I often wonder about the moment I die. Typically, I live like and presume that moment is a long way off. Several years ago, I confirmed Catholic after a lifetime of Protestant faith, and one of the religion/culture shocks I experience in that transition is praying Hail Mary, and the part petitioning for prayers both now “and the hour of our death” is the one part that gives voice to this wonder I have. I am assured that hour, that moment, will come – yet aside from this Catholic ritual, there isn’t much occasion to care for this part of my life.
Now the world is plunged into a crisis, people dying untimely deaths in the thousands every day. The culture shock to the whole global society gives us cause for pause, yet there are not many rituals, other cultural artifacts or expressions which aid the of the pain and fear the world is going through now. There are, of course, lots of coping mechanisms from sex and alcohol to drugs and denial, and the wide world of market solutions, politics, as well as religions (including paganisms, Islam, Judaism, and various factions of Christianity as well) all clamor for attention.
I am one who goes to the Bible. I’m not the only one, nor am I the best pastoral guide through the Bible either. However, during this time of global struggle, with all the anxiety and the stress on my community, my family and myself, I am going to the Scriptures for devotional time. I invite you to join me.
One of the little passages of Scripture I find speaking to me – echoing in my heart – in recent days is that little phrase in Hebrews 12:2 where it says, “…he endured the cross for the JOY set before him….” It is just one little phrase, but there are none like it (that I know of) in the Bible except here. Such a compact little phraseology which pacts such a punch.
Jesus endured the cross for the JOY set before him. There is so much packed up in that thought which we will do well to meditate on – especially today. I find help for my soul as I give it my attention and care, I sense that I need to share this bit of good news with others too. Maybe in this time of stress, if you find this post, hopefully you can meditate with me here and find some relief and hope for your soul too.
Let’s get into this:
One of the dangers we always face when talking about the Bible is that it is easy to lift a text out of context and then abuse it, make it bend to our will, make it say practically anything. Such abuses of the Bible have, on the stage of world history, been known to justify slavery or to control slaves – as just one strong example. Let us, therefore, take a moment to ask God to guide us as we listen to his word. Even the Gospels, quoting the prophets of old, tell us that some people, at least some of the time, will look and not see, listen and not hear. Thus we will do well to begin by asking God to soften our hearts and open our eyes.
Open the eyes of our heart, Lord; we want to see Jesus.
For the Joy:
The text I have chosen is seriously just one small phrase amid a much longer sentence. A sentence in a much longer chapter. One chapter amid a much bigger book. There is a lot of context in which to situate our devotion just now, and in fact, there is so much to say on that that we might bog down in just this concern. There is an art to the way we read Bible and various interpretations. No doubt my devotion will leave some of the stones unturned. However, in general terms, I will say this much: The writer of Hebrews (many have thought it was St. Paul, but that is not settled) appears to be concerned with equipping his (her?) readers confidence for endurance. There are trials to endure, and this book addresses them specifically.
The trials the original readers endure are not those of global pandemic. In fact there is much to speculate about exactly what those trials involve, but nonetheless it is clear that those of us reading this text today are enduring pandemic. We need to keep in mind that though there are important similarities, there are also important differences. We will want to read over the shoulders of those original readers to the extent we can. They appear to be Jewish Christians, people called to hold fast to Jesus as the point of their Jewish faith despite the fact that most of Judaism (as we are apt to call it) does not share this view. It is likely that these Jewish Christians face many upheavals, possibly even persecutions, AND scorn of fellow Jews who do not share their faith in Jesus. Thus, they endure trials.
Let us keep in mind such matters. If this, or something like it, is the setting for the first readers, then we will want to be sensitive to that level of context. A conservative reading of our text must be able to echo with harmony in such chambers. We will want to adjust our devotions so that the word of God will speak fresh to us in our context, yes, but not at the expense of the meaning(s) it had for those original readers. If the meaning we find does violence to that context, then it surely cannot be God’s word for us today. (So goes conservative ideals, anyway, and I am beholding to them as best I can.)
