11.15.2015 Preaching Text: “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faith.” (Hebrew 10:23)
In hearing our reading this morning from Hebrews one is tempted to consider its language old, dusty, and irrelevant, at best. To the modern ear, talk about sacrifices of sprinkled blood, sin, and a cosmic Christ sounds bleak, if not a bit creepy. But for Christians it’s good news, news that’s as timely as this morning’s headlines. After all, the issue at hand are the existential challenges born of being human.
Oh, we may pretend we don’t have struggles (at least to our neighbors), but they’re real enough. We struggle with the strife we see in our world (take Friday night’s terrorist attacks in Paris as an especially egregious example). We struggle with conflicts in our families and among our circle of friends. We struggle with our own personal weaknesses and shortcomings, knowing full well how they compromise and diminish our sense of well-being. We know also the unsettling struggles that go with aging.
It’s not, of course, as if we don’t have plenty of others things to make us happy. It’s just that we cannot deny the extant brokenness of life.
We know one day we all shall die. And that our loved ones will. There’s no way around it. And so it can create within us, even if unconsciously, a kind of low-grade dread. Thus to live is to know both uncertainty and anxiety.
The message from Hebrews offers a way of placing all our fears and anxieties, our struggles and hardships, our hopes and dreams, into context. It tells us that, in Christ, God has created a pathway for us to know eternal, unalterable peace – the perfect answer to our struggles.
As some of you know, I’m a big fan of the 20th century British author, G.K. Chesterton. Currently, I’m reading his treatment of Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century theologian who transformed the Christian landscape of his day.
Without getting into the specifics, suffice it to say that he worked out a very cogent, dogmatic outline or map for understanding the complexities of life here on earth.
He’s closely linked to Francis of Assisi, who also lived in the 13th century, whose faith stance we mostly associate with the love of nature. They were similar in that Aquinas, like Francis, sought to reclaim the inherent goodness of human nature and Creation from the bleak pessimism of the Middle Ages.
For both, all human powers were to be perceived as inherently good. Human flaws, though real, are the result of the misuse or misapplication of our powers, not any inborn defect. Therefore, and this is key, our emotions, passions, feelings, thoughts, and understandings are not to be slighted when it comes to our relationship with God and our living in this world.
But while St. Francis emphasized the glory of God found in nature, St. Thomas found the glory of God in thought, in, dare I say it, Christian dogma. Neither was seen to contradict the other. Finding God in nature was no different than finding God in ordered, inspired human thought.
Of course, neither figure believed nature nor human thought to be identical to God, but created by God and, thus, related to God. Both insisted that God cannot be contained within creation. Our knowledge of God thus is analogous.
The perspective of St. Francis and St. Thomas, however, was about to change. In the Enlightenment, a certain narrow (and presumably ‘universal’) form of reason sought to crowd out all of the other senses. When this proved false (as it was destined to), the Romantic era decided to place all its eggs in the emotion basket, in effect rejecting all claims to reason. After the excesses of late Romanticism we then moved on to an era emphasizing neither reason nor emotion but an inner, often unconscious, processes that drives defines existence. Characteristic of this era, in which we still live, was the supremacy of passing states of consciousness or mind – moods if you will.
For instance, you can find this sensibility in much contemporary classical music, what Linda calls “scary music.” Here you will find a series of passing, unrelated moods that have no bearing on anything resembling reason or emotion. They are instead entirely random, fleeting.
Lost in this worldview is any sense of definite order, meaning, or purpose – just passing, errant moods. Chesterton was quick to recognize this at its start and cautioned against it. Part of his interest in St. Thomas, in fact, was that of reclaiming from an inherently pessimistic view of humanity the value or merit of inspired religious thought, i.e. dogma.
He argued that if, during the bleakest periods of the Middle Ages, when death and suffering were commonplace, moods were the only barometer, life would be unbearable. One of the practical purposes of dogma, therefore, is to reveal a path to God’s goodness in the midst of life’s ever-changing and momentary moods, especially those born of suffering and pain. If mood is all we have to go on, in other words, life can become pretty bleak.
The dogma espoused by orthodox Christianity offers, if nothing else, needed perspective on what human beings go through at any given time. Moods pass and circumstances change. But the revealed truth of God remains forever.
The message the early Christians heard in the Book of Hebrews is the same for us today. For we too live in a broken and often frightening world and are just as much in need of a hopeful message, an abiding truth, one that takes us out of ourselves and connects us to God’s transcendent, salvific plan.
Hebrews tells us that though we should expect brokenness, though we do suffer, plans have been made for eternal peace, eternal well-being. Thus we need not fear, no matter how bleak any given moment of our life is. For there is another dimension to life, a spiritual one revealed in Jesus Christ.
Freed from the tyranny of our momentary anxieties and fears, we are emboldened to live lives based not on fear but hope, Christian hope.
Not too long ago I read a “Matters of Faith” column in the Cape Cod Times by a pastor here on the Cape. In it, he dismissed Christian dogma as antiquated, literalistic, and judgmental, a clichéd strawman argument often heard in secular circles today. But rather than offer the true, life-giving message of Christian hope, he proposed some kind of vague religious mood.
The problem with moods, to repeat, is that they are by definition fleeting, unstable. Beyond that, every mood has some basis in reality; it comes from somewhere; it is informed by something, whether Christian or not.
In 1 John 4:1, the author writes, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” Thus not all spirits, or moods, come from God. Amen.