minutes. But, I talked a little about my own life and the lives of people I know and care about. I said, “look at us. We are here. We have good lives. You have to leave a little room for grace. You have no idea what can happen that will end up being good for them.” I assured her that even though she was likely right in assessing the difficulties these families were facing, she couldn’t predict the good that would come into their life and wouldn’t know how they and their parents would mature into a family that cared for each other. Leaving room for Grace means being hopeful that there is a more healthy and hopeful future than you can see right now.
At some point, the nurse also asked what kind of cookies I liked. I told her chocolate chip. A few days later, I stopped in the main chaplains’ office and Steve, one of the staff chaplains, asked me what I had talked about with that NICU nurse and I told him the story. He handed me a bag of cookies. He said he’d never had anyone make a chaplain cookies before. I guess what I said was the encouragement she needed at that moment.
I don’t tell this story to brag on my ministerial skills. I mess up plenty, as I am sure you are all aware. But, I remembered this encounter as I was reading up on the book of Hebrews. According to the scholar Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, Hebrews is best understood to be an anonymous sermon written for an early Christian community to encourage them during a hard time. When times are difficult, it can be challenging to imagine a hopeful future, especially if you are an astute judge of the present. I mean, you don’t always even need to fall into dour pessimism to worry about the future. The concern we have about the future in the midst of the hard times of the present is often realistic, not pessimistic. Despair and concern are often reasonable responses to the world we are witnessing and the world that we fear might come. And, yet, even our wisest assessments of the future cannot possibly take all things that might happen into account. We don’t know how the Spirit can move in surprising ways. So, even while things are hard, we can live in faithful ways because of the potential we know is possible with the Spirit.
The preacher who wrote Hebrews begins with a reminder of how God engaged with this church’s religious ancestors. “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways through the prophets.” We know because we have shared the stories of our past that God spoke to us. This is a reminder and a promise. God has spoken and is speaking. The preacher goes on to talk about how God is speaking differently in what they refer to as “the last days.” Remember, people have often thought they were living through the end of the world. And, also, worlds end all the time. Even if the world is ending, you still have to figure out how to live through the end. This preacher says we live through this end knowing that God is capable of doing brand new things because God’s word was no longer simply spoken by the prophets but came alive in the Incarnation of Christ.
“The Son is the brilliance of God’s glory and the reproduction of God’s very being, and the Son undergirds all there is by his word of power.” That’s how Wil Gafney translates part of today’s reading. Jesus is the brilliance of God’s glory and the reproduction of God’s very being and undergirds all there is by his word of power. Craig Koester, in his commentary on this text, says, “The writer will not let the readers’ imaginations remain impoverished with a Christ who is too small.” Over the course of nine verses, this preacher quotes five different parts of Hebrew scripture to try to capture the radical and wild and new iteration of God’s Spirit that was Jesus called Christ. Verse 5 is Psalm 2 and 2 Samuel 7. Verse 6 is from Deuteronomy. Verse 7 is Psalm 104. Verses 8 and 9 is from Psalm 45. It takes the genres of prophecy, poetry, and history to even come close to describing the Jesus. And, the preacher is clear, faith in this Living Word of God who loved righteousness across time and space will be what carries this church through the hard days, through the end of all things, and into a future that they can’t even quite imagine yet.
Last night, I read a little bit of a conversation that the activist Mariame Kaba was having about hope being an essential part of her faith and work. Someone else in the conversation offered up these words by Rebecca Solnit:
“Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with, in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth's treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal... To hope is to give yourself to the future - and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.”
It strikes me that this is the kind of hopeful faith that the writer of Hebrews was calling the church to. Yes, times are difficult. Yes, this feels like the last days of something vital. And, yet, the Word of God is alive as a reminder and a promise. Jennifer Vija Pietz describes the promise in this way: God is committed to pursuing relationship with creation, God is faithful, Jesus is dealing with sin and leading us on our journey, and God is greater than we can see. So, we must leave room for Grace, the Spirit, to move in ways we can’t yet see. We must wield our hope ferociously, cutting through our despair, making room for a healthy and thriving future to grow with the Spirit’s help. Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors and God still speaks today. May we have enough hope to keep listening.
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.