Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 11, 2015
Hebrews 4:12-16 Commentary
Comments and Observations
As I reflected on this text, my mind went to Harriet, a member of one of my churches who, like the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews, was slip-sliding away from the church. No, Harriet wasn’t drifting back to her native Judaism, as they were. A baby boomer of my vintage, she was a life-long member of my own Reformed denomination. But she was gradually losing her grip on the faith of her upbringing as she considered all the alternative faiths in the marketplace of 21st century America. She wasn’t comfortable with her drift, so she came to see me often to discuss her multiple problems with the Christian faith. In an effort to draw her attention away from more peripheral issues, I urged her to “fix your thoughts on Jesus,” as the author of Hebrews says in 3:1.
Her response startled me. “Jesus scares me,” she said. “Always has. I don’t like to think about Jesus. I’m much more comfortable with the Holy Spirit.” Was that because the Holy Spirit was more amorphous, less particular, less first-century Jewish male? Did she picture the Holy Spirit as a lovely Asian woman, ala The Shack? She wasn’t sure. But she was very sure that focusing on Jesus wasn’t helpful to her in her struggle to hold on to her Christian faith.
Looking back on our conversations, I suspect that she had never really grasped the truth of the Lectionary reading for today. I tried to explain the ideas to her, but I wasn’t successful, either because of her gut-level resistance or because of my poor explanation. Or perhaps the trouble lay in the fact that there is something undeniably foreign, ancient, in this idea of Jesus as “the great high priest.”
People still understand the idea of a mediator. We see mediators at work in labor disputes, in border conflicts, in congressional gridlock, in international affairs, in marital breakdowns. Lawyers, diplomats, counselors, economists, all function as mediators who try to get the two warring sides together. Mediators are a standard part of life in this balkanized world.
High priests? Not so much. But high priests are a particular kind of mediator, the only kind that can bring about reconciliation between sinful humans and a holy God. The Jewish religion knew that very well, as did many other ancient religions. Today the great majority of people are unfamiliar with such an idea. And many of those who know the concept don’t see the necessity of a high priest in their lives. Harriet, for one, hated such talk. “I don’t like to think about myself as sinful, and I don’t think of God as holy.” Even though she was raised with such theological concepts, she was drifting away from them now. If “a child of the covenant” had such reservations, it’s no wonder that those raised outside the Christian faith find this whole idea of a high priest quaint, if not repugnant.
So, we have our work cut out for us when we try to preach on the highly controversial claim at the heart of our reading for today: “Therefore, we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God….” Hebrews argues that Jesus is such a great high priest that no one will ever need another high priest. Indeed, the author spends the next 3 chapters showing that Jesus is the all sufficient and completely necessary high priest (from 4:14-7:28). Jesus is the only mediator who can make peace between you and your God, so don’t even think about drifting back to your old religion with its high priests.
As all preachers know, the word “therefore” at the beginning of verse 14 is a bridge word, arching back to the preceding argument and ahead to the following argument. The preceding argument is essentially a history lesson about Israel losing the rest God had promised to them. God had delivered them from bondage in Egypt and was leading them safely through the wilderness to the Promised Land where they would enjoy the blessed rest of shalom. But when 10 spies gave a frightening report about the giants and the walled cities blocking the conquest of that land, the Israelites were filled with terror. In fearful unbelief they rebelled against God and made plans to return to the bondage of Egypt. They let go of the promise of rest, and “they were not able to enter because of their unbelief.”
The writer of Hebrews uses that well-known history lesson to urge his readers to hold on to their faith and enjoy a rest even better than that promised the ancient Hebrews. “Therefore, since the promise of rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it.” (4:1) After explaining how the rest promised to these Christians is better than the rest promised to those Hebrews, the author again calls them to hold on to their faith in the verse that begins our lectionary reading for today, “Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.”
What follows in verses 12 and 13 seems, at first glance, to be a bit of a digression. I mean, why this riff on the Word of God, when he has been talking about losing their rest by letting go of their faith? Well, the author wants to make sure the readers don’t dismiss the story of Israel as a mere history lesson, as just an example. Remember, he says, that this story came from the Word of God.
You can’t evade the Word of God. It is not just a dead old story; it is living and active. It doesn’t just make a point; it is sharper than any double edged sword. It doesn’t just tickle your imagination; it penetrates to the depths of your being. It isn’t something you can hear and forget; it uncovers the secrets of your heart. It isn’t something you can make judgments about; it will judge you.
In my pastoral work, I’ve discovered that when people are thinking of deserting the faith, they often hide their thoughts, even from themselves. Harriet’s openness with me was the exception, though at first even she couldn’t admit where her thought were taking her. The writer of Hebrews is saying that we can’t hide such thoughts from God. This story of Israel’s desertion is the living and abiding Word of God. Let it penetrate your heart and mind. Let it judge your thoughts of desertion. God knows what you are thinking; your thoughts are “laid bare” before him. The Greek word there draws the gruesome picture of a person with his head yanked back so that his jugular vein is fully exposed and the executioner’s sword is poised to slice it open. Yoiks! Perhaps the Word of God is nothing to trifle with?
