18th Sunday after Trinity
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. But someone has testified somewhere, ‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them? You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honour, subjecting all things under their feet.’ Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying,
‘I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.’
‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals that you care for them?’
If I try very, very hard, I can resist the gravitational pull of the earth with a reasonable number of press-ups. Or I can watch the moon and the sun working in concert to bend and distort the entire planet and shift billions of gallons of ocean by several metres every day.
If I exert all my strength I can pull a reasonable sized bough of a tree in one direction, and then get it to move in the other by letting it go so that the whiplash moves it back beyond its starting point. Or I can sit amidst the trees and watch the wind casually sway not just the one bough but the entire forest.
When I was at my peak of fitness, which was never all that good, I could run a mile in seven and a half minutes, whereas in the same seven and a half minutes a ray of light will have travelled one million, three hundred and ninety five thousand miles.
I occupy maybe one square metre in a visible universe that has a hundred billion galaxies, each containing a hundred billion stars, give or take. And so I find myself very much in tune with the sentiment, ‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals that you care for them?’ How is God even aware of me?
Well that one I can answer from the same scripture, ‘... and he sustains all things by his powerful word’. I believe God is sustaining me, you and everything. I exist because I am in the mind of God. But nevertheless, in the scale of things, I am tiny and insignificant, and one of the things that I’ve begun to learn is that it’s a good thing to recognise that.
For the time being each of us carries an important role in our homes and community. But I look at the big wooden board out in our church’s lobby inscribed with the names of every vicar dating back more than seven hundred years and I find myself realising that in years to come that’s all I’ll be to people in the future; just a name on a board of long dead clergy. ‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals that you care for them?’
It’s important that we take this to heart because it is only when we acknowledge our humble place, our tiny space, that we can begin to grasp the enormity of the truth that the One, the Ultimate, The First Cause who is before all things is actually mindful of us, and so much so that he came himself as one of us to taste death on our behalf so that our deaths are not final but simply doorways. We live, and we never stop living.
It is only in humbly recognising our place in creation that we can begin to appreciate the awe-inspiring love and work of the One who seeks us out. My fear, however, is that the depths of this appreciation can get lost when the focus of this Hebrews passage shifts from God to us, and our place in the universe
All this hard-won humility can quickly go up in smoke when we hear these words:
“You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honour, subjecting all things under their feet.’ Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control.”
Now I have a major problem this verse because it’s simply not true, a fact that the writer acknowledges in the next verse. We have no control over the tides or the wind. If a volcano wants to blow its top, we’re powerless. Almost everything is outside our control, but when the author says that this is yet to happen, there is a part of us that can’t wait for it to be true, for us to be able to control all things, and I think that says something to the dominating mind-set of the western world.
To me this part of the reading portrays a very hierarchical and male image, of desiring to control, and it’s one part of the way in which we justify the appalling treatment we dish out to our planet, its resources and the other creatures with whom we share this living space.
At the root of this is our perception of God because we still keep thinking that God is male and does things in manly ways, and we men often like to control and direct. I’m not suggesting that women don’t, but men seem to have a particular need to be seen to be in charge, to be in control. As I get older so I find I have to kick harder and harder against this impulse as I become more aware of it.
I believe that in order to remedy this mind-set we need to start thinking about God in bigger terms, so let me give you some Old Testament verses that tell the other side of the story. We often think the Old Testament is the part of the Bible where we’re told that God is always an angry warrior who likes to smite a lot. Listen then to these:
In Hosea 11:3-4 God is described as a mother: “Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I who took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”
In Hosea 13:8 God is akin to a mother bear: "Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and tear them asunder...” In Deuteronomy 32:11-12 God is like a mother eagle: “Like the eagle that stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young, God spreads wings to catch you, and carries you on pinions.”
Deuteronomy 32:18 tells of God who gives birth: “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.” Isaiah 66:13 speaks of God as a comforting mother: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”
In Isaiah 49:15 God is compared to a nursing mother: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” and in Isaiah 42:14 God is as a woman in labour: “For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept myself still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labour, I will gasp and pant.”
We need new spectacles to look through in our understanding of scripture because the old ones are very one-sided and male oriented, filled with images of domination and control because that’s what comes naturally to men. But that is only a part of the story. When we bring in the feminine side, rather than being in control over nature, like a father wielding discipline over his son, we become instead nurture-participants, like mothers who hold the family together, drawing out the best in each one.
This passage in the letter to the Hebrews is a powerful one, but it can also mislead us into reinforcing our image of consumer led domination of the world. So let us allow nature to speak to us with the voice God gave her so that we see our proper place, the small humble space that we occupy.
Instead of seeking to control and dominate that which is in our charge, let us instead seek to nurture and grow. There needs to be a huge change, a paradigm shift if you like, in our spiritual understanding of the world of which we are a part. So let us not shy away from seeing our position in the world, and celebrating our smallness.
Because if we’re this tiny and God still knows more about us then we do and cares for us, that will remind us off the immensity of God’s awareness, and that despite our smallness, we are still valued for who we are by the One who holds all things in existence. Amen