When God made a promise to Abraham, because he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, 14 saying, “I will surely bless you and multiply you.” 15 And thus Abraham, having patiently endured, obtained the promise. 16 Human beings, of course, swear by someone greater than themselves, and an oath given as confirmation puts an end to all dispute. 17 In the same way, when God desired to show even more clearly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it by an oath, 18 so that through two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible that God would prove false, we who have taken refuge might be strongly encouraged to seize the hope set before us. 19 We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.
I was in my second week as a pastor when the call came that an active family in the church was in crisis. They were a couple in their late thirties with two children, and she was being treated for an aggressive form of cancer. The family was terrified. The church had been praying for months. That day she received word that her cancer had returned in an aggressive form, and they asked if I would come and visit.
It was my second week as a pastor. I had no idea what I would say. I knew that the ministry of presence, of showing up and being there, would be the most important thing. But I also knew I would need to say something. I called a close friend who had recently retired as a pastor and described the situation to him, and asked him, ‘What should I say?” His first response was, “I don’t know. You’ll say the right thing.” I appreciated his confidence, but I wanted something more specific. Okay, he said, “Tell them God loves them, and hang in there.”
I understood the God loves you part. Those words, only three words, as simple as they are, are the bedrock of our faith. But “hang in there” took me by surprise. That could not possibly count as pastoral wisdom. I remembered all the times my friends and I listened to one another’s troubles and then ended our conversations – not really knowing what else to say – by saying, “Well, hang in there.” I thought of all the times I had seen that phrase in a social media meme or taped to the wall of a high school classroom, a picture of a cat hanging onto the limb of a tree. Hang in there. How is that theological advice? I had no idea, but I took those words with me on that visit and they helped a little.
I thought of that visit when I read this passage from Hebrews. We’re in a sermon series studying this New Testament letter, though it’s more of a sermon more than a letter. It was written (or preached) by a gifted and anonymous preacher to a small and struggling congregation. The small congregation to whom this letter arrived was tired and being tested, and they were drifting away. Over and over the preacher calls them to persevere. Hang in there… but even more than that. Hold on. Don’t just hang in but hold on to the hope of Jesus Christ. One of the strange things for us as contemporary readers of this letter is that the writer never lets us off the hook in this holding on business. The writer never tells us that it doesn’t matter whether we hold on or not. The writer never gives us permission to just let go, or drift away, or trust in a cheap grace. Every time we think the preacher might offer an easy reassurance –instead, he says: hold on.
Here in chapter six, the encouragement to hold on is given with this terribly mixed metaphor. Hold on to a cable that is attached to an anchor… that has gone inside a curtain. What on earth? The preacher writes, “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered.” What on earth is he talking about?
You and I know that an anchor on any ship drops from the side of the ship to the bottom of the sea and roots the ship on solid ground. In the letter of Hebrews, though, the anchor floats. The anchor, “has entered the inner shrine behind the curtain.” To understand this, we need to know a little about the Jewish Temple. In the next several chapters of this letter, which we will skip over, the preacher will thinking about the Temple and will describe for us in great detail how Jesus is our High Priest, a priest of the order of Melchizedek. Now, in the temple, the High Priest would enter a place called the Holy of Holies, which was the innermost shrine of the Temple. It was the place where God’s presence touched the earth. That special place was guarded by a thick curtain, and in there the priest would come as close to God as anyone on earth could come and intercede for the people. So now, Hebrews says, Jesus Christ – who is our High Priest – has gone ahead of us into that inner most place. He has not gone into an earthly Temple, but into the inner curtain in the world of heaven, to the very presence of God, and is now there on our behalf. John Calvin insightfully helps us to understand what’s going on here when he says that there was nowhere in all of creation to anchor our hope and so the anchor is thrown into heaven, to God’s own being, and hooked to God’s own throne, where Christ prays on our behalf.
The anchor became a central image in the early Christian church. Archaeologists have found 66 examples of this image, like the one on the front of the bulletin today, etched onto the tombs of early Christians in the catacombs of Rome. Even though this is the only place in scripture where this image is used, an anchor is more common than any other symbol on those tombs.
The anchor reminds us of the shape of a cross, and it captured the ancient imagination as a simple depiction of the way that our lives, our whole live, are firmly secured in the grace of God. Etched on the tomb, it says that no storm, no wind, nothing that life, or other people, or the world, or fate throws at us – not even death – can separate us from God’s love.
God loves you. Hold on. There are storms that blow through our lives, for everyone one of us. No one is exempt from storms. We will lose our balance, we will be pushed off center, and when we are off-balance and off-center, we need to reach for the cord that is tied to the anchor of our hope and hold on. For the last year, we have been in the storm of this pandemic together holding on to our hope. This storm is rearranging so much in our world, and it is still blowing. We don’t know quite what the landscape will look like when the storm is over. We need to hold on.
Sometimes the storm that gathers around us is the profound realization of the brokenness of the world. The things that make us weep when we read the news feel like a powerful and raging storm, and the best we feel we can do is try to protect one another from the wind. We have an anchor for our souls. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Hold on.
Sometimes the storms that shake us are storms of faith, when yesterday’s certainties crumble into today’s questions. We wrestle with our doubts. We aren’t sure what we believe or if we believe enough. We don’t trust our own faith. We need an anchor, something to hold on to. The good news is that we are not simply a people of faith, as if we have faith in faith, or faith in our own faith. We don’t have to trust our own faith. We are a people of faith in God. Our faith, the strength of our own believing, was never going to save us. It was always going to be the grace of God. Nothing can separate us from the God’s love. Not even our own doubts. Hold on.
Sometimes the storm that throws us off center is not so much a violent hurricane, but simply a steady wind that over time drives us off course. We drift away, and wake up to the realization that we don’t know where we are or how we got there. We call it feeling lost: disconnected from our dreams, from our sense of self, our purpose and hopes. We are we know not where and we must find our way back. We need a lifeline, tied to an anchor, hooked to a hope. Jesus Christ is our hope. We cannot drift away. Nothing can separate us from God’s love. Hold on.
Of course, the very worst storms that blow through our lives are not global, but personal. Like the storm that family was facing when I was a new pastor, the kind of storm that many of us have faced and some are in even now. When the ones that we love the most face the possibility of death. What will we do without them? How will we go on? Why them? Why us? In those moments we reach for something to hold onto, something to give us courage and hope as we face the depth of our love and our grief. Nothing can separate us from God’s love. Hold on.
How do we hold on? The most important way we hold on is by staying connected to one another, by being present. Even in these strange times, even when our connections are virtual, even when it means staring at a screen – we hold on by staying connected to other believers, to our siblings in Christ, to the household of faith.
We hold on by praying for others, by praying – in the words of Timothy – for everyone in every way we can. We hold on by doing good in the world. As Amanda Gorman inspired us this week, by choosing to be light in the darkness. We hold on by opening our hearts and lives to others with compassion. We hold on by sharing what we have with those in need. We hold on by remembering those who are alone and helping to share each other’s burdens.
We hold on by living a life of faith, in the sure hope and certain hope that our anchor is hooked to the throne of grace. Nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. God loves you. Hold on.