by Chris Ritter
Do you ever talk to yourself?
Some people associate this with mental instability. And maybe it is if you go around like Golem in The Lord of the Rings holding open debate between your multiple personalities. But there are some sources who say that talking to yourself is both a sign of intelligence and a predictor of success. Albert Einstein was known to speak to himself often as a way of clarifying his thoughts and bringing out the best in himself. Talking to yourself can actually be a sign of self-reliance. So when someone calls you crazy for talking to yourself, just tell them that is the only way you can have an intelligent conversation.
There have been studies done by experimental psychologists where people were given a task, like finding certain items in a grocery store. Individuals in the first group were forbidden from talking to themselves and the other group had no such restrictions. The participants who practiced self-talk performed better.
But not all self-talk is helpful. Calling yourself “stupid” or “worthless,” for instance, just reinforces negative feelings. But talking to yourself is a great way to remind yourself who you are and what is really important. Sometimes I tell myself “no” when I start to go in the wrong direction:
- “Nope, you are not going to act that way.”
- “No, don’t take the bait. You need to be the bigger person.”
- “You know better than that.”
- “No, you don’t need that. Remember your goals.”
I am calling this final message from Hebrews, “What to Tell Yourself” as we arrive at the last chapter of this amazing New Testament book. It is not exactly a summer “beach read” but it holds some deep truths about Jesus through a lens that we don’t always consider. We easily could have spent a year or two going verse my verse, but I hope this overview has been an encouragement to you to go deeper and return to this book often.
Some Bibles have headings in them placed by the publisher to offer an overview of what the section is all about. Chapter 13 is sometimes called “Concluding Exhortations” or “Final Reminders.” Whoever wrote Hebrews was separated physically from the people to whom he was writing and wanted them to have some really clear things to hang onto. I said Hebrews is full of one-liners. There are plenty of these in Chapter 13.
Let’s dig in:
1Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. 2 Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. 3 Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.Hebrews 13:1-3
If you are going to talk to yourself, you could do worse than saying, “Keep on loving.” Times are tough for the recipients of this letter and they are about to get tougher. In hard times, the risk is that we develop a hard heart. We become self-protective. We stop risking. We stop offering our hearts to others. But there is another way to allow God to use our pain. He leverage our pain to open us up to love Him and others more deeply.
There is a Leonard Cohen lyric:
Ring the bells that still can ringAnthem, William Cohen
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
Chapter One of Hebrews began with a discussion of angels. It is good to see them return in the final chapter. We are told to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without them knowing it.
If you are a persecuted minority, like the first readers of Hebrews certainly were, the most natural thing to do would be keep up your guard… to be suspicious of anyone until you knew their true motives. Hebrews says, “Don’t go there.” Treat strangers like potential angels.
The author is probably thinking here of Abraham and Sarah. Three mysterious visitors show up that would later bring them the news of the birth of Isaac. Genesis 18 shows us Abraham and Sarah’s righteousness through their hospitality. Abraham begged them to stay with him. He killed a young goat from his own flock. Sarah cooked it and baked bread for them. They rolled out the red carpet for these strangers and treated them like VIP’s… even before they knew they were angels. This is meant to stand in contrast with the angels sent to check out the wicked city of Sodom who were met with abuse and violence.
Righteous people are hospitable people. Inn keepers were held in low esteem in the ancient world because they were viewed as symptom of moral breakdown. The fact that people would have a pay for accommodations was a sign that the world was going to hell. Inns were also associated with houses of ill repute where an upright traveler would not want to find themselves. Rahab was this sort of inn keeper but took the opportunity for a different path when she chose to protect the Israelite spies.
So you never know when an angel is going to show up in the form of a person needing help or hospitality. Pastor Tom Wright always bends over backwards to help anyone who is down and out, holding a cardboard sign. He told me one time, “I think those people are angels that God sends to us.” Geneseo has some wonderful traditions like the Thanksgiving Fellowship where international students stuck far away from home are welcomed for the holiday. Last year the Vergane family has made a dear friend from China, a computer science student named Pong, in this way. In Luke 14, Jesus said, when you give a luncheon or a dinner, don’t just invite your friends who can repay you by invite you back to their house. He said, “when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” and God himself will repay you at the resurrection of the righteous.”
When you see a stranger, tell yourself, “That might be an angel.”
There is a similar instruction related to prisoners. The Christians who first received this letter were sometimes put in jail for their faith. The Roman penal system did not necessarily supply three meals a day, blankets, and other things. Someone from the outside had to bring them in. But, of course, in showing up to help your fellow Christians you would be recognized as a Christian yourself. It was a genuine risk. Hebrews says, “Do it anyway.”
