October 4, 2015 Hebrews 1: 1-4; 2: 5-12
Rev. Catherine Purves
What do you think of when I say the word, pioneer? What image comes to mind? Do you imagine a rugged outdoorsman, an explorer, dressed to withstand the elements, perhaps carrying a long rifle and striding off into the deep forests of western Pennsylvania, in order to discover what this strange new land has to offer? Or do you think of someone living on an isolated prairie homestead, a woman trying to raise a family while caring for livestock and some simple crops, courageously defending her own in the midst of a hostile environment? Is that what it means to be a pioneer?
We might use that word, pioneer, to describe the lives of certain people in the present day too. The astronauts who are living on the international space station are pioneers, going where no one has gone before. The scientists who are seeking a cure for cancer are pioneers in their field. They demonstrate a deep personal investment, and work night and day to find a way to end suffering and death. The word pioneer implies that a person is bravely going to a new place, making sacrifices, exploring unknown territory, sometimes putting down roots and living in a dangerous and demanding place. A pioneer is a trailblazer who makes it possible for others to follow. A new future is opened up because of the life, the sacrifice, and sometimes the death of a pioneer.
The letter to the Hebrews says that Jesus is the pioneer of our salvation. That is the way our New Revised Standard version of the Bible translates the Greek word, archegos. It is a rare word in the New Testament, and sometimes, depending on the context, it might be translated as “founder,” or “author,” or “leader.” But here, and later in chapter 12 of Hebrews, it seems to mean more what we think of when we use the word pioneer. Jesus is our trailblazer, creating a new path for his followers at great personal cost, travelling to a far country, and then leading those who trust in him, leading them back to God. Jesus is the pioneer of our salvation.
I think we can use this word pioneer to understand the complexity of what the letter to the Hebrews is trying to tell us about Jesus. Who is this pioneer? Where did he come from? What has he done for us? When we think about pioneers – any kind of pioneer – we know that they are what they do. An explorer explores. A prairie farmer works the land. An astronaut flies up into space. A medical researcher hunts for a cure. All of these pioneers are what they do. That’s why our English word ‘pioneer’ is both a noun and a verb.
We must say the same thing about Jesus. What he does as the pioneer of our salvation is who he is. The letter to the Hebrews understands this, and it is important for us to understand it too. Only Jesus could do what he did, because who he was is what he did. To put it another way, we can’t separate Christmas, when we celebrate who he is, from Good Friday, when we remember what he did. Jesus was born as the pioneer of our salvation, and on the cross who he was completed our salvation which began in a stable in Bethlehem. Actually, it began long before that because from the very beginning he was always the Son.
In the first four verses of our reading we are introduced to our pioneer and told who he really is. In this beautifully poetic passage the Son is described as the one who “created the worlds,” he is “the reflection of God’s glory,” the one who “sustains all things by his powerful word,” and “the exact imprint of God’s very being.” Think about each of these phrases. This is where our pioneer came from. This is who he was and is. He travelled a long way to get down here where we are. And that journey whereby he became one of us, and lived with us, as one of us was an essential part of his pioneering work. “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” This is the pioneer of our salvation.
But why would he make that treacherous journey from the highest heaven, from the right hand of the Father, to be with us in this bleak outpost, so far removed from heavenly civilization? It is because this plan for our salvation required a great sacrifice on the part of God. The Son chose to be the pioneer, to become, as Hebrews tells us, “for a little while…lower than the angels.” His sacrifice for us was first seen in Bethlehem. He was what he did. Our pioneer was pioneering from the start as he went to the far country of earthly existence to live with us and to make us his brothers and sisters.
Now this journey was real and complete. He was a genuine pioneer. You might say to me, “Have you ever been to Egypt and seen the pyramids?” And to that I could say that I’ve seen pictures of the pyramids, and I’ve been to an Egyptian exhibit in a museum, and I had a good friend in college who was Egyptian. But that is certainly not the same thing as actually being there in Egypt and literally entering the pyramids.
A real pioneer has to make the actual journey and really be there in the flesh. That is what Jesus did for us. And going the whole way into the far country of our human existence meant that he had to pioneer all the way from birth to death. He was experiencing, he was living the whole of human life; that had to include real suffering and death. And he would then blaze a trail all the way back from suffering and death to his Father in heaven. In that way he was the pioneer of our salvation.
You see, our salvation is not a good news greeting sent on a postcard that was mailed from the far distant dwelling of God. Long ago God sent this kind of revelation through the prophets, but now God’s purpose has been revealed in the Son. Our salvation is the good news of forgiveness written in the flesh and blood and bone of our pioneer Redeemer who came himself to our far country to be the atonement for our sins. His work was pioneering work that only the Son of God could do because of who he was, the pioneer of our salvation. Only he could take our sins away. Only he could declare us to be his sisters and brothers, thus making us children of God. Only he could restore that relationship in his own person by pioneering all the way to the extremities of human existence where sin and death dwell and being God there. Then from the cross and the grave he would blaze a trail for us through the resurrection and the ascension all the way back to the Father.
Now, we still stand in the deeply wooded wilderness of sin and death. We need our pioneer. On our own, we will never find a path back to God. It is so dark here in this world of suffering that you can barely see your hand in front of your face. But the letter to the Hebrews tells us that, by God’s good grace, we do see Jesus. And in seeing Jesus, we see God. And we can also see in him our own future as sons and daughters of God. This revelation is its own reality, because in knowing Christ we know our own salvation. Who he is is what he does: a pioneer whose pioneering was our salvation. In this deep dark wilderness world of sin we may not be able to see much, but we do see Jesus and we know that he is the pioneer of our salvation. He is our path back to God.