Living for Tomorrow

Tomorrow 3During this summer season, the mysterious Book of Hebrews makes several appearances in the lectionary schedule of readings. I use the adjective “mysterious,” because there are many unanswered questions about the book.

  • Who wrote Hebrews? Very early in the history of the Church, famous teachers like Clement, Tertullian, and Origen noted how different the style and theology of this book are from things written by Paul. It’s been argued that Hebrews was written by one of Paul’s disciples, or some other new New Testament figure like Apollos or Priscilla. There’s no evidence in the text or outside it to determine for sure.
  • When was Hebrews written? Some scholars, looking at the text’s description of ritual sacrifice, say that it must have been written before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. Others say that the author is writing a generation after the Temple’s destruction, offering a theological interpretation of sacrifice as a guide for the faithful who must cope in a new age.

Perhaps the best general-purpose description we can give is that Hebrews was written sometime in the first 70 years of the Church’s existence by an apostle or someone very close to an apostle, directed to an audience of mainly Jewish Christians, and intended to teach and encourage them during a time of hardship and persecution.

The lectionary schedule strategically calls us to focus on the final three chapters, in which the writer to the Hebrews most clearly reveals his or her apocalyptic theology. “Apocalyptic” is a strange-sounding adjective, isn’t it? The word is derived from a Greek construction that means “to reveal” or “to uncover.” It implies that something previously hidden now is becoming known. In Christian apocalyptic theology, that which has been hidden is the way history ends: in the stunning reversal of fortune in which the forces of evil are overcome by the forces of good, and everything is ordered as God intends. The thing that reveals or uncovers this glorious end to history is the appearance of God in Jesus Christ. When we talk about apocalyptic theology, we call to mind:

  • The visions of John recorded in Revelation, or
  • Jesus’ words about signs of the end recorded in the gospels, or
  • The oracles of prophets like Daniel, or
  • One of many dramatic films that offer a portrayal of end times.

But apocalyptic theology, I think, is broader than all these examples. I would argue that any theology inspired by an anticipated future is apocalyptic, and that includes the theology reflected in the Letter to the Hebrews.

In the author’s analysis of faith heroes, Abraham receives more attention than any other. While Abraham’s story is ancient and action-packed, it might seem rather odd to an unchurched person that Abraham is cast as a model to be emulated. Look at verse 8 of chapter 11, which I read for you: “…he set out, not knowing where he was going.”

  • Who goes on journey like that without knowing where he is going?
  • What kind of leadership can we expect from that sort of person?
  • What can be great about someone who gropes his way through an unknown wilderness?

The answers to these questions become clearer when we are familiar with apocalyptic theology, and the perspective of those who embrace it. What makes Abraham a hero of faith is not his knowledge of the Promised Land or the path to it, but rather his trust that God knows the way, and will reveal it in time. The challenge of the text is to trust more fully the goodness of God who draws us into the future.

I have to confess my discomfort with this message; I want to place a question mark at the end of my sermon title. I imagine that you feel a gnawing discomfort, too, that might be articulated in questions like:

  • Isn’t the past important?
    • Aren’t Christians guided by a 4000-year-old faith history?
    • Aren’t we Presbyterians shaped by the rich wisdom of the Reformed tradition, its creeds, its hymnody, and its theology?
    • Aren’t those who forget the past condemned to repeat it, as Santayana famously said?
  • And didn’t Jesus call us to live abundantly today?
    • When Dwight Moody, the famous evangelist, said that Christian social action is like polishing brass on a sinking ship, doesn’t that strike us as uncompassionate?
    • Isn’t it possible to be, as Oliver Wendell Holmes proclaimed, so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good?

It seems to me that a preacher has to be careful to proclaim a Christian relationship to time that is faithful to the broader biblical witness.

My former preaching professor Tom Long warns against trying to grasp too tightly the details of the future toward which God is drawing us. He reminds us about past predictions that turned out to be dead wrong. And he tells the story of Albert Winn, former president of Louisville Seminary, who gave a closing address at a church futuring conference back in the 1970s. Years later, he revisited the conference papers, and realized he was the only one who was right. After presentations full of confident prognostications, here’s what he said, “I am a theologian. I have no idea what the future holds. I know only that it will be held in the hands of God.”[1]

That’s the faith Abraham modeled; it’s the message of our texts from Hebrews and Genesis; it’s the essence of apocalyptic theology. And so

  • May we remember the past, but not be trapped in it;
  • May we live abundantly in the present, but not with reckless disregard for consequences;
  • And may we anticipate the future, tuning our ears to the call of God to live for a tomorrow of justice, freedom, and peace.

[1] Personal Notes on presentation by Thomas G. Long, Festival of Homiletics, First Baptist Church, Nashville, May 18, 2010, and Thomas G. Long, “Future Fatique,” The Christian Century, 27 June 2012, p. 35.

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~ by JohnH1962 on August 18, 2013.

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