That said, we can see that our little phrase falls in a sentence talking about Jesus’s crucifixion. We know a LOT about that context. And it tells us that Jesus endured that horrible event “for the JOY set before him.” That is, actually, quite a lot to consider right there!
It also raises a vital question for me… a question ripe for devotion. A question that my soul longs to ponder. A question that ushers me through the veil of prayer and into the throne room of God where even deeper, metaphysical and existential considerations for HOPE await me at the core of my being and of God’s. So what is the question?
What JOY is worth that???
Yeah. This is where I start recalling a sermon I heard many, many years ago. It wasn’t a preacher; it was a doctor. A doctor, who was also a believer, attempted a “medical exegesis” of the crucifixion. This, of course, is a very modernist approach to the Bible. However, it helped, in my view, capture the imaginations of modern people to really understand what Roman crucifixion was all about, and particularly the way Jesus endured it.
The doctor explained that it’s not the nails in your flesh that kill you. We can drive nails in your hands and feet, and you almost certainly will survive it. In fact, you will suffer tremendously, but that will not be your cause of death. When it comes to Roman crucifixion, the thing that finally kills the condemned is the collapse of the diaphragm, the exhaustion, because as a crucified person hangs nailed to a cross, they have to push with their nailed feet and pull with their nailed hands to raise up and take a breath of air. And young farm boys, carpenters, and prophetic messiahs typically have the strength to do this for days on end.
Then the doc looked at the circumstances unique to Jesus, as we find accounted in four Gospels. Before he was crucified, Jesus was mocked, spit upon, and verbally, psychologically, emotionally and otherwise abused, falsely found guilty, and then beaten with fists, mocked some more, then whipped and scourged in such a way as to make his back (from head to toe) open up with fresh wounds – perhaps with the look of hamburger meat. Then when they finally nailed him to a cross, as he took leverage from the nails to raise himself up to take a breath (which he expended offering forgiveness of sins), he also dragged his back against the splinters of that old rugged cross.
Are you in tears yet? I am.
THIS is the horrible thing Jesus endured.
And the writer of Hebrews comes to that most potent of little phrases and tells us he endured the cross FOR THE JOY SET BEFORE HIM! Yeah, the JOY of the Lord was his strength, and I want in on that.
And I wanna know: WHAT JOY IS WORTH THAT?
Did you know your Christian faith orients you toward such unspeakable JOY?
What is this JOY? I can hardly imagine.
In fact… how can we know? Some stuff is just God’s mystery which he can grant to anyone he so chooses. I personally have not seen this JOY. I can’t hardly imagine it, even. But suddenly this passage is sounding just a little like another one which seems to explore such rich possibilities, turn over to First Corinthians 2:9-10 (and keep your finger there, because shortly we will look at the fuller setting of those two verses too).
Here in I Corinthians 2, St Paul (we are sure it is him this time) quotes a couple of passages from Isaiah which attempted to just glimpse the depths, the fathoms, the riches of JOY and goodness God has in store for his children. Yeah, it turns out, God has plans for us which are so godly, we struggle just to imagine.
Here is a look at that ancient text:
…as it is written, “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered the heart of humans, all that God has prepared for those who love him… For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. (I Cor. 2:9-10).
Wow! I am thinking you could read First Corinthians all your life and not really grasp the thing Paul is talking about. Perhaps the Spirit of God might talk some spirit-language with your spirit and convey SOMETHING of this message to you that way, but it seems clear you will not be able to snap a picture of this mystery or to dissect it like you might a butterfly. There is only so far your empirical, scientific analysis is going to take you here, and that ain’t far. But there are OTHER senses which might – just might. And we need to put those feelers out as best we can here, for this kind of passage is full of hope you can’t explain!
