(A sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church, Asheville, North Carolina, on January 3rd, 2021).
“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.” Hebrews 4:1-4
Today is the first Sunday of a New Year. We stand in the doorway, on the threshold, looking into 2021 and wondering what it will bring. I am confident that every one of us is hoping it will be better than 2020. Let the people say Amen!
One year ago, on this Sunday, we celebrated epiphany and each person in worship received a “star word.” We’re going to do that in today’s service as well, we’ll look at our star words a little bit later. At last year’s service I received the star word hope. I looked at it closely and wondered what it might mean. Honestly, I was disappointed. I didn’t think it was a very interesting word to draw, a little bland as star words go. But… it has become a theme this year in a way I never expected. Week after week, I have found myself looking for and cultivating hope for myself and trying to offer hope to others.
As we stand on the brink of this next year, we have hope that we will emerge from this global pandemic and that life will return to something like normal, and maybe better in some way. Rev. Frederick Streets, a pastor in Connecticut and former chaplain at Yale University, wrote a poem that describes the hope that we feel for this coming year. It appeared in the Yale Divinity School Journal, Reflections, the recent theme of which was also hope. Let these words sink in. He writes:
We will laugh again, without caution.
We will smile again, without constraint.
We will embrace again, without defense.
We will speak again, without muted sounds.
We will, again, side by side, look at the stars.
Again, we will gather in places and spaces unsoiled by our anxiety and fear.
We will freely breathe deeply, again.
We will dance again with our cheeks close enough to hear our whispering to one another.
We will mourn again, openly.
We will greet each other again closely, without suspicion.
Children will hug us again.
And we will hug children, again
We will invite solitude, again.
We will imagine again without desperation.
We will again feel the joy that hope brings.
We will play together again.
We will sing together again.
We will cheer together again.
We will pray together again.
We will feel each other’s hands and arms,
Let all the people say, “Amen.” We stand at the threshold of a new year and live in hope.
As we begin this year in worship, for the next several weeks, we will study the New Testament letter called Hebrews. It is one of the longest pastoral letters in the New Testament, and one of the most intricately theological, and eloquently written. We do not know who wrote the letter, to what congregation it was written. From the very earliest days of the church, there has been speculation about who its author was. The early church father Origen finally concluded, “Only God knows.” The language of the Greek, so I am told by scholars who have read the letters in that language, rises and falls and rhymes in the way that a skilled orator would speak. The letter of Hebrews is actually a sermon.
It’s a sermon to people who are tired and ready to give up, and the theme of perseverance runs like a repeated refrain through its Hebrews. Press on. Don’t lose heart. Persevere. Don’t give up. They are tired of serving others, and they are tired of worship, and they are tired of education, and they are tired of being a religious minority in the larger society, and they are tired of struggling spiritually, and they are tired of trying to keep their prayer life going, they are tired “even of Jesus.” They are tired.
We too know something about being tired here at the beginning of 2021. We are tired of trying to keep our worship going virtually; we are tired of trying to keep our gathering going virtually, we are tired of trying to keep our service going at arms’ length; we are tired of trying to keep our prayers going when we want to look them in the eye and hug them. Like the Hebrews, we are tired. The threat that was facing the congregation who heard this sermon was that they would simply quit. “Worn down and worn out,” they would just drift away.
So, the Preacher of Hebrews steps into the pulpit to strengthen their faith. Not with anything flashy or snappy or edgy, but with a deep exploration of the nature and meaning of Jesus Christ, the Preacher calls them to lift their hands, to stand up straight, and keep the faith.
We will hear the call to perseverance coming through in the next several weeks as we move quickly through this book. Today we begin with only a few verses from chapter one, just the very beginning of the sermon. The preacher, which is what we will call him or her for this series, whoever wrote this marvelous address, the preacher wants us to think about how God speaks.
“Long ago God spoke in many and various ways by the prophets.” God spoke in many and various ways. A more literal rendering of that line would be “in many fragments and in many fashions.”
God speaks to us in many fragments, that is to say in bits and pieces here and there, now and then. Most of us can remember a time when we had a clear sense that God was saying something to us, a word of direction or illumination. We say to ourselves, “I knew when I said yes to this person or this opportunity, that was God’s will for my life.” Or, “I had an inner clarity that this direction, this path, as hard or strange as it might have been, was the right one for me.” It is not always that way, not even often that way, but there are times when God clearly illuminates our lives.