One Roman emperor passed a law against bringing so much food and supplies to the jails because Christians were known for taking care of their own, even to great personal risk. The early church left us many stories of believers who walked with their brothers and sisters in Christ to their executions. They stood with the condemned.
One morning several years ago my mom and step-dad were reading the newspaper and learned that 86 Chinese refugees were pulled from a boat in Guam and detained by ICE while they awaited processing. They were surprised to learn that these folks were brought to the new, privately run detention center that was just built a mile from their home in Southern Illinois. Rick Bishop (who now attends our church in retirement) was their pastor and they agreed to contact the warden to see if they needed anything, They were told they had only one request. They wanted Chinese Bibles.
Well, my step-dad Robert is a Gideon and Pastor Rick had a few connections, as well. They ordered a case of beautiful Mandarin Bibles for them. They also started to go twice a week to have Bible study with this prisoners, which was difficult due to the language barriers. The only available translator was Muslim and they were never quite sure what was being communicated. But that experience alerted Robert to the need for Bibles in China. He eventually took eight trips to China to smuggle Bibles into the country. He even made a smuggler out of my own mother.
On one trip, posing as tourists, they separated from the government escort long enough to make contact with a pastor from the underground church. He told the story of being imprisoned for five years for preaching the gospel. He told of being tied and hung by his wrists for hours. The pain was excruciating, but he had a vision of Jesus coming to him that sustained him. He was cut down, tortured with electric shock, and beaten to the ground. A female guard came in and kicked him repeatedly with her steel-toed boots. When he finally was pulled up from the ground, he looked at her and said, “God loves you and so do I.”
She marveled at him and never treated him the same after that incident.
Hebrews says to remember prisoners like you would want to be remembered if you were in prison. Christians in prison is not just something that happened 2,000 years ago. It is happening today. Tell yourself, “Remember the prisoners.”
Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.Hebrews 13:4
Yesterday I had the privilege of officiating the wedding of Kolby and Shelby. We say in the ceremony that marriage is “an honorable estate.” Hebrews reminds us that marriage is to be honored by all.
The Apostle Paul held this view that Christians were really better off remaining single like him. But he nonetheless taught that the love of husband and wife is a living demonstration of the love between Christ and the Church. Our Lord Jesus reminds us in Luke 10 and Matthew 19 that marriage was created by God in the Garden as the foundational human relationship. He said, “What God has joined together, let no one separate.”
We are reminded to honor marriage, and to remember that God will judge the adulterer and the sexually immoral. Single people can honor marriage. Married people can honor their own marriage, as well as the marriage of others by pointing their friends toward fidelity, investment, and priority in their marital relationships.
I think marriage is always under attack and at risk. In some ways, it is unnatural to us. It is a discipline of living and loving. Disciplines are necessarily narrow and restrictive. That is the only way we grow. You are never going to be a body builder if you only use a dumbbell with no weights on it. Marriage is tough, but it is designed to grow our hearts and help us love like God loves us. Only Walt Disney believes it means happily ever after. Marriage really means holier over time.
Something to tell yourself is “Honor Marriage.”
God is Enough
5 Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said,
“Never will I leave you;
never will I forsake you.”
6 So we say with confidence,
“The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.Hebrews 13:5, 6
What can mere mortals do to me?”
While you are talking to yourself, remember that God is enough. Use money, but never love it. All your love belongs to God. Christians are live with contentment.
1 Timothy says to be content with food and raiment. If you have something to put on and something to put in your stomach, that is enough cause of thanksgiving. Giving thanks before our meal reminds us to be thankful for even little blessings that we are prone to take for granted.
When COVID hit, we started to see empty shelves and disrupted supply chains. Some adults never saw such a thing in their lifetime. But there is a reason why grandma saved her bacon grease and her bread wrappers. Times can get very lean. The author of Hebrews, when we talk to ourselves, says we should remember God said, “Never will I leave you or forsake you.” And “The Lord is my helper. I will not be afraid.” The author gives us a couple short scriptures about God’s provision to keep in our back pocket when times are lean.
7 Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.Hebrews 13:7, 8
Verse seven says to remember your leaders who spoke the Word of God to you. These leaders are mentioned in the past tense, so they have passed on. But they created a legacy of faith similar the saints in the Old Testament mentioned in Chapter 11. Who taught the faith to you? Maybe in was a grandmother that has now passed on. Maybe it was a pastor that helped shape your life during a critical juncture. We are to remember them, consider the outcome of their lives, and imitate their faith. But we don’t build our faith on them. Why? They are imperfect and they can’t be with us always. But Jesus can.
