Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 21, 2018
Hebrews 5:1-10 Commentary
This week’s Epistolary Lesson assumes that for a relationship to exist between God and God’s people, as well as among groups and between individuals, things must be repaired and restored between us. However, Hebrews 5 insists that the only way that can happen is if God does it.
During this American political campaign season, both those who proclaim and those who hear this lesson may be angry that both our leaders and some of those who voted for them revealed their sinfulness. But why should the sins of our leaders surprise any of us? All of us, leaders and voters, have fallen far short of God’s glory.
One way God repaired the relationship between God’s sinful Old Testament people and God was through Israel’s religious leaders. God chose and called priests to mediate between God and people by offering gifts and sacrifices to the Lord for sins. However, good high priests didn’t just maintain a good relationship with the Lord. They also cultivated good relationships with people. Priests had to be compassionate.
Yet Hebrews 5 reminds us that even the most empathetic high priests’ relationships with the Lord were as broken as anyone’s. Priests were fully as “weak” (2) as those for whom they interceded before God. In fact, before they could even offer sacrifices for other people, they had to perform a sacrifice for themselves (3).
Because Jesus completely both repaired our relationship with God and continues to intercede before God on our behalf, God’s adopted sons and daughters believe we no longer need high priests. However, Christians still have people whom we sometimes think of as acting as mediators between God and us.
Roman Catholics, in fact, have priests whom they view as intermediaries between God and God’s people. What’s more, all religious leaders have a responsibility to act as a kind of mediator between God and people by praying for those whom God and they love.
Of course, some of Israel’s high priests/mediators were very corrupt. In fact, opposition to the priesthood’s corruption helped lead to the founding of several of her dissident communities. Jesus was often very critical of the religious leaders of his day.
Things haven’t changed much among modern religious leaders. Almost 30 years ago a lovely Iowa country church affirmed God’s call to me to serve as a kind of mediator. Yet anyone who’s ever, for example, watched a Michigan football game with me knows that I too need God to constantly repair the relationship between God and me. God graciously chooses and equips pastors to be among those who speak for God’s people to God and for God to God’s people. However, if pastors still had to offer sacrifices for our sins, we wouldn’t have any time left over to do things like preparing sermons.
More than 130 people accused the former priest John Geoghan of assaulting them during a 30-year spree through six Boston parishes. And while Geoghan’s boss knew about those problems, he approved his move to another parish in greater Boston. It took three cardinals and many bishops 34 years to finally put children out of Geoghan’s lethal reach.
So clearly even those we think of as our mediators with God make a mess of our relationship with God and our neighbors. Thankfully, then, God graciously took the task of reconciling himself to us upon himself. When God chose God’s Son to become our great High Priest, God’s Son voluntarily surrendered heaven’s glory to take on that job.
It’s hard to understand just how God gave the Son of God the job as our high priest (5-6). Yet Hebrews’ Preacher clearly wants us to recognize the Son of God’s humility in accepting that role. The Preacher also wants us to see how our great High Priest isn’t just humble. He’s also able to sympathize with us in our weakness. After all, Jesus shared our flesh and blood.
To emphasize that, Hebrews’ Preacher describes Jesus’ suffering in powerful and graphic terms. “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth,” he writes in verse 7, “[Jesus] offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death.”
Many of those who proclaim Hebrews 5 and those who hear us have offered up loud cries in hospital rooms and funeral homes. We’ve offered up tears over the deaths of loved ones and strangers. We’ve prayed and cried about the serious illness and decline of people we love and like.
Hebrews’ Preacher reminds us Jesus has “been there.” He too, after all, offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the Lord (7). He certainly did that when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. We imagine that Jesus also offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears throughout his lifetime.
However, Hebrews’ Preacher is probably mainly referring to the anguished cries Jesus “offered up” from the cross. He, after all, didn’t respond to its suffering by caving in to despair and sin. Jesus’ suffering somehow deepened his obedience to God instead of hardening his heart toward God. In fact, he cried out to God for help even as the Romans were torturing him to death.
So Jesus knows what it’s like to suffer. Of course, he doesn’t know what it’s like to suffer from cancer, dementia or mental illness, aging’s effects, divorce or children’s rebellion. But he suffered in a way his adopted Christian brothers and sisters will never have to: on the cross he suffered without God being present.
Other people cause some of our suffering. Jesus can relate to that kind of suffering. He, after all, suffered more unjustly at others’ hands than perhaps anyone in history. However, God’s children also inflict some of our suffering on ourselves. While none of Jesus’ suffering was self-inflicted or self-generated, God’s people sense he understands even such suffering.
Of course, it’s hard for us to know how Jesus learned obedience from all of that suffering (8). Jesus was, after all, always perfectly obedient. Yet some scholars suggest that Hebrews means that Jesus came to appreciate the challenge of obedience in a new way when he was confronted with his own weakness.
By remaining perfectly obedient all the way to death on a cross, Jesus somehow earned his adopted brothers and sisters’ salvation. As a result, God’s people don’t need anyone to make sacrifices or any other kind of religious gesture to God for us any more. We don’t have to try to save ourselves. Jesus has restored a right relationship between God and “those who obey him.”
Of course, Hebrews’ Preacher assertion that Jesus saves “all who obey him” seems to contradict our assumptions about salvation through grace alone. Yet God’s children remember that those who believe in Jesus Christ also obey him. We aren’t saved by the quality of our faith or obedience. We’re saved by God’s grace alone that we can only receive with our faith. Yet that faith always includes our obedience.
We might think of it this way. My siblings and I who were present when my dying mom went to bed at night went in to her room to say goodnight to her. They were both some of the most difficult and best moments of what were sometimes very hard days.
The last time I said goodnight to my mom I spent time thanking her for being such a wonderful mom. I told her some of the specific ways she’d so richly blessed our family and me.
Mom responded, as she had so many times when we parted, by saying, “Keep up the good work.” I think it was a way for her to say, “Do you want to thank me? Then keep up the good work of being a husband, father, grandfather and pastor.”
In a sense that’s something like what God says to each of God’s adopted children. “Do you want to thank me for restoring you to a right relationship with me? Then keep up the good work. Keep your promises, as well as love your neighbors and enemies. Thank me by staying faithful to your family members and friends, as well as caring for creation.”
In Michael Chabon’s remarkable novel, Moonglow, Mike’s dying grandfather recounts to him what one reviewer calls his “vivid and rambunctious life.” He tells his grandson to write it all down after he dies.
In one particularly moving vignette, Mike remembers his grandfather expressing his feelings about the Holocaust: “The annual celebrations of God’s mercy, justice and power, the festivals and fasts undertaken in praise of His Name, the miracles he was supposed to have thrown our way over the centuries — in my grandfather’s mind, it was all nullified by the thing he had not yet learned to call the Holocaust.
“’In Egypt, in Shushan,’ Mike’s grandfather tells him, ‘in the time of Isaiah Maccabee, God had intervened to deliver us with a mighty hand and outstretched arm; big deal. When we were sent to the ovens, God had sat with his mighty outstretched thumb up his mighty ass and let us burn’.”
While Mike’s grandfather’s language is vulgar (I wouldn’t recommend that Hebrews 5’s preachers and teachers quote especially its last line verbatim), it does reflect a way of thinking about God and suffering. A sensitively edited form of his response to the Holocaust may provide an avenue into exploring Hebrews 5.
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