All of that precedes the “therefore” of verse 14—strong words of warning, dark words of threat. “Don’t you dare drift away from your profession of faith in Jesus!” That ominous background makes what follows this “therefore” utterly surprising. Verse 14 calls us to hold firmly to our faith, not because of the awful thing that will happen if we let go, but because we have such a wonderful high priest. In just a few words our author explains why Jesus is so great. Unlike the Jewish high priests who went through the veil into the Holy of Holies once a year to make atonement for their people, Jesus has gone through the heavens into the very presence of God, where he is today, having finished his atoning work. Unlike Jewish high priests who are the merely human descendants of Aaron, Jesus is the very Son of God. So, why would you let go of your faith in such an awesome mediator?
That’s a strong appeal, but it’s not where our author is finally going in our reading today. He wants these drifters to focus not only on the majesty of Jesus, but finally on the sympathy of Jesus. Hold on to your faith, “for we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are, yet was without sin.” As you contemplate leaving Jesus, you need to know that he gets it; he gets you; he even sympathizes with you.
You don’t think Jesus was ever tempted to leave the God he loved? Think back to his wilderness temptations, those archetypal temptations that summed up every temptation you’ve ever faced. Each one of them tempted Jesus to turn away from total reliance on God. Or think back to that moment in the garden of Gethsemane when he was tempted to turn his back on the whole enterprise of salvation. He didn’t do it, of course; he was always without sin. But he was surely tempted in every way, just as we are. Yes, that includes your temptation to leave the faith.
I wish my friend, Harriet, had understood that. She might have been able to talk more openly to Jesus about her doubts and questions. She could talk with me, because she thought I was very human and compassionate. How much more is that true of Jesus? I couldn’t dissuade her, though I applied all the education and experience of 40 years of ministry to the task of rescuing her. If she had seen Jesus as Hebrews 4:16 presents him, she would have gotten better help than I could provide.
Verse 16 puts it this way. “Let us then (in view of the sympathy of our great high priest) approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” To get a sense of the wonder of those words, picture Isaiah catching a glimpse of the Lord sitting on the throne (Isaiah 6) and crying, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips… and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” That was the typical Jewish response to the majesty of God on his throne. Here we are told that we can approach that majestic throne confidently (even boldly) because it has become the throne of grace for us through the high priestly work of Jesus. Even in our time of greatest need, that time when we are thinking of desertion, we can approach that throne through our sympathetic high priest and receive mercy and find grace.
Issues and Questions
The whole idea of Jesus as a genuinely sympathetic (sympatheia in Greek) high priest has troubled many theologians, because it challenges long held ideas about the apatheia of God. The old simplicity doctrine held that God is a simple being, that is, a being without movement or divisions or change. Doesn’t the Bible explicitly say that God cannot change? Well, emotions are changes. One moment I don’t feel sad; the next moment I do. I change within myself, usually because of changes outside myself. (My dog dies.) I am subject to change. God is subject to nothing. He is what he is. Therefore, God cannot feel emotions. He is apathetic. He cannot be genuinely sympathetic. All that language in Scripture about God experiencing emotions like anger or sorrow or changing his mind is just anthropomorphic. He might appear to change, but he can’t change, or he will not be God.
So the claim of our text about the sympatheia of God in Christ is problematic. That’s why John Calvin said, “I don’t want to argue too closely about this word. The question of whether Christ is now subject to our sorrows is too frivolous not less than inquisitive.” But it is a real question for hurting and tempted people. Does Jesus really feel our sorrow or our fear? If he was really God, doesn’t that mean that God changes inside? One moment, he is not feeling my sorrow; then in the next moment he is. What kind of God is that?
Well, says Hebrews, it’s the God you have in Jesus Christ. Whatever theologians might make of God in himself, God as he exists from eternity, here’s how Hebrews says you have to think of God in Christ, God in the flesh as he existed in time and space. He felt and he feels with us. He suffers with us, whether it’s the misery of sorrow or the prickle of fear or the nausea of sickness or the agony of temptation. That’s the miracle of the Incarnation, the miracle of a great high priest who is Jesus the Son of God.
The Hunger Games trilogy has been around a while, but each book continues to be popular, and the impending release of the last movie based on the third novel, Mockingjay, will rekindle interest in these young adult stories. In the first book of the trilogy, Hunger Games, we met a mediator we could love. Every year the rulers of a post-apocalyptic America choose twenty-four young people from the Twelve Districts to participate in the Hunger Games, gladiatorial battles in which these “champions” kill each other off until only one is left. In District 12, the lottery official pulls out a name that evokes a gasp from the crowd, for it is a sweet innocent young girl who is most unfit for such combat. Then a cry goes up from the crowd. “I’ll take her place.” It’s Katniss Everdeen, the sister of the girl whose name was picked. She steps up to the platform, stands before the official, and volunteers to take her sister’s place in the Hunger Games. She stands between her sister and the officials, between her sister’s life and her certain death. She is a mediator who saves her sister’s life by offering her own.
The drama of the novel revolves around whether Katniss will be able to prevail. Can she possibly survive such a horrific ordeal? Is she qualified to be a mediator? Or is she just a sacrificial lamb? The answer is that she is more than qualified. She ends up becoming the winner in a most unconventional way.
Our passage in Hebrews is all about Jesus’ qualifications to be our mediator. To do the work of atonement, he must be a great and merciful high priest, both Son of God and “made like us in every way” so that he can sympathetically stand in our sinful place and walk with us in our weakness. Telling the story of Hunger Games might help young people understand why it was so important that Jesus is such a high priest. Not just anybody can save us from certain death. Only a completely qualified person can volunteer and do the hard bloody work necessary to save us from the powers that ruin human life.
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