But look at Verse 8: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
There is a new Tom Hanks movie that was released through Apple TV called Greyhound. Hanks, who also wrote the screenplay, plays Commander Ernest Krause who is the commanding officer of the USS Keeling, codenamed Greyhound. They are one of the ships escorting convoys across the Atlantic in the early days of the US’s involvement in WW2. The movie tells the story of Krause’s first trip across an Atlantic Ocean infested with Nazi submarines.
Krause is a pious Christian man and at the start and the finish of the movie he is on his knees praying in his cabin. He pauses to look at a little plaque in his cabin with Hebrews 13:8 printed on it: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
This is a great verse to remember when we pray.
Let’s talk about Jesus yesterday: Hebrews 5:7 says yesterday “Jesus offered up prayers and supplication, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death.”
Let’s talk about Jesus today: Hebrews 4:15 says he represents us as our High Priest in the Presence of Father God. And he empathizes with our weaknesses.
And then forever: Hebrews 7:25 says he “forever lives to intercede” for us.
Remember those teachers who have passed on. But we have a Teacher, Intercessor, and Leader who will never pass away.
It’s About the Heart
9 Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so.Hebrews 13:9
And because Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever, we should not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. There was evidently some teaching going around about ceremonial foods… you need to eat this and do that to be closer to God. Jesus said that which enters the mouth passed through and then is expelled. Paul said you are no better off if you eat these pagan ceremonial offerings and no worse off if you do.
“Hearts strengthened by grace” is the Christian story. We have a religion of the heart, not in outward observances.
The field of theology for the past many decades, has been infected with a lust for the new and the novel. Thomas Oden was one of these theologians in the 1970’s. He taught at our United Methodist Drew Divinity School in New Jersey where his project was blending liberal theology with transactional psychology. But he struck up a friendship with Will Herberg, a professor of Judaica that was 30 years his senior.
This Jewish man and he became such good friends that they were able to be brutally honest. Herberg told his younger friend that he perceived the young professor was totally ignorant about Christianity… and would remain so until he had studied Athanasius, Augustine, and Aquinas. That set him out on a study of the early Church Fathers that totally changed the trajectory of his teaching.
He wrote about this in his autobiography, A Change of Heart.
During this time, Oden had a dream that he walked through a cemetery and saw his own headstone. It read, “He made no new contribution to theology.” He said he woke up refreshed and relieved:
“In my dream I was extremely pleased, for I realized I was learning what Irenaeus meant when he told us not to invent new doctrine… The dream somehow said to me… that my calling as a theologian could be fulfilled through obedience to apostolic tradition [the doctrines taught by the apostles and the early church].”from A Change of Heart, Thomas Oden
Oden spent the rest of his life trying to call the Church, including The United Methodist Church, back to “the faith once delivered to the saints.” (Jude 1:3)
Don’t be carried away with all kinds of strange teachings. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
Following an Outsider
10 We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat. 11 The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. 12 And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. 13 Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. 14 For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.Hebrews 13:10-14
Early Christians were considered very strange people indeed. They had no temples, no special places of worship. They offered no sacrifices. The pagans called them “atheists” because they seemed not to have any of the usual trappings of religions.
But Hebrews 13:10 says, “We have an altar from which those who minister in the tabernacle have no right to eat.”
In the Old Testament tabernacle, the priests were generally given the meat that was sacrificed for their own consumption. The exception was the Day of Atonement when blood was offered for the sins of the priests and the people in the Holy of Holies. That sacrifice was to be taken out of the camp and burned.
The author of Hebrews relates this to the death of Jesus, who was taken outside Jerusalem and crucified. “Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.”
Remember that the Jewish Christians who first received this letter were under tremendous pressure to shed their Christian identity and return the synagogues where they would be safer from persecution (Judaism was a recognized religion in Rome with certain rights and privileges and Christianity was not.)
But if Jesus was an outsider, why are we trying to be insiders?
“We have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” (13:14)
We are reminded again at the close of this letter than we are resident aliens. I hope our young men don’t totally fit in the goings on in the locker room at school. I hope our young women don’t talk and act like everyone else. If you end up at a party, I hope you are there for different reasons than everyone else. I hope we don’t talk like the world, think like the world, and act like the world. I hope we live as Christians.
In this election year, I hope you are not completely at home in either of the two major U.S. political parties. It is a shame that some people try to mold a “Republican Jesus” or a “Democrat Jesus.” Jesus didn’t come to take sides. He came to take over. He reigns over an enduring Kingdom.
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
I close this post and this series with the powerful benediction that concludes Hebrews:
20 Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, 21 equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.Hebrews 13:20, 21