One Saturday afternoon, my wife and I escaped to the movies. We had barely slipped into our seats and positioned the bucket of popcorn between us when a gaggle of teenagers jostled into the row behind us. They were having a great time together, noisily talking and teasing and laughing.
I spent my entire childhood in Vienna, Virginia. From infancy to my eighth year we lived on Hillside Circle. In the back yard, a swing took me up above a honeysuckle bush with every push from my mother. I can still smell the honeysuckle. Eventually Mom and Dad bought a nicer home, and although they sold it several years ago, I remember every beloved detail of the place.
As the Season of Lent rushes toward inevitability, scripture calls us to play the old game of Truth or Consequences—no, not the game show from the 1960s, but the old-time religion game of suffering and salvation.
A generation ago, Ernest Becker taught us that the fear of dying is the mainspring of all human activity, from our smallest efforts at survival to our loftiest cultural achievements. So far as I can tell, our species continues to confirm that thesis.
In 2005, just in time for Easter, Mel Gibson released an edited version of his controversial film The Passion of the Christ. A few brutal scenes had been cut and camera angles had been changed, all in an attempt to soften the graphic violence of the original. Gibson said that the new edition of the film would appeal to people who “want to take your Aunt Martha or Uncle Harry” to see it but who would find the first version too intense.
Isaiah knew his congregation. His word from the Lord spoke into the chaos and confusion of a people who had suffered not only a disruption of life, but also a disrupted understanding of God. Their cherished expectations of what it meant to be the covenant people had crumbled along with the destroyed Jerusalem. God had allowed this destruction of their naïve theology, and now they were exiled from both the land and the notion that God would protect them. It was this befuddled congregation that assembled to hear Isaiah’s sermons.
The Epistle to the Hebrews joins the Revelation to John as the literature most intimidating to readers of the New Testament. With the Revelation the reader must endure its terrible splendor; with Hebrews the reader must listen intently to the tightly woven arguments in what the writer calls a sermon.