The biblical book of Hebrews is not a letter. It was not written by Paul and it was not mailed to the Hebrews. Its origins are murkier, but its message is still on the mark. Think of it as a letter to the editor of the First Century’s Good News – a running commentary on testaments old and new.
Hebrews sings a Song of the Saints of God, faithful and brave and true .It waxes poetic over the faithful deeds of our ancestors. One by one, salvation history’s star players strut on stage. The cast is dressed to impress. Cain and Abel. Abraham and Sarah. Isaac and Jacob. By faith there was Joseph and, of course, Moses, and the Israelites who crossed the Red Sea. Joshua and Rahab, at the Battle of Jericho. King David and King Solomon. A great cloud of witnesses.
Now Hebrews gives these saints a hero’s welcome. With God’s help “they conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fires, escaped the edge of the sword and put foreign armies to flight.” Makes your heart beat a little faster just thinking about it, right?
These are just the highlights, of course, the dramatic climaxes. The anonymous author of Hebrews has left out all the dirty, messy parts. Those lie in pieces on the cutting room floor. Let’s listen to these stories again. And with a little help from Frederick Buechner, Presbyterian pastor and author, one of my faborite authors. Let’s see if we can read between the lines.
In the beginning, East of Eden there were Cain and Abel. Adam and Eve’s boys. God preferred Abel to Cain. God is apparently not a vegetarian and he preferred a juicy leg of lamb to a nice bowl of couscous. But God’s love was poured out to no end on the rebellious Cain. Cain in a fit of jealous rage did his brother in with a pitchfork. When God asked Cain where Abel was, Cain said ‘I don’t know’, which didn’t fool God for a second. But even so, God let Cain’s crime be his punishment.
So, Cain the farmer took to wandering forever fearful of being found out. A fugitive, without a leg to stand on, he complains to God. ‘You know, God, whatever bandits find me along the road will kill me. You know they will.’ So, God, out of love, protected Cain. He vowed vengeance on anyone who would touch a hair on his head. The God of mercy marked the murderer as his own and Cain went and dwelt in the land East of Eden. (Buechner, Peculiar Treasures)
And God was not ashamed to be his God.
And then a multitude of generations later, there was Abraham, a righteous man of God. Who could be more faithful than Abraham? He packed up his home and family lock, stock and barrel and set out believing in some crazy land deal that Yahweh had promised. Imagine Abraham, a hundred years old and Sarah just shy of ninety, travelling by camel through the wilderness and she pregnant at that. Now these certainly have to be God’s saints. But that road to the Promised Land was long and difficult and when God wasn’t looking, Abraham took a few shortcuts.
Low on food and supplies, Abraham took Sarah on a shopping spree into Egypt. He didn’t bring Sarah along just to push the shopping cart. He took her along as his cash flow card. You see Abraham passed off his wife as his sister, so Sarah could sleep with Pharaoh in exchange for a little food. Abraham, thinking himself quite clever repeated this disgraceful ruse with Abimelech. the King of Gerar. ‘Sure, you can sleep with her, she’s not my wife! She’s my sister, I tell you.’
Abraham subjected Sarah to abuse to advance his career as father of a great nation. Fortunately, God looked after Sarah even when Abraham did not. The first king, God strikes dead and the second king, Yahweh scares the bejesus out of him in his dreams. Abraham. a far less than faithful husband is rescued by the most faithful of Fathers. (Buechner, Peculiar Treasures)
And God was not ashamed to be his God.
Fast forward a generation or two and we find ourselves in Jericho. We all know about Joshua “who fit the battle of Jericho.” But you may not be acquainted with Rahab.
Scripture tells us that she was the real hero of the story. She was one of Jesus’ great-great grandmothers and a most unlikely hero. You see she was a woman in a man’s world. She was also a foreigner, a Canaanite, and not to be trusted. And worst of all she was a business woman, an inn keeper and a ‘lady of the night’. Nevertheless, she and Joshua became strange bedfellows. You see the King of Jericho found out there were some Jewish spies shacked up at Rahab’s place. So, the King gave her a call and told her that she had better turn those boys loose or he would close down her house of ill repute.
‘Now Sir, I do believe there were a couple of shepherds who fit those descriptions, but I took their money and kissed them goodbye a good half hour ago’. When Rahab got off the phone with the King, she ran up to the roof where she had stashed the spies. ‘Boys’, she said, ‘with Yahweh on your side, I do believe that Jericho is going to be a pushover. I only ask that when the walls come tumbling down, you leave my house standing’. And so, by the wiles and deceit of the ‘lady of the night’ Rahab, Yahweh secured the Promised Land. (Buechner, Peculiar Treasures)
And God was not ashamed to be her God.
Eventually we know as the story goes, God raised up a king and no doubt the greatest of these was David. He found David, a shepherd boy bringing up the rear of his flock behind his older brothers. God picked this scraggly little boy, the one with the flute and a slingshot in his pocket. David grew up to be a poet and a musician, a soldier and a story book king. He captured the hearts of his kingdom and he captured the city no one could capture — Jerusalem. All vainglory, he named it after himself — the City of David. And with a stroke of genius, he moved the Ark of the Covenant into town. This was kind of like having Yahweh himself move in next door. David brought the Ark into town with great fanfare — a parade of horns, harps, cymbals and psalms. And David himself marched at the front. And then without warning, he did the flashiest, tackies,t most flamboyant thing of all. David stripped down to his skivvies and danced in all his naked glory before the crowd – and before Michal his mortified wife. Well you know she just wanted to crawl under the floor.
But Yahweh’s passion for his people caught fire in David. And David whirled and danced around the Ark in a blazing flame of glory. Well from that day on David went on the break the hearts of his people. His vanity, his deceit and lust got the better of him, but out of love – God claimed him anyway – and sat him on the throne. (Buechner, Peculiar Treasures)
And God was not ashamed to be his God.
God was not ashamed to be the God of Cain, to be the God of Abraham, to be the God of Rahab and the God of David. This does not mean they all got a pass or get-out-of-jail-free card. It does not mean that God blessed all that they did. Far from it, much of what they did made God weep, I am sure. And for it these biblical characters are just as accountable as you and me.
But God can do crazy wonderful things through the most unlikely people in the most unlikely times and places. And in fact, if you think about it, God created each and every one of us to be ourselves and no one else. Free to be our imperfect and sinful selves. By design we are all God has to work with in this world.
Yahweh loves us, yes, we know because scripture tells us this love story again and again. How else could this motley crew be a Chosen People? A cloud of witnesses thick with murderers, liars, thieves, adulterers, and prostitutes. Love is the only explanation. Love is the only possible reason that God was not ashamed to be called their God.
While we mortals may argue here on earth about who are the deserving poor or who has earned our mercy and who is worthy of our love, God does not. God takes a crazy leap of faith. God comes to live among us as Jesus, son of Mary. This Jesus ate with tax collectors and ladies of the night. He drank with dirty fishermen. A single man, he stayed in the home of Mary and Martha. He broke bread with the poor. He attracted the sick and sinners, alike. Jesus cast out their demons and healed their wounds. He gave them eyes to see with and legs to walk.