Ash Wednesday – Hebrews 12:1-17
Hebrews Chapter 12 is the crescendo of the majestic and glorious symphony of themes that the writer of Hebrews has been conducting. I wish the lectionary divided it up into smaller movements because there is so much to meditate on.
Chapter 11 is the astounding Hall of Faith, an amphitheater filled with our heroes, those saints and martyrs who obeyed God in faith and have become our examples. But Chapter 12 takes them out of the arena itself and into the amphitheater seats. They are now witnesses to those who are still presently in the contest: the Church Triumphant is a cloud of witnesses to what we, the Church Militant, are doing here on earth. They are witnesses, as well, to Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith, and by their presence we are to be encouraged. Skipping ahead to the later part of Hebrews 12, we find that it is not just Abel to Zechariah who are witnesses to us and with us but also an innumerable company of angels.
What you are doing here on earth is being witnessed by Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, St. Paul, the writer of Hebrews, cherubim, seraphim, the 4 Living Creatures, the 24 Elders, the 12 Disciples, Grandpa Jones (fill in your own blessed relatives), John Keble (fill in your own favorite saints), and, of course, Jesus Christ Himself. You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind and soul, a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of faith. Next stop: what John Calvin called the “theater of the glory of God.”
You are on center stage, and the faith you do or do not manifest today is witnessed by the saints in heaven who are all rooting for you and stand up and do the wave every time you obey and sit down and lament every time you don’t. But your life and faith is also being witnessed by the saints still on earth. While your faith has the ability to make the saints in heaven either rejoice or weep, your faith has the ability to make the saints on earth either more obedient and encouraged or more disobedient and discouraged. If you look carefully at your life and faithfully follow Christ in obedience, then you will help to make sure that no one falls short of the grace of God (verse 15). Your obedience, which is your faith, has the ability to strengthen the hands which hang down and the feeble knees (verse 12). By your obedience and faith, you will be able to continue the ministry of faith that Jesus Christ initiated and authored, and by your obedience and faith you will be able to consider one another and stir up the love and good works (10:24) that come from faith in Christ and the faith of Christ.
But the most important witness of your faith and obedience, or your faithlessness and disobedience, is Jesus Christ Himself. He is the author and finisher of your faith, and He is the one enthroned in glory at the right hand of the Father. By your faith and obedience you can please Him who pleased the Father for you, or you can displease Him by rejecting the One who was rejected for you.
Jesus Christ, the author of your faith and salvation perfectly obeyed the will of the Father – for you. Because you could not keep the Law and obey God’s holy commandments, Jesus Christ did it for you. Though He was tempted in every way you are, He never sinned, so that you could follow Him in faith and obedience. But this obedience of Jesus’ was not easy: He suffered because of it. In fact, the Son learned obedience to the Father by what He suffered (5:8). He who was perfect had to learn to obey, and part of how He learned to obey was by suffering. He was made perfect through suffering (Hebrews 2:9).
Here is our entrance into Ash Wednesday and Lent this year.
To us, unless we have been schooled in godly suffering, this seems nonsensical because in our lives it is often suffering that leads us away from God. In fact, suffering is the great catalyst of life, magnifying the character of a person. To the one who follows Jesus Christ in faith, suffering leads to greater faith and obedience. To the one who draws back and does not obey or have faith, suffering leads to blaming God and withdrawing from Him in faithlessness.
God, your loving, heavenly Father, is in the process of training or educating you in holiness, righteousness, obedience, and faith. But to do this, He must discipline you. Too often, as children and parents, we think of discipline as punishment. But discipline comes from the same word as disciple or to be trained or educated. A disciple of Jesus Christ is therefore one who is being disciplined or schooled by God to obey Him perfectly that we might be blessed perfectly.
This discipline takes the form of suffering. You should think of yourself, therefore, as being enrolled in Jesus Christ’s School of Suffering, and He is the Teacher who is disciplining (or discipling) His disciples to follow Him. We should think of ourselves as studying to be approved by our Master (2 Timothy 2:15) in His School of Suffering. We should be able to come to the end of the day (which is one of the marking periods in the Master’s School) and be able to say “I got an A in Suffering!” rather than having to come before our heavenly Father, report card in hand, saying “Dad, I got an F in Suffering today.” As St. Chrysostom said: “Since our whole life is a contest, let every night then be a night of devotion, and let us be careful that when we go out in the day we do not make ourselves ridiculous. And would that it were only making ourselves ridiculous. But the Judge of the contest is seated at the right hand of the Father, diligently hearkening lest we utter any false note, anything out of tune.”
Therefore, following our Good Shepherd, who uses His Shepherd’s crook to discipline us and bring us back to Him, we gladly suffer for Him, knowing that by responding faithfully to the suffering He has allowed, we are learning to obey, that is, to be faithful. In faithfully serving, we are actually participating with the One who first suffered for us. Suffering, therefore, is not to be avoided but to be accepted as the Father’s means of uniting us to His Son that we might be obedient and faithful, just like the one who is the author and finisher or perfecter of our faith.
Recognizing that our suffering is the participation in Christ’s suffering, if received with faithfulness and patience, we respond with joy to them. As Hugh Latimer, who at the end of his life was to suffer for His Lord by being burned at the stake, wrote: “For like as sauces make lusty the stomach to receive meat, so affliction stirreth up in us a desire to Christ. For when we be in quietness we are not hungry, we care not for Christ; but when we be in tribulation, and cast into prison, then we have a desire for him.”
The goal, of course, is not the suffering itself but the Resurrection and joys of heaven, which is the restored Presence of the Living Fire Who Is God to our lives. It was for the joy set before Him, the Resurrection, Ascension, and Session, that Christ joyfully endured the Cross – for us. It was, as Chapter 11 reminded us, for the reward set before Him that He obeyed. And we are to follow Him in this obedience to our daily cross of suffering that we might follow Him into our eternal Day of rest and gladness and joy.
To this end, our High Priest, who has obeyed and been faithful before us, offers up His daily petitions before the Father on our behalf. And we know He is heard because He is at the right hand and has been found acceptable, that we, too, might be found acceptable.
Therefore, for Christ’s sake, for our sake, and for the sake of all the saints who we are to encourage and teach by our obedience, let us joyfully endure our daily sufferings, knowing that by making us obedient and holy they are working in us, through the obedience of Christ, a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory (2 Corinthians 4:17).
Prayer: Lord Jesus, I thank You that you willingly suffered for me and that You allow me the privilege of suffering for You. Thank You for Your consolation that has helped me in my times of suffering and sorrow. Help me to look for ways in which I may suffer with others that I may more perfectly obey and please you. Direct my life and prayers today that I might learn obedience and faith today. Amen.
Point for Meditation:
- Meditate on the obedience of Jesus Christ: how difficult it was, how perfectly He obeyed, and what benefits you have received from His obedience.
- Meditate on the ways throughout the day in which you suffer: physical pain, emotional suffering, spiritual separation from God, lack of obedience in what God has asked you to do, etc. Practice acknowledging these throughout the day and practice consciously having them lead you to come before the throne of grace for help in your time of need.
Resolution: I resolve to practice actively accepting the suffering and disappointments in my life today as a means of teaching me to obey and have faith. I further resolve to take up one specific suffering which God has assigned me as my daily Cross to lead me to Jesus Christ in obedience today.
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