Several years ago I became rather obsessed with the book in the New Testament we call 'Hebrews.' I don't remember the exact dates off the top of my head, I just remember catching a glimpse of it one day (I think I may have been reading N.T. Wright's book Following Jesus) and then diving in deeper until I absolutely fell in love with the short letter. Aside from those concerning chapter 11, I have heard very few sermons from Hebrews–which is a shame. It's a beautiful book in every way and, in my opinion, not terribly difficult to interpret.
Well, of course there are some parts that are difficult to understand and which might call for some more nuanced explanations, but I think if a person reads the book slowly and looks for some key clues in context (which are rather easy to find in our English Bibles), then the book begins to make sense in every way. And the truth is, I'd love to share that with you and perhaps someday I will. Tonight though I'd just like to focus for a minute on the particular verse that is kind of my theme verse during this Lenten season.
"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." (Hebrews 12:1b-2)
I kept coming back to this verse today…thinking about Jesus being the author (pioneer; trailblazer) of our faith and why, if this is true, I should 'fix my eyes' on him. Because let's be honest,it's not like I can literally see him no matter how hard I stare and no matter how fixed my eyes become on a particular spot in the sky. It's not that I think Jesus is in the sky, but, well, I guess that's where I have been trained to look for God: up there.
So the questions are something like: How do I fix my eyes on Jesus? and Why do I fix my eyes on Jesus.
I have heard a lot of folks get down on the church or Christianity or even Jesus. They have things to say like, "Oh you are just running away from your problems." Or, "You are just avoiding all the lousy stuff in the world." Stuff like that. But I don't think that's it at all. The book of Hebrews does not say we are running away from anything–but we are running to someone. Just because we are running to someone doesn't mean we are running from anything though. I look at all that went on in the life of Jesus, his apostles, his saints…they were hardly escapists practicing escapism. I think the key is found in the first word of chapter 12: Therefore.
The word 'therefore' follows closely on the heels of everything that was written in the 'great faith chapter', Hebrews 11 which, interestingly enough, begins with a discussion of faith: "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for" (11:1-2). Oh, so faith is being certain of things we do not see…therefore…fix your eyes on Jesus the author and perfecter of faith. Faith is not about not seeing, it's about seeing the right things. Faith is not about blindness, it's about being perfectly sighted. Faith is not being oblivious to what we see or endure in this world, it's about being fully aware that this world is not all there is.
Faith is about knowing where to look. Faith is about knowing to whom we look. Faith is about being able to discern who gives us hope and who does not. I find it not one bit ironic or strange that the author of Hebrews then points us to the one place where there is absolutely no historical doubt: Jesus was crucified. Of there there is not one shred of doubt–except from the sort of people who would not have faith anyhow. Yet because of this crucifixion we have faith that sees beyond this culture of death we have created–the world walks hand in hand with the devil who comes to 'kill, steal, and destroy.' Don't mistake it; it's all around us. Yet we are among those who do not fear death, even though we fear it, because we fix our eyes on Jesus.
Like when Stephen was being stoned to death in Acts 7: "Look, I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." That is faith! Faith that sees.
So look at all of chapter 11 and see the sort of trouble all those saints got into precisely because they refused to look anywhere but Jesus. For example, "By faith, Moses, when he had grown up refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh's daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy a season of sin. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king's anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible." Amazing…Moses had eyes powerful enough to see someone who is invisible!
Faith isn't about 'blind-leaps'; faith is about being able to see beyond what normal eyes can see. Faith has eyes to see things at a distance and welcome them. Faith has eyes to see a better city, a better land than the one we live in now. Faith has eyes to see beyond the destruction of the flesh. Faith looks forward to a better resurrection. Faith has eyes to see Jesus…even amidst the clutter and culture of death that surround us.
You see, I think what I've been learning is this: it is terribly difficult to go through life with eyes that scatter all around–like Mad-Eye Moody from the Harry Potter books whose crazy eye was constantly zipping this way and that. Life doesn't function so well when that's what we are doing with our eyes. Our eyes need to be fixed on Jesus–the pioneer, trailblazer, architect, author and perfecter of our faith. I think sometimes I work too hard trying to muster up faith and I get discouraged when I fail. I'm always looking around trying to catch a glimpse of what faith looks like, heroic faith, radical faith. And people, some people, make a living telling the rest of us what real faith looks like. And then we try to recreate that faith in ourselves.
We don't need radical faith. We don't need heroic faith. We need Jesus. And if that sounds naive and simple, you're welcome.
I'm tired of tips and techniques for mastering faith. I want simple. I want simply to fix my eyes on Jesus because it seems to me if someone else was able to pioneer and perfect our faith we would have been told to fix our eyes on that person. But the author of Hebrews says we are to fix our eyes on Jesus…who understands the faith he calls us to and will perfect that faith in us…because he too endured the cross. He led the way!! He has blazed the trail he asks us to follow. So even if he calls us to 'take up our cross daily, deny ourselves, and follow him' we know he will not fail…and the faith he creates in us will not either.
It's kind of like taking a business model that works in city A and recreating in city B–which has nothing of the demographic markers that city A has and expecting it to work. Or it's like trying to take a model of church growthism and recreating it in another church in another town and expecting it to work the same wonders. All are doomed to failure. Well, here's the thing: I can neither create nor perfect faith…any faith. I simply cannot be entrusted with such a task. It is, and I am, doomed to failure. And so long as I look to myself or to others or all around that faith is doomed to destruction. Only Jesus can create and perfect the sort of faith that I need in my life…the kind of faith that looks beyond the failures and deaths of this world. This kind of faith, the sort spoken of in chapter 11, is resurrection faith. It's faith in Jesus, who, "shared in [our] humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death–that is, the devil–and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death" (Hebrews 2:14-15).
Faith is not perfected by ignoring what's going on around us, but rather by keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus despite all that is going on around us. We fail because we try to create our own faith. We fail because we think we know what faith is and what it looks like. Do we really think self-manufactured faith will be enough to see beyond the deaths of this world? Will our own manufactured faith be enough for us to scorn family like Abraham? Will our own manufactured faith be enough to deny the pleasures of this world like Moses? Will our own manufactured faith be enough to obey God when he asks us to do something ridiculous as he did Noah? Will our own manufactured faith be enough to speak boldly the word of God in the face of death as did the prophets? Will our own manufactured faith be enough to scorn the cross for the joy set before us? Will our own manufactured faith be enough for us to run the race marked out for us?
Do you trust yourself to create and perfect that sort of faith? I don't.
Whatever else this verse teaches me, it teaches me that I absolutely cannot get by a single moment of my life apart from Jesus. And what's more? We fix our eyes on Jesus because…wait for it…because He is our reward…He is the joy set before us….He is the goal of our faith.
And if we fix our eyes on Jesus, then we know exactly where we are going and to whom we are heading. Right? If we are fixed on Jesus, then we have no confusion whatsoever about our path or our destination.
[Feel free to leave a comment. I'd love to hear from you.]