At least some Christians generally think of corporate worship as relatively sedate. I suspect that the worship services of most of us who write and read these sermon commentaries leave worshipers feeling pretty safe.
However, the author Annie Dillard, in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, writes about the dangers of meeting God in church. She compares worship to “children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.
“It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church,” Dillard writes. “We should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense; or the waiting God may draw us out to where we can never return.”
Most of those who proclaim Hebrews 4 were also probably taught to think of reading God’s Word not as children playing with TNT, but as a blessing. It is, after all, our only infallible rule for faith and life that comforts and strengthens, as well as blesses and encourages us. We think of reading, studying and meditating on the Scriptures as one means by which we open ourselves to God gently preparing us to love God above all and our neighbors as ourselves.
So when God’s beloved children open God’s Word for our devotions, few of us buckle on crash helmets. When we open God’s Word during our worship services, we don’t pull on our life preservers or buckle our seat belts. God’s Word is to us, after all, less like a boat ride in a storm than a balm in Gilead.
Yet this week’s epistolary lesson suggests, to use Dillard’s analogy, that opening God’s Word can be like children mixing up a batch of TNT. After all, to use our text’s imagery, that Word sometimes falls on us like a lethally sharp meat cleaver (12a).
One of my favorite restaurant’s servers remove from their ovens whole roasted chickens that they then slice into quarters. Their lethally sharp cleavers slice through chicken joints and marrow as though they were just warm sticks of butter. I involuntarily almost jump each time I hear their cleaver fall, wondering if it caught any innocent fingers in its lethal path.
Hebrews 4:12-16 suggests that something like that happens whenever God’s people open God’s Word. We hear God’s call to us to confess our sins and whack! God’s Word slices through us like a butcher’s meat cleaver or surgeon’s scalpel.
We hoped we might slip by with just a few devout words about the white lies we’ve told or the gossip we’ve spread this week. You and I assumed no one would ever know about our sinful thoughts and attitudes.
But whack! God’s Word exposes what we thought we could keep hidden from each other and perhaps, hopefully, even God. God’s Word slices right through what we’d assumed we could keep “covered.”
Even those who proclaim Hebrews 4 probably know what it’s like to go to church, hoping for a quiet hour but experiencing a loud word of condemnation. Have you written a lesson or message on a Scripture and felt the icy steel of the blade that is God’s Word slicing through you right to the quick?
Those who read this Sermon Commentary haven’t slaughtered schoolchildren in the past few weeks. I certainly hope that none of us have sent lewd emails to or abused minors in any other way. No, most of our sins were so private that no one even knew about them.
Yet when God’s people encounter God’s Word, it has an amazing way of exposing even those private sins. It ruthlessly exposes the wrongs we thought we could keep hidden. And it leaves us feeling very vulnerable, helpless, and defenseless before God’s serrated Word.
God’s Word sometimes makes God’s adopted children want to scramble to find someplace to hide. But Hebrews’ author insists no place to hide exists. God’s Word is, after all, “sharper than any double-edged sword …” (12). In fact, it’s so razor-sharp that it even exposes sins about which we’d forgotten or of which we weren’t even conscious.
Yet while God’s people can’t hide any of those sins from God, while God’s Word often leaves us feeling vulnerable, God remains amazingly merciful. Though God knows about and exposes even the sins we keep hidden from each other, Hebrews 4:12-16 reminds us that God remains stunningly gracious.
There is, to begin with, great grace in the way God refuses to allow God’s adopted sons and daughters to continue to sin against God and each other. God mercifully disrupts our sometimes deeply engrained patterns of hurting each other by uncovering even our secret sins. God graciously tries to protect the people around us by exposing the ways we hurt them by what we say and do.
Yet God doesn’t just do this to graciously protect our neighbors. As our text reminds us, God also exposes our sins in this way in order to graciously heal us. God shows God’s children our sin so that God may also show us its solution. God graciously gives us a “faith” to which we can “hold firmly” (14), even when we have nothing else to which to cling in our sinfulness.
That faith desperately clings to the Jesus who went through what his adoptive brothers and sisters endure every day. That faith desperately clings to the One who experienced all of the kinds of temptations we can experience. That faith desperately clings to the One who endured what we endure, yet resisted every temptation.
After all, while this Jesus was like us in every way except that he was “without sin” (15), he was also unique. While he was fully human, he was also what our text calls “the Son of God.”
So this Jesus was both willing and able to obey God perfectly. This Jesus satisfied God’s demands of perfection for our sakes. This Jesus has returned to heaven and is now somehow seated at God’s right hand.
And because this Jesus Christ, “our great high priest” (14) obeyed God perfectly, God doesn’t leave us exposed. God’s people don’t have to fear the slicing power of the blade that is God’s Word. You and I don’t have to stay silent when God invites us to confess our sins.
We don’t have to try to hide our sins from God. God’s adopted sons and daughters can confess even the sins that God’s razor-sharp Word has laid open because we know that God forgives us, for Jesus’ sake. We can confess our sinful helplessness before the lethal blade that is God’s Word.
We know, after all, that we must confess our sins to God. However, we also know that, for Jesus’ sake, God longs to show us God’s amazing grace. On top of all that, God’s people know that the ascended Christ, the Son of God somehow intercedes for us before his and our Father. In a way we can’t fully comprehend, Hebrews 4 invites us to imagine that each time God’s children sin, the ascended Christ steps before the Father to say something like, “Remember that this is one for whom I lived, died and rose again from the dead. Forgive him … for my sake.”
In the church that I pastored during the early ‘90’s, I thoughtlessly neglected a couple that was physically and spiritually needy. The woman was enduring agonizing medical problems that required lengthy and often painful hospitalization. Over a period of about a month I called them only once and never visited them.
The longer I avoided them, the more I dreaded visiting them. Yet I knew that I had to go to and admit my sin to this dear Christian brother and sister. When I eventually went to them, the husband rightly scolded me, exposing my sin of neglect. Then, however, the husband and wife extended to me the undeserved salve of mercy and grace. Once they’d exposed my sin of neglect, they graciously covered me with their (and God’s) forgiveness.
I later realized that I didn’t just go to that couple because I knew that I needed to confess my sin against them. I also went to them because I knew they loved me. So while I expected them to scold me, I also hoped they’d graciously forgive me.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 14, 2018
Hebrews 4:12-16 Commentary