Oh man. Where do we go with this now? I don’t know. Perhaps if you had a seasoned pastor guiding you about now instead of a street prophet, you might get a better, richer, more hermeneutically sound tour of the Bible. As it is, if you are still reading this far, you have chosen to let Agent X take you for this little tour of heaven, and it is just about here I am thinking of that passage from Revelation 4 where John, the Seer, when caught up in the Spirit (perhaps his spirit communing with God’s own Spirit in that spirit-language), he steps through a door into the throne room of heaven and sees indescribable things which he describes nonetheless, which are too staggering for your imagination to fathom. We see Ezekiel’s four creatures, we see lightening and thunder, we see rainbows and jewels, and there are twenty-four elders on twenty-four thrones who can’t seem to stand on their own feet as they keep falling down before the big throne and casting down their crowns.
I mean, there is JOY here which is hard to see, which is hard to make sense of, but which is so JOYFUL that these men of God can’t even stand up on their own feet as they encounter it.
I have experienced some rich joys in my life… some I am quite fond of recalling when I get time and quiet where I can go there in my memories. I remember eating snow ice cream with my grandparents as a child. I remember going to the amusement park the first time. I remember the seventh grade dance when Agents J and M taught me to dance, and I was so impressed with myself for holding these young girls in my arms. That, of course, sends me to even more intimate joys and memories of getting married, and so forth. Mountain sunsets, camping trips, motorcycle rides… Some of these are my most treasured memories of some of the richest joys I ever experienced.
Some of these joys were foundational to who I am, who I have become. They are indispensable, as far as I can tell. But none of them measure up to the JOYS our texts describe. Jesus did not endure the cross for the chance to dance with Agent M. No. There was some OTHER JOY which blows that away. And besides, the joys of seventh grade just did not have the staying power of eternity. Agent J broke my heart a year later, I grew up and started paying my own way to the amusement park, and it is more a joy now to share that with my kids than it is for me to ride the rides. Also, my grandparents are gone now, RIP. No. We are talking here about some JOY I can only barely imagine. A JOY so incredible that the twenty-four elders in heaven’s throne room can’t stand for it.
Jesus endured a cross for the JOY set before him. What JOY is worth that??? In fact, we are beginning to open our imaginations to such a degree now that we might ask: WHAT JOY IS SO WORTH IT AS TO MAKE CRUCIFIXION A SMALL PRICE TO PAY???
Ooooooh…. Dare we even ask?
We are now at the outer edges of our ability to consider such things. We are at the end of us, but we can see from here that the JOY keeps going and going and going and going.
I need that.
I grew up Protestant, and I remember in years gone by nearly all of the “effective” and powerful preachers tended to preach a variation on the same theme which could be summed up in this question: If you died tonight, do you know where you would spend eternity? I can recall preachers laboring the point, saying in evermore creative and powerful ways that NOTHING is more important in all of your life than settling this matter right now! Why wait? And of course in the faith tradition I grew up in, this was followed by an appeal to baptism for the forgiveness of your sins. Other traditions would come to that point and have you recite “the sinner’s prayer” and receive salvation. Others still might expect you to breakout speaking in tongues. All of them, in their own way, though were leveraging you with the fear of hell fire. Such preachers tried to quite literally scare the hell out of you.
That is NOT what the writer of Hebrews is doing, not what St. Paul is doing, and not what St. John is doing. Not in the passages we looked at, anyway. If you look close enough in each of these books we have touched on, you will find some bits which MIGHT lend themselves more toward such a notion, but the passages we look at in this devotion go quite the OTHER way. They point us gravitationally to unfathomable JOY rather than repulsively away from hell, and Hebrews in particular tells us that Jesus endured the cross for this JOY set before him. It tells us this in a sermon where the overriding concern is to equip the original readers with confidence to endure the hardships they are facing too. They will do this, the passage says, by fixing their eyes on Jesus, who for the JOY set before him endured the cross….
Fix your eyes on Jesus:
Here is a central irony. We fix our eyes on Jesus who is dying a horrible death on a Roman cross. That is where he is being disciplined, where we are being disciplined, and it is not immediately a sense of JOY to be disciplined (12:11), but the discipline prepares us for the endurance. It is part of the package deal. And meanwhile, we look at Jesus as he dies on his cross, and we fix our eyes there.
