Sunday, July 14, 2019

Hebrews 1:1-4

Jesus and the Prophets


Today, we begin a five-week series on the book of Hebrews. The author is unknown, though it was once thought to be Paul. Currently, scholars believe that it was written by Barnabas, who was Paul’s companion, or by Apollos, who helped grow some of the congregations Paul started.


It appears to have been written before 70 CE when the temple was destroyed because the author speaks of the temple in the present tense. It is written to exhort, to encourage people to believe in Jesus, to stay faithful to him, in spite of any persecution they are experiencing.  


The author begins with a familiar-to-us saying: In many and various ways, God spoke to the people through the Prophets. I want to clarify what a Prophet is. A Prophet is someone who speaks God’s words to a particular community, in a particular place and time. It is not someone like Jean Dixon or the Manhattan Medium or a palm reader. Prophets in the Bible spoke God’s word and encouraged and exhorted the people in his or her community to act in certain ways and not other ways. They also reinforce the idea that God loves God’s people and wants their love in return.


Let’s look at a few quotes from some Old Testament Prophets:  


Isaiah offers words of encouragement. This is what it is like when you believe in the Lord. “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength; they will fly up on wings like eagles; they will run and not be tired; they will walk and not be weary.” Isaiah 40:31


God is frustrated with people giving lip-service faith. God wants our hearts, not our cash. “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.Hosea 6:6  


Amos confronts the leaders of the Northern Kingdom, who are creating an extreme gap between the wealthy and the poor.  "But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.Amos 5:24


Micah calls the people to live what they say they believe, just as Amos did. “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.Micah 6:8


Israel’s prophets had a lot more to say, but these few provide the essence of their message. Love God, take good care of each other.

… The author of Hebrews wants his readers to know that Jesus is much more than a Prophet. He is God’s Son. He is the agent through whom creation happened. He is the mirror image of God’s being and he shines with God’s pure, divine light. No one else in the Jews’ past has ever been Jesus’ equal; he is superior to them all. He is even above the angels.


And he came to earth so we humans could hear God’s message directly from God’s Son, so in a sense, directly from God’s mouth. Let’s look at some things Jesus tells us God wants us to know. Notice how these quotes agree with the Prophets’ messages, and sometimes expand on them.


To test Jesus on his beliefs, someone asks Jesus ‘what is the greatest commandment. Jesus replies, “This is the most important [commandment]: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” Mark 12:29-31


In Luke 15, we hear three parables. The first is about the son who runs away, squanders a fortune, and is welcomed home. The second and third are about the shepherd who searches for his lost sheep and the woman who searches for a lost coin. There is forgiveness and welcome for the son, and there is rejoicing in all three stories when what has been lost is found.


Jesus challenges us to go beyond what is normal. In Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes, Jesus raises up a list of contrasts. Instead of this, do this. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you.


Jesus’ messages go beyond the message of the Prophets. Our culture teaches us to hate those who are different, to give back tit-for-tat, and to want to hurt those who hurt us. Instead, Jesus says, Love God, love each other, be kind to each other, no matter what!


There are people since Jesus, and in our lifetime, who have brought us God’s message as clearly as those ancient Prophets did.

Francis of Assisi became passionate about living without possessions and tried to be as much like Jesus as he could. We are familiar with his care for the animals, because he sees God in them. He also teaches his followers to put God and the other first. He says, “It is better to love than to be loved, and in pardoning, we learn that we are pardoned.”


Luther taught us about grace. I often explain grace this way: There is nothing we can do to make God love us more. At the same time, there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.  These quotes from Luther say: “God doesn’t love us because of our worth. We are of worth because God loves us.”  And, “God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does.”


Martin Luther King Jr carried on the message of the Prophets and Jesus. He was more outspoken than many people liked. We know too well that outspoken prophets don’t live very long. Two quotes: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” And, “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.”


Desmond Tutu oversaw the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after Apartheid ended. “Forgiveness does not condone what has been done. Forgiving means abandoning your right to pay back the perpetrator in his own coin.”  


“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.” Chief Seattle is credited with saying this over 100 years ago. Whether he said it or not, we have been called by God since the very beginning to take care of the earth on which we all live. (Genesis 1:28)


Do these recent prophets speak the truth as the Israelite Prophets spoke it? Do they speak the truth as Jesus spoke it? They all echo Jesus and the Prophets in saying, Love God, love each other, take good care of each other.


There are many people today who presume to speak God’s words to us. Before we choose to believe what they say, we do well to measure their words against those of the ancient Prophets, and against the words and actions of Jesus. Then we will know if they are bringing God’s message to us. Amen.