This blog provides a meditation on the Episcopal daily readings along with a headline from world news:
Infrared Camera gives new images of Lobster Nebula
The Rest That God Promised
4Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest is still open, let us take care that none of you should seem to have failed to reach it.2For indeed the good news came to us just as to them; but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.*3For we who have believed enter that rest, just as God* has said,
‘As in my anger I swore,
“They shall not enter my rest” ’,
though his works were finished at the foundation of the world.4For in one place it speaks about the seventh day as follows: ‘And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.’5And again in this place it says, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’6Since therefore it remains open for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience,7again he sets a certain day—‘today’—saying through David much later, in the words already quoted,
‘Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts.’
8For if Joshua had given them rest, God* would not speak later about another day.9So then, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God;10for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labours as God did from his.11Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs.
The writer of Hebrews sets out here his mysterious idea of the “rest” which God has promised his faithful people. It is based on the Sabbath which is mentioned in the account of creation in Genesis 1, and in the ten commandments in Exodus 20. The origin of the weekly day of rest for people and animals is God’s rest from his creative labours on the seventh day. It is a day which signifies justice, peace and celebration. This author however, knows of a tradition which interprets the entry into the land of promise, after the wanderings in the desert as the gift of God’s rest. He rejects this tradition because Psalm 95 verse 11 says in God’s name that the unfaithful Israelites did not enter his rest. Therefore, he concludes, “God’s rest” still awaits those to whom it is promised, namely the faithful people of God. Christian believers, he urges, can be that people. It’s a tortuous argument to modern ears, but it has a certain grandeur: looking back on the long struggle of the Jewish people to remain faithful to God, he reckons that at last it has come to fruition in Jesus, whom believers can now follow into the sabbath rest of God.
Is this sabbath rest simply life after death? No, it’s the same reality as the “city with firm foundations which God has prepared for his people” (Hebrews 11). It is the fulfillment of humanity’s greatest hope – the victory of goodness over evil and life over death. It is the city of God which exists in and through the cities of the world, in Glasgow, London, Beijing, Jakarta, Moscow, in the lives of those who hold dual citizenship and show it by their faith, justice, compassion and creativity; while it also exists beyond all worlds for those whose worldly labours are done. It fuels the active engagement of God’s witnesses in this life, while giving hope of a life to come. The writer of Hebrews, by bringing the image of God’s rest alongside that of God’s city, emphasises a joyful ending to the story of life’s labours and pains. This still seems to me an essential part of the Christian gospel.
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.2He came to Jesus* by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’*4Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.*7Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You* must be born from above.”*8The wind* blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 ‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you* do not receive our testimony.12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.*14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.*
If we continue to think of those who hold dual citizenship of the heavenly city as well as of their own earthly society, then these are the ones of whom Jesus says, “they are born from above”. They are not superhuman, nor removed from this world, but in the midst of this world they are transformed by the spirit of God. The spirit is the “ascent” into God’s new life (with Jesus) while the water of baptism is the call to “descend” (with Jesus) into the evils and sufferings of the present life.
The “lifting up of the Son of Man” is a phrase John uses of Jesus crucifixion which draws attention to its double reality: it is simultaneously the low point of Jesus’ loving descent into the evil of the world, and the high point of his ascent to the Father, victorious over evil and death. Like Moses’ serpent it is a sign of death and healing.
The dimensions of thís faith which reaches up to heaven and down to hell are too vast for the canny pharisee, who prefers for the moment at least to stick to the Jewish covenant with its straightforward rules for holiness. Sometimes I’m tempted to agree with him; the length and breadth and depth and height of the unknowable love of God can seem too complex and profound for ordinary living. Just give me a few simple commands and let me be! Sometimes indeed, that’s just what I do, until a particular sort of event makes me stop. It always includes a person who fights evil with love; and I am always astonished they can do so; and I find myself turned back again to the One who tells me soberly, “You must be born from above.”