Part of the irony in that, for me at least, comes to mind when I recall my Baptist friends criticizing my interest in Catholic faith, and one of the criticisms (among many) was the difference between a decorative cross, as you find in Protestant churches, and a Catholic crucifix which bears the image of Christ on it. Thus my Protestant friends told me that the Catholics keep Jesus crucified, and thus never really experience the liberation of resurrection which comes only after he is taken down from that cross.
I, on the other hand, note that St. Paul (back in I Corinthians 2, just a few verses ahead of the passage we just looked at above), says, “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (2:2). We know Paul held a similar conviction with the Galatians before whose eyes he portrayed Christ crucified (3:1). In fact, on page after page of Paul’s letters he keeps talking constantly about the crucifixion of Christ! It is quite crucial! And the passages we have been looking at reveal a powerful irony. There is discipline in fixing our eyes here which leads to indescribable JOY!
I want to know what JOY is worth that?
As I see it, there are two ways to consider this: 1) is the counterbalance of endurance with JOY and the 2) the other is the paradox of coronation and the execution of a condemned. I personally am more mystified by the second, but I am in no way convinced we should neglect the first. But again, if you were getting a more pastoral tour of these matters, you might get a richer experience. You are here, assuming you have come this far with me, with Agent X, and so we are not on THE USUAL tour, that is for sure.
First for the counterbalance: As I see it, the JOY God has waiting for us who love him far exceeds any joy I have ever known. I have had some rich experiences, alright, some which I find foundational to my life and identity. But no matter how rich my memory of the seventh grade dance, it was a temporal joy, one which has even been undercut by subsequent life events. The JOY God has instore for us surely exceeds that beyond measure.
So how might we quantify such JOY – if it can’t be measured?
Well one way to do so is to point out the cost of it. The cost acts like a counterbalance. Jesus was crucified in a most horrible death. But he was willing to do it for the JOY set before him.
It turns out, I have some sense of the pain, the agony, the shame, and the despair of crucifixion. Not that I ever experienced it, but I have spent a lifetime fearing it. I have SOME sense of it. Certainly, St. Paul portrayed it before my very eyes. He taught me to proclaim it until Jesus comes again. And Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all give us their play-by-play accounts. So, yeah… in this fallen world, I have SOME sense of the horrible pain while the JOY seems a bit more illusive.
Now… to be honest. Those first century readers didn’t have to have it portrayed before their eyes in a letter. The Roman world was full of crucifixions. In fact, in SOME regards, the crucifixion of Jesus was kinda light. Not where it counts, but one of the things crucifixion was meant to do was to be a cruel deterrent. A billboard of agony. And the Romans NORMALLY insisted that the condemned not only die on a cross, but rot there too. (Jesus did not do that.) Thus the smell of the dead would waft on the wind for days and weeks afterward. The shame of their death was left there long after they died. And these executions typically were carried out near the city gates, public places where the whole community would see it together and take heed not to mess with Lord Caesar.
I, on the other hand, born all these eons later and at least one whole ocean removed too, have soaked in a few images in paintings and movies, but I must confess that when CNN ran a story of the ISIS rebels in Aleppo, back in 2014, the first-run, un-sanitized, unedited for TV pictures that broadcast of the upheaval featured a couple of Christians enduring crucifixion in the city center! I saw it! I was stunned. I was horrified and mortified. I was scared. It jarred me, and all my Christian life had not prepared me for it.
But if the writer of Hebrews is credible, then Jesus endured the cross for the JOY set before him, and I wonder what JOY is worth that! There is a counterbalance effect to this. I may not know what the JOY is, but I have a sense of the very least it might be since Jesus was willing to endure such agony for the goal of obtaining this JOY. It has to be at a minimum THAT JOYFUL.
That is the counterbalance approach. And I think it is worthwhile. It allows me, even instigates in me, the question: What JOY is worth that? And that is a great place to spend some devotional meditation!
