In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What was arguably the best work of fiction written in English in the 19th century, my brothers and sisters, was also perhaps one of the best treatises of philosophy during that century. It was a lengthy account of a sea voyage. There was a ship called the Pequod. It was a whaling vessel with an international crew that significantly set sail on Christmas Day. The tone of that story, however, was one of protest. Indeed, that book is almost nothing but an account of a protest, a rebellion. The protest was that of the 19th century itself, a protest against God, an attempt to kill him. The captain of that ship is named for a ninth-century B.C. king who was also the enemy of God, a man by the name of Ahab.
The protest was theological, and the protester, King Ahab, the metaphysical rebel against the divinely appointed conditions of existence. Like so many thinkers of the 19th century, Captain Ahab had in mind to kill God. That was almost the distinguishing feature of 19th century philosophy—with some exceptions of German idealists—was to kill God, replace God with the will to power. There were prophetic figures during that century. Arguably the greatest of them, the one who had a clear view of what was taking place, living for a while in Germany, and had his finger on the pulse of the age, was Fyodor Dostoevsky. Another, however, was the author of this book, because I submit that this book likewise was prophetic, inasmuch as the final result of Ahab’s voyage foreshadowed the dreadful, terrible international tragedy known as the 20th century, when more people died of starvation and violence than the entire history of the world up to that point. The 19th century established the thesis, and the 20th century worked it out. The thesis was the survival of the fittest, existence by will, the will to power.
Acting as foils to Captain Ahab were the very enjoyable three mates of the Pequod. The first mate, Starbuck—who has become famous since then [Laughter]—was a quiet, conservative Christian who relied on his Christian faith to determine his actions and the interpretations of events. One notices that in Starbuck. He always tries to see things from a Gospel perspective. The second mate, Stubb, was a sort of fatalist, persuaded that things happen as they’re supposed to, so little could be done about it. And the third mate, Flask, probably represents the majority of human beings. He avoided all such questions and simply enjoyed life, especially the excitement of hunting whales.
Near the end of that long story, there was a brief discussion between Stubb and Flask on the subject of anchors. In the course of that discussion, Stubb inquired—and this is the question we’re going to address this morning—“I wonder, Flask, if the world is anchored anywhere. If she is, she swings with an uncommon long cable.” [Laughter] Now I submit that the entire history of 19th century philosophy consisted of various attempts to answer that question: Is the world anchored anywhere? Certainly not in reason—Kant took care of that; nor in God—Darwin saw to that.
It’s the question I want to consider with you today: Is the world anchored anywhere? I want to address that question under three headings. The first heading is hope. In response to the query Stubb put to Flask, “I wonder if the world is anchored anywhere,” today’s epistle answers:
This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast and which enters behind the veil, whither the forerunner has for us entered, even Jesus, made him high priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.
You see, Christian theology insists that the true anchor is hope. This is the reason why the depiction of the anchor appears everywhere in Christian art.
Alone among the peoples of the Greco-Roman world, the early Christians knew the origin of stability and the source of hope, and that’s why you go through the catacombs: everywhere you look are pictures of anchors. You won’t see any pictures of John the Baptist; you won’t see pictures of angels—you see anchors. Anchors, everywhere. That was the great Christian symbol. In the words of this text, they laid hold of the hope set before them. This is why the anchor, along with the cross and the fish, is portrayed everywhere in the earliest Christian art. It’s almost the most primitive of Christian symbols, along with the cross and the fish.
It symbolized the hope that held Christians in place in the midst of the tempestuous and unstable world: those same Christians at Rome who heard for the first time that Gospel we had this morning, because it was written at Rome, that Gospel was written for the Christians in the persecution of Nero, which began in summer of the year 64. The cross and the anchor, and they’re often combined in the symbolism. Near the end of the second century, St. Clement of Alexandria mentioned the anchor as one of the few symbols that Christian might legitimately wear on a ring on his finger. Christians were very particular about what symbols you could wear on your body. One of them that was allowed was the anchor. The anchor is hope.
Human existence is not simply defined by human origin. It’s also defined by the Christian end, the Christian goal. Christian history is defined by what we are becoming; not merely what God made us, but what we are becoming, being drawn in hope.
Second, Hebrews describes this anchor of hope as “firm and secure, asphali kai bebaia.” The first of these adjectives, asphali, means firm. Listen to the word: asphali. It’s the root of our word asphalt. Firm. As an adverb, we find it in the first Christian sermon. “Therefore, let all the house of Israel know most assuredly, asphali, that God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ.” The second adjective describing this anchor of hope is bebaia, which means secure. Our author used this adjective earlier to describe the Christian conviction, back in chapter three of Hebrews: “We have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence, bebaia, to the end.”
Now, my brothers and sisters, the entire efficacy of the anchor depends on keeping in contact with it. Hope cannot be hypothetical. Christian life cannot be hypothetical. We must be tied to it, holding fast to it.
Third, I want to consider the special nature of this anchor, and this may get a little more technical, but it does come from my close reading of the text over many years. I am convinced that this anchor being described here, this sort of anchor would be known as a kedge. A kedge is not much used nowadays, but it’s greatly used in antiquity, and also you’ll find it used, I’m presuming everybody here is very enthusiastic about Master and Commander and the other O’Brian novels. You know how often Captain Aubrey has them throw down a kedge. Kedge anchor is extremely important. It appeared before ships were driven by engines.
A kedge is an anchor used in advance of the movement of the vessel. This process, in fact, is called kedging. To kedge a vessel is to take the anchor out in the ship’s boat or a jolly boat or something like that, to place the anchor at some distance from the ship, and drop it, and then pull towards it. That’s a kedge. Now, why would you use a kedge? Well, perhaps there’s no wind, or there’s a current against you. A kedge anchor is carried out in a suitable direction by a tender or a jolly boat. It enables the ship to be winched into a particular heading, to be held steady against the tide or an obstructing current. Both these kinds of anchors—the stern anchor which drops from the back and the kedge anchor—both of these appear in the Book of Acts. If you look closely, read carefully, Paul’s trip over until he arrives at Malta. You notice it the night before the shipwreck at Malta: they had to drop four stern anchors. You remember that? Wait for the dawn. Earlier, they used a kedge anchor to make sure they did not go on the shoals of the north of Africa.
The kedge anchor holds a vessel fast in the proper direction, and then you winch toward it: you pull on it. It’s not going to move, and you winch your way toward it. Observe in this morning’s text from Hebrews that the anchor of hope has already been carried out ahead of us. The author describes it as “beyond the veil where the forerunner has for us entered”: “which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, which has entered beyond the veil.” Jesus is this anchor, and he has already gone where we hope to go. We maintain our proper direction by pulling on him, keeping the prow of the ship ever pointed toward him. Why is this necessary? Because even if there are winds, they’re against us, and the current is always against us.
Let me extend the metaphor, if I may, and suggest that fervent prayer is the winch we use to maintain our direction and to advance our course. That by which we progress is also that by which we stay the course. It is that hawser by which we are joined to Christ. Otherwise it is so easy to lose our sense of direction as the 19th century did and the 20th century proved. Indeed, the loss of direction is a danger envisaged all through the epistle to the Hebrews.
So then, my beloved, let there be no slack in the line. Our anchor is secure. All we need to do is pull on it through prayer. By constant prayer and communion with Christ, we guarantee the voyage will be steadfast and secure.