This is the second of our two-part series called Starting Well and let’s start off with a little quiz. I am going to share with you a snippet of movie dialogue and then I am going to invite you to guess which movie that dialogue is from. Are you in? But here is the deal. The dialogue from the movie is only one word. Are you still in? Okay, here it is: “Squirrel!” And the movie is… Up. What scenes from the movie came to your mind when I said, “Squirrel”? For me it’s when the dogs in the movie keep getting distracted whenever they even think that there is a squirrel around.
Do you know what is not in the movie Up? Squirrels. There are no squirrels in the movie Up. Those dogs are getting distracted by their own imaginations.
Does that sound familiar to anyone? Do you ever find yourself getting distracted like the dogs in the movie Up, and the thing that distracts you isn’t even real, it is only your imagination. I know I do, and I also know that the likelihood of me getting distracted increases exponentially when I am stressed. And this is a problem because getting distracted when I am stressed makes things worse because I never make good decisions when I am distracted. Does anybody else have that happen?
And this is a time of year when some of us are facing a lot of stress, especially if you have kids going to school for the very first time, or they are starting a new grade, or going to a new school. And all the activities that were taking a break over the summer are also starting up now, and that adds extra stress because parents have to figure out who is going to take which child where and when, and all this is on top of the regular stress of life. Can our faith in Jesus help us during stressful and difficult times and, if so, how? To help us as we consider that question, we will be looking at Hebrews 12:1-13. If you have a Bible or a Bible app, I invite you to turn there now.
Powerless Faith Fails When We Experience Stress
As you do that, here are some things that you should know. The letter to the Hebrews is unique amongst New Testament books of the Bible in that we don’t really know who wrote it. The author does not identify himself in the book and though some translations in the past used to indicate that it was written by Paul, since the Reformation, most Bible scholars have agreed that it was not written by Paul. Paul, as you may recall, heard from Jesus directly on the road to Damascus, but the writer of Hebrews tells us that they heard the Gospel second-hand, from those who heard it directly from Jesus (Hebrews 2:3). So Paul could not have written this letter. Tertullian thought that the author was Barnabas, and there is good evidence to support that. Martin Luther, along with many Bible scholars today, thought that Apollos wrote it.
Whoever wrote this letter had an excellent knowledge of the Old Testament and the Hebrew language, which is important because it seems like they were writing to Jewish converts who were perhaps tempted to revert back to Judaism. The writer of Hebrews makes the case that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of what the Old Testament saints believed. Jesus is the great high priest who has ascended into heaven and this truth brings us hope and encouragement for, as the writer of Hebrews tells us, For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:15-16)
Jesus is the divine Son of God, who came into this world and became one of us to save us, to overcome all sin and every evil to bring us into a loving relationship with the living God. This new, eternal life with God is a totally free gift from Jesus and it does not depend on the strength of our faith or quality of our actions in any way. All that God asks of us is that we trust in Jesus. However, what can happen is that we try to live our new life with Jesus under our own power, and that will never work.
Have you ever opened a gift, but you couldn’t find the batteries needed to make it work? You mention something to the person who gave you the gift, and they say that the batteries came with the device. So you dig through the packaging and eventually you find it, and you feel kind of sheepish when you do. Why would you even doubt that the other person would provide everything that was needed to make the gift work properly? Yet, that is exactly what we often do, try to live the gift of new life without the power from Jesus needed to live it. And it doesn’t work.
And that powerless faith becomes most apparent when we are put under stress. A little bit of stress is alright because it can motivate us to take action. But with extra stress, we begin to get overwhelmed and think to ourselves, “I am doing this all by myself, this is more than I can do, I am not going to make it.” Then we begin to make decisions based on that belief that we are not going to make it, and things start to wildly spiral downward.
Faith is Living Our Life Now Through the Lens of Eternity
The author of Hebrews shows us a better way to live. First, they show us what real faith looks like and, second, they show us what life with God is really like. With regards to faith, in Hebrews 11:1, we read, Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. (Hebrews 11:1) Right after that we are given a list of people from Old Testament times that are commended for their faith, a list that ends with these striking words: These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. (Hebrews 11:39-40).
Do you see the implication of what these words are saying? We tend to think of faith as a power that helps us to get what we want. But it would be more correct to say that faith helps us become who God wants us to be. This passage tells us that faith is what draws us up into life with God, a life where God works in and through us to accomplish his purposes in the world. And God’s plan of redeeming and restoring all things is moving forward, even if we don’t see it happen with our own eyes in our own lifetime. We know that because Jesus rose from the dead, and that kickstarted God’s redemptive process into motion, and God has promised us through his Word that he will bring that process to completion at the end of time. As we read in Revelation 21:3-5, And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Revelation 21:3-5)
What this means for us is that the life that we are living right now in this world is practice and preparation for the forever life that we will live with God in the new heaven and earth to come. And God will use everything that happens in this life to help get us ready for life for eternity with him in the new heaven and earth, if we are open to it. God is inviting you to live your life now through the lens of eternity.