Paradox of Coronation and Crucifixion:
But there is that OTHER approach too. That approach to looking at the cross of Christ and seeing, of course, the horrible execution of a common criminal – AS IT WAS INTENDED BY CAESAR TO DO! But as I LOOK and LOOK, as I fix my eyes on Jesus as he endures that, alright, I might, just might, with the eyes of faith and with the help of the Spirit, see in it the coronation of God!
God takes Caesar’s worst, endures it, and turns it inside out and upside down. God turns the execution of a common criminal into the crown-taking, throne sitting, moment that God comes back to be KING of his people.
Let’s look at I Corinthians 2 one more time.
We saw above that St. Paul came to Corinth determined to have his own eyes fixed on Jesus (which we may presume means he intended to fix their eyes there too). He is not, in that case, addressing a church enduring persecution, per se, but more likely a church which enjoys a lot of freedom and maybe even wealth to a large extent. The parishioners Paul is addressing here consider themselves well educated, smart, and they are taking advantage of Grecian wisdom to get ahead in life.
I’m thinking that up until about a week or two ago, we Americans probably would have found we had a lot more in common with this group than with those addressed by the sermon we call Hebrews. NOW, of course, we are enduring hardship, but Paul seems to have tailored the same idea about fixing our eyes on Jesus for this OTHER circumstance. Look what he says:
I was with you in weakness and in far and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God. Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory….(I Cor. 2:3-8).
Wow! This is starting to sum up everything we have said so far. We have it all here. Jesus is crucified. There is mystery and wisdom beyond our telling, but we can open it up to the mature… to the disciplined. Fix your eyes here and see what JOYOUS work God is doing in the unfathomable mysteries words can hardly express.
This message – this small phrase – we started with in Hebrews appears to find connections in St. Paul’s letters to Corinth and Galatia, in the prophets of old (Isaiah and Ezekiel at least), in St. John’s Apocalypse, in the four Gospels, in the endurance of hardship and in us. What JOY is worth the endurance Jesus underwent? Let us fix our eyes on Jesus and contemplate that.
I don’t know what you endure at your house today. Some of you are having a troubling, nagging cough. Some are merely fearing it. Some of you have already sent a loved one to the hospital, and you wait hoping against hope that this doesn’t end in death.
All of us have our lives in jeopardy today. When will the money run out? When will the power get shut off? When will I go to work again – OR ALTERNATIVELY – I keep going to work wondering when I will catch the bug! What happens to my babies if I am gone? How will I cope if I lose my babies?
Whether you are Christian or not, the coronavirus does not discriminate. We all face these issues and more.
I keep wondering where my college kids is going, and why can’t she stay put. Come bedtime, she is gonna want to belong here in this house with us, but who coughed on her while she was out? Did she smooch her boyfriend? And did he stay in and observe social distance? Did he wash his hands after pumping gas and before picking his nose? When she comes home, will she pay the price for the decisions this twenty year old makes? Will my three year old pay the price for the decisions this twenty year old makes? This nineteen year old makes? We are not used to paying such steep prices for the foolish choices one another makes, and it is turning our world upside down!
Will there be a stock market left if we survive? Will there be a doctor to take care of me this time next year?
There is so much uncertainty at least, and a whirlwind of suffering kicking up around us. Now is the time to endure. It is the only thing to do.
But the writer of Hebrews wants to equip the readers with confidence for patiently enduring hardship by fixing our eyes on Jesus. And as this writer prepares us for this, that awesome little phrase comes bursting out of the edges – FOR THE JOY SET BEFORE HIM, HE ENDURED…. And that raises such a profound question: What JOY is worth that?
And if you are still reading here, you have begun asking that question with me. You have begun fixing your eyes on Jesus and the Spirit of God for the last half hour at least has begun communing with you.
There is a JOY set before us too. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus and HOPE for that JOY with him as we are now called to endure.
Let us encourage each other in this.
I hope that both now, and at the hour of my death, I have my life devoted to the JOY set before us and that I am equipped to endure whatever cost as I obtain it. I might need your encouragement along the way.
I hope to share that JOY with you on the other side.