The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      8th August 2021
Lift your drooping hands
Jeremy Fletcher

Hebrews 12: 1-17
The writer to the Hebrews is nothing if not challenging and full of vision. The picture painted from the very first verses of the letter is of the majesty and eternal purposes of God, culminating in the person of Jesus Christ, whose death and resurrection opens a new way to God. There is majesty and transcendence here, and a detailed reflection on the nature of sacrifice and the worship of the temple, especially suited to Hebrews, the ancient people of God: those who were steeped in Torah, in the Writings and the Prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. 
The writer encourages and challenges those who hear and read these words: if we believe this can then do nothing but give themselves totally, as a living sacrifice, to following God, whatever the consequences. But writing in times of great persecution, the readers and listeners of this letter would perhaps only faintly be reassured by the assurance that whatever their present circumstances, all would be well in the end. The eternal vision is cashed out in times of some suffering. 
Neither would the list of great heroes of faith which makes up the chapter before our reading today necessarily make them feel better, since most of them met messy and untimely ends. There may well have been something better promised for them, but their examples don’t give one a sense of happiness and well being. Challenge, yes, but it’s not particularly fluffy and cosy! These are the ‘cloud of witnesses’ who begin Chapter 12. There is a sense that, if they could do it, and are cheering us on, we can do it too. They knew it for real, just as the former athletes who comment on our current Olympians know that sheer agony their training and competition can be. I do believe that recognising the faith which took people through great hardships because of a greater vision is indeed an encouragement rather than a turn off, but that does not take away from the hardships it will entail.
The verse which has always stood out in this passage for me is at verse 12: lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees. I’ve always imagined it spoken in an encouraging and gentle way, as if the writer was actually holding up our arms, like Moses hands were in that Old Testament battle. The image the writer uses is one of a distance race. At school I hated cross country, and generally walked rather than ran. No teacher or sixth former who shouted at me to get going ever had any effect – I just got more discouraged. Just once, I remember, the school cross country captain ran alongside me, with helpful words, sharing my tiredness, almost dragging me along. It worked a treat, and after the mountaintop vision of the great saints in Chapter 11 it is encouraging to me to know that the writer is saying ‘Yes, I know that life is tough, and that your knees and hands will droop and get weak…there is healing here, and strength. You’ll be fine, and good will come even from the toughest of times’. Our ultimate example is Jesus, who’s race led to the cross. How can we not follow?
The writer then makes a startling change. In the middle of conflict and difficulty, when life may look horrendous, pursue peace with everyone. It’s startling because it can seem that, in some circumstances, simply surviving is enough. But to pursue peace – not just try to demonstrate it – to pursue peace – is a challenge which will really demonstrate whether our faith is real. We are being asked to pray for peace in the current crisis, and it is well to remember that peace – shalom, salaam – is not the absence of conflict but the presence of harmony, of service, of the common good, of humility, generosity, of vibrant humanity. In these circumstances it is not enough for Christians to muddle through and get by without compromising themselves – we compromise ourselves if we do not work for peace.
There is immense wisdom and common sense here. In difficult and trying times it is all too easy to project our pain and despair and anguish outwardly onto others, and especially on those closest to us. The challenges to people’s well being and mental health through the pandemic have seen a rise in cases of violence and breakdown in homes and of relationships. To be strengthened in such times is to find the energy and ability to pursue peace, to offer kindness, to be gentle with those whom it is all to easy to hurt. Like those who heard the letter to the Hebrews the first time we may live in trying times where all around is conflict, and the way of faith is difficult and taxing. Let us then pray that, encouraged by those who have gone before, with arms aloft and legs strengthened, we can pursue such peace. For only in this way will the world be saved.

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