We Focus on Eternity
So what does it mean to live our lives now through the lens of eternity? It means that we shift our focus from our life now to our life in eternity. And then, from our vantage point in our eternal life, we look back on our life now. Though it might seem to our natural minds as though this is a strange thing to do, when our mind is made new through faith in Jesus, we will realize that this is what living in truth and actual reality is really like. This is what Paul is telling us in 2 Corinthians 4:18 when he writes, So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:18)
Living our lives now through the lens of eternity will help us to navigate the stressful times of this season, or any other season, because we know that our joy-filled confidence is not dependent on the circumstances we face in life. We are not living for now, we are living for forever. And we know that our loving and gracious Savior will get us there.
One example of a person who lived her life through the lens of eternity is our late Queen, Elizabeth II. Though birth and circumstances brought her to a position of great prominence and privilege, throughout her life she was, as the Archbishop of Canterbury described her, “ a faithful Christian disciple.” In her first Christmas Day address in 1952, which she gave after she ascended to the throne upon the death of her father, George VI, in February of that year, but before her coronation in June 1953, she asked of her listeners, “Pray for me… that God may give me wisdom and strength to carry out the solemn promises I shall be making, and that I may faithfully serve Him and you, all the days of my life.” In her Christmas Day address of 1999, she shared, “For me, the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life. I like so many of you, have drawn great comfort in difficult times from Christ’s words and example.”
And then, in her last Christmas Day message, and her first without her beloved Prince Phillip, Queen Elizabeth again referred to her Christian faith:
“And for me and my family, even with one familiar laugh missing this year, there will be joy in Christmas, as we have the chance to reminisce, and see anew the wonder of the festive season through the eyes of our young children, of whom we were delighted to welcome four more this year.
They teach us all a lesson – just as the Christmas story does – that in the birth of a child, there is a new dawn with endless potential.
It is this simplicity of the Christmas story that makes it so universally appealing: simple happenings that formed the starting point of the life of Jesus – a man whose teachings have been handed down from generation to generation, and have been the bedrock of my faith. His birth marked a new beginning. As the carol says, ‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.'”
In a statement given after her passing, the Archbishop of Canterbury said: “Her trust in God and profound love for God was foundational in how she led her life – hour by hour, day by day. In the late Queen’s life, we saw what it means to receive the gift of life we have been given by God and – through patient, humble, selfless service – share it as a gift to others. Her Late Majesty found great joy and fulfillment in the service of her people and her God, ‘whose service is perfect freedom.'” (BCP)
Dear friend, the cure for our disorientated and distracted lives is to train ourselves to focus on Jesus, a shift in perspective which sustained and strengthened our late Monarch. As we read in Hebrews 12:1-3,
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1-3)
What does that mean for us? We live with confident faith trusting in Jesus and the saving work that he has done for us and all creation. And we live like God’s faithful people in Old Testament times. We live by faith and not by sight.
And all the frustration and sorrow and suffering we experience in this life will only strengthen our resolve to persevere and run the race that Jesus has set out before us right to the very end. That is what we are longing for: we want to be there at the end of the race when Jesus makes us and all things right. So we don’t let stress or the temporary troubles of this world distract us. Instead, we focus on Jesus. And that is the challenge that I am leaving with you today: Keep focusing on Jesus. He is the one who gave us the gift of faith through the work of the Holy Spirit, and he is the one who will complete our faith by bringing the things we hope for into reality at the end of time. Amen.
(A version of this message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley BC on September 11, 2022. For more info about WGLC, please go to wglc.org.)
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The quote from the Queen’s last Christmas Day broadcast (2021) is from: “The Christmas Broadcast 2021, The Royal Household (Internet; available at: https://www.royal.uk/christmas-broadcast-2021; accessed September 10, 2022).
The quotes from Queen Elizabeth’s 1952 and 1999 Christmas Day address, along with the quotes from the Archbishop of Canterbury, are from: “The Queen’s lifelong Christian faith was an ‘inspiration and an anchor’ during her reign…”, DailyMail.com (Internet; available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-11196937/The-Queens-lifelong-Christian-faith-inspiration-anchor-reign.html; accessed September 10, 2022).