On the other hand, we can all remember a time when God was silent. No matter how much we prayed and hoped for clarity, we were left grope in the darkness. In W. H. Auden’s poem, “Victor, a Ballad,” “Victor has been betrayed by his wife, and in his distress, he flees his home on a desperate journey of grief. He walks out on the High Street, past the garbage dump, and out to the town’s edge. He stands weeping and Auden writes,
Victor looked up at the sunset
As he stood here all alone:
Cried: “Are you in Heaven, Father?”
But the sky said, “Address not known.”
God speaks in many fragments. Sometimes there is a burst of clarity, sometimes deafening silence.
God also speaks in many fashions, that is to say, with many voices and in many ways. God speaks through scripture, and songs, and prayers. God speaks through social movements and political leaders. God speaks through poetry and art. God speaks in the singing of a choir, and God speaks through humdrum of a committee meeting. God speaks in silence, and sometimes in vigorous debate. God speaks in a Sunday sermon, and God speaks in the poverty of a neighbor huddled to sleep on the sidewalk. God will speak through the glory of a sunset, and God will speak in the mundane chores of making meals and washing dishes. God speaks to us in many fashions, and in many fragments.
But, but… in these last days, the Preacher to the Hebrews says, “God has spoken to us by a Son.” Jesus is the clear voice of God to us. Jesus the clear image of God to us. The Preacher says he is the, “reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” Like Father, like Son.
In April, I mentioned to you that my Aunt died after a long battle with lung cancer. Just before she died, I called my Uncle, whom I had not spoken with in several years. As soon as he answered the phone, I said hello and told him who it was that was calling. He quickly said, “I know it’s you. You sound just like your daddy.” He recognized me right away, and it took me by surprise.
Parents have a way of imprinting themselves on us. You smile just like your mother. You walk just like your Father. You are funny just like your Mom. You can get angry just like your Dad. We inherit these traits from nature and from nurture – some of them healthy, some of them not — the way we talk, and walk, and smile and think, and feel and react. Parents have a way of imprinting an identity on their children.
The Preacher of Hebrews says that Jesus is the reflection of God’s glory and the imprint of God’s very being. Like Son, like Father. If you want to know about God, look at Jesus. If you want to hear what God would say, listen to Jesus. If you want to know what God would do, watch what Jesus does. If you want to know what God’s character is like, study Jesus’ character. If you want to know how God would respond in certain situations, watch how Jesus responds similar situations. Jesus is the exact imprint of God’s very being.
In that sense, we do not need to go searching for God like the Magi of long ago. They studied the signs, and set off on a long journey hoping to find God. God has given God’s self to us – God has revealed Godself. The great Reformer Martin Luther wrote that, “Those who want to ascend advantageously to the knowledge and love of God should abandon metaphysical rules concerning the knowledge of divinity and apply themselves first to the humanity of Christ.” In other words, when God has become one of us in order to be clearly recognizable to us, why would we ever seek another way? Jesus is the exact imprint of the very being of God.
What does this mean for us who worship on Epiphany Sunday at the threshold of this new year? In a few minutes we’ll look at our Star Words for 2021. They are fun and sometimes surprisingly meaningful. They give us something to share with one another, with friends and neighbors, but they are a little like opening fortune cookie: What will this mean for me? Who knows? My word for 2020 was hope, and it came to mean a great deal. A couple of years before that, I drew the word repair, and at the end of the day I think it simply meant that I spent a lot of time working on my house that year.
God speaks to us in many fragments and in many fashions, sometimes through star words and sometimes not. The good news is that God speaks to us clearly in Jesus Christ. If we get to know Jesus, and we will get to know God. Here on the threshold of this new year with its many questions, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is God’s word to us. That does not mean that Jesus will give a clear answer to every question we have, but Jesus does give us light by which can see our questions more clearly and find our answers in our faithful living.
What will 2021 bring? As Origen said of the author of Hebrews, “Only God knows.” It will surely bring the complexity of human relationships. Jesus says, “Forgive one another, not seven times, or seven times seven, but seventy times seven.” It will almost certainly bring complex moral ethical and decisions for our lives and for the life of our nation. Jesus says, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” We will have times of celebration in this year. Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.” We will face times of great weariness. Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.” We will face the inevitability of change, and even the prospect death. Jesus speaks from God’s own future, and says “Behold I make all things new.”
Love has come, a light in the darkness.
Love shines forth in the Bethlehem sky.
Jesus is the light of the world, God’s light for us.
 Long, Hebrews: An Introduction, p. 3.
 William Placher, “An Essay in Postliberal Theology,” p. 43.