Text: Hebrews 12:2-3
Series: “Seven ‘Ups’ for the New Year"
You may have noticed as you’ve driven around town in the last year or so those ALDOT informational signs that are posted along local interstates and major thoroughfares. Those signs tell you if an accident has taken place or if road work is up ahead or if a child has been abducted so that you can be on the lookout. The signs tell you, given the pace of the traffic, how much time it will take you to drive from one mile marker to the next. Or, if everything is reasonably quiet on the roadways, it will offer you a reminder as to how you can make sure that things stay that way, a reminder such as one I saw the other day, which read: “Eyes Up. Phone Off. Save Lives.”
If this were confession time, where we invited sinners to come forward and acknowledge their wrongdoing, I would imagine that, if more people were present, we could fill this altar with all of us who at one time or another have violated that reminder of not texting while we drive. Oh yes, in our heads we know that it’s not a good thing to do such a thing. But in our hearts we have managed to convince ourselves that such a warning is really for other people, people who can’t multitask like we can, people who are easily distracted and end up running off the road or, perhaps even worse, running into a car in front of them.
Speaking of multitasking, someone has described it as one of the great myths of our postmodern age. In other words, while we may think that we are fully capable of focusing our attention on several tasks at the same time, the truth of that matter is that our attention is actually jumping back and forth between the tasks and we end up not doing any of them very well. In fact, according to software engineers, not even a computer can multitask, which is where the term came from in the first place. The computer may look like it’s running programs at the same time, but in reality, it is switching back and forth between them several thousand times per second. It just appears to us that everything is happening simultaneously (Joseph T. Hallihan, Why We Make Mistakes, p. 78).
If that be true, if multitasking is a myth, then we best aim our gaze in one direction; ideally a direction that will secure our lives, especially in times when we find ourselves facing stiff challenges, challenges that distract us from the possibilities of what lies ahead, challenges that can cause us to lose control of life’s steering wheel, endangering our futures and, at least with respect to our faith, jeopardizing our eternities.
That was the counsel of the writer of the book of Hebrews. An anonymous letter, the letter to the Hebrews was what students of the New Testament call a “general” epistle. Unlike Paul’s letters, which he wrote to specific churches in specific communities throughout the Roman Empire, Hebrews was written to encourage Christians across a broad region to persevere in their faith by not allowing anything or anyone to distract them from following Jesus. We call the letter “Hebrews” because of how its recipients were from a Jewish background, which explains the preponderance of references to the Old Testament sacrificial system and how that system represents Jesus as our perfect high priest, who on the cross in effect entered the Holy of Holies in the heavenly sanctuary, to reconcile us to God by making atonement for our sins in his own blood.
Following Jesus is no piece of cake today, but it was especially difficult at the time this letter was written. Most Christians in the first century were poor and had no real prospects of bettering themselves, at least not materially speaking. Furthermore, they were politically powerless and therefore pushed to the margins of their prevailing culture because of how they were often viewed as threats to the Empire. It’s important that readers today understand this background of persecution so that we might appreciate why the temptation to walk away from Jesus was such a powerful one in their first century world.
So, when the writer offers his readers examples as to how to endure their harsh sufferings, he digs back into his Old Testament files and lists example after example of characters, some prominent and some not, who faced overwhelming odds but did not forsake their faith. And at the conclusion of the list in the eleventh chapter, as you would expect, at the beginning of the twelfth chapter the writer offers up Jesus. “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus,” he says, “the pioneer and perfecter of faith, who for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
You could write a textbook in theology on just that one verse. For example, in the first place, everything with respect our faith begins with Jesus and it ends with Jesus. Moreover, Jesus in the face of unspeakable agony and bearing the weight of the world’s sins made the choice to be joyful in the face of the cross. That is to say that Jesus made the choice to renounce everything the cross stood for in the first century world, so that far from being victimized by the cross, Jesus, in the power of God, repurposed it and reframed it into a symbol of power, authority, and victory.
And then, if that’s not enough, the writer goes on. “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary or lose heart.” That word “consider” suggests an intense concentration, a laser-type focus, not a passing glance and certainly not something we attempt while also doing other tasks. You can’t multitask your devotion to Jesus. For if you try, you will never understand what Jesus went through on the cross on your behalf and you will never appreciate how, in spite of the pain he experienced, Jesus chose to do so because of the joy that was set before him, which, as much as anything, was the joy of securing your salvation.
That may be the challenge you’re faced with this morning. Like most people in our community, you’ve got a lot on your plate. There are demands and responsibilities. There are tasks you’ve got to get done and commitments you’ve got to honor. And you just feel distracted. None of these things are bad in and of themselves but when any of them causes you to be distracted from following Jesus, that’s what they become because of how they keep you from the joy that following Jesus enables you to know.
I remember back in my college days being awakened early one Saturday morning by a loud banging on the door of the Baptist Student Union center where I lived during my senior year. It was a classmate of mine, and he was bleeding from a cut on his face. When I asked what had happened, he pointed across the street to where his car had run into a telephone pole, which had caused him to cut his face on the steering wheel. It was a quiet street on a beautiful Saturday morning. How does someone run his car into a telephone pole? This was of course years before cell phones. My first thought was that he was drunk even though it was early morning. But he wasn’t; he was as sober as a judge. He sheepishly explained that he had noticed a button on his shirt had somehow become unbuttoned and when he reached down to button it up, the next thing he knew, he had driven his car off the road and into the pole. “If only I had not been looking down,” he bemoaned. “If only I had kept my eyes on the road.” But he didn’t and now you know what came from it.
A.E. Houseman was an English poet of the last century and was considered by many to be one of the greatest scholars of his generation. In his collection of poems, titled “Last Poems,” he has this line: “Could a man be drunk forever/With liquor, loves, or fights, Gladly should I rouse at morning/ And gladly lie down of nights. But men at whiles are sober/And think by fits and starts. And if they think, they fasten/Their hands upon their hearts” (“Last Poems,” X). In other words, where we direct our full attention, not our divided attention, will be the place where we have our hearts.
Maybe that’s why the Bible speaks of repentance as changing the way you think, which in turn changes everything else – your attitude, your orientation, your focus, your heart.
So, if you’ve been looking down, look up. Look up before it’s too late. Look up and fix your eyes upon Jesus. Consider him who thought only of honoring God and fastened his heart in that direction. Because when you do, the life that you save, or better I should say that life that Jesus saves for you, will most